by Lori A. Gould
Master of Rural Development Candidate, Brandon University, Brandon, Manitoba

Abstract: This paper looks at the role of ecotourism in achieving sustainable community development. Since the focus of the paper is on the developing or less developed world, there is a detailed discussion outlining the differences in sustainability between the two global areas. A discussion of the various definitions of sustainable development, as well as ecotourism, is followed by a more detailed examination of the positive and negative ecotourism impacts. Several examples of ecotourism projects are mentioned throughout the paper.


There has been a great deal of research devoted to the examination of sustainable development within the developing and less developed regions of the world. Much of the literature discusses things such as foreign aid, food shortages, and health care, but within the last two decades there has been an increasing importance placed on the role of sustainable tourism (Richards and Hall, 2003). Tourism research, as well, shows that international tourism is up from approximately 25 million in 1950 to 561 million in 1995, with much of the tourists choosing the unspoiled Third world destinations (Weaver, 1998). It is imperative to consider the importance of these two ideas when evaluating what impact sustainable tourism will have on the future of sustainable development in the developing and less developed worlds.

The purpose of this paper is to specifically examine ecotourism and sustainable community development with emphasis on the developing world. There will be three main focuses of this paper, namely: 1) to examine the differences in sustainable development between the developed world and the developing or less developed world, 2) to discuss the variety of types of tourism, paying particular attention to the objectives, benefits and drawbacks of ecotourism, and 3) to address what role ecotourism plays in sustainable community development in the developing and less developed worlds.

Sustainable development

The notion of "sustainable development" is not a new concept. In fact, it has been researched, defined and re-defined numerous times for over twenty five years, and to date, there is still no definite consensus on what the term means. Before any research paper addressing sustainable development can proceed, there needs to be an examination of the various definitions that have been used. For this reason then, I will discuss a few of the different definitions that are available before delineating the definition that most suits the discussion for this paper.

Hans Holmen in his article "The Unsustainability of Development" (2001) points out that the first problem in defining 'sustainable development' is with the definition of both the words 'sustainable' and 'development', as these words may mean different things to different people. In his article, Holmen refers to a Roget's Dictionary (2001) definition of sustainable as implying "to keep up" or "maintain." In the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary (2003) however, the definition is much more explicit, defining sustainability as: "of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged." Since the "resource" included in the definition is not described, there is an assumption that this resource could be physical, social, or economic in nature. The vast difference in these two definitions reaffirms that there is a need to explain what is meant by sustainable before research begins.

Defining the word development also results in a multitude of meanings. Christenson (1989) argues that development can be expressed in the context of improvement, which would involve a redistribution of social goods such as education and health care, or in terms of growth, which would focus more on economic achievements. Weaver (1998) describes 'development' much the same way Holmen (2001) describes 'sustainable', as an ambiguous term that could in essence mean just about anything to anyone. In his book Ecotourism in the Less Developed World (1998), however, Weaver does admit that there is partial consensus, stating that development implies there is some sort of progression towards a desirable goal. He suggests that combining the term 'development' with an appropriate adjective such as 'social', 'physical', or 'economic' would clarify the type of development and goal that is being discussed.

For the purpose of this paper, the idea of sustainability will be approached with the richer definition in mind, that of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This definition, above the other, captures what is believed to be the true meaning of sustainability from a rural development standpoint, and informs the view that is taken in this paper. As well, when discussing sustainable development in the context of rural communities, a separation will be made between economic and social development, and each will be addressed independently before the relationship between the two is measured.

Sustainability Literature

There has been a great deal of research and planning devoted to the idea of sustainable development since the early 1970's. The four publications that stand out as being the most influential are: 1) Limits to Growth 2) the World Conservation Strategy 3) the Brundtland Report; and 4) the Rio Summit. The importance of each of these strategies will now be addressed.

Early research in sustainable development began in 1972 with the published works of Danella and Daniel Meadows entitled Limits to Growth (Murphy, 1998). Labelled Malthusian in thinking (Smith, 1995; Suter, 1999), the Meadows' work involved the use of computer simulations, and predicted that within ten years the earth would begin to show great strain due to the Earth's expanding population and continued development (Murphy, 2001). Their research also predicted that if the present rate of growth, food production, industrialization, pollution, and depletion of resources were to continue without change, the planet would reach its limit of growth sometime within the next 100 years (Smith, 1995).

