Topic 1. Ecotourism: definition, principles, and practical application
What is ecotourism?
There are various ways to learn about ecotourism, such as by Googling, attending expert lectures, reading technical books or academic articles, or having a memorable ecotourism experience. There is no complete or absolute definition of ecotourism, but many interesting definitions exist, which are similar to each other but also differ on some level (Weaver, 2001; Fennell, 2008; Hill & Gale, 2009).
Depending on whom we ask, the question “what is ecotourism?” will yield different answers. If we ask a politician, a local resident, a professional linked to tourism, a professional from another sector, the manager of an attraction or a protected area, a tourist, or a frequent visitor, each will have a different answer. By analyzing these responses, we can identify patterns of perceptions that group certain profiles of stakeholders according to their perceptions and expectations.
Ecotourism began to gain prominence in the late 1970s and exploded in the 1990s, due to several factors such as (i) being an alternative to mass tourism, (ii) being seen as a form of “sustainable development”, especially in tropical and/or developing countries and regions such as Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa, (iii) providing spaces for recreation, leisure, sport and tourism that provide reconnection with nature, and (iv) promising sustainable use for reserves, parks and other types of protected areas (Eagles & McCool, 2002; Cunha & Marques, 2018).
Although accurate definitions have been proposed, the word “ecotourism” has been and is increasingly used with different meanings and is often confused as a synonym for adventure tourism or nature tourism in general. Hector Ceballos-Lascurain first used the term “ecotourism” in 1983 and defined it as “tourism that consists of traveling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas” (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1987).
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines ecotourism as an environmentally responsible tourism modality that seeks to develop outdoor activities in order to visit and learn about natural areas to enjoy and value natural attractions such as landscape, flora and fauna, as well as cultural manifestations of the present and the past (IUCN, 1997). The process must mainly promote the conservation of natural and cultural resources, with low negative impacts of the activities, designed based on the conditions and capacity of each place, community, and the environment, and should also promote socioeconomic benefits to the local host communities through the incorporation of fairer trade, social inclusion, and empowerment.
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). For TIES, ecotourism is a triplet with conservation, communities, and interpretation.
According to the UNWTO definition, the term “ecotourism” applies to any form of tourism that has the following characteristics (UNWTO, 2002):
- Revolves around nature, and the main motivation of tourists is the observation and appreciation of the natural environment and the predominant traditional cultures in natural areas.
- Includes pedagogical aspects and interpretation of nature
- The organization is usually run by specialized tour operators and typically caters to small groups, although there may be exceptions. In the destinations, partner service providers are often small, locally owned businesses.
- Ecotourism aims to minimize negative impacts on the natural and socio-cultural environment.
The various definitions of ecotourism may use different phrases or statements, but they all share common and fundamental elements. These elements can be considered the principles of ecotourism, which include:
Wallace & Pierce (1996)
Entails a type of use that minimizes negative Impacts to the environment and to local people.
Involves travel to natural destinations
Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
Increases the awareness and understanding of an area’s natural and cultural systems and the subsequent involvement of visitors in issues affecting those systems
Minimizes (negative) impacts
Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
Contributes to the conservation and management of legally protected and other natural areas.
Builds environmental awareness
Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
Maximizes the early and long-term participation of local people in the decision-making process that determines the kind and amount of tourism that should occur
Provides direct financial benefits for conservation
Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
Directs economic and other benefits to local people that complement rather than overwhelm or replace traditional practices (farming, fishing, social systems, etc.)
Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
Ecotourism in practice
The term “ecotourism” should be intensively debated, but it is also important to pay attention to its practical application. In the field of marketing, the use of the term is important mainly if it manages to attract and persuade people without the need for in-depth debates or evaluations and monitoring of impacts. However, the proper use of the term must be coupled with practices, products, and services that, in fact, represent its principles.
Being able to critically analyze, plan, design, and implement ecotourism businesses, improve professional skills, interpret the natural environment, and work within the context of ecotourism requires technical skills combined with practical application. Achieving the conservation objectives and goals implicit in the principles and definitions of ecotourism, sustainable tourism, and responsible tourism is possible, and there are good examples to inspire us.
