Goodness Sells: A Modest Proposal for the Rebranding of Ecotourism
in the United States
by Frances Figart
Publication date: 2005
"Wanted: Ecotourism Sales Manager... We
are looking for that individual who has the skills to develop
this new market, build a database, and turn these efforts into
'booked business' for our tourism partners and liaison and develop
new ecotourism events for the city."
When I read this ad on The International Ecotourism Society
(TIES) website, I was ecstatic. Because ecotourism is still
a new concept to many professionals in the U.S. travel industry,
it was exciting to hear of a destination marketing organization
in Texas -- and a National Tour Association member -- taking
bold steps to develop new product in this sustainable market
But when I checked in with Linda Fort, CTP, director of destination
sales at the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau to
learn more, I found out something rather sad. "It turns
out we will be calling this position 'nature-based tourism'
as opposed to 'ecotourism,'" she said. Why? "The ecotourists
are often perceived as 'tree huggers,' as the media has not
always reported their activities in a positive light. So we
are stressing nature-based tourism. We want to make sure we
don't get involved in environmental issues; we want to send
the message that our city is nature-friendly, and we have a
variety of events for all nature lovers."
Though disheartening, Fort's decision to rename her new sales
position bears testament to no shortsightedness on her part,
but rather to the greater marketing issues faced by the travel
industry today when trying to speak the words "ecotourism"
and "United States" in the same breath. What does
it mean when a city has to leave ecology out of the picture
in order to be perceived as nature-friendly? What does it mean
when a CVB can't advertise for an "ecotourism sales manager"
without risking being labeled environmentally extremist?
Before investigating these questions further, it's only sound
practice to agree upon a working definition of the term "ecotourism."
TIES defines ecotourism succinctly as "responsible travel
to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains
the well-being of local people."
It further espouses that those who participate in ecotourism
• Minimize impact
• Build environmental/cultural awareness and respect
• Provide positive experiences for visitors and hosts
• Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
• Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local
• Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental
and social climate
• Support international human rights and labor agreements
In a comparative study of ecotourism policy in the Americas
by Steve Edwards, Bill McLauglin and Sam Ham for The Organization
of American States (OAS), out of the 25 government tourism agencies
that chose to define "ecotourism," 21 chose to create
their own definition.
While the details vary, most definitions of the term boil down
to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria:
1. it offers an element of environmental conservation
2. it provides for some level of meaningful community participation
3. it is profitable and can sustain itself over time
I choose (like all the other individualists in this field of
study) to augment these with a fourth criterion:
4. it incorporates an educational or interpretive component
Collectively these four will be the type of tourism I refer
to when I say "ecotourism."
ECOTOURISM'S BRAND IDENTITY
A word's definition is one thing. But its connotation -- what
it is perceived to mean by those who encounter it, in whatever
context -- more closely resembles what many who work in the
marketing field would call a "brand." A brand is a
network of associations representing the sum of all experiences
between an individual and a product or concept. Popular definitions
hold that a brand should be a deliberate result of strategic
considerations on the part of some group of professionals about
a product or concept's value (paraphrase of Yesawich, Pepperdine,
Brown & Russell).
What, then, is the brand identity of ecotourism in the United
"I don't think ecotourism has a brand awareness with the
general public at this point," said Mac T. Lacy, publisher
and cofounder of The Group Travel Leader in Lexington, Ky. "The
term and the product are still too new in the marketplace to
have any kind of general awareness other than with those in
the industry and a very limited number of consumers who are
already buying the product."
Although Lacy credits travel professionals with a general awareness
of the term, their impression seems to be nebulous, at best.
Barbara J. Bowman, director of sales, Grand Junction Visitor
Convention Bureau, Grand Junction, Colorado, concedes the term
is very muddy for her. "Sometimes ecotourism can have a
very negative connotation for people: I've actually heard someone
say, 'I'm not going on some tree-hugging tour,'" she says.
Like her fellow DMO Linda Fort in Texas, Bowman is under pressure
not to use the term. "I have taken some real heat for even
trying to promote ecotourism in this area, from the conservative
community and even from the tourism office itself." She
echoes Fort's sentiment when she says the prevailing attitude
is that people don't want to be connected with this form of
"Ecotourism smacks of biodegradable soaps and composting
toilets, of 'the only thing you want to leave behind is footsteps'
and 'you take out what you take in,'" said Bruce Beckham,
CTP, executive director of Tourism Cares for Tomorrow in Canton,
Mass. "I think ecotourism has been branded as being green
tourism, having to do with the ecology of the earth."
If Beckham's assessment is on target, we'd expect someone who
leads tours that educate people about ecology to call them ecotours.
But ecologist, wildlife researcher and leader of natural history
tours for the Maine Audubon Society, Smithsonian Study Tours
and National Wildlife Federation, Chris Lewey says, "I
never use the term ecotourism associated with anything that
I do. When I hear 'ecotourism,' I think of travel to really
remote places with an underlying theme of sustaining a third
world economy by providing them with tourism for dollars so
that they don't exploit their resources."
Thus, the spectrum of brand associations for what type of person
might be an ecotourist ranges from the extremes of tree-hugging
environmentalist to sociopolitical activist. And it follows
that those who espouse the moderate middle ground of pure ecological
sensitivity might be inclined to resist the label "ecotourist"
because of its other, more extreme connotations.
