Ecotourism: Buzzword or Business Opportunity?

Written By: Tracy John Mullins
Tourism Consultant for
Resort Management Systems
A division of Algoma Business Computers
Sault Ste. Marie
An Allied Member of NOTO
Originally Published in the May/June 1996
issue of The Outfitter Magazine.


Ecotourism is a term that is used a lot these days yet very few people understand it. Ecotourism involves traveling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of “getting back to nature”. This form of tourism facilitates people's need to appreciate the “people/land relationship” by studying, admiring and enjoying the whole ecosystem; the scenery, its wild plants and animals as well as any cultural aspects of the area.

There has been a surge in the number of companies formed to take people to such exotic places as the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and the Amazon Basin for Ecotours. This is your new competition for the tourist dollar.

Outfitters have traditionally participated in elements of ecotourism but have rarely packaged these elements to attract the ecotourist. To any tourist worldwide, the forests of Northern Ontario are as foreign as the jungles of Africa and an ecotourism package to the near north can be an affordable, exciting adventure. Our competitive edge over the other areas is, that Northern Ontario is politically stable, has few poisonous plants or dangerous animals and we still have some areas of pristine wilderness.

Ecotourism can be described as one part of the new wave of tourism products that are sometimes referred to as “REAL” tourism products. “REAL” tourism products are described as Rewarding, Enriching, Adventuresome and Learning experiences. A tourist wishing a “REAL” tourism experience wants to be involved in the experience in a meaningful way. This means that the outfitter must include a variety of structured interactions, programs which lead to a sense of accomplishment and personal growth on the part of the participant. This programming means some homework for the outfitter if they wish to access the Ecotourism market.

Dr. James Butler of the University of Alberta has identified 8 characteristics of ecotourism in A Protected Areas Vision For Canada, a publication of the Canadian Environmental Advisory Council. These 8 characteristics can be areas of opportunities for the outfitter who wishes to address the ecotourism market.

The first characteristic of ecotourism is that it must promote positive environmental ethics. This means that an ecotourism experience should educate the participants to act in an environmentally sound manner both in the field and at home. An Outfitter can educate by example. The Chateau Whistler resort won an environmental award recently by doing things like converting to energy efficient light bulbs, using organically grown meats and produce grown without pesticides and herbicides and placing blue boxes in all the rooms. Outfitters can participate in these examples and more: pack out your garbage, don’t burn plastics, avoid contaminating the waterways with petroleum distillates or phosphates, use recycled products, compost your trash. In this way you can foster preferred behaviour like recycling and minimum impact camping techniques in your guests.

The second characteristic of Ecotourism is that it does not degrade the resource. There is no consumption or erosion of the natural environment visited. This means that you encourage your visitor to take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. You can use Coleman stoves not campfires, use canoes not motorboats and cross country skis instead of snowmobiles. While sport hunting and fishing, the mainstay of the industry, may be counted under the broad heading of “green” tourism, they are considered to be adventure tourism products. As hunting and fishing are likely to offend the ecotourist, it is best that they be discussed in terms of catch and release programs and wildlife management. Remember, the ecotourist's point of view is a moose or a tree can be harvested only once, but if left on its own can be photographed and appreciated for years. You may wish to create separate programs for the ecotourist that include bird watching, wildlife photography, field research and canoeing.

The third characteristic of Ecotourism is that it concentrates on intrinsic rather than extrinsic values. Your facilities and services may help the participant's encounter with the wilderness; but they should never become the attraction themselves. Your programs and services should not distract from the natural attraction itself. You can inventory the natural attractions of the area then guide your client to discover them. Experiences should be in an area of natural attraction like an old growth forest. The more you know about the area the more you can sell the experience.

The fourth characteristic of Ecotourism is that it is more concerned with the environment (biocentric), rather than with man (homocentric) in its philosophy. Ecotourists enter the environment accepting it on its terms, not expecting it to change or be modified for their convenience. Frontier-like practices of creating large cleared areas around your buildings, or duck blinds for bird watching platforms are now considered poor environmental practices. The form of a lodge should as much as possible blend in and complement the surroundings, not stand out like a lone tree in clearcut.

The fifth characteristic of Ecotourism is that it must benefit the wildlife and environment. There are a number of nonprofit groups, Museums and Universities who do research that is targeted at preserving and renewing ecosystems. Outfitters can form partnerships with these groups. These groups often organize Ecotours called learning vacations. Organizations like the Smithsonian Institution have run learning vacations since 1970. These excursions will often provide experts who will interpret the ecosystem to the participants. Outfitters can encourage ecosystem management with help from these groups and government agencies. In this way the environment will at least achieve a net benefit toward its sustainability and ecological integrity. Articles written by these nonprofit groups in the group’s newsletters can be an inexpensive form of publicity for your lodge.

The sixth characteristic of Ecotourism is that it is a first hand experience with the natural environment. Movies and zoological parks do not constitute an ecotourism experience. You must be prepared to take your visitor out to touch, feel, taste and see new experiences and show your visitor how these things relate to their own experience. This is best handled through the same method that park services use: Interpretation. There are several good books on Interpretative methods by Freeman Tilden and Gary Malachis.

The seventh characteristic of Ecotourism is that it has an “expectation of gratification” that is measured in terms of education and or appreciation rather than thrill seeking or physical achievement. Your programs should fill your visitor with a greater sense of wonder and curiosity. The greater the visitor enjoys and values the experience the better their curiosity and intellect is satisfied.

The final characteristic of Ecotourism, as identified by Dr. Butler, is that it affects the way people think and feel about the environment. It heightens their awareness of the ecosystem. Often you will experience that Ecotourists will find themselves strongly expressing their feelings, about the ecosystem, as a result of a shared experience with kindred spirits. 

An ecotourism experience involves a high level of preparation from both the outfitter and the participants. This preparation will take the form of studying resource materials or background materials to relate to the guest so they can understand fully the ecosystem that they are entering. Many lodges forget to inform their customers about the interesting historical, cultural and environmental aspects of their local area. Preparation will also involve planning and programming the experience for the visitor. The outfitter can do the programming themselves, hire an outdoor recreation professional to develop the programs for them or create a partnership with a nonprofit group, university, museum or established ecotour operator who will run their own programs.

Ecotourism can either be just another buzzword that you can use at a sportsman’s show or you can view it as a new business opportunity. However, it is good to remember that your competition in Peru, Kenya and Costa Rica are talking about the ecotourism market and they are actively pursuing this lucrative trade.


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