Topic 2. Ecotourism in the wider framework of tourism: Main trends of domestic and international tourism and ecotourism
Tourism is a complex system resulting from economic, cultural, and environmental interactions that arise from the displacement and consumption of goods and services by people outside their usual place (Sancho 1997; Fletcher et al. 2013; Vinasco Guzmán, 2017; Osorio-García & Domínguez Estrada, 2019). It is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the global economy, directly or indirectly contributing more than 10% to the global GDP and generating around 300 million jobs worldwide (IMF et al., 2021; UNWTO, 2019).
According to UNWTO (2019), the main trends in the tourism market are traveling to experience change, living with local communities, and traveling with greater awareness of sustainability. For instance, Leal (2017) reports that 42% of tourists considered themselves sustainable, and there was an 11% increase between 2014 and 2015 in consumers who wanted to pay more for sustainable brands with social and environmental commitments. Other motivations such as visiting trendy and wish list destinations, seeking to get out of the comfort zone, and taking trips closer to home to create new and authentic memories are also important (Burkhard et al., 2016).
Tourism is a fluctuating and vulnerable industry that can be affected by certain conditions, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit the industry hard. However, domestic tourism, especially nature tourism and adventure tourism, have experienced significant recovery (IMF et al., 2021). Tourism is a travel decision based on the motivations defined by a context, which may vary depending on the assessment of an attraction, destination, activity, and/or management.
Ecotourism is also following the aforementioned trends. However, it caters to the current demand for tourism motivated by nature and sustainability-oriented management practices, where activities like interpretation hold significant importance (Jiménez Bulla, 2010). According to ATTA (2022), there was a 200% growth in domestic hotel reservations on Trip.com in 2021 compared to 2019 in North America, particularly among travellers seeking this type of tourism. Burkhard et al. (2016) projected that, from 2017 onwards, tourists would be more interested in travel characteristics associated with the reduction of carbon footprint (by traveling close to home), choosing companies with a social focus, leaving a positive impact through volunteer programs, and choosing homestays that gained more interest than traditional hotels or bed and breakfasts. Leal (2017) reported that the market share of ecotourism increased considerably in the last decade, going from 7% in 2010 to 25% in 2016.
Although it is difficult to find figures for this type of tourism, the available ones are usually associated with the places where tourism is developed (in some countries, mainly evaluated by the figures of tourism in National Parks and protected areas) or often with figures related to outdoor and adventure activities, as mentioned (Bricker, 2017).
On the other hand, nature and adventure tourism were favoured during the pandemic. In 2020, the demand for outdoor tourism prevailed, mainly motivated by the desire for better health and a break from work in front of a screen. Key tourism activities included jogging, climbing, fishing, cycling, and camping (Outdoor Foundation, 2021), with a preference for places close to home (less than 15 km) (Outdoor Foundation, 2021), or in small towns or villages, and in groups of less than ten people (ATTA, 2021).
The sustainable approach characteristic of the ecotourism typology also gained greater relevance during the pandemic, as shown by studies carried out by:
- Euromonitor, cited by Vargas (2020), states that the main motivations of tourists were “sustainable tourism (34.6%), natural immersion (29.3%), and authentic local experiences (52.0%).”
- The Booking 2021 sustainability report, where 61% of Booking travellers after 2019 sought more sustainable trips where the impacts on the territories were considered. Around 84% of the clients want to understand and preserve cultural heritage, 76% look to have an economic impact in terms of the equitable distribution of profits, 73% want authentic experiences from local cultures on their trip, and in topics, 46% of travellers are concerned about excess waste, 38% are concerned about threats to biodiversity and its habitat, and 29% are concerned about their CO2 emissions.
However, there are some things to consider regarding the cost-benefit ratio in terms of sustainability. For example, 22% of tourists do not opt for a sustainable destination due to its high price, and 13% distrust it as “eco” (Leal, 2017). This leads to a new tourist profile, which can also be applied to ecotourists:
- Made up mainly of Millennials and Generation Z (73% according to CREST 2016 (Leal, 2017)), divided into different segments: Hard-Core, dedicated, conventional, and casual.
- They are highly educated and experienced travellers with medium-high purchasing power, spending approximately $400 per day (nature tourist) to $80 per day (average tourist). Most of them travel independently, as a couple, or with a group of friends (Procolombia, 2018; Crespo Jareño, 2019; Leal, 2017).