The release of Limits to Growth was followed soon after by the World Conservation Strategy report. Published in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Education Programme (UNEP), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it was prepared by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1980 (Hall and Lew, 1998). The document was praised as being the first major research report that examined the relationship between economic development and the conservation of natural resources (Raloff, 1980). The goals of the report included informing governments about damaging environmental practices, addressing the problem of overpopulation on a global scale, and formulating a plan to tackle the unsustainable practices that were taking place at that time (Raloff, 1980). Though the report was not considered ground-breaking, it was significant due to the fact that it highlighted the global extent of environmental problems, called attention to the environmental-economic relationship, and today is seen as the halfway point between the United Nations Stockholm Conference which took place in 1972, and the Rio Summit in 1992 (Hall and Lew, 1998).

The Brundtland Report entitled Our Common Future was published in 1987 by the UN Commission on the Environment and Development, and defined sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (Holmen, 2001). In the report, five basic principles of sustainability were recognized, namely: 1) holistic planning, 2) preserving ecological processes, 3) protecting human heritage and biodiversity, 4) long-term sustainability of production, and 5) balancing equality between nations (Hall and Lew, 1998). The release of "Our Common Future" not only popularized the term 'sustainable development', it also re-emphasized the need for change among western nations and the transfer of funds from North to South (Hall and Lew, 1998). In some cases however, the Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development has been modified and redefined by governments, environmental groups, social activists and big businesses, making it a widely disputed issue (Giddings et al., 2002).

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also called the Rio Summit, took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and produced several working documents including: Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of Principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests (UN, 2003). These three comprehensive action plans addressed issues related to the environment as well as the human impact upon the environment, and were targeted at global, national and local government groups. Collectively, these documents were signed by more than 178 governments that took part in the conference (UN, 2003). A later summit meeting, called the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in

Johannesburg, South Africa in August of 2002 was said to reaffirm the commitment and principles that were agreed upon at the Rio Summit (UN, 2003).

Sustainable Development -- Developing and Developed world

It stands to reason that there are many differences between the developing world and the developed world when it comes to issues of sustainability and sustainable community development. The physical environment, economy, and social make up of these two regions of the world are very different and therefore are subject to different problems, requiring individual methods of approach and research. The key differences as they relate to sustainable development are outlined below and illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1 Major differences in sustainable development between the developed and developing or less developed world.

basic needs

basic goals








Health care



Sustainability in developing countries

Sustainability in the developing or less developed world is most often related to four main issues, namely: 1) economics, 2) empowerment, 3) poverty and health care, and 4) bridging the gap between rich and poor. While each of these issues appears to be similar to the issues that are addressed in the developed world, they are actually very dissimilar due to the fact that in the developing or less developed world, these issues may actually mean the difference between life and death.

The first issue related to sustainability is economics. Economic characteristics such as per capita gross domestic product and the distribution of wealth are commonly used to measure the development level of a country (Weaver, 1998). Table 2 is a summary of the table used by Weaver (1998) in which the countries of the world are ranked according to their per capita GDP with 1994 data. These figures are adjusted to account for the variability in the cost of living within each country by a re-calibration using what is known as "purchasing-power parity" (Weaver, 1998). A brief look at the table reveals that 70 countries are ranked as having < $2000 per capita GDP and 33 countries are ranked in the category of < $1000 per capita GDP. Other economic criteria that may be measured in order to asses a country's development level include the distribution of wealth (which may be critical if there is a small percentage of people who have a high per capita GDP while the rest of the population has a very low per capita GDP), inflation, unemployment level, and the distribution of urban service centres (Weaver, 1998).

The second main issue related to sustainable development or sustainability in a developing country is the issue of empowerment. Tourism, craft, trade and other endeavours, developed with the purpose of having a community plan, manage and develop themselves without outside aid or government assistance (Williams, 1999).

The United States Agency for International Development (AID) has noted that foreign aid has in fact created dependency rather than independence in some developing nations (Reid, 1992). In Botchway 's (2001) article, he argues the popular belief that with empowerment development is both attainable and sustainable. With the development of tourism in mind, one framework that has been developed is the indigenous people's cultural opportunity spectrum for tourism (IPCOST) (Sofield and Birtles, 1996). In the IPCOST agenda, one of the major objectives is to aid in the empowerment of indigenous communities by allowing them to actively participate in, and have control over, decision-making (Sofield and Birtles, 1996).

Table 2 Ranked per capita gross domestic product by country, 1994. (the categories $3 000 -- 4 999 and 2 000 -- 2 999 are not complete).



