Ecotourism in Developing Countries: A Critical Analysis of the Promise, the Reality and the Future

Article excerpt


Ecotourism is often positioned as an alternative to mass tourism, however, the understanding and implementation of the concept has been riddled with uncertainty. The ideal balance of conserving and developing at the same time is considered paradoxical not just for ecotourism but also related concepts like sustainability. Using examples and empirical insights from Kenya and México, this paper critically examines the nature and application of ecotourism in developing countries. The study adopted triangulation method which involved examination of two bases of information, on the one hand information from interviews with opinion leaders and scholars in the tourism sector and on the other hand secondary information including books, journals, and periodical bulletins. It was found that ecotourism has not achieved the objective of integrating conservation of biodiversity and the socioeconomic development of adjacent communities; one reason for the existing implementation problems has been the concept itself and how it has been operationalized. Furthermore, ecotourism in the developing countries has been plagued with issues related to non-realization of promised benefits, none or weak development structures and absence of efficient governance and management. The study recommends greater coordination between the stakeholders involved in ecotourism and of key interest, the participation of the government and the local community. The significance of the present study is twofold; theoretical and empirical, the study gives a complete understanding of why the two countries have not been able to sustainably develop ecotourism and provides the concerned parties with crucial insights on the possible actions for achieving the objectives of ecotourism.

Keywords: ecotourism, conservation, development, developing countries.


Tourism is increasingly becoming an option for wealth generation in many countries, as acknowledged by Burtler and Hall (1995), it is a global phenomenon with a massive infrastructure, and its influence penetrates the society, politics and culture of many countries. In 2012 for example, UNWTO (2013) notes that international tourist arrivals worldwide surpassed the 1 billion mark for the first time, precisely tourists 1.035 million compared with 995 million in 2011, while international tourism receipts amounted to $ 1.075 billion in 2012 compared to 1,042 billion realized in 2011. México with 23, 403,000 visitors in 2012 is a prime destination for foreign tourists within Latin America, the ministry of tourism in México (SECTUR1, 2012) reported that revenues from foreign tourists reached 12.739 million dollars during the year 2012. Kenya on the other hand received 1, 985, 253 tourists in 2012, which represents about 3.8 percent of the international tourists visiting Africa (UNWTO, 2013).

Related to this growth are concerns about the actual impact of tourism on the environment, the main argument fronted by critics being that mass tourism as beneficial as it may seem, destroys what it seeks to find (Kieti, 2007; Rodriguez, 2010). As a result of this, there are new concepts of tourism that have received much attention in the globalized world including sustainable tourism and the concept discussed in the present paper: Ecotourism. As noted by Tiffin et al. (2008), it is one of the fastest growing forms of tourism, with an estimated growth rate of 10-15%. México and Kenya (see Wishitemi, 2008; Rodriguez, 2010; Egiarte et al., 2004 and Brenner, 2006) are some of the developing countries that have recently been involved in ecotourism activities, although its evolution has been a gradual, passive and marred with challenges and obstacles (Rodriguez, 2010; Kieti, 2007; Wishitemi, 2008).

Ecotourism is seen by developing countries as a means not only to ensure conservation, but also to improve the living conditions of adjacent inhabitants with respect to health, education and levels of personal income (Honey, 2002). …


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