"It seems to me that when people hear the word 'ecotourism'
they immediately get a mental picture of someplace far away:
the Galapagos Islands in an open launch, everybody dressed in
multi-pocketed vests with cameras and binoculars hanging around
their necks, or maybe a soaking-wet hike up an insect-infested
mountainside on Maui."
This is H. Peter Jorgensen speaking. Jorgensen is an NTA member
who understands and is doing ecotourism in the United States.
His attraction tells tourists the story of American agriculture
and the expanding capacity of American farms to feed the nation
and the world.
& Smokestacks National Heritage Area, comprised of 37
counties in northeast Iowa, was formed to support the interpretation
of the region's heritage to its residents and visitors. It has
all the elements in our working definition of ecotourism: environmental
conservation, community participation, profitability/sustainability,
"In short, people think ecotourism is for diehard environmentalists
and tree huggers who can afford to travel to far-flung exotic
places," Jorgensen said. "But they don't realize that
when they took the kids to Yellowstone Park, they were participating
in ecotourism. Or when they visited Uncle Merle and Aunt Betty
on their Iowa farm and saw how the environment of that farm
was managed sustainably, they were ecotourists."
HOME AND AWAY
Thus it would seem that ecotourism's warped brand identity
in the United States has, at least for some, obscured its true
definition. But why?
Part of the reason lies in an aspect hit upon by Jorgensen and
Lewey: that ecotourism is thought of as "away." There
is no dearth of evidence to the fact that every other part of
the world has developed this product to a greater degree than
the United States, most particularly the Latin American countries,
from whence the term originates. With such strong connotations
as a remote, third-world endeavor, often with sociopolitical
overtones, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for anyone
to think of ecotourism as an activity that can occur in the
Yet, as we have seen, the U.S. travel professional is picking
up on this product and making some effort to develop it. Otherwise,
why would Linda Fort at Corpus Christi have strategized to create
a position to manage sales for this market niche? What's happening
to cause "ecotourism" to pick up steam and appear
on the U.S. travel industry's radar screen?
"I argue it's a result of Sept. 11," said Ron Mader,
Latin American correspondent for Transitions Abroad and founder
of Planeta.com, based in Oaxaca, Mexico.
"If U.S. travelers are more reluctant to travel abroad
[as a result of Sept. 11], then we bring those attractions here.
Witness the great success of Las Vegas, where one can visit
replicas of Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and European
castles. The same principle holds true with botanical gardens;
in Cleveland you can trek through replicas of ecosystems from
Costa Rica and Madagascar. But I think the bug-a-boo remains
the word 'ecotourism.' Where there are great examples of ecotourism
in the United States, we don't really call it ecotourism. If
you talk about nature travel or visits to the national parks,
the image is terrific. If you limit the discussion to 'ecotourism,'
the term is used exclusively for international travel."
How have we come by an image of ecotourism that is so far off
its actual definition? To answer that, let's look at how we
get our information in this country: the media.
MEDIA'S ROLE IN BRANDING
To what extent have the media contributed to propagating the
existing ecotourism brand?
I was recently granted an interview with National Geographic
Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, whom I have long admired.
Davis is the ethnobotanist and anthropologist upon whose adventurous
spirit the character of Indiana Jones was loosely based. In
speaking with Davis, my goal was to give Courier readers a broader
understanding of tourism's place in our culture. Hence,
the interview was titled: An anthropological view of Travel
and Tourism. Talking with Davis was fascinating and I learned
a great deal from his perspective on modern tourism, especially
in the case of travel to exotic destinations such as the Amazon
and Tibet. Davis advocated tour operators educating their clients
about other cultures before they attempt to visit them. All
of this was constructive and helpful, as you can see for yourself
in the August 2005 issue of Courier. However, the most disheartening
part of the interview came when I asked Davis what he thought
about ecotourism. This is what he said:
"I think that in principle, the idea of ecotourism, which
is to have minimal impact -- to go to celebrate natural
wonders as opposed to commercial extravaganzas constructed for
the industry -- is a wonderful idea, and the idea of seeking
knowledge through travel can only be beneficial for the world.
What I find is that there is a correlation between sensitivity
and difficulty of access; the harder you have to work to get
to a place, the more interesting the interaction or sensitive
the encounter. But I've always found that "ecotourism"
as a term is kind of a conceit because it maintains the assumption
that somehow if you travel with a backpack, polar fleece and
a Nikon, as opposed to loud Bermuda shorts, a funny hat, sneakers
and an old Kodak, you're somehow a different kind of tourist.
I think that much of what ecotourism does is simply increase
penetration of the hinterland, and I think ecotourism gets into
serious problems in the realm of culture because it invariably
then becomes a form of voyeurism. I've seen ecotourism
operations that are set up in a competitive fashion with the
goal of "contacting unknown peoples." I think it's
extraordinarily problematic and exploitative in its essence.
With that said, it's also important to note that tourism,
when practiced sensitively, can be an incredible source of empowerment
for local people -- and not just economically."
