The debate over ecotourism's success as a tool for conservation and development in the developing world is aggravated by the dispute over what exactly ecotourism is. The International Ecotourism Society offers a succinct and often cited definition: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people” (TIES). Ecotourism is often tied to the concept of sustainable development. “Sustainable tourism development meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future” (WTOa).
As the notion of ecotourism gained popularity, Boo (1990) was one of the first to express reservations over ecotourism's potential. She warned that it should not be viewed as a harmless alternative to mass-tourism and pointed out its possible dangers. The research that followed was mostly critical of ecotourism and not focused on highlighting any success.
Honey (1999) provides a recent, objective and comprehensive look at the realities of ecotourism and its place in a broader development strategy. Measuring ecotourism is difficult because it is often lumped together with nature, wildlife and adventure tourism. “Much of what is marketed as ecotourism is simply mass tourism wrapped in a thin green veneer” (Honey 1999: 51) a concept referred to “ecotourism lite.” Acott and La Trobe (1998) refer to the same phenomenon as “shallow ecotourism.” They provide a conceptual framework for measuring whether an ecotourism venture is a sincere attempt at sustainability and conservation or if it is simply an exploited term. Ecotourists and their impacts are measured on a continuum ranging from shallow ecotourism to deep ecotourism. Shallow ecotourism differs little from conventional tourism except in its marketing, and deep ecotourism is that in which decisions are made from a biocentric, not anthropogenic, nature. Deep ecotourism views nature as having an intrinsic value.
Ecotourism can be played out on three different stages though they are often not exclusive. Government protected areas, private reserves, and Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) ventures can all host visitors. Government protected areas are typically national parks or reserves which are often established because there is economic justification in doing so. Tourists attracted to the park are worth more than the resources in it. For example, a lion in Kenya is worth far more as a tourist attraction than it is as hunting game (Wood 2002). While these areas enjoy a high level of protection, they often displace local people or mean enforcement of land use that marginalizes historical stewards of the land. However, “it is now recognized in parts of Africa, for example, that local people should be compensated for the loss of access to resources they suffer when wildlife parks are created” (Scheyvens 1999: 246).
Private reserves that tourists pay to visit have been successful in terms of...