Green Travel Magzine

Ecotourism and Culture: An Unhealthy Mix?

Ecotourism is defined as, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” While its mission is indeed admirable, it is also somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one hand it can serve as an amazing tool for conservation, as well as for the success of local enterprises. On the other hand, it has been described as, “economically exploitative and culturally insensitive” by some tourism researchers. 

This is because ecotourism ultimately has two distinct jobs – the preservation of resources and the maintenance of cultural, economic, and social character for local populations. Problems arise in the industry when tourist destinations have difficulty balancing both. 

The Realities of Ecotourism

Many locations are at risk for what is known as the demonstration effect, where local patterns of living (i.e. native dress or communication style) become altered to imitate those of tourists; this is mainly done in order to accommodate westernized tourist culture and demand. In the process, native culture – including the food, tradition, architecture, or religion of a place – has the potential to be gradually lost. 

Some ecotourism businesses are even foreign-owned, meaning that local products and labor are left out. This leads to the exclusion of community members from developmental choices and economic participation. Usually, when international corporations flock to these eco hotspots, their properties (i.e. hotels and stores) end up moving money away from the local economy. 

a pool with a row of pool chairs and umbrellas, with palm trees in background
Source: The Anam

Once an eco-destination is established, original inhabitants also tend to be under threat of losing access to the vital ecosystems that sustain them and their livelihoods. Ultimately, they no longer have any other economic options, causing them to take on low-paying jobs in hotels, restaurants, and shops. Certain Indigenous people have been forced to essentially “sell” their cultural traditions for additional income. 

This is not to say ecotourism can be without any positive influence. It can have multiple benefits if executed correctly, including opportunities surrounding education, the sharing of tradition, and a growing sense of pride for native communities. However, to get here, the destination must be able to balance the mission of conservation with the livelihoods of local people – and it’s no small feat. 

Around the World 

There are plenty of real-world stories demonstrating how delicate this balance can be. For example, as ecotourism has grown in recent years, communities in the Galapagos Islands have struggled to maintain their cultural foundations. Because their ecosystem is so unique, the area has grown into an extremely popular ecotourist hotspot. In 1999, the islands’ gross domestic product (GDP) was an estimated $41 million. By 2005, that number boosted to an incredible $73 million – in large part due to the growth of the tourism sector. 

It’s equally important to note that despite this climb, the average income per household rose only 1.8% per year, according to a report in the Economist. Meanwhile, the population continues to grow as people flock to the area in search of work. In other words, the more successful the islands become, the more people there are to support – and the economic incentive for local communities has not matched this growth. Although large numbers are good for profit, they’re inevitably destructive for the welfare of local culture.  

large group of iguanas sunning on a rock
Source: Deb Dowd

In east-central Africa, countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda contain immensely lush tropical rainforests – some of the most vibrant on Earth. These locations are similarly attractive due to the fact that a large number of the remaining mountain gorilla population resides there. Each year, thousands of tourists flock to these destinations in search of the romanticized “wild safari” experience.

Indeed, national parks have been established in these areas to serve as ecotourism destinations which, ultimately, brings a heightened level of awareness to the gorillas. But at the same time, the establishment of parks in these countries have resulted in the displacement of Indigenous Batwa groups. Many members have now become refugees in their own country, living in extreme poverty on the borders of the parks which were once their homes. 

The Batwa people also used to take part in multiple traditions, including but not limited to the harvesting of endemic plant species (such as Africa ginger or the climbing shrub) for medicine. Upon the park’s opening, however, this act immediately became illegal; the loss of a fundamental food source was only compounded by the loss of their ancestral homelands.  

Moving Forward

What the industry needs is an equilibrium between the success of ecotourism sites and cultural preservation. It’s not enough to claim these consequences must occur in the name of conservation; after all, no amount of human loss can be justified in this way. 

The good news is that ecotourism can still fulfill its ultimate purpose under the right conditions. An ideal destination encourages a deeper social and political understanding of local people; this can be done through educational efforts intertwined within the ecotourism activities themselves.  

In the Ecuadorian rainforest, one ecotourism venture is already working to bridge this divide. It has been home to the Achuar people for many centuries, covering about 2 million acres of land. To save their ancestral home from oil companies’ exploitation, the tribe has turned to ecotourism for economic and cultural security. 

a man in a canoe points towards a jungle, with the silhouettes of passengers in the foreground
Source: Kapawi Ecolodge

They have since opened Kapawi Ecolodge and Resort – a business exclusively owned by Achuar community members. The property provides each guest with a completely unique experience; they offer various rainforest excursions, participation in Achuar ceremonies, and bungalows handcrafted by local artisans. The destination has become very successful – so much so that it has contributed to the group’s economic growth, protection of cultural heritage, and promotion of Indigenous rights. Their amazing story inspires hope that other ecotourism projects can ultimately grow into something more. 

But what about travelers themselves? In truth, we have the power to help ecotourism reach its true potential. Below you will find a few ways to make a lasting impact on your next trip: 

  • Do some research! Look into who really receives proceeds from the business and make sure your money is going towards maintaining the integrity of the social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the local communities. 
  • Delve into the ways ecotourism projects may benefit both the surrounding environment and the social/cultural health of locals. 
  • Go beyond exploring a site’s natural beauty by forming a new appreciation of native culture; look for educational opportunities centered around cultural knowledge that is informative and respectful. 
  • Support native communities in the fight to retain their rights. You can add your voice to petitions here.  

Currently, ecotourism is similar to a chrysalis in the butterfly cycle; it’s getting there, but it’s still not where it needs to be. The end transformation won’t happen overnight by any means; it will take time. But, with the combined efforts of industry leaders and green-minded travelers, ecotourism can embrace the world’s cultures rather than compromise them. Only then will it evolve into the butterfly we have waited so long to see. 

ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.

Want to learn more? 

Nature and Culture: the two-faced nature of ecotourism – Rainforest Fund 

Eco-tourism or Eco-exploitation? – Global Ecotourism 

Problems with Ecotourism – USA Today 

An Analysis of Socio-Cultural Impacts of Ecotourism in Kodagu District – American Journal of Research Communication


Hannah Brunotts
Hannah is a passionate environmentalist whose love for sustainability has turned into a lifelong mission. She attends Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Professional Writing with a minor in Environmental Communication. Hannah enjoys traveling, kayaking, and getting lost in a good novel. Her dream is to experience the world one culture at a time.