Now Davis is a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in ethnobotany;
his curriculum vita is the only one I've ever seen that
is 42 pages long. He's written a dozen books, lived among
cultures all over the globe and spoken to audiences in the highest
echelons of education. While his focus is, of course, on international
examples of ecotourism, and ours is U.S.-based, if his perception
of ecotourism is negatively skewed, that means there is a real
problem -- not only with the way the term is used, but
also with the types of activities that are carried out worldwide
in the name of ecotourism. Davis' "first contact"
example was one that I myself had read an article about in a
popular outdoor adventure magazine. This type of coverage suggests
that not only have the media helped to propagate the brand of
ecotourism in the United States, they have sensationalized it
"The brand of ecotourism is not accurately portrayed in
the media," agrees Ed Hall, CTP, president and CEO of
the Rochester Visitors Association, Rochester, N.Y. "In
our country it's very muddled. A lot of people embrace
the term as a marketing term thinking it has some real warm
and fuzzies connected to it, but not necessarily what I consider
to be the real essence of ecotourism, which has to do with walking
gently in the ecosystem that you're visiting and not destroying
it in the process of enjoying it."
Jorgensen says the media tend to perpetuate the prevailing notion
of ecotourism because "exotic" sells. "Nature
shows like much of what's on the Discovery Channel tend to try
to attract viewers with stories that are drawn from locales
that most people are not going to see and get into situations
most people frankly would not want to be in," he said.
"I recently saw a film involving being in the middle of
a herd of one and half million wildebeests on a riverbank where
the migrating ungulates were being snatched and eaten alive
by giant crocodiles. Fascinating stuff, but I'm probably not
going to choose to endure the hardships that were suffered by
that film crew."
Another NTA tour supplier member, John Shaffer, director of
marketing and sales for Luray Caverns in Luray, Va., agrees
and says, "the image of ecotourism currently presented
in the media is too narrowly interpreted. Cruises in the Galapagos
Islands are not all there is to ecotourism; Acadia National
Park in Maine is also concerned about the environment when it
takes tour groups into the wilderness. Some of the coverage
for ecotours [presents them as] high-dollar tours with only
luxury opportunities and [focuses on] the fact that they are
exotic in nature."
Certainly, then, coverage in the U.S. media of exotic, overseas
ecotours, whether or not they have the four criteria of our
working definition, does play a part in why the brand of ecotourism
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT AND MONEY
Shaffer says Luray Caverns has practiced sustainability and
ecotourism for over a hundred years. They were fortunate, he
says, to have in their hometown Shenandoah National Park, which
shared its best practices and resources for sustainable usage.
Together, the cave attraction and the national park taught themselves
and each other how to practice ecotourism.
"We did this by protecting the assets that we have and
going to all kinds of means to orient our employees as well
as our visitors as to how they can enjoy this natural attraction
in a way that preserves it and allows it to be just as good
if not better for future generations," he said. "We
own our attraction, but we would not do anything to harm it.
This philosophy of sustainability and taking care of assets
is much more widespread than is apparent from the media and
than the public realizes. All natural attractions have to have
this as one of the top concerns of their management. The days
of exploiting a natural attraction for pure profit are long
gone; those people are out of business because they've exhausted
the product or because the public are purely revolted at the
methods with which they handle those attractions."
When asked to provide an example of ecotourism in the United
States, many travel professionals and industry experts immediately
say: the National Parks Service, where the money is reinvested
into the park conservation and educational programs. But not
all park goers can be ecotourists.
"The sensitive areas in our country are dominated by the
Park Service," said Rochester CVB's Ed Hall. "But
you have the absolute dilemma of not putting a velvet rope around
the parks so that they can only be accessed by fit backpackers.
You've got to facilitate the ability of all types of people
to enjoy the asset and at the same time protect it."
Joel Frank, chief of tourism, Northeast Region, National Park
Service, Philadelphia, Pa., deals daily with this dilemma. "It
is vital to engage the end users and make them understand that
since the parks are theirs, they have a responsibility to be
involved in helping to preserve and protect them," he said.
"I believe that the successful implementation and marketing
of a 'voluntourism' system within the NPS will allow people
to take ownership and develop an attitude that 'this is my place
and I need to do what is necessary to protect it.' And it is
my hope that this newly found connection and personal accountability
to nature will go beyond national park borders and be incorporated
into their everyday lives as global citizens."
What does Frank think about the brand of ecotourism in the United
"We have to be careful that [ecotourism] doesn't become
another buzzword, like 'organic' or the public may think that
going to a park makes them an ecotourist. When they hear the
word 'ecotourism,' the public thinks ziplines through the rainforest.
The travel professional, on the other hand, will think Tauck."
Tauck World Discovery of Norwalk, Conn., is indeed one of the
most eco-friendly tour operators in the United States. The NTA
tour operator provides adventure tours to top global ecotour
destinations and guests have been involved in ecological initiatives
and endeavors while they are traveling on tours, primarily through
voluntourism, which they invented. Tauck's relationship with
America's National Parks began in 1926, when founder Arthur
Tauck, Sr. first brought guests to Great Smoky Mountains National
Park… in his Studebaker. Today, the company's 30 most
popular North American itineraries result in 120,000 park visits
annually to more than 50 national parks across the country.