$20 000+

Australia, Canada, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Norway, Qatar, Switzerland, UAE, USA

$10 000--19 999

Andorra, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Belgium, Brunei, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Korea, Kuwait, Malta, Monaco, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Trinidad, Tobago, UK

$5 000--10 000

Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Barbados, Belarus, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech R., Estonia, Fiji, Greece, Hungary, Libya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Palau, St Kitts, Seychelles, Slovakia, Slovenia, Syria, Thailand, Uruguay, Venezuela,

$3 000--4 999

Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Bulgaria, Columbia, Dominican R., Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Sri Lanka, Ukraine

$2 000--2 999

Afghanistan, Belize, Bolivia, China, Congo, Egypt, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Suriname

$1 000--1 999

Albania, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, Cuba, Djibouti, El Salvador, The Gambi, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Honduras, India, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Maldives, Marshall Island, Mauritania, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sao Tome, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tajikistan, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Yemen, Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe

<$1 000

Angola, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Central African R., Chad, Comoros Island, Congo (DR), Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Kirbati, Korea (PDR), Laos, Liberia, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Myanmar, Niger, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia

The problems of poverty and health care, though listed above as the third of four most important reasons for encouraging sustainability in developing countries, is by far seen as the number one concern for many developing nations. As with other international development agencies and summits, one of the major objectives outlined in Johannesburg 2002 was the elimination of poverty, as this was seen as the primary outcome of sustainable development (UN, 2003). In many developing countries however, environmental conditions (such as the availability of clean water and food) and poverty (lack of shelter and health care) are still of significant concern (Langeweg, 1998).

The last issue discussed in this paper related to sustainable development in the developing or less developed world is the desire to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; a desire not of the developed world, but of the less developed or developing world. This desire is especially evident when it comes to the use of non-renewable natural resources, and other environmental concerns linked to development. At the Earth Summit of 1992 for instance the government of India spoke out against the need for sacrifices by all countries of the globe by stating that the developed countries are the ones responsible for the earth's environmental degradation and that it is they who must correct it by changing their consumptive lifestyles (Madu, 1999). At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, the participants agreed, stating that developing nations should be exempt from emission cutbacks due to the fact that it may slow their economic growth (Williams, 1997). In the Bruntland report Our Common Future there was also the conclusion that inequality was the world's greatest environmental problem, as well as the greatest problem in development (Holmen, 2001).

Sustainability in developed countries

Sustainable development in the developed world is most often related to four key issues, namely: 1) economics, 2) environment, 3) the global market (competitiveness), and 4) long term goals. These issues, though similar in some respects to those of the developing and less developing nations, are often quite dissimilar in that they are generally based on different basic needs and goals, as was already outlined (in table 1).

One key issue that is shared by both the developing and developed worlds is economics. Based on the assumptions made by Weaver (1998) that economic characteristics such as per capita gross domestic product and the distribution of wealth are commonly used to measure the development level of a country, many developed nations are far superior than the rest of the world. While 103 countries rank at $2 000 and below, only 10 rank at $20 000+ and these are considered the superior western countries. New Zealand, Denmark, the United Kingdom and other western nations rank a close second. Unlike the developing and less developed countries, articles devoted to economic development in the developed nations focus on approaches such as auditing, human capacity, and economic prosperity (Rogers and Ryan, 2001); strategic management, partnerships, and holism (Williams, 2002); and competitiveness, policy, and community regeneration (Chatterton and Style, 2001).

On the second issue of the environment, Fuchs and Lorek (2002) point out that unsustainable levels of consumption in the industrialized nations are a major cause of present-day global environmental degradation. It was with this in mind that the Kyoto Protocol was born, as well as the earlier agreements such as Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration and others mentioned earlier. Contemporary strategies for sustainable community development in the developed world therefore often take a holistic approach which most often includes strategies that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable (Williams, 2002; Rogers and Ryan, 2001). Holmen (2001) reveals that according to the Brundtland Report, unsustainable economic practices in the western nations have led to serious environmental problems including over-exploitation of natural resources and degrading environmental practices such as deforestation, pollution, and soil erosion. Unlike the developing nations, environmental problems in the west are usually caused by overproduction, not desperation.

The third key issue related to sustainable development in the developed world is globalization and issues of market competitiveness. Though there are many definitions that exist for globalization, in this instance it will just refer to the general trend of a global economy taking over in virtually all countries due in part to the use of the internet and other mass media, and the present day ease of transportation (Tonn and Ogle, 2002). The impact of globalization is important in rural sustainable development due to the fact that it is often difficult for a small community business to compete when there are countless opportunities for people to not only buy products cheaper, but also to manufacture products cheaper. To survive the effects of globalization, present day communities have two options: 1) isolate themselves from the uncertainties by becoming more self- sufficient or 2) tackle globalization head-on through constant work force development and training, and providing economic incentives to attract and retain global business (Tonn and Ogle, 2002). This decision has a great affect on the way local communities and governments attempt to become sustainable.

