Spotlight on Sustainability: Origins of Ecotourism

Court Whelan, Ph.D. September 6, 2013 9

In the grand scheme of things, the term ecotourism is pretty much brand new.  Coined by Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in 1983, the definition has been evolving ever since.  His original description provided a powerful introduction to this new term:

 “Ecotourism is that tourism that involves traveling to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects found in these areas. Ecotourism implies a scientific, esthetic, or philosophical approach, although the ‘ecotourist’ is not required to be a professional scientist, artist, or philosopher. The main point is that the person who practices ecotourism has the opportunity of immersing him or herself in nature in a way that most people cannot enjoy in their routine, urban existences. This person will eventually acquire a consciousness and knowledge of the natural environment, together with its cultural aspects, that will convert him into somebody keenly involved in conservation issues”

He covered a number of descriptors we still use today both in the academic and industry sides of ecotourism.  The definition has evolved throughout the years, but the core principles of Ceballos-Lascurain’s initial vision remain.

Bartolome, Galapagos Islands

A view from the top of Bartolome, Galapagos Islands

The word ecotourism may be new, but the concept of ecotourism actually has roots much earlier in history.  We could go back to the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations to find the earliest forms of tourism, but throughout those times nature tourism was still relatively absent (at least in the written literature of the times).  It wasn’t until a grand revolution in society, culture, and education that we see something largely resembling today’s ecotourism.  This was the period of the Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour predominated tourism in the 18th and 19th centuries when it became relatively popular for young men (around today’s college age range) to embark on pre-planned, multi-year journeys of discovery across the Europe for the sake of education.  Early on in the Grand Tour Era, the itineraries and routes focused on the hubs for culture, fashion, and the arts.  Places like Versailles and Paris were must-dos.  Think of the tour as a culmination of social refinement of the time.  However, over the course of 100 years or so, the education encapsulated in these tours began to focus on the natural world.  By the 19thcentury, Grand Tours revolved around the natural components between major cities and in some cases, the tours changed completely.  Prominent figures like Darwin, Wallace, Humboldt, and Bates were some of these young Grand Tourists who pushed the envelope and deviated from the typical European circuit.  Visiting places like Malaysia, the Galapagos Islands, and the Amazon, these “Pioneers of Ecotourism”, as I like to call them, initiated a new Grand Tour that emphasized discovery, education, and novel experiences in nature.  They didn’t just embark on “nature tourism”, for they positively impacted local cultures, wrote essays on the benefits of environmental conservation, and developed new ways to educate the world about the wonders of nature.

Giant tortoises, Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

An ecotourist gets the perfect shot amidst the Giant Tortoises of Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

The Grand Tour did not stop evolving.  As the 19th century progressed, the Grand Tour became more and more popular and practical for much of society at the time.  Tours began to shorten from multi-year to only weeks or months.  Destinations, durations, and even age ranges of Grand Tourists became more and more varied.  By the mid 19th century, a true travel industry was born, with travel agencies and tour operators becoming relatively large enterprises catering to all levels of society.

Fast forward to today.  The travel industry is alive and well, with new modes of transportation (i.e., airplanes and cars) enabling all sorts of new travel possibilities.  Finding wilderness no longer requires multi-year journeys by ships and is no longer reserved for the most intrepid of explorers and adventurers.  A sense of discovery and adventure is now available to a massive subsection of our global society, exposing people to remote areas that are in critical need of advocacy and conservation.  Ecotourism is now a tool to promote conservation of nature and culture, not just a way to culminate one’s education in a grand learning experience.

Huli Warriors, Papua New Guinea

Huli Warriors perform a Sing Sing in the Tari Valley, Papua New Guinea

The spirit of early ecotourism is still with us today and the values and components have become more organized.  Since 1983, the term ecotourism continues to gain popularity and evolve in its message and influence.  Large organizations like the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and the UN (United Nations) have adopted ecotourism as both a term and a strategy for sustainable travel and environmental conservation.  Ecotourism is not only present in the travel industry, but also in academia, with entire college degree programs focusing on the subject.  Organizations like The International Ecotourism Society and others offer online education, ecotourism certification programs, and a host of other tools to promote ecotourism and to make sure that it’s done right, with environmental conservation and community welfare front and center.

So, the takeaway point that I want to make is that ecotourism, although new in definition, has been around for centuries.  There were early pioneers that led us to our current methodology, but ecotourism continues to evolve.  We’re at a very interesting time in the evolution of ecotourism, primarily because of its extreme popularity and its ability to make meaningful change in the way we as a society view our world.

Keep searching for your greatest adventure,


Court Whelan, Ecotourism ExpertCourt Whelan is one of the travel industry’s foremost experts on ecotourism and the newest member of the Nat Hab family of Adventure Specialists.  Born and raised in Florida, Court spent much of his youth outdoors fostering a strong love and appreciation for nature and wildlife.  This fascination led him to attend the University of Florida, where he received his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in a program termed “Ecotourism Entomology”.  Having been the creator of his own major, he was able to design his coursework, research, and teaching to focus on, as he puts it, “conserving the world through nature and educational travel experiences.”  Throughout his graduate school career he also ran a small ecotourism travel company where he planned and led over 65 expeditions to ecotourism destinations on all seven continents.



