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What is Ecotourism?


The word ‘ecotourism’ has been thrown around so often it’s starting to feel like the Oscar Pistorious trial - everyone wants to know what’s going on and what it really is but the talk surrounding it is confusing at the best of times.

While we may never know what really drove Oscar to kill his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, we can throw some clarity onto the ecotourism debate.

So, what is eco-tourism?

There are a lot of definitions of eco-tourism flying around. One of the best comes from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) because of its simplicity. For them, ecotourism is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." (TIES, 1990).

forest cottage

The United Nations’ longer definition is helpful because it gets a little deeper into the meaning behind the phrase “conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”, taking into account the notion of sustainable tourism. Including key points from the Quebec Declaration of Ecotourism (2002), according to the United Nations sustainable tourism should:

  • Contribute actively to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage through tourism whilst still making the most of natural and cultural resources
  • Not only respect the socio-cultural authenticity of local communities but include them in planning, development and operations to ensure the benefits gained from tourism offer long-term, sustainable forms of employment for all stakeholder groups involved
  • Takes the natural and cultural heritage of the visitor into account

Ecotourism is tourism that does not harm. The principles of sustainability that ecotourism comes from, insist on protecting the economy, the environment and local people while doing as little damage as possible.


By protecting the environment, preserving important cultural heritage and keeping money in the local economy instead of giving it to multinational companies, ecotourism has become an important means to achieve the mandates agreed upon at conferences like Rio 20+, COP 17 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002).

What is Ecotourism Not?

As with anything, one question always leads to more questions. One of the reasons many people have become confused about what ecotourism is, is because many resorts claim to be practicing ecotourism - but are merely using the term to attract more business without proper implementation of ecotourism principles.

Furthermore, Ecotourism is often confused with ‘natural tourism’, which is tourism based on natural activities such as game watching and viewing beautiful scenery. Indeed, many lodges call themselves eco-lodges because they’re based in a beautiful place or nature reserve, without doing much for the environment or surrounding communities at all.

The South African economy relies heavily on tourism - Tourism Minister Martinus van Schalkwyk stated that 10.3% of employment in South Africa during 2012 was either a direct or indirect result of tourism. That’s one in eleven jobs - more than the mining or automotive industry alone.

Much of Africa’s appeal to tourists is nature based. Whether you want to see the Big Five or Table Mountain, climb Kilimanjaro or watch wildebeest migrate, most recreation activities in Africa provide the opportunity to experience nature in its rawest form.

rhino and giraffe in national park

The difference between nature-based tourism and ecotourism is that a hotel which employs foreigners, destroys the environment and is owned by a multinational can still be classified as nature-based tourism.

Visiting a golf estate where the owners bull-dozed a hill, tore out indigenous vegetation and replaced it with alien invasive vegetation still falls under the ambit of nature-based tourism if they offer a gorgeous view or outdoor adventures.

Confusingly enough, all forms of nature-based tourism are not ecotourism, while all forms of eco-tourism are nature based.

What is Ecotourism in the African Context?

Bearing in mind that most countries in Africa are still developing or third world countries, sustainable job creation, restoring the balance of power and addressing the inequalities which have been perpetuated since colonialism, means ensuring everyone benefits from tourism is an important mandate.

Ecotourism Success Stories

Ecotourism has been playing an increasingly important role in achieving this with numerous success stories. One of the most impressive is from South Africa’s Kruger National Park which has been recognised as one of SAN parks biggest accomplishments.

lion rolling on ground like a cat

In December 2000 seven national concession contracts were agreed on. These concession contracts were part of a bigger project designed to ensure land distribution was fair and has since become one of ecotourism’s biggest success stories. The contracts ensured SAN Parks an income of at least R202 million over the course of the next 20 years.

These concessions have given black people 54% of the shareholdings and recruited 79% of its employees from neighbouring disadvantaged communities.

Furthermore, apart from agreeing to spend R7 million a year on local businesses, the fact that all the concessions had Environmental Impact Assessments and Developmental Management Plans prior to approval in order to ensure conservation of the local environment made the privatisation of SAN Parks one of the biggest ecotourism success stories.

elephants at Addo National Park

Another prime example of how ecotourism can be successful in Africa is in Nambia. Safari company Wilderness Safaris started in Botswana in 1983 and expanded into Namibia soon after, moving into Damaraland and establishing Damaraland Camp with the goals of conserving nature and assisting local communities.

This has been accomplished by keeping their carbon footprint minimal, using locally sourced building materials, solar panels and the like.

Importantly, the management and ownership of the camp is shared with the local people who have an invested interest in Damarland Camp's success. Full ownership of the lodge will eventually be transferred to local people over a period of 20 years.

What makes Damaraland Camp so successful is the combination of big-game safaris and a luxury lodge. Since villagers are now partners in ecotourism who have an interest in protecting the environment, wildlife and conservation efforts have doubled.

The lodge has also been able to create jobs in the hospitality industry for youth whose prospects might have been limited to housekeeping, or herding cattle or goats.

Young African girl sipping from mug

Ecotourism is important to Africa because it is the only way the continent can ensure sustained growth. Implemented correctly, it can help solve the problems faced by thousands of South Africans such as inequality, unemployment and poverty, and rectify the injustices of the past.

References/Further Reading:

Benefits of Ecotourism: Who Benefits Exactly?

Definitions: Tourism

Tourism a vital contributor to SA's economy - Van Schalkwyk

Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism

Ecotourism - Benefits for Conservation and Local People? African Wildlife, 60[3] pages 16-18 by Spenceley, A. 2006.

What is Ecotourism?

Fair Trade Experiences Around South Africa

Travel and Tourism - Economic Impact 2013 - World Travel and Tourism Council

Namibia: An Ecotourism Success Story

Return from What is Ecotourism to Green Travel

Return to Eco-friendly Africa Travel

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