Long-term goals were grouped together as the last key issue related to sustainable development in the developed world. For this discussion, the developed world's long-term goals will be considered different from the short-term goals of the developing nations. Often the long-term goals of any sustainable community development project include social goals such as the building of social capital and the success of social cohesion to build a strong community. In Nozick (1999) she talks about calling upon community will and getting people motivated to care about their community as well as building support and trust between neighbours, all in an effort to build and maintain a sustainable community. In another article, Chatterton and Style (2001) discuss the role of local policy partnerships, local governance, restrictive legislation, and long-term business planning when investigating sustainable development in the Western world. While there is room to say that many of the contemporary methods of sustainable development apply just as well to the developing as the developed world (grassroots, local government, community empowerment, etc.), a deeper discussion of this matter would clearly reveal that their long-term goals are quite unique.

Summary of sustainable development

If a more in-depth review were to take place regarding sustainable community development in all areas of the globe, there would definitely be an abundance of similar methods of approach. Due to conferences and summits on the issue of global sustainability, many nations have become aware of the need for a multi-level approach that considers the social, economic, and ecological needs of all people. However, in light of the above, it is obvious that there are differences in both need and desire between the developed countries and the developing or less developed countries. Holmen (2001) reminds us that there is a need to re-think how much the people of the rich countries consume and produce and re-evaluate how we interact with nature. On a global scale, Holmen tells us, what the developing world needs now is "more development and less sustainability" (pg. 18) and what the developed world needs is "more sustainability and less development" (pg. 19). In terms of both the short- and long-terms, this would go a long way towards creating a more equitable world.


Like the term sustainable development, there is no one clear definition of tourism. It can be defined very broadly such as the definition by Gunn (1988, pg 6) who defines tourism as "all travel except commuting"; or more functionally defined such as the definition by Kelly (1985, pg 6) who defines tourism as "recreation on the move, engaging in activity away from the home in which travel is at least part of the satisfaction sought" (Shaw and Williams, 2000). The definition by Gunn (1988) however is much too broad, and would not account for things such as travelling to doctors, shopping, or obtaining other basic essentials. Kelly's (1985) definition does not spell out what is meant by "away from home" since this could mean anything from travelling across town for a basketball game to going on an international vacation. Though it does not account for purpose or distance travelled, the definition most commonly cited in the literature is the one provided by the World Tourism Organization which is "tourism involves all travel that includes a stay of at least one night, but less than one year away from home" (Shaw and Williams, 2000).

When looking at tourism from an economic development standpoint, tourism is often viewed as an industry all in itself, a key player which cannot be overlooked. Fennel and Butler (2003), in their paper "A Human Ecological Approach to Tourism Interactions" argue that tourism is a booming global industry due in part to increased incomes, more leisure time, and advances in communication and transportation. For the host community, it generally does not matter how far a tourist has travelled, or whether they have come for business, pleasure, or recreation, only that "a tourist comes to an area, spends money and leaves" (Davidson, 2001, pg 25). For the purpose of a paper in sustainable community development then, tourism will be operationally defined as "a person travelling outside his/her normal routine -- either normal living or working routine -- who spends money" (Davidson, 2001, pg 25). From this standpoint it is apparent that tourism can be very important to a host community, and therefore part of any sustainable community plan. Economically, tourism is like invisible export, revenue that feeds business development, government revenues, household incomes and employment (Archer and Cooper, 2001). Domestic tourism is also seen as a way of strengthening the political unity of a country by encouraging local residents to take pride in their national heritage through heritage site tourism (Archer and Cooper, 2001). Other types of tourism include mass tourism, which is seen as a westernized type of tourism centred on mass consumption and only benefiting the top few producers; urban tourism, which is city tourism that is focused on either historic, cultural, or shopping venues; sustainable tourism, which considers the environmental, economical, and social needs of the host community; and ecotourism which is described as tourism that experiences the ecological, and cultural aspects of a host area with minimal impact, often engaged in by people with higher than average incomes (Shaw and Williams, 2000).