And yet, ironically, like ecologist Chris Lewey who provides
lecture series for Tauck, the company does not brand the term
"ecotourism." That's partly because they are a mass-market
operator, but it's also partly because they don't see their
tours as truly fulfilling every element of an ecotour proper,
and they don't want to merely use the term as a label, according
to Phil Otterson, executive vice president, external affairs
and global alliances.
"If you want to talk about national parks, fine. But if
you want to talk about ecotourism, let's talk about the Galapagos,"
Otterson said. "Let's talk about governments and countries
and local entities that have a true concern for ecotourism,
and work towards change within the current U.S. government that
has placed concern about the environment on the back burner."
Otterson isn't the only person who's convinced our government,
despite the noble efforts of its parks system, stands between
the U.S. and the development of real ecotourism product. David
Cogswell, a senior editor at Travel Weekly in New York City,
espouses a view shared by many:
"Our popular culture in the U.S. is formed in large measure
by the big corporate media conglomerates, and they very consciously
massage the public mind to favor a corporate agenda, which is
anti-environment, among other things. The corporate agenda is
essentially anti-democratic, anti-free market and anti-public
The environment is legally public property. Dating back to
Roman law it is the commons, and it belongs to all the people.
Corporations want to privatize everything so that they can take
freely whatever they can make money on and then dump their waste
products back into the public sector for the rest of us to clean
up out of our tax payments. So when it comes to media, it is
not a level playing field for environmental issues. You have
to find ways to get around the natural anti-environmental bias
of the corporate media. The key is the bottom line. Corporations
don't 'believe' in anything but making money. Though they are
essentially anti-environment in their very existence, the one
value that supersedes all others is maximizing profit. So the
way to get them on your side is to show how it can be profitable."
Tourism Cares for America's Bruce Beckham agrees that "it
really all does come down to the money," but he views the
issue more in terms of the importance of giving back. "From
a tourism standpoint, there are very few philanthropic organizations
that are not looking for some kind of return on investment,
even if it is just feeling good about themselves. People just
don't throw their money at something based on the fact that
it's the right thing to do. They always have to figure out what
am I going to get, and part of that is feeling good about themselves
because they've done the right thing."
No matter what your views of government, philanthropy or big
business, it does make sense to look at ways to show potential
stakeholders that ecotourism can be a viable long-term investment.
But that's an uphill battle as long as the current brand image
of ecotourism is inaccurate, as long as a vice president at
a large tour operator like Tauck can honestly say: "There
is no such thing as ecotourism in my professional opinion in
the United States." Otterson adds that "of course
that's a euphemism and it isn't true, but compare whatever we
are doing here to what's happening in other countries and the
difference absolutely amazing. The flip side of this is, that's
the opportunity. Now you have nothing, so how much worse can
Before the U.S. can begin to compete for ecotourism business
in the global marketplace, I believe it is the joint responsibility
of the travel professional and the travel media to change the
perceived image of ecotourism in the United States, to rebrand
THE JOURNALIST'S RESPONSIBILITIES
First and foremost, journalists from all types of backgrounds
and areas of expertise must take it upon themselves to learn
the basics about ecotourism and sustainability before they can
hope to accurately portray these subjects in the media. Learning
includes studying and being aware of the proper definitions
of the terms involved, so that these understandings will be
conveyed to the consumer.
Ecologist Chris Lewey brings up an example of how the media
often confuse or conflate terms related to "environment"
"Environmentalism brings in [humans] as far as having
a perspective on what should be done, how it should be done,
how we interact with the environment, whereas ecology is the
science behind it that has nothing to do with decisions on recycling
or land use planning – the two are totally different.
Environmentalists might cite ecological law and theory in support
of or to refute something. But it often stands out as I'm
reading something [in the media] that it's really not
clear the way people are using those terms."
Lewey stresses that the media's role is crucial here because
"educating people influences the decisions that they make."
Kim Whytock, a tourism strategist operating Kim Whytock and
Associates, Inc., based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, points out
some misunderstandings about ecotourism have been perpetuated
by the media.
"Media and the marketing people have perhaps contributed
to the confusion by choosing to use the word 'ecotourism'
to their own particular end and as a promotional word describing
the 'what' of travel as opposed to the 'how'
of travel. Ecotourism is more a principled type of travel that
can [take the form of] many types of experiences and [occur]
in all places, downtown New York to the Grand Canyon."
It is therefore the second responsibility of the journalist
to strive not to slant stories toward a bias, angle or agenda
that is defined by his or her own needs and interests and that
therefore begs the question. This can happen when editors or
publishers have expectations that stories will fit into a certain
'beat' or even agenda. When an ecotourism story
doesn't fit the mold, it may be left out altogether.
"While a personal experience with understanding a farm's
environment or a well-interpreted nature walk at Effigy Mounds
National Monument here in Iowa can be a deeply satisfying one,"
Jorgensen says, "the story may not grab the attention
of the reporter who wants to get his/her piece in the magazine
or on the screen."
Sometimes Jorgensen's ecotourism work in Iowa has been
overlooked by members of the media who are under pressure not
to contribute to Iowa's image as a farming state.
Ron Mader sees Jorgensen's product as a perfect example
of the kind of story that "straddles two different desks.
