Ecotourism: What Is It?

Let’s talk ecotourism. First, what is it? Ecotourism is defined as travel to natural areas that involves some level of conservation or education1. For the next month, we’ll be highlighting its pros and cons across a variety of countries and environments.

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably participated in some form of ecotourism. You’ve gone cage-diving with sharks, been on an aerial forest walk in Southeast Asia, visited Stingray City in Grand Cayman, or toured on a safari in Africa. Perhaps you’ve even done something that you didn’t realize was ecotourism, like visiting a national park or snorkeling on vacation.

Aerial canopy walkway through the jungle [Source]
Big or small, any action that takes you out of your normal routine and into the path of wild animals can be considered ecotourism. But something you may not think about is the effect of your travel on the behavior of the creatures you seek to visit. So let’s talk about that impact: the good, bad, and everything in between.

Ecotourism has fueled the tourist industry in many destinations, some of which rely extensively on it as a method for economic growth. For example, the Cayman Islands (which we will talk about extensively next week) can attribute much of its growth to tourism in general. In 1996, this contributed 22.9% to the GDP (gross domestic product) of the Cayman Islands and employed nearly half the local residents2. Today, 70% of the country’s GDP can be attributed to tourism, as the islands host nearly 1 million annual visitors3. Much of its draw comes from its wildlife. People come from all over the world to visit Stingray City, or dive and snorkel on the nearby sandbars and reefs2.

See if you can spot a ray among the tourists in Stingray City, Grand Cayman. [Source]
A huge positive of ecotourism is the education that comes from allowing visitors to observe wild animals. For example, as an eight-year-old child, I distinctly remember watching a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs plod past my bus on a road in Denali National Park (we’ll talk about this more during our last installment of this series). This memory is still fresh in my mind and certainly has contributed to my love and respect for these enormous carnivores. There is no more impactful way to appreciate the majesty of wild animals than by observing them in their natural habitat. However, this must be done carefully. In uncontrolled situations, I’ve also seen people lying on the ground in front of a herd of elk for a picture, feeding a deer an ice cream cone, and stepping on iguanas’ tails.

Tourists observing an ungulate in Denali National Park [Source]
In addition, for many species, ecotourism can pose huge health risks. For instance, both travelers and the animals they seek can be hugely impacted by the spread of disease. Ebola, often fatal to humans, can be spread through contact with bats4, duikers5 (small antelopes), and non-human primates5. However, disease transfer has had an arguably greater impact on species like gorillas than on humans: it is estimated that 5000 gorillas died due to 2002/2003 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo6. Ebola is by far not the only disease that can affect the animals we visit. For example, whether you believe it or not, squirrels are not naturally friendly towards humans. However, they can become friendly or borderline aggressive with repeat exposure to food-bearing tourists, who will happily hold out scraps of food for begging squirrels. In doing so, these humans unknowingly put themselves at risk for diseases like rabies and the plague7.

A well-fed marmot in Yosemite National Park [Source]
Now let’s get to the behavioral impacts of ecotourism. The small actions of one tourist, repeated over and over by many, have the ability to completely alter the behavior and health of an animal. Take, for example, the aforementioned squirrels in national parks. Squirrels and other species like marmots can easily become morbidly obese after years of being fed scraps by humans. While it may be seen as hilarious to tourists, this obesity threatens the health and longevity of the species. Similarly, cage-diving with sharks, while often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people, occurs every day with a new group of people. If the same sharks continue to feast on the chum provided by cage diving operators, their natural feeding patterns quickly become disrupted as they become dependent on these operators for the majority of their food.

Tourists cage diving with sharks [Source]
Pros, cons, disease, behavior – we will discuss all of this more in the next few weeks. For now, the bottom line is this: ecotourism is complicated8. The money generated by ecotourism has the ability to fund conservation projects to protect the animals sought out by visitors, if that money is handled responsibly. Wild animals can provide opportunities for education and often inspire people (such as myself) to take conservation action or pursue higher education in animal research. But regardless of our intentions, ecotourism affects the behavior of the animals we visit. Sometimes this is for the best, as animals are able to adjust to high human traffic or utilize man-made food sources. Unfortunately, at other times, this can be extremely detrimental.

Tune in for the next month as we talk about the intricacies of marine ecotourism, the fun and danger of interacting with non-human primates, and the various rules and regulations governing national park tourism in the United States.

[By: Allison Lau]


1“What Is Ecotourism?” What Is Ecotourism?, 2017,

2Shackley, M. (1998). ‘Stingray City’-managing the impact of underwater tourism in the Cayman Islands. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 6(4), 328-338.

3Iiwinc. “The Economy of the Cayman Islands.” The Economy of the Cayman Islands,

4Leroy, E. M., Epelboin, A., Mondonge, V., Pourrut, X., Gonzalez, J. P., Muyembe-Tamfum, J. J., & Formenty, P. (2009). Human Ebola outbreak resulting from direct exposure to fruit bats in Luebo, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2007. Vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, 9(6), 723-728.

5Rouquet, P., Froment, J. M., Bermejo, M., Kilbourn, A., Karesh, W., Reed, P., … & Leroy, E. M. (2005). Wild animal mortality monitoring and human Ebola outbreaks, Gabon and Republic of Congo, 2001–2003. Emerging infectious diseases, 11(2), 283.

6Bermejo, M., Rodríguez-Teijeiro, J. D., Illera, G., Barroso, A., Vilà, C., & Walsh, P. D. (2006). Ebola outbreak killed 5000 gorillas. Science, 314(5805), 1564-1564.

7Eskey, C. R., & Haas, V. H. (1939). Plague in the western part of the United States: infection in rodents, experimental transmission by fleas, and inoculation tests for infection. Public Health Reports (1896-1970), 1467-1481.

8Isaacs, J. C. (2000). The limited potential of ecotourism to contribute to wildlife conservation. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 28(1), 61-69.

One Comment Add yours

  1. ContemporaryConservationist says:

    Really informative post. I really enjoyed the sources and inputting personal tidbits.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s