Ecotourism has become a vital part of sustainable community development and at present is the fastest-growing sector of the tourism industry (Weinberg et al., 2002). Though there are a variety of definitions used to describe ecotourism, in general they all depict ecotourism as being in harmony with nature, and the opposite of mass tourism (Hawkins and Khan, 2001). Wight (1993) points out that ecotourism can also be referred to as nature tourism, alternative tourism, cultural tourism, soft tourism, green tourism, adventure tourism, or responsible tourism (Hawkins and Khan, 2001). Weaver (1998) describes ecotourism as a subset of alternative tourism and offers the definition of Ceballos-Las-curain cited by Boo (1990) which states:

"...ecotourism is tourism that consists in travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas. In these terms, nature-orientated tourism implies a scientific, aesthetic or philosophical approach to travel...The person who practices ecotourism has the opportunity of immersing himself/herself in nature..."

Other definitions suitable for the purpose of this paper include that of Kutay (1989) who proposes that ecotourism is "nature tourism which directly or indirectly promotes conservation and supports sustainable economic development"; and Boo (1992) who describes ecotourism as "nature travel that advances conservation and sustainable development efforts" (Weaver, 1998, pg 17).

Though not restricted to any global area, ecotourism is largely an international tourist activity involving mainly affluent people travelling from developed countries to developing or less developed countries due to the abundance of undisturbed natural areas and unique cultural attractions (Hawkins and Khan, 2001; Wunder, 2000). With total international tourism arrivals expected to reach over one billion by the year 2010, carefully planned ecotourism projects will be an invaluable environmental safeguard as well as an important opportunity for community-based development (Hawkins and Khan, 2001).

Ecotourism objectives

Lindberg et al. (1996) cite work done by Buckley (1994) when outlining three objectives of ecotourism, namely:

  1. that ecotourism generates financial support for the formation, management and protection of natural areas.

  2. that residents living near the natural areas benefit economically.

  3. that due to the economic benefits, conservation is supported by local residents.

These objectives are strikingly similar to the objectives of sustainable tourism as outlined by Shaw and Williams (2000). In their article, they contend that sustainable tourism is akin to sustainable development and that sustainable tourism is an important form of economic development in the host community. They also point out that sustainable tourism educates the tourists, making them more aware and more sensitive to the physical and cultural surroundings of the host areas. These similarities relate the importance of ecotourism as another factor in sustainable community development.

Positive impacts of ecotourism

Outlined below in Table 3 is a variation of the multitude of benefits and drawbacks associated with ecotourism as discussed by Weaver (1998). Though there are far too many to be discussed in the context of this paper, an examination of three pertinent social and economic benefits associated with ecotourism will be discussed: the creation of parks and natural protected areas, job creation, and community empowerment.

Table 3 Positive and negative impacts of ecotourism on local community (adapted from Weaver, 1998).

Positive impacts

negative impacts


  • incentives to protect environment

  • eco-tourist's assistance with habitat enhancement

  • education in protected areas

  • success = rapid growth

  • tourism causes damage and stress

  • financial value on nature


  • revenue from eco-tourists

  • job creation

  • indirect revenue (multiplier effect)

  • stimulates peripheral rural economy

  • start up costs

  • ongoing expenses

  • uncertain revenue

  • damage to crops by wildlife


  • aesthetic/spiritual experiences

  • fosters awareness among residents and eco-tourists

  • intrusion on local culture

  • cultural influence

  • displacement of local culture due to parks

The first positive impact is that successful ecotourism ventures generally result in the formation of parks or natural protected areas within the host community. Discussed earlier by Lindberg et al. (1996) as one of the basic objectives of ecotourism, this is important in many ways to the community. First, it aids in the environmental protection of the area; it generates financial revenue through entrance fees, donations, and government support; and it provides valuable jobs that add to the social and economic structure of the host community (Lindberg et al., 1996). Hawkins and Khan (2001) further argue that since eco-tourists are more affluent than the average tourist and have more leisure time, they are willing to pay more money for services and products in order to get a natural experience and support environmentally-conscious projects. Some researchers, however, argue that the increase in revenues generated is temporary or seasonal, and thus creates restrictions when planning community development (Fennell et al., 2003; Weinberg et al., 2002).