Is it a tourism story, or is it an environmental story? Because
it involves tourism, the eco desk turns its nose at it. And
because it's eco, the tourism desk turns its nose at it.
I think this is where ecotourism really falls through the net."
Finally, the journalist is responsible to cover ecotourism practices
in a way that lends them credibility.
"It really is a matter of semantics, or the framing of
the words," said Wendy Sailors, executive director of
the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association in
Anchorage, Alaska, which uses the term 'ecotourism'
in its brochures and on its Web site. "People seem to
get this idea that with ecotourism that it's an extreme
green thing. In Alaska, I don't know that the media is
using that term or really putting it out there in a way that
makes it a valid trade."
The media play a determining role in promoting and marketing
ecotourism as well as in the community economic development
ecotourism should aim to improve, according to Milagro Espinoza,
a San José, Costa Rica-based communications specialist
in sustainable tourism with the Rainforest Alliance, an international
conservation organization. "The media can lend credibility
to ecotourism in the eyes of the consumer, so stories in the
press about ecotourism destinations can truly help promote the
Planeta's Mader insists that the travel media in particular
need to cover the serious issues. "I'd like to see a re-imagining
of media that connects environmental journalism and travel writing,"
he said. "Too often travel media put a positive spin on
their features and environmental media cover negative effects.
The question in my mind is, 'How do we get away from the
sensationalism, report on what's wrong, but provide some
sort of continuity?' It would be good to see a serious
Jorgensen agrees. "The media give a lot of press when
an activist does some stunt like living in a redwood tree or
running their power boat in front of an oil tanker, but give
a big yawn when a farmer starts talking about conservation tillage
and planting systems or how she is installing a digester system
to turn cattle waste into methane fuel to heat and light the
barn," he said. "My sense is [the media] needs a
much broader understanding of just what ecology as a tour experience
The media can only get that broader understanding with help
from the travel professional.
TRULY PRACTICING ECOTOURISM
The travel professional's responsibilities are myriad;
I focus here on seven of the most important. First and foremost
is practicing true ecotourism according to our working definition,
not just saying you do it.
"The travel professional sees ecotourism as another marketing
term, another selling point, like 'rack and pinion steering,'"
said the National Park System's Joel Frank. "Are
you truly an ecotourism company or is this just a tagline, like
'new and improved'? There is no standard to adhere
to, so there is no repercussion if you don't do it. We've
got the basis of what ecotourism means, but now we need to take
the steps to get there; it's time for action. What type
of action will differ for each company or organization."
What Frank is getting at is vital – and complex. In order
to practice ecotourism in the true sense, each company or organization
needs to define for itself what that should mean, and then hold
itself accountable to that definition. For example, the reason
I added the educational/interpretive element to my definition
of ecotourism is that so many travel professionals held it up
to me as the most important value of an ecotour from their perspective.
"Ecotourism has to bring an education and an understanding
of fragile ecosystems – and if it works well, it makes
people an ambassador when they go home to try to save them,"
said Rochester's Ed Hall. "If it doesn't do
that, if it doesn't bring an appreciation for the sensitive
nature of the interdependency of the living system, then it
Once a company or organization defines the term for itself,
it also needs to establish a code of ethics and some working
goals or guidelines for practicing ecotourism – and then
adhere to them. It needs to make itself accountable.
A great example comes from the Alaska Wilderness Recreation
& Tourism Association (AWRTA), a members-driven trade association
formed to be a collective voice for wilderness-dependent businesses.
AWRTA advocates for the sustainability of Alaska's natural and
cultural resources, responsible tourism and tourism planning
for communities. AWRTA members abide by the voluntary ecotourism
guidelines adopted by the membership in 1995.
AWRTA ECOTOURISM GUIDELINES
1. Businesses seek environmentally sustainable economic growth
while minimizing visitor impacts on wildlands, wildlife, Native
cultures, and local communities by offering literature, briefings,
leading by example, taking corrective action or other appropriate
2. Travel modes and facilities used maintain a low impact on
the natural environment; tour use is sustainable over time without
significantly altering the resource or negatively affecting
3. Businesses provide direct benefits to the local economy and
local inhabitants thereby providing an incentive for local support
and preservation of wild areas and wildlife habitat.
4. Businesses seek appropriate means to minimize their effects
on the environment in all phases of their operations including
5. Businesses ensure that managers, staff and contract employees
know and participate in all aspects of company policy to prevent
impacts on the environment, Native cultures, and local communities.
6. There is an educational emphasis and purposeful desire for
travelers to learn about the natural and cultural history of
the places they visit.
7. There is a formula for the business and guests to contribute
to local non-profit efforts for environmental protection.
8. The travel is in the spirit of appreciation, participation,
and sensitivity. At some point, a tour group becomes too large
to be considered "ecotourism."
The second responsibility incumbent upon the travel professional:
once you are really doing ecotourism, marketing it properly
– and that means telling success stories. Once again,
an excellent example is H. Peter Jorgensen with Silos &
Smokestacks National Heritage Area.
Long interested in environmental and sustainable issues, Jorgensen
has been extremely resourceful in creating an agritourism Mecca,
capitalizing on Iowa's most natural asset: its farming
community. His latest project is working with a group of 300
farmers (Practical Farmers of Iowa) to create a themed "eco-farming"
tour that will focus on sustainable agricultural methods. "These
are folks who try to find ways to work within the natural systems
with very humane raising practices and gentle management. They
all have one thing in mind, which is, 'Can we farm without
polluting the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico?'"
