Background of ecotourism


Tourism caught in a trap – Background of sustainable tourism and ecotourism

© by Dominika Zareba

Humankind’s economic activities would turn out not to be very cost-effective if Mother Nature were to charge for using its resources. Back in the 1990s, American scientists calculated that the total worth of goods and services created by humans over the course of a year (measured as gross national product) constitutes just over a quarter of the value of services provide by the natural environment. Experts tallied up a bill of 33 mln USD that society as a whole would need to pay for using different elements of the natural environment, such as rivers, lakes, seas, meadows, woods, fields, coral reefs etc.*** All of the natural resources mentioned before are used without constraint by those organizing and conducting the tourist industry as well as by tourists themselves. Without these resources, the tourism-driven economy would not be viable. Natural goods and services form the core of the tourist product, and are a critical component of the value and attractiveness of the vacation or travel package.

At present, few representatives of the tourist trade are aware of and appreciate the direct correlation between dwindling natural resources and the drop in the value of tourist attractions of a given region. A tourist industry which destroys elements of the environment for the sake of further development will inevitably bring about its own demise. The paradoxical thing is that in such a scenario, the industry is at the same time the ‘perpetrator’ as well as the ‘victim’, because on the one hand it’s a force responsible for the destruction of the regions it penetrates, while on the other the environmental degradation caused by it, makes these regions less attractive which impacts the cost of staying or travelling to them. Fewer and fewer people are inclined to spend their dream vacation in a place with a polluted seaside environment, blocks upon blocks of hotels, mountains littered with trash and covered with highways, cable cars and ski-lifts.

The issue of negative impact of tourism on the natural and sociocultural environment was addressed for the first time in the 1950s, when mass tourism was just becoming a mass industry. The first symptoms of the detrimental effects of mass tourism in Europe were observed in the Alps and on the coastlines of the Mediterranean Sea. It turned out that the unbalanced, uncontrolled growth of tourist amenities leads to significant air and water pollution, soil contamination, destruction of plant cover, eradication of fauna, degradation of the natural landscape, disappearance or neglect of cultural heritage in local communities etc. Because of a poorly planned out development trajectory, mismanagement of tourist assets, overinvestment, many valuable recreational areas ended up forever losing their appeal as tourist destinations.

The 1970s saw a rise in the international criticism of the harmful effects of tourism on the natural and sociocultural environment. The revolt of the younger generation against ill-advised economic policy which was inadvertently destroying natural, cultural and other values resulted in a new approach to the tourist experience. Young people were looking for alternative reasons for travelling and new forms of exploring the world; they expected more meaningful experiences and the opportunity to get an honest and sincere look at various remote parts of the planet and the peoples who inhabited them. The next decade witnessed the first international discussions on the need to change the approach to the development of tourist trade and the coining of the phrase “sustainable tourism”. It was, however, not until the 1990s that these concepts began to be put into practice along with an effort to design and implement environmental politics in the local, national as well as global tourism industry.

The end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st ushered in a host of international declarations, conventions and strategies concerning tourism and environment, which were designed to spearhead the development of tourism in the years ahead, amongst them the 2002 Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism (in the framework of the UN International Year of Ecotourism). In view of the engagement of many international tourist organizations, public institutions and environmental NGOs, the tourism industry has followed suit, taking on environmental targets and adopting eco-policies, which itself is a reflection of the needs and expectations of tourists themselves.

The market is beginning to offer trips that match the demands of clients who are environmentally aware. New trends in tourism which are connected in part to the rise in environmental awareness by tourists from highly industrialized economies are becoming the foundation for shaping long term policy by the tourist industry. However, the results and effects of this process of ‘greening’ the tourist trade which began at the turn of the 21st century, will be apparent only several decades from now.

Despite these trends, it is abundantly clear that the dynamic growth of the tourist industry will continue to place a burden on the natural environment due to the increase in the volume of e.g. solid waste and wastewater, the conversion of natural land to make way for the necessary tourist infrastructure and the penetration of previously untouched areas of the world.

This makes it all the more pressing to introduce preventive actions to minimize if not avoid entirely the negative side effects of the growth of the tourism industry. The effectiveness of these measures in large degree will depend on a thorough appreciation by all stakeholders of the tourist trade of the extensive and multifaceted relation between tourism and the natural and socio-cultural environment.

Timeline of sustainable tourism and ecotourism


For the first time the issue of negative impact of tourism on the natural and sociocultural environment (especially in the Alps and on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) was raised.


The intensification of international criticism of the negative impact of tourism on the natural environment, revolt of the younger generation against irresponsible economic policies, the search for alternative tourist destinations.


The first discussion on an international level of the need to alter the existing approach to the development of the tourism trade, the formulation of the term „sustainable tourism”.


Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) – first specific actions to further sustainable forms of tourism.


The Third Ministerial Conference „Environment for Europe” held in Sofia (Bulgaria) – signing of the The Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy, in the 2nd priority level of actions were defined strategic goals in the area of pro-environmental tourism policy.


Agenda 21 for the Travel and Tourism Industry – drafting of the first rules for sustainably developing tourism by the World Travel and Tourism Council, the World Tourism Organisation together with the Earth Council.


International Conference on Biodiversity and Tourism in Berlin – signing of Berlin Declaration, which states that the priorities concerning sustainable tourism are to be implemented in the national economic policies of the signatory states.

Turn of the 20th century

Worldwide, sustainable tourism is included on a much greater level in strategies, declarations, action plans of different levels and scope.


International Year of Ecotourism declared by the UN Environment Program and the UN World Tourism Organization – World Ecotourism Summit held in Quebec (Canada) resulting in the signing of the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism.

2007 First Global Ecotourism Conference in Oslo (Norway) initiated by The International Ecotourism Society.

Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria developed by the UN Environment Program, UN World Tourism Organization and the Rainforest Alliance at the World Conservation Congress in Barcelona (Spain).


International Year of Sustainable Tourism, UNWTO

© Source: „Ekoturystyka”, Zaręba Dominika, Wyd. Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2010, 3rd edition.

English translation by Piotr Szmigielski

*** Source: Costanza R., d’Arge R., R. de Groot, Farber S., Grasso M., Hannon B., Limburg K., Naeem S., O’Neill, R.V., Paruselo J., Raskin R.G., Sutton P., M. van den Belt, The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital, ,,Nature’’ May 15th 1997.

Author text and fotos: Dominika Zaręba