The second positive impact of ecotourism is job creation, including direct and indirect employment opportunities. Weinberg et al. (2002) lists the first direct employment opportunity as jobs within the park or protected area. Though these jobs are relatively few, they are an important economic contributor to the community. Research by Lindberg et al. (1994) and Weaver (1999) argue the multiplier effect (the increased purchase of local goods and services) as being a secondary benefit to the many wage-paying jobs in the service and accommodation industries. The same can be said about tourism ventures in Uganda, Africa. Through the Uganda Community Tourism Association program, local people have become employed as national park tour guides, campground operators, and craft and food producers, and through these initiatives have produced successful community development projects such as clinics, schools, and water sources (Williams, 1999). In Costa Rica, the success of ecotourism has also brought positive changes such as increased income and employment, an improved service industry, more awareness of conservation, and an increase in bilingualism in the area (Weinberg et al., 2002). Lindberg et al. (1994) also point out however that while some jobs are being created for the tourism industry, many occupations and resources (such as hunting and agriculture) have been taken away due to the formation of national parks and protected areas.

The third positive impact of ecotourism is the opportunity for community empowerment. Scheyvens (1999) examines the prospect of community empowerment and argues that there are four levels of empowerment that may be achieved through successful community-based ecotourism ventures: psychological, social, political, and economic. Table 4 is an adaptation of a table by Scheyvens (1999) that briefly describes these four levels. In essence, each level of empowerment is meant to be long-lasting, not seasonal, and is designed to support a community's well-being and future mental and physical health. Wood (2002) also examines the role of ecotourism in her report for UNEP entitled "Ecotourism: Principles, Practices, and Policies for Sustainability". In her report, Wood states that community participation is vital to any successful ecotourism project and this very active participation ensures that local residents are a part of the plan, having the final say in what their community needs and wants. Without active participation and equal distribution of profit, a project is destined to fail because the residents will not care enough or know enough about it. Wood also examines the occurrence of community-based ecotourism and states that this relatively new variety of ecotourism has been quite successful; running either totally from within a community or with one outside partner, often utilizing other community initiatives such as cooperatives.

Negative impacts of ecotourism

Referring back to table 3 above, there are numerous negative impacts associated with ecotourism. These impacts are exacerbated in the most pristine of locations, but may be felt by a community and an environment in any location. In the context of this paper, three key negative impacts will be discussed: environmental damage, cultural intrusion, and overdevelopment.

Table 4 Four levels of community empowerment which may be achieved with successful community-based ecotourism (adapted from Scheyvens, 1999).


  • enhances self esteem of residents

  • member seek further education

  • increase status of women, youth


  • improved community cohesion

  • tourism profit used for community development

  • enhances community's equilibrium


  • political structure represents needs of all community members

  • special interest groups (women, youth, etc.) have a voice


  • lasting economic gains

  • profits shared equally

  • visible signs of improvement in community due to profits

The environmental damage associated with all types of tourism has been well documented (Archer and Cooper, 2001; Hawkins and Khan, 2001; Shaw and Williams; Weaver, 1998; Weinberg et al., 2002). Although one of the prime objectives of ecotourism is to have minimal impact on the physical environment, it is not possible that even this type of tourist activity will have zero impact. The most common direct environmental damages include pollution by littering and wastes, soil erosion, and plant and animal damage (Archer and Cooper, 2001). The Ecotourism Society of Kenya (2003) also points to other types of environmental damage that may occur as a result of tourism, that includes the contribution of tourists to the extinction of rare plant species by the purchase of certain craft items. In an effort to stem the environmental problems caused by tourism, Australia (Weaver, 1998), and more recently, Kenya, has introduced a national code of conduct for visitors which is meant to educate tourists about the country's ecosystem as well as some culturally sensitive issues.

The second major negative impact of ecotourism is the impact that outside tourists have on the culture of the host community, also referred to as cultural intrusion. Schluter (2001) offers one spectrum of cultural impact that occurs when the tourist comes in close contact with native workers. In some cases this results in the native worker realizing that they could obtain a higher standard of living in an industrialized country, and may consider the possibility of leaving their country to go live in the country where the tourist comes from (Schluter, 2001). Evidence from popular eco-tourist sites in Costa Rica shows that due to the implementation of tourist facilities and visitation, there has been a loss of small town values and customs, and changes in the indigenous culture (Weinberg, et al., 2002). The lure of tourist dollars may also create competition within or between local communities, creating a host of social problems such as resentment, jealousy, relationship breakdown, social inequality, loss of respect for elders, and increased problems within the disadvantaged groups (Scheyvens, 1999).

Too many tourists can also lead to overdevelopment, the third negative impact of ecotourism addressed in this paper. According to a study done by McMinn and Cater (1998), the tourism industry in Belize has had a direct impact on the size and physical structure of the town of San Pedro as well as resulted in the rise of shanty towns. Carrying capacity problems have also been reported in popular areas of Costa Rica and Kenya where so many tourists visit every year and cause so much damage that it may not even be considered ecotourism any longer (Weaver, 1999). Developments built just outside of park boundaries in Kenya have also increased dramatically, and due to their location outside of the park they are often not well-planned and are haphazardly built (Weaver, 1999).

