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Historical Perspective


Historical Perspective of Sustainable/Ecotourism

For years, the World Tourism Organization advised developing nations that the most effective touristic developmental strategy was to encourage “first class” mass tourism through the construction of major upscale hotels and resorts. The argument in favor of this philosophy was two fold. First, wealthy tourists have more money to spend, and consequently, a destination would require fewer visitors to accumulate financial resources (Chambers 2000: 37). It was generally assumed that the potential negative environmental and social consequences could be minimized by limiting the number of tourists and relegating them to semi-enclosed facilities. Since the vast majority of the host population would have little or no contact with the tourist industry, this strategy assumes such facilities will promote a “trickling down” of resources thereby benefiting the entire population. It also assumes that the development of modern infrastructure required to support such tourist activities (such as airports, roads, hotels, etc,) will benefit the overall economy (de Kadt 1979).

Following the 1973 rise in oil prices and subsequent international debt crisis, the World Bank adopted a similar strategy of tourism development as a potential means of encouraging foreign investment and earning foreign exchange (Honey 1999: 14-15). It was argued that tourism provides a particularly favorable developmental strategy since, unlike other forms of development, it is a “smokeless” industry and requires relatively low levels of initial and sustained capital investment (Honey 2002; de Kadt 1979). In the 1970s the World Bank pursued the aforementioned developmental strategy loaning approximately 450 million dollars for twenty-four “tourist-plant” projects (Honey 1999: 15). However, as competition for bank funding grew, the bank faced increasing criticism for investing in luxury resorts instead of poverty reduction programs. Coupled with a number of environmentally and fiscally disastrous projects in Morocco, South Korea and Egypt, the World Bank was pressured to close its Tourism Projects Department in 1979 (Honey 1999: 15).

At approximately the same time, and perhaps partially as a response to the failures of the World Bank, a widespread reevaluation of the previous developmental approach to tourism took place. According to this reevaluation it was (and is) argued that “first class” tourism projects often lead to high levels of leakage where the limited retention of financial resources is predominately controlled by national or local elites. Although particularly difficult to access, it is now commonly believed that leakage within such tourist facilities is particularly high since mass tourism projects are heavily dependent upon foreign capital and generally require the provision of goods and services which are locally unavailable. Therefore, “although tourism is perceived as a foreign exchange earner, much of that foreign exchange is repatriated or is spent on imports to provide tourists with the food, drink and standards of accommodation they require” (Duffy 2002: 50). Today the Word Bank estimates that 55 percent of tourism dollars “leak out” of developing countries, while some studies estimate this leakage as high as 80 to 90 percent (Honey 1999: 88). In many instances the only observable benefit to the community is found in low-paying unskilled or semi-skilled positions in the service sector (i.e. drivers, maids, waiters, etc). Furthermore, such facilities are more likely to discourage if not prohibit the possibility of small scale entrepreneurial activities as well as opportunities within the informal sector. Mass tourism projects have also not proven themselves “smokeless.” Increased sewage and vehicle emissions, erosion, depletion of water supplies, increased energy use, litter, depletion of wildlife/vegetation as well as visual pollution are only a few of the negative environmental consequences associated with this form of travel (Gösling and Hall 2006; Archer and Cooper 1999).

In response to the aforementioned economic and environmental difficulties, the rhetoric and (at times) practice of various institutions promoting tourism development has shifted to include sustainable measures, environmental protection as well as the need to include local communities in the planning and implementation processes (localized development). At the same time a “stakeholder approach,” whereby people will protect what they receive value from, obtained widespread institutional support. It was argued “that the road out of poverty must begin at, not simply trickle down to, the local community level” (Honey 1999: 12). By the mid 1980s even the World Bank altered its rhetoric to include the above measures and once again began promoting tourism as part of its debt repayment strategy.

In a similar rhetorical and practical shift, environmental organizations began to reconsider “preservationist” approaches to conservation in which local communities were separated (often forcibly) from their land to establish national parks. In many such instances communities received little or no benefit from either the parks or tourism and having been excluded from lands of religious/economic value, poaching, degradation of resources and hostility was often fostered (Olindo 1991; Carrier and Macleod 2005). Many environmentalists began to support the application of a stakeholder approach to conservation, and tourism was viewed as a potential mechanism to ensure “the stake.” It is here that we first witness the emergence of ecotourism as a distinct category; i.e., the combination of economic and environmental practices fused with a stakeholder approach in order to promote conservation and development through small-scale locally-owned tourism projects.

Works Cited

Archer, B and Cooper, C (1998) ‘The Positive and Negative Impacts of Tourism’. In
Theobald, W.F. (ed.) Global Tourism. Woburn: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Carrier, J and Macleod, D. (2005) ‘Bursting the Bubble: The Socio-Cultural Context of
Ecotourism’. In Royal Anthropology Institute, 11: 315-334.
Chambers, E. (2000) Native Tours: The Anthropology of Travel and Tourism. Long
Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
De Kadt, E. (1979) Tourism: Passport to Development? Oxford: Oxford University
Press/ World Bank/ Unesco.
Duffy, R. (2002) A Trip Too Far: Ecotourism, Politics and Exploitation. London:
Earthscan Publications.
Gösling, S. and Hall, C. Michael (2006) Tourism and Global Environmental Change:
Contemporary Geographies of Leisure, Tourism and Mobility. New York: Routledge.
Honey, M. (1999) Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?.
Washington D.C.: Island Press.
Honey, M. (2002) Ecotourism and Certification: Setting Standards in Practice.
Washington D.C.: Island Press.


For more information:

What is community based ecotourism?
What is sustainable tourism?