He tells some amazing stories about this endeavor, including
one about a farmer who tried farming with modern land management
methods that included straightening a stream on his property.
"But he had two little kids, and when he straightened
out this stream, he noticed he couldn't show his kids
the bird populations that once lived there: they were gone.
He also noticed that when there was a dry period, there was
no moisture in the soil: it was all gone." So he undertook
a project called "My sins against the Wapsipinicon,"
the river that runs through his area, and restored the kinks
and the bends in the wetland, which cost a lot. The results
were that his crops had more resistance to drought, there were
more of the types of insects that were good for the crops –
and the birds came back!
This is the type of story that travel professionals need to
work to get before the press.
"It's all in how you spin it," said Colorado
DMO Barb Bowman. "Ecotourism gets a bad rap, because of
the marketing. We need use the media and marketing tools we
have to educate our public about what it really means."
A good example of marketing ecotourism success stories is BEST
Practices, a publication of Business Enterprises for Sustainable
Travel that was developed by The Conference Board and the World
Travel and Tourism Council. It highlights successful business
practices utilized by travel and tourism companies that advance
their business objectives while enhancing the social and economic
well-being of destination communities.
A third responsibility of the travel professional is recognizing
and giving credit to the multiple stakeholders involved in the
development process as well as the sustainability of ecotourism.
One example is provided by Sailors of AWRTA, who is participating
in The Arctic Project, which has six training modules that correspond
to six guidelines similar to our AWRTA's ecotourism guidelines.
"The community one is the most interesting to me because
it talks about not just being involved in or caring about the
community, but buying locally when you are there," she
said. "And it's not always going to be the best
price, but in the long term, you're building those relationships."
For Sailors and others trying to effect change, a big question
is: How can you convince people that buying locally is the best
One exemplary answer suggested by Kim Whytock is The Sustainable
Tourism Association of Canada (STAC), a non-governmental organization
(NGO) that acts as a clearinghouse of information and policies
for the sustainable tourism industry in Canada. Using a quality
assurance program, STAC works with stakeholders to develop,
enhance and promote the sustainable nature-based tourism industry
Another good example is the many awards programs our industry
creates to reward companies that are doing good. Parks Canada's
Sustainable Tourism Award, for instance, reflects the emphasis
this parks system places on many of the values often associated
with ecotourism. The criteria established for the Parks Canada
Sustainable Tourism Award reflect the three pillars of sustainable
tourism development: economic viability, environmental sustainability,
and cultural appropriateness. Recipients of this award make
a contribution to practicing and promoting sustainable tourism
in Canada by:
• Demonstrating a commitment to excellence and encouraging
an appreciation of, and respect for, Canada's natural, cultural
and aesthetic heritage;
• Striving to achieve tourism development in a manner
which harmonizes economic objectives with the protection and
enhancement of Canada's natural and cultural heritage;
• Cooperating with colleagues and the tourism industry
in promoting sustainable development;
• Offering tourism products and services that are consistent
with community values and the surrounding environment; and
• Fostering greater awareness of the economic, social,
cultural and environmental significance of tourism.
Recognizing the importance of encouraging studies related to
sustainable tourism among future tourism industry entrepreneurs
and employees, as part of the award, a $1,000 scholarship is
given every year to a student entering his or her final year
of tourism-related studies at a representative university or
college in each of Canada's five regions -- Western Canada,
Ontario, Québec, Atlantic Canada and Northern Canada.
Shaffer believes more U.S. travel professionals could benefit
from some type of appreciation or accreditation program. "We
need some sort of indication that a company has taken the time
and effort to learn about sustainability and the fragile environment.
To me that's a plus in the way you talk to the tour patron;
they want to go with someone who is sensitive to the issues
that we all are concerned about."
Certification programs are another means of recognition, but
a caveat should be heeded: certification that is too rigid and
standardized may defeat ecotourism's goal of sustainability.
"In efforts to standardize operations, most ecotourism
certification programs contradict one of the main components
of ecotourism: local control," Mader says. "In fact,
most stakeholders have been left out of the process. Certification
of tourism is not a 'market-driven' option and therefore
has little value as a tool for sustainability. If certification
has value, it will be in certifying the accomplishments of consultants,
NGOs and government leaders in addition to local companies and
WORKING WITH MEDIA 101
There are basic guidelines for working with the media that
comprise a fourth responsibility for the travel professional.
These include building relationships with members of the media
based on trust and understanding, so that when a travel writer
needs to get a quote from an industry expert about ecotourism,
they will automatically turn to you.
It's always good practice to show your media friends that
you have some understanding of their work and what they want
to offer their audiences. "Ecotourism 'experts' need to
be sensitive to media demands, ensuring that information is
provided in a timely basis and that it is . . . fun,"
"Readers don't want gloom-and-doom or, even worse, boring
Understanding and working with journalists' deadlines
is key; as an editor, there is nothing worse than getting the
information you really need, but having it come to late to be
a part of the story. Understanding the way writers work also
entails communicating with them in the form they prefer. Ask
your media friends which way they'd like you get in touch
with them; often e-mail is preferable because the telephone
interrupts a writer on deadline.