- They are motivated by immersion in nature and culture and visit places with ecological and cultural importance that contribute to conservation and local development. They visit unique and unexplored destinations and require good quality information (Procolombia, 2018; Crespo Jareño, 2019).
Topic 3. Ecotourism in the framework of nature-based tourism: similarities and differences with other types of nature-based tourism experiences
Natural environments around the world offer a wide range of opportunities for tourist activities. These activities can be classified based on the interest in the natural resources found in the environment. Ecotourism is a form of nature tourism where the objective of the tourist activity is to show and interpret the biotic or abiotic natural resources that are part of it, such as whale watching or bird watching. Additionally, these activities can involve interaction with the local communities that live in the area, giving visitors a greater understanding of the culture.
Ecotourism creates experiences that enable deep contact with nature through knowledge and enjoyment of the activity. It is a form of tourism based on nature that has specific characteristics, including ethical and interpretive components that all ecotourism activities should offer. There are many approaches to ecotourism, depending on the level of public interest and the specificity of the resources. A significant aspect to consider is the type of natural environment in which the activity takes place, such as a terrestrial or aquatic environment, aerial environment, or specific habitats or ecosystems, such as jungles, deserts, glacial areas, high mountains, or marine and underwater environments.
Professional guides with in-depth knowledge are necessary to ensure the safety of tourists, and sometimes special certifications are required. It is important to note that the primary objective of ecotourism is to gain knowledge and enjoyment of nature, rather than seeking adventure for the degree of danger or insecurity it presents. Adequate equipment and transportation are needed without changing the purpose of the activity.
We can identify general types of activities within ecotourism in which the focus is on observing the totality of resources, also known as natural history, in Latin America. However, there are other types of activities in which the natural resource is specific, which determines many technical aspects and gives a specific name to the type of tourism or ecotourism modality. These can be grouped under a broad umbrella of resource groups, such as:
- geological tourism
- flora or fauna observation tourism
- subaquatic tourism
- tourism to observe atmospheric or climatic phenomena
Other types of activities, due to their historical importance, have already created a segmentation within a group of organisms, which has given the activity a specific name. Some examples include those that make up the animal kingdom, where we talk about:
- bird watching tourism -birding, birdwatching-
- insect observation tourism
- amphibian and reptile observation tourism -herping-
- tourism of observation or sighting of cetaceans -whale watching-
There are other types of tourism that can be considered ecotourism, although they focus their attention beyond observation and interpretation. For example, we have:
- scientific tourism: tourism based on the observation and study of a resource or nature for scientific purposes and in which the users are part of a team of scientific guides or who use scientific methodology for the development of the activity.
- conservation tourism: tourism that is based on participating in a conservation action during the course of a nature guiding activity. For example, the extraction of marine debris, the restoration of a habitat, etc.
- photographic tourism or photographic safaris: the purpose of the activity is, in addition to the observation of a resource or the landscape, to learn about nature photographic techniques to make good images or recordings.
There are endless activities that can be described, more and more in natural environments for purposes other than those mentioned, which fall within the concept of nature-based tourism but not necessarily within ecotourism (although they may be partially ecotourism). Some examples include:
- adventure tourism: a type of tourism that seeks excitement through high-risk activities and mainly needs to guarantee safety out of the ordinary in nature. Some of these activities include canyoning, canopy, rafting, mountain biking, horse riding, climbing, rappelling, caving, skiing, canoeing, mountaineering, paragliding, skydiving, surfing, trekking, etc.
- active tourism: tourism that occurs in natural environments, mainly as a low-risk sporting activity and that can include a part of observation or interpretation in the tour. Depending on the main objective, it can be included as ecotourism. Examples include cycling, hiking, snorkelling, etc.
Likewise, there are other types of tourism in natural environments where the activity is focused on learning about the way of life or various human activities:
- agro-tourism or rural tourism, fishing tourism: tourism based on participating in the way of life of a rural or fishing community.
- ethnic or community-based tourism: tourism based on participating in the way of life of an ancestral community that usually lives from nature with little intervention.
Finally, there are specific tourism denominations, such as responsible, sustainable, or regenerative tourism, among others, which focus on the positive impact of their action on the destination and its community. They are transversal in nature and applicable to all types of tourism, including ecotourism. Some authors, such as Boullon (2002), Medina (2003), Font (2006), Vera et al. (2011) or Gray (2012) have developed their own definitions for each of the previously presented modalities.