Can ecotourism contribute to sustainable community development?

The answer to this question is not an easy one. Based on all available literature however, it seems apparent that the answer is both yes and no. Archer and Cooper (2001) report for example that tourism creates both positive and negative outcomes, but that with careful planning it can be an effective means of increasing the environmental, economic, social, and cultural aspects of a community. Shaw and Williams (2002) argue that the impact that ecotourism has on a community depends greatly upon the physical environment. Still others argue that in South Africa at least, ecotourism ventures are still too risky and would not succeed without government support (Loon and Polakaw, 2001).

There are relatively few quantitative studies on the impact of local tourism on third world communities (Wunder, 2000). From a qualitative point of view, however, there seems to be many successful case studies of how ecotourism has contributed to sustainable community development. Two examples of this are Kenya (Weaver, 1998, 1999) and Belize (Lindberg et al., 1996), while other successful cases have been reported in Uganda (Williams, 1999), Nepal (Wood, 2002), and Costa Rica (Weaver, 1999). Though not much reference was made to Nepal, many examples were offered throughout this paper regarding the success in Kenya, Uganda, Costa Rica and Belize. In general, these locations benefited from the direct and indirect employment of ecotourism, and all locations benefited ecologically by the introduction of national parks and protected areas. Though there are problems experienced at every location, in general the ecotourism market appears to be producing sound environmental and socio-economic benefits as per the objectives of any individual ecotourism venture.


The purpose of this paper was to examine what, if any, role ecotourism played in achieving sustainable community development within the developing or less developed world. Based on the literature reviewed for this paper I would have to conclude that ecotourism is a valuable contributor to sustainable community development, though it is evident that often outside assistance such as NGO's and government funding may be needed as a backup option due to the uncertainties of the tourism market. It is also evident that if there is not a strong commitment and adherence to the goals and objectives of ecotourism by the community and government of the host destination, the venture is sure to fail both economically and environmentally.


Archer, B., & Cooper, C. (2001). The positive and negative impacts of tourism. In W. Theobald (Ed.), Global Tourism, 2nd Edition (pp. 63-81). Oxford, UK: Butterworth Heinemann.

Boo, E. (1990). Ecotourism: the potentials and pitfalls. World Wildlife Fund, Washington, DC, USA.

Boo, E. (1992). The ecotourism boom: planning for development and management. WHN Technical Paper Series, Paper No. 2, Washington, DC, USA.

Chatterton, P. & Style, S. (2001). Putting sustainable development into practice? The role of local policy partnership networks. Local Environment, 6 (4), 439-452.

Christenson, J., Fendley, K., Robinson, J. (1989). Community development. In Community Development in Perspective (pp. 3-25). Iowa: Iowa State University Press.

Davidson, T. (2001). What are travel and tourism: are they really an industry? In W. Theobald (Ed.), Global Tourism, 2nd Edition (pp. 22-28). Oxford, UK: Butterworth Heinemann.

Ecotourism Society of Kenya (2002). Retrieved December 2, 2003, from

Fennell, D. & Butler, R. (2003). A human ecological approach to tourism interactions. International Journal of Tourism Research, 5, 197-210.

Fuchs, D. & Lorek, S. (2002). Sustainable consumption governance in a globalizing world. Global Environmental Politics, 2 (1), 19-45.

Hall, C. & Lew, A. (1998). The geography of sustainable tourism development: an introduction. In C. Hall & A. Lew (Eds.), Sustainable Tourism: A Geographical Perspective (pp. 1-12). Addison Wesley Longman Limited.

Hawkins, D. & Khan, M. (2001). Ecotourism opportunities for developing countries. In W. Theobald (Ed.), Global Tourism 2nd Edition (pp. 191-204). Oxford, UK: Butterworth Heinemann.

Holmen, H. (2001). The unsustainability of development. International Journal of Economic Development, 2 (1).

Kutay, K. (1989). Ecotourism and adventure travel. In V. NACCRT (Ed.), Tourism and Ecology: The Impact of Travel on a Fragile Earth (pp. 3-7). Oregon: NAACRT.

Langeweg, F. (1998). The implementation of Agenda 21 'Our common failure'? The Science of the Total Environment, 218, 227-238.