  1. Wendy Richards November 24, 2013 at 6:53 pm - Reply

    Hello Court,

    Thank you for a very good article on the evolution of ecotourism! If you don’t mind, I’m going to mention you, this article and provide a link to it in a presentation I am doing soon, as well as on a new blog I’m creating. Thanks again for your concise, informative article.


  2. Court Whelan September 16, 2013 at 10:21 am - Reply

    Thanks to @ClimateTribe – – for their thoughtful response to this post on their Tumblr, We appreciate the opportunity for dialog.

    Here’s our response:
    Ecotourism is not void of impacts, as anything humans do will cause a reaction on part of nature. Nor is ecotourism a panacea — but it is a much-needed solution in this time-sensitive conservation crisis. Ecotourism creates conservation cultures and is an easily adoptable alternative to punctuated deleterious processes like hunting, poaching, and deforestation (which can destroy a reserve, preserve, or park, in a matter of days if left to run rampant) by adding value to wildlife and natural areas.

    We must continually strive to improve ecotourism practices, as minimizing impact is critical. To do this, we here at Nat Hab continually try to raise the bar on ecotourism — not just for our own impact, but to encourage others to do the same.

  3. Jose Pinto September 11, 2013 at 1:12 am - Reply

    i am agreed that ecotourism is not new at all. This niche of the market that tourism experts have classified, at leadt is good to preserve areas across the world where humans didnt touch too much. i enjoy to read your article. Jose P.

  4. Megan Epler Wood September 10, 2013 at 6:36 am - Reply

    Dear Court,

    Thanks for this nice write up, I found it via Vision for Sustainability. One comment I would make is that there was a major transition from the original idea of ecotourism, which as you say was regarding personal development and really was just a new form of nature travel, and the idea that ecotourism was a tool for conservation and sustainable development. That transition happened in the late 1980s and culminated in the formation of The International Ecotourism Society in 1990. I wrote an article about those days for TIES, called Ecotourism Then and Now. I thought you and others would like to see it!

    • Court Whelan September 10, 2013 at 9:51 am - Reply

      Hi Megan,

      Thanks so much for commenting on this. I’m honored to hear from such a pivotal person in the development of ecotourism as an industry, academic focus, and overall force for conservation and sustainability!

      Great point that you made about the evolution during the 1980s, as that was truly a dynamic time in the establishment and evolution of ecotourism. The International Ecotourism Society continues to be a bellwether for standards, practices, and education on ecotourism. Your articles are must-reads for anyone interested in the subject — many thanks for sharing!

      Best regards,

  5. Christina Slotin September 9, 2013 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    Wonderful to know the roots of our industry! My favorite part of the original description is,”..will convert him into somebody keenly involved in conservation issues” This should be at the heart of every ecotour provider’s mission.

  6. joke Ohm-van Spanning September 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Eco tourism is normaly good but absolutely not on the Galapagos Islands, have bin there for me it was a big deseption. The islands are beautifull but to many tourists I made a trip of 8 days with a Catamarang after 5 weeks spend with a guide and driver at last we visit the Galapagos Islands.

    • Court Whelan September 10, 2013 at 10:11 am - Reply

      In my humble opinion, ecotourism has, in fact, saved the Galapagos Islands. It’s easy to think that due to the fragility of this ecosystem any presence of humans is absolutely negative for the environment. It is true that impacts from human visitation may have certain negatives (most of which are curtailed through the vigilance and tremendous work done by the Galapagos National Park Service). However, perhaps the biggest problem in the Galapagos is the problem of invasive species, which originated with pirates and whalers back in the 1800s. Rats, goats, pigs, cats, and dogs, were let loose and have since wreaked havoc on islands where predators and/or grazers previously did not exist. However, with the money ($12 million per year from the park entrance fees alone) and international support generated by ecotourism, programs are making great headway in combating these threats. If tourism never existed and the islands were left untouched by humans in all regards, a great deal of the incredible flora and fauna would likely have been destroyed by invasive species.

      It’s always tempting to think that setting areas like the Galapagos aside strictly as un-touched nature preserves will keep them pristine, but the reality is that these areas need advocates, and that’s exactly what ecotourism creates.

      • Mary Sikorski November 25, 2016 at 4:40 pm - Reply

        I understand where you’re coming from. But aren’t there findings that travelers visiting certain places have actually been the cause for invasive species? I think ecotourism does have benefits, definitely. It does help preserve areas that may otherwise been destructed in some way by humans. It also in a financial aspect is very beneficial, and it does help create some knowledge about the environment. I feel like it does also harm the environment though as well. All of the travel of people going to these different areas causes more pollution to the environment through air pollution. Then there are possible invasive species. I was recently at mammoth caves, and found out that the bats there are suffering from white-nose syndrome. It is said that there is significant evidence that humans can, and have transmitted the fungus from one cave to another, hastening its spreading. I wonder then, how humans have affected other protected areas in the world in the same way. Just an observation.

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