Topic 4. Ecotourism and the design of experiences: Characteristics, elements, and factors of the tourist experience
According to Qianni (2021: 129), “an ecotourism experience means that tourists obtain ecological enjoyment, ecological perception, and ecological aesthetic taste through senses and thinking activities during ecotourism activities.”
The design of an ecotourist experience must consider not only the sustainability of the action so that it can be replicated endless times without diminishing the tourists’ degree of satisfaction, but it must also be appealing to attract potential clients. Thus, the number and type of elements (both natural and cultural) involved in each ecotourist experience will ultimately define the characteristics of the experience and the degree of satisfaction.
Tourism is intimately related to the concept of “aesthetic experience” that can be taken from nature (Kirillova & Lehto, 2015), and in nature-based tourism, it may represent something sacred whose aesthetic quality of landscape positively affects tourist loyalty (Zhang & Xu, 2020). In other words, emotional experiences have an influence on the holistic destination image in an ecotourism context (Li et al., 2021). Nature is usually perceived to be green landscapes (e.g., Scolozzi et al., 2015; Bijker & Sijtsma, 2017), even if those landscapes have little conservation value (Pavão et al., 2021). That is why cultivating ecotourism knowledge and attitudes towards ecotourism during ecotourist visits can increase the perceived value of protected areas and tourist satisfaction, a key element for the long-term success of ecotourism products and destinations (Castellanos-Verdugo et al., 2016). Because ecotourism is important to support conservation efforts, the ecotourist experiences should be designed to include different types of protected areas, making this a key factor to enhance the tourist experience. Here, nature guides could play an important role as conservation practitioners given the usually high educational level of this type of tourists (e.g., Queiroz et al., 2014).
However, sharing the same educational level doesn’t necessarily mean sharing the same ecotourist motivation. The United Nations considers the existence of three types of ecotourists: hard ecotourist, soft ecotourist, and adventure ecotourist, so we must be able to design different types of experiences to accommodate different preferences. “The hard ecotourist is motivated primarily by a scientific interest in nature and is interested in birdwatching, nature photography, and botanical trips” (https://www.crocodilebay.com/ecotourist-what-type-are-you/). The soft ecotourist “is interested in observing wildlife and participating in local culture.” This is the fastest-growing segment of ecotourism, and although it can relate to the hard ecotourist in the sense that it likes to watch nature, it is in a more contemplative way – observing while hiking or riding a boat. Thus, the presence of trails is a good element to develop activities and an important factor in achieving satisfaction. Finally, the adventure ecotourist “engages in moderate to high-risk activities such as surfing, scuba diving, snorkelling, windsurfing, white-water rafting, and sport fishing.” Here, the key elements for the ecotourist experience must again be found in nature. Thus, each partner must seek potential elements to satisfy this kind of tourist. In the Azores, for example, several studies point to the importance of seascape and marine biodiversity to attract scuba divers and sports fishermen (e.g., Bentz et al., 2014; 2016), while emerging activities such as canyoning and coasteering are also gaining a growing importance (Silva & Almeida, 2013; Botelho et al., 2022).
Because ecotourism experiences involve outdoor activities, any natural hazard can limit the experience. Before planning an ecotourist activity, it is important to check the weather conditions for the day of the activity and to also ensure that the environment is safe. Briefings are an important way to raise awareness among tourists about potential risks before they embark on an activity.
Another important aspect of ecotourism is that it should generate income for local communities that live near the protected areas where ecotourist activities take place and rely on tourism revenue (Slocum et al., 2022). Therefore, when planning an ecotourist experience, it is important to involve the local population in the activities. For example, visits to local artisanal shops where tourists can buy products made with local materials can be planned, or activities can be designed where tourists can cook their own meals using fish they have caught. An example of this is the successful artisanal fishing tourism in the Azores.
In summary, an ecotourism experience includes aesthetic, emotional, and action-oriented aspects, and understanding how the destination image is affected by the tourist’s experience can help operators design appropriate experiences (Wang et al., 2012). Therefore, a participatory design process involving tourists at every stage of the planning is crucial for a successful experience (Tussyadiah, 2014).
