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.
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.
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.
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 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.