Lew, A. (1998). The Asia-Pacific ecotourism industry: putting sustainable tourism into practice. In C. Hall & A. Lew (Eds.), Sustainable Tourism: A Geographical Perspective (pp. 92-106). Addison Wesley Longman Limited.

Lindberg, K., Enriquez, J., Sproule, K. (1996). Ecotourism questioned: case studies from Belize. Annals of Tourism Research, 23 (3), 543-562.

Loon, R., & Polokaw, D. (2001). Ecotourism ventures: rags or riches?. Annals of Tourism Research, 28 (4), 892-907.

Madu, C. (1999). A decision support framework for environmental planning in developing countries. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 42 (3), 287-313.

McMinn, S. & Cater, E. (1998). Tourist typology, observations from Belize. Annals of Tourism Research, 25 (3), 675-699.

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2003). Retrieved November 26, 2003 from

Murphy, P. (1998). Tourism and sustainable development. In W. Theobald (Ed.), Global Tourism, 2nd Edition (pp. 173-190). Oxford, UK: Butterworth Heinemann.

Nozick, M. (1999). Sustainable development begins at home: Community solutions to global problems. In J. Pierce & A. Dale (Eds.), Communities, Development, and Sustainability Across Canada (pp. 3-23). Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Raloff, J. (1980). Earth Day 1980: the 29th day? Science News, 117 (17), 269-270.

Reid, W. (1992). Sustainable development: Lessons from success. Environment, 31 (4), 7-35.

Richards, G. & Hall, D. (2003). The community: A sustainable concept in tourism development? In D. Hall & G. Richards (Eds.), Tourism and Sustainable Community Development (pp. 1-14). London, England: Routledge.

Rogers, M. & Ryan, R. (2001). The triple bottom line for sustainable community development. Local Environment, 6 (3), 279-289.

Scheyvens, R. (1999). Ecotourism and the empowerment of local communities. Tourism Management, 20, 245-249.

Schluter, R. (2001). Tourism development: a Latin American perspective. In W. Theobald (Ed.), Global Tourism, 2nd Edition (pp. 216-232). Oxford, UK: Butterworth and Heinemann.

Shaw, G. & Williams, A. (2002). Critical Issues in Tourism: A Geographic Perspective, 2nd Edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Smith, C. (1995). Assessing the limits to growth. Bioscience, 45 (7), 478-483.

Sofield, T. & Birtles, A. (1996). Indigenous peoples' cultural opportunity spectrum for tourism (IPCOST). In R. Butler & T. Hinch (Eds.), Tourism and Indigenous Peoples (pp. 396-434). London, England: International Thomson Business Press.

Suter, K. (1999). The Club of Rome: the global conscience. Contemporary Review, 275 (1602), 1-6.

Tonn, B. & Ogle, E. (2002). A vision for communities in the 21st century: Back to the future. Futures, 34, 717-734.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development. (2003). Retrieved November 26, 2003 from

Weaver, D. (1998). Ecotourism in the Less Developed World. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Weaver, D. (1999). Magnitude of ecotourism in Costa Rica and Kenya. Annals of Tourism Research, 26 (4), 792-816.

Weinberg, A., Bellows, S., Ekster, D. (2002). Sustaining ecotourism: Insights and implications from two successful case studies. Society and Natural Resources, 15, 371-380.

Wight, P. (1993). Ecotourism: ethics or eco-self? Journal of Travel Research, Winter, 3-9.

Williams, B. (1997). News article on United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Reuters, December 1997.

Williams, E. (1999). Using tourism as a tool in sustainable community development. Ugandan Community Organized Tourism Association. July, 1999.

Williams, P. (2002). Community strategies: Mainstreaming sustainable development and strategic planning? Sustainable Development, 10, 197-205.

Wood, M. (2002). Ecotourism: Principles, practices and policies for sustainability. UNEP Publication, in collaboration with The International Ecotourism Society.

World Tourism Organization (1997). International Tourism: A Global Perspective, 2nd Edition. C. Gee & E. Fayos-Sola (Eds.). Madrid, Spain: World Tourism Organization.

World Tourism Organization (WTO). (2002). Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Sustainable Development of Ecotourism. Retrieved November 17, 2003 from

World Tourism Organization (WTO). (2003). Assessment of the results achieved in realizing the aims and objectives of the International Year of Ecotourism 2002. WTO Report to the United Nations General Assembly the International Year of Ecotourism 2002. Retrieved November 19, 2003 from

Wunder, S. (2000). Ecotourism and economic incentives -- an empirical approach. Ecological Economies, 32, 465-479.