Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
Nonprofit Organizations
Ecotourism is a nature travel experience that contributes to the conservation of nature. Tourists promote good treatment of shared natural resources while they learn about new ecosystems, provide funding for conservation work, respect native species, and raise awareness of the social, political, and environmental challenges of the area.

Written by Erin Crowther



As defined at Canada’s 1991 National Workshop on Ecotourism, “ecotourism is an enlightening nature travel experience that contributes to the conservation of the ecosystem while respecting the integrity of the host communities” (Stark 2002 103).,

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), a membership non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to the promotion of sustainable ecotourism, furthers this definition, highlighting the connections between conservation, communities, and sustainable travel and suggesting several principles for practitioners. These include leaving behind minimal human impact, providing fiscal and promotional benefits for conservation work, respecting indigenous populations, and developing an experience that connects travelers to and raises awareness for the social, political, and environmental challenges of the area (The International Ecotourism Society).

However, while the benefits of ecotourism are lauded by organizations committed to its practice, opposition to this form of travel is still present. Judith C. Stark, author of Ethics and Ecotourism: Connections and Conflicts, presents certain concerns regarding the practice, including the commercialization of fragile ecosystems, the commodification of adventure travel, and a growing interest in witnessing the pristine, untouched parts of the world (Stark 2002, 104-105).


Historic Roots

With the end of World War II and the rise of the transportation age came an increase in the ease with which a person could travel not just from city to city, but across the globe (Stark 2002). Due to these developments, travel was no longer a luxury afforded to only the wealthiest of society, but an activity accessible to the average person. As an increasing number of people began to explore the world around them, the industry of mass tourism began to boom, ecotourism included.

While the historical roots of the term ecotourism may only date back to the 1980s when the concept of mass tourism merged with an increased focus on environmental issues, the acts associated with ecotourism have existed for years (Ballantyne and Packer 2013). As explained by Roy Ballantyne and Jan Packer in the International Handbook on Ecotourism, the adventures of early explorers, the establishment of national parks, and an increased interest in traveling to the most environmentally-challenging corners of the globe like Antarctica and the Himalaya are all markers of humanity’s growing interest in the natural world around them (Ballantyne and Packer 2013). However, James C. Carrier suggests a more negative background for the boom of the trend, suggesting that, in response to Robert Fletcher’s Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism, ecotourism developed as a response of “upper-middle-class white men” to their disillusionment with the evolution of urban areas to homes for diverse, immigrant populations (Carrier 2015, 1282). Reminiscent of the young aristocrats of centuries ago who embarked on tours of the world as a mark of maturation into adulthood and personal enhancement, Carrier argues that ecotourism grew out of its ability to offer individuals an opportunity for self-discovery, through “returning to the wilderness…where they can cut themselves off from urban modernity and find themselves in their intense engagement with the natural world” (Carrier 2015, 1282).



The importance of ecotourism lies in its ability to connect a person’s interest in travel with excursions that promote sustainable communities and habitats. As explained by USA Today, the practice can lead to benefits to local communities, the advancement of environmental and wildlife conservation, cultural preservation, and the promotion of human rights (Simm 2017). These results ultimately can lead to healthier, more advanced, and more equitable environments for all walks of life that share a common home.

As ecotourism tends to increase foot traffic in previously untouched areas of the planet, local and indigenous communities are often incorporated into the process. From opportunities to run travel lodges, lead excursions, share their culture, and more, local communities are not only supported by the industry, but appreciate the connection between their livelihood and the preservation of the natural world. The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) of Kenya offers an example of the shared benefit of ecotourism to both people and wildlife. Through their mission to “develop resilient community conservancies which transform people’s lives, secure peace, and conserve natural resources,” NRT has helped develop thirty-five conservancies throughout Kenya that allow locals to connect community growth and support with conservation measures, through methods including the management of ecotourism lodges (The Northern Rangelands Trust). Tourism plays such a significant role in the success of the conservancies that NRT hired Tarn Breedveld as Tourism Director to “generate sustainable tourism investment into the region and to develop the destination of Northern Kenya” (The Northern Rangelands Trust).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The benefit of ecotourism to the philanthropic sector lies in its ability to engage people in the natural world around them, enlighten them on the plight these areas are facing, and empower them to work for change in protecting these areas and the wildlife that rely on them. When individuals are able to go on safari and see an elephant in the wild, climb some of the world’s tallest mountains, and witness indigenous communities which have been living sustainably for thousands of years, they are further committed to making changes in their own lives to ensure that these experiences are available to others for years to come.

Through ecotourism, individuals are additionally introduced to non-governmental organizations existing throughout the world that are committed to protecting the viability of the planet. When ecotourism agencies plan their trips around these conservation organizations, trip attendees are able to personally connect with the conservation leaders who can effectively share their work, their reasons for doing it, and what others can do to help. These experiences allow the message of conservation organizations to spread back to trip-goers' homes, where they can continue to raise awareness by sharing pictures, conversations, and experiences.  


