Political Ecology Network


Author: Stasja Koot

The practice of ecotourism is largely focused on nature and wild animals. In a world that is quickly urbanizing and full of environmental catastrophes, many people seek out an ecotourism experience because they are able to encounter wild animals without harming local environments or peoples. In fact, ecotourism’s focus on protection means it is an important element in the preservation of (endangered) animal species.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “[r]esponsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES 2015). The term ecotourism can be traced back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it arose as a consequence of dissatisfaction with mass tourism. Mass tourism favors a strictly profit-centered approach, often ignoring the social and ecological impacts of people visiting a particular place. In contrast, ecotourism aims for tourism that impacts the environment minimally, protects animals, and respects and benefits host cultures, while giving tourists an educational experience and maximum recreational satisfaction. Altogether, the ecotourism model is meant to be ecologically and socially responsible and sustainable (Cater 1994; Fennell 2003). With a very strong focus on the tourists’ interaction with animals that live in nature, ecotourism is often built on human-animal relations, as the following example will show.

Creating a national park attracts tourists who want to come to see the wild animals and who are willing to pay to enter the park. Because of this financial return, the animals create an income for poor local populations, which leads to a different type of engagement between various local, indigenous groups of people and the animals. Protected parks such as the world-famous ecotourism destination Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the adjoining Serengeti in Tanzania have been set aside for tourist use, which has resulted in many tourists passing through the area to watch for large predators and other African mammals. Although most of the Maasai people have never been into these parks themselves, some of them are able to get a job in one of these parks and profit financially from the wild animals. Before ecotourism became the focus of these parks, the local communities were often excluded from tourism initiatives and they were mostly disadvantaged because they had to leave their lands so the national park could be created. Today, when Maasai speak to tourists, they explain that wildlife has now become a source of income that they need to protect (Wijngaarden 2012).

Ecotourism, despite its very broad and good intentions, has its limitations and cannot always satisfy everybody, either human or animal. For example, for international conservation non-governmental organizations, ecotourism can be a means to save and protect natural habitats and animal species; for ecotourists it can provide an interesting travel destination where they can encounter wild animals in nature in a sustainable way; for tour operators it can increase their green, eco-friendly image through marketing; for countries it can be a welcome addition for their national economies; and for local inhabitants ecotourism can be a provider of jobs. But for other local people it can also mean that they lose land, because their traditional homes have been converted to parks where visitors do not expect to see people, thereby creating poverty. When indigenous people lose grazing or gathering lands, this will also change their relations with the animals that live in their environment. In the Masai Mara and Serengeti, local Maasai will explain to tourists that they do not hunt for wild meat, but off the record it turns out that this still happens because they need to provide for their families. This is because, while couched in ecotourist ideals of supporting local peoples, the revenue from ecotourism bypasses most of the Maasai; only a small number are able to profit from the wildlife financially, while the majority experience various restrictions due to ecotourism regulations (Wijngaarden 2012).

With respect to animal species, while they are often protected through ecotourism, they can also be disadvantaged. For example, studies of boat tours to watch whales and dolphins have increasingly been shown to affect the behavior and stress levels of these large sea mammals, sometimes even causing deaths. With an enormous expansion of tourists joining such trips (from 4 million in 1991 in 31 countries to 13 million in 2008 in 119 countries), this type of tourism, often considered ecotourism, has become a troubling activity (Cressey 2014). Along these same lines, it was also found that wild dolphins in an Australian resort who were fed every day for tourists, became dependent on the food from humans. This created lower birth rates and a shorter life expectancy (Brockington, Duffy, and Igoe 2008). The financial value of animals increases even more in the case of trophy hunting. In countries like Botswana and Canada, wealthy tourists shoot large mammals (such as elephants, antelopes or polar bears) for sport and so they can have the animals taxidermied and mounted on the walls of their homes. This is often considered ecotourism by hunting operators and tourists, because the revenues that it creates are partly returned to local communities and conservation activities (Dowsley 2009; Gressier 2014).

Altogether, ecotourism is an instigator of change and its value depends on a person’s viewpoints, values and socio-economic position. All these different interests are important in their own way with regard to the changes that ecotourism can bring to human-animal relations.



Brockington, D., R. Duffy, and J. Igoe. 2008. Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism and the Future of Protected Areas. London: Earthscan.

Cater, E. 1994. “Introduction.” In Ecotourism: A Sustainable Option? Edited by E. Cater and G. Lowman, 3-17. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Cressey, D. 2014. “Ecotourism Rise Hits Whales.” Nature 512 (7512): 358.

Dowsley, M. 2009. “Inuit-Organised Polar Bear Sport Hunting in Nunavut Territory, Canada.” Journal of Ecotourism 8 (2): 161-175.

Fennell, D.A. 2003. Ecotourism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Gressier, C. 2014. “An Elephant in the Room: Okavango Safari Hunting as Ecotourism?” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 79 (2): 193-214.

The International Ecotourism Society: http://www.ecotourism.org/, retrieved 18 February 2015.

Wijngaarden, V. 2012. “‘The Lion has Become a Cow’: The Maasai Hunting Paradox.” In African Hosts & their Guests: Cultural Dynamics of Tourism. Eds. W.E.A. Van Beek and A. Schmidt, 176-200. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey.