Community Based Ecotourism – What is it?

This is the first in a new series of posts on Community Based Ecotourism

Ecotourism is a frequently debated term. Sometimes it is used simply to identify a form of tourism where the motivation of visitors, and the sales pitch to them, centres on the observation of nature. Increasingly, this general sector of the market is called ‘nature tourism’.

True ‘ecotourism’, however, requires a proactive approach that seeks to mitigate the negative and enhance the positive impacts of nature tourism. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people’.

This definition not only implies that there should be a recognition of, and positive support for, the conservation of natural resources, both by suppliers and consumers, but also that there is a necessary social dimension to ecotourism.

The term ‘community-based ecotourism’ takes this social dimension a stage further. This is a form of ecotourism where the local community has substantial control over, and involvement in, its development and management, and a major proportion of the benefits remain within the community.

How the community is defined will depend on the social and institutional structures in the area concerned, but the definition implies some kind of collective responsibility and approval by representative bodies. In many places, particularly those inhabited by indigenous peoples, there are collective rights over lands and resources. Community-based ecotourism should therefore foster sustainable use and collective responsibility. However, it must also embrace individual initiatives within the community.

Some further general characteristics of ecotourism have been identified by UNEP and the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) as:

  • involving appreciation not only of nature, but also of indigenous cultures prevailing in natural areas, as part of the visitor experience;
  • containing education and interpretation as part of the tourist offer;
  • generally, but not exclusively, organised for small groups by small, specialised and locally owned businesses (while recognising that foreign operators also market and operate ecotourism);
  • minimising negative impacts on the natural and socio-cultural environment;
  • supporting the protection of natural areas by generating economic benefits for the managers of natural areas;
  • providing alternative income and employment for local communities; and
  • increasing local and visitor awareness of conservation.

While definitions can be useful, what is more important is the appropriateness and quality of action, not what it is called.

The processes involved in ecotourism include all aspects of planning, developing, marketing and managing resources and facilities for this form of tourism.

Visitor provision includes access to natural areas and cultural heritage, guiding and interpretative services, accommodation, catering, sales of produce and handicrafts, and transport.

Appropriate recreational and special interest activities, such as trail walking, photography and participatory conservation programmes, may also be part of ecotourism. In some locations, hunting and fishing may be included as appropriate activities, provided that they are carefully researched and controlled within a management plan that supports conservation. This kind of sustainable use relies on local knowledge, provides significant local income, and encourages communities to place a high value on wildlife, resulting in net conservation benefits.

Future posts will deal with ‘Adopting an integrated approach’, ‘Planning Ecotourism with Communities’, ‘Working together to develop an agreed strategy’, ‘Ensuring environmental and cultural integrity’, ‘Ensuring market realism and effective promotion’, ‘Offering a high quality of visitor experience’ and more.

Contact Lorton Consulting about helping communities in your area develop a sustainable ecotourism offering — we would be more than willing to advise you.

With acknowledgement to WWF – Taking action for a living planet


  1. tuhin alam

    We are trying to do community base eco tourism practice but in our country we r so illiterate about future. Our government also careless about social eco tourism. What should we do now. Pls send me some advice and show me the perfect scenario.

    • Darryl Lombard

      Hi Tuhin, Thanks for the contact. I am away from my office for a few days but will e-mail you over the weekend and we can discuss what I can do to help.

  2. Daryl, You should run for Minister of Tourism, I mean that with the utmost respect, your posts are inspiring and well structured. I would appreciate your thoughts on a concept that has been driving me for almost a year now. Which way would suit you to share my concept with you?

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