Key Related Ideas

  • Voluntourism is the concept of traveling to different corners of the globe with the purpose of participating in a service project or activity. In other words, as explained by Debra Cummings, writer and editor for, voluntourism is the “seamlessly-integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination with the traditional elements of travel and tourism – arts, culture, geography, history, and recreation – while in the destination” (Cummings n.d.). Like ecotourism, voluntourism offers benefits to the location of travel, whether through service or economic impact. However, once again sharing similarities with ecotourism, voluntourism receives its fair share of criticism within philanthropic circles due to the level of impact it has on the destination community, as the money spent to travel across the globe to volunteer potentially could have greater impact through a direct monetary donation.
  • Biodiversity, as explained by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is “the variety of life on Earth; it includes all organisms, species, and populations, the genetic variation among these, and their complex assemblages of communities and ecosystems” (Benn 2010). Biodiversity is critical to the sustainability of the planet, as the increasing loss of important species is negatively affecting the quality of ecosystem services required by humans, including clean water and stable climates. Ecotourism has the ability to introduce individuals to the concept of biodiversity, engaging them in its importance and encouraging both small and large scale action to preserve the diversity of Earth.
  • Environmental Conservation is the practice of taking steps to preserve the biodiversity of the natural world, including both habitat and wildlife, and protect it from future harm. As explained by Conservation International (CI), “human beings are totally dependent on nature…by saving nature, we are saving ourselves” (Conservation International). Environmental conservation is centered on the connections between the viability of humanity and the viability of the planet, supporting the positive environmental impacts and personal development that comes with ecotourism by introducing individuals to the wonders of nature.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Dr. Kelly Bricker serves as Vice-Chair of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and President of the International Ecotourism Society, holds the titles of Professor and Department Chair at the University of Utah, and serves on the board of the Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Committee of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, among others (Sustainability Leaders Project Editorial Team 2017).
  • Bruce Poon Tip (1967-?) is both founder and a board member of Planeterra, a nonprofit foundation intended to offer support to struggling communities across the globe through the medium of travel (Planeterra Foundation). 
  • Erik Solheim (1955-?) serves as the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, “the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system, and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment” (United Nations Environment Programme).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) is a non-governmental, membership-based organization dedicated to the promotion of effective and sustainable ecotourism. As explained by TIES Chair of the Board, Dr. Kelly Bricker, “The International Ecotourism Society’s mission, addressing the needs for uniting communities, conservation, and sustainable travel, continues to underscore the importance of community engagement in facilitating economic, social, and environmental sustainability” (The International Ecotourism Society).

The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is a non-governmental, membership-based organization located in northern Kenya. Created in 2004, the mission of the organization is “to develop resilient community conservancies, which transform people’s lives, secure peace, and conserve natural resources” (The Northern Rangelands Trust). The organization works to support local conservancies with funding, business education, and training in order to develop sustainable, successful organizations. Many of these conservancies supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust employ ecotourism as a central part of their work, running lodges and safaris for international travelers. Through this method, the conservancies connect the importance of conservation with the success and livelihood of their people, in turn promoting educational opportunities, cooperation, and peace (The Northern Rangelands Trust).

The Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT) is an organization dedicated to the promotion of sustainable tourism within the country. The leading tourism institution in Costa Rica, ICT is dedicated to “constant innovation so that tourism activities become the engine for the economic growth of the country” (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo). A program of this organization is the Certificación para la Sostenibilidad Turística en Costa Rica (CST), which serves to ensure that tourism activities honor the integrity of the environment, while additionally conducting “awareness workshops on sustainable tourism and environmental issues” and serving as “the benchmark in climate change, corporate social responsibility, and Institutional Environmental Management” (Instituto Costarricense de Turismo)


Reflection Questions - Do you think ecotourism does more good or damage to the environment? What opportunities and challenges face the future of ecotourism?



  • Ballantyne, Roy, and Jan Packer. International handbook on ecotourism. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc, 2013.
  • Benn, Joanna. What is Biodiversity? United Nations Environment Programme, 2010. Accessed November 29, 2017.
  • Bricker, Kelly S., PhD. "University of Utah Profiles: Kelly S. Bricker, PhD." University of Utah. Accessed November 26, 2017.,_PhD/hm/index.hml
  • Carrier, James G. "Book Reviews: Romancing the Wild." Review of Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism. American Journal of Sociology, January 2015, 1280-1282.
  • Conservation International. Accessed November 28, 2017.
  • Inside - FAQS. Accessed November 28, 2017.
  • Simm, Carole. "Advantages of Ecotourism." USA Today. Accessed November 5, 2017.
  • Stark, Judith C. "Ethics and Ecotourism: Connections and Conflicts." Philosophy & Geography 5, no. 1 (2002): 101-13.
  • Sustainability Leaders Project Editorial Team. "Interview with Kelly Bricker on Ecotourism Challenges and Opportunities." Sustainability Leaders Project. May 4, 2017. Accessed November 5, 2017.
  • The International Ecotourism Society. Accessed November 5, 2017.
  • The Northern Rangelands Trust. Accessed November 6, 2017.
  • United Nations Environment Programme. UN Environment. Accessed November 29, 2017.

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.