Information requests not only need to answered on time, but
new information needs to come to reporters in the form of a
press release. Surprisingly few travel professionals really
have this skill down, and rural communities especially need
to learn it. But once you get to be friends with a reporter,
sometimes just a brief pitch in an e-mail will be all you need.
EDUCATING AND CONTROLLING
A fifth responsibility of the travel professional is educating
the media about ecotourism, sustainable practices and travel
"The tourism industry needs to communicate with journalists
and make them aware of ecotourism and sustainable initiatives,"
says the Rainforest Alliance's Espinoza. "Unless
journalists are aware of what ecotourism means, they will find
it difficult to write a story that accurately portrays local
community efforts to develop ecotourism activities. Keeping
journalists up to speed with ecotourism news will help educate
others about market trends, how ecotourism works and its growing
It also falls to the travel professional to supervise and control
the interview as well as the end product as much as possible,
which is the sixth responsibility. As the person in your company
who understands ecotourism fully, it is important for you personally
to speak with the media representative, rather than leaving
this task to someone who might not be as well informed.
Mader points out that most large organizations "usually
have a communications department in charge of information distribution.
Unfortunately, this often takes away from the principal players
the ability and the responsibility to communicate. We should
rethink the role of institutional PR departments; for the most
part they have become unnecessary. We recommend that tourism
boards pay professional editors to review and redo brochures
and Web sites for operators and communities."
Espinoza reminds us that the tourism industry "must always
direct part of its promotional efforts toward the media, not
only by responding to media queries but also by being proactive,
by closely monitoring the news in order to take advantage of
opportunities to reach out to journalists and connect ecotourism
stories with what is currently being covered in the press."
PARTNERING AND SUSTAINABILITY
The seventh responsibility of the travel professional is partnering
with other travel professionals for community economic development
through ecotourism. And this is the area where perhaps the greatest
pitfalls can be encountered.
Ron Mader's excellent essay Stones
in the Road addresses the realities of ecotourism's Achilles
heel, and makes suggestions for positive ways to work together.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
"Many of today's travelers are choosing ecotourism and
sustainable travel over other, more traditional vacations. Yet,
studies indicate that a large number -- perhaps even a majority
-- of initiatives to foster ecotourism and sustainable travel
have failed. So, what's the problem?
In a nutshell, what sounds great on paper is often difficult
to implement in the real world. When it comes to generating
tourism that benefits both the environment and local economies,
we are all on the learning curve. But we don't talk about failure
at public policy meetings, government workshops, or in reports
to foundations or development banks, where it would benefit
us most to concede we are a young niche market finding its way.
We can learn from our mistakes if we are willing to admit it
when mistakes are made. Before seeking greater investments in
this emerging industry, it would be wise to reflect on the lessons
Looking back at the components of our working definition of
ecotourism, we see:
1. environmental conservation
2. community involvement
3. profitability and sustainability
4. education and interpretation
Ed Hall points out that sometimes the first component is in
conflict with the third one. "And that's the difficult
part: balancing that number one and number three objective –
and there has to be both," he said. "Making the two
work together is not easy and it sometimes involves a partnership
of an NGO working with the community along with a sensitive
tour operator along with a customer that understands their role,
Since our survey of ecotourism's brand identity has shown that
the environmental conservation element (number one) is what
has the greatest brand awareness in the market, it would seem
our priority in collaborating might be to attempt to swing the
pendulum back in favor of the sustainability and profitability
element (number three).
Peter Levick, director of external relations for Parks Canada
in Gatineau, Quebec, says "we actually don't use the term
'ecotourism' to describe what we do because there is such a
cultural and heritage element to it, and we feel like 'sustainability'
better brings that aspect into the picture. 'Ecotourism' is
so narrow that it doesn't get at that."
Kim Whytock, who developed much of the sustainability language
used by Parks Canada, agrees. "'Ecotourism' is unfortunately
used in many ways to be a synonym for nature-based tourism,
scenic touring or environmental advocacy tourism," he said.
"I think it should be more closely related to 'sustainable
tourism' in the context of both its impact and relation to natural
and cultural heritage experiences and the contribution of tourism
and travelers to the well being of the places that host the
tourism. Therefore the brand promise should be similar to the
definition for sustainable tourism used by The Tourism Industry
Association of Canada (TIAC) and Parks Canada."
TIAC and Parks Canada use this definition: "Sustainable
tourism actively fosters appreciation and stewardship of the
natural, cultural and historic resources and special places
by local residents, the tourism industry, governments and visitors.
It is tourism which is viable over the long term because it
results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and
cultural environments of the area in which it takes place."
Their ethics statement is: "The Canadian tourism industry
is guided by the values of respect, integrity and empathy in
designing, delivering and marketing sustainable tourism products,
facilities and services." And its ends are "to create
a sustainable tourism industry that: promotes sensitive appreciation
and enjoyment of Canada's natural and cultural heritage,
contemporary landscapes, cultures and communities; balances
economic objectives with safeguarding and enhancing the ecological,
cultural and social integrity of Canada's heritage; and
shares responsibility by being a full participant and contributor
to the economic, environmental and cultural sustainability of
the destinations and assets it utilizes."
If Barb Bowman can't market "ecotourism,"
she hopes to create similar product under the more acceptable
auspices of "sustainable tourism." Colorado's
historical society has recently provided a grant for hiring
a staff person at the Colorado Tourism Office to be devoted
to cultural and heritage Tourism. "A big part of that
position is focused on sustainable tourism, which is very exciting,"
So perhaps "ecotourism" works best when used with
an adjective before it. Perhaps it is worth thinking about branding
it as "sustainable ecotourism."
So, how can the travel industry better promote ecotourism to
the media, and by proxy to the public and to stakeholders, as
a viable long-term strategy?
"The travel industry first has to be convinced that ecotourism
is viable," is Mader's answer. "If the industry does
not believe it (and ecotourism is still emerging), then the
picture it paints to the media will be superficial. Communication,
cooperation and collaboration speak louder than certification
at this point in ecotourism's emerging brand."
Remember that earlier we said a brand should be a deliberate
result of strategic considerations on the part of some group
of professionals about a product or concept's value?
It's time for those who want ecotourism to be the success in
the U.S. that it is in South America, Africa and Australia to
decide what they want ecotourism to be? And what they are willing
to do to get it there.
Mader suggests one way to go about this is to create an inventory
of how ecotourism is perceived by the public in the U.S., similar
to what we have done here. What sorts of images are portrayed
in the media? What is the international news coverage? Then
use that information to put a positive spin on ecotourism in
the U.S. through marketing that will alter any negative perceptions.
"I think every NTA tour is environmentally sensitive, but
we might not do that good a job of explaining that to our patrons,"
said John Shaffer of Luray Caverns. "We could use every
opportunity on a tour to take a dollar out and let the group
know that in some way our visit here is going to benefit the
preservation of this national park or natural attraction. Goodness
sells: I think that can be a marketing tool."
H. P. Jorgensen agrees. "There is no better marketing hook
than personal buy-in. If a company is truly committed to organizing
itself and its products around being a part of the solution
rather than part of the problem, the consumer will buy in to
the 'feel good' aspect of being a part of a larger community
Bruce Beckham of Tourism Cares for Tomorrow sees that "feel
good" aspect as the key to the travel industry learning
to collaborate. The organization's Tourism-Caring for America
projects that help to preserve and protect national treasures
in the United States are the most successful aspect of Tourism
Cares. "Getting people together for a common cause is really
what needs to be done on a consistent basis so that people make
that part of their regimen, and so that part of their existence
in the travel business and the tourism industry is a matter
of giving back," he said. "If you get people physically
involved, they feel a social responsibility as well as an industry
responsibility. The people have to turn around when it's all
said and done and see the results of their labor – the
return on their investment of their time. That will give them
the mindset they have to have to work together in other ways."
Speaking from the international, and particularly the Latin
American, perspective, Mader reflects on where we have been,
and the existential nature of where we're going: "For years
ecotourism was described as a profitable, fast-growing niche.
Reports were wildly exaggerated about the size and the potential
of the market.
For those seeking short-term profit, ecotourism has been a
disappointment. For those searching for sustainable development,
ecotourism is key. Sustainable tourism depends on long-term
investment and cross-sector sharing of responsibilities and
profits. There is a lot of work to be done. So we need to be
honest about what works and what does not. We also need to be
creative. The early converts to ecotourism were drawn by the
possibility of doing something that had never been done before.
How we channel creativity into collaborative efforts will determine
whether or not we make responsible travel and ecotourism more
AWRTA's Wendy Sailors reminds us that "ecotourism is not
a bad term to use when you are marketing to the world."
And this is key, because we are!
But we are still at a disadvantage because ecotourism in the
U.S. is, at best, in its infancy. Mac Lacy of the Group Travel
Leader cautions us with an analogy: "I would say that
ecotourism is a 'PBS' term right now and it will
be a long time before it is a 'commercial radio'
term. If I were in the business of marketing an ecotourism product
or company, I'd be sponsoring something on a local PBS
affiliate -- not advertising on the local rock, country or
talk radio station."
Shaffer believes that with the advent of hands-on technical
tours and agricultural tours to farms and factories, the industry
is now poised to have more meaningful tours that talk about
the environment. "I think there is an opportunity for
tour operators to make a new niche for people who are sensitive
to these issues," he says. "We all just need to
see it as an opportunity to sell more tours to natural areas.
And we need to collectively take the idea of ecotourism and
make it much more broad than it's interpreted today."
Thus, ecotourism's future is yet to be decided. "Unless
it gets irrevocably attached to a really extreme point of view,
which often occurs with anything that focuses on environmental
issues, the term -- and the products it describes -- should
become very relevant to many people in the years ahead,"
I argue that it is up to those of us who have an investment
in the concept of 'ecotourism' to create its future
by thinking strategically and collaborating effectively to rebrand
ecotourism and make it what we believe it should be as a representation
of the United States on the global playing field.
As Jorgensen has proven in Iowa's farm country, "the
environment isn't someplace 'away,' it's omnipresent,
and you can literally be an ecotourist in your own back yard
if it's interpreted well."