In essence, designing an ecotourist experience should consider:
a. The characteristics that define the type of ecotourist (hard, soft, adventure)
b. The local elements that will make the ecotourist experience appealing to a particular type of ecotourist (streams, lakes, forests, trails, etc.)
c. The factors that can affect the success of the experience (weather, steep slopes, risk of landslides, etc.)”
Topic 5. Sustainable tourism and ecotourism: fundamentals, objectives, principles, and current trends. The key role of ecotourism as a driver of global sustainable tourism
Tourism is a complex social phenomenon that is recognized for its transversality, multidimensionality, interdisciplinarity, multisectorallity, and dynamism (Beni, 2003, 2020; Molina, 1998; Moesch, 2004). Although academics, activists, and planners only began to consider applying the concept of sustainability to the field of tourism in the late 1980s, in the face of heated discussions arising from the publication of the Brundtland Report (1987) and the Rio Conference (1992), the seeds of the concept of “Sustainable Tourism” were planted before that (McCool & Bosak, 2016).
The recognition of negative impacts, mainly on the natural system (Dias, 2008), attributed to the unbridled growth of a mass and disorderly model of tourism (Cooper & Ozdil, 1992; Swarbrooke, 2000), occurred in parallel with the outbreak of debates about the limits of global ecological changes in the 1970s (Sharpley, 2000). However, the idea of sustainable tourism actually gained strength in the early 1990s (Saarinen, 2006), among other things, due to the finding of negative impacts produced by the sector on economics, sociocultural, and physical environments (Leiper, 1995). For example, intensive and repeatedly predatory use of the natural assets that make up its attractions and the basis of support for many of its activities (Dias, 2008), processes of cultural uprooting by the devaluation of traditional local productive activities due to the focus on the “monoculture” of tourism (Valls, 2006), increased living costs for the resident population (Costa, 2013), saturation of psychological or social carrying capacities (Liu, 2003), social and socio-productive exclusion, marginalization, and low participation of local communities in the economic benefits of the production system (Krippendorf, 2001; Tasso, 2014; Irving et al., 2015), among others.
Consequently, tourism began to gain new propositions and concepts diametrically opposed to those rooted in the predatory model of mass tourism. These new concepts were centred on prudence with the environment, autonomy and participation of the resident population, respect for cultural identities, and carried out on a smaller scale. Such changes led to new typologies, such as Alternative Tourism (Kilipiris, Zadava, 2012), Ecotourism, Green Tourism, Responsible Tourism (ICRT, 2014), among others (Meler, Ham, 2012).
Gradually, the idea of “Sustainable Tourism” has gained strong momentum and is now a frequent topic of discussion at various international events (Saarinen, 2006). The World Tourism Organization (WTO, 1994, p. 51) has presented the understanding that “sustainable tourism can meet economic, social, and aesthetic needs, while maintaining cultural and ecological integrity. It can benefit both hosts and visitors while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future.”
Over time, a growing number of guidelines and principles have been added to the conceptual framework of sustainable tourism. Scholars and researchers have sought to demonstrate that sustainable tourism is structured on a balance of fundamental elements that interact with each other. Müller (1994) highlighted a pentagon of irreplaceable elements for the sustainability of tourism, including economic health, subjective well-being of the hosting community, optimization of customer satisfaction, preservation of nature and resources, and healthy culture.
In 1999, the “World Code of Ethics for Tourism” was presented at the UNWTO General Assembly, strengthening the discourse that sustainable tourism development must ensure equitable participation of resident communities in the economic, social, and cultural benefits arising from the tourism sector (BRAZIL, 2007a). New approaches such as ethics in the implementation of the activity, encouraging participation and cooperation of all stakeholders involved, directing visitor behaviour towards a responsible posture, and integrating with the local economy have been emphasized.
In addition to the characteristics mentioned above, other aspects have been highlighted in the process of building models that seek to solidify sustainable tourism practices. These include the importance of articulation between spheres of local power, waste reduction, workforce qualification, responsible commercialization of activity, and promoting scientific research in destinations (Garrod & Fyall, 1998):
- Reduction of waste and excessive consumption, increasing the resilience of the degraded environment;
- Articulation between the public and private powers, aiming at minimizing conflicts and problems;
- Multiple qualification of the residents ‘ workforce so that they can work at all levels of the sector;
- Responsibility in tourism marketing procedures, striving for awareness of respect for the destinations’ social, cultural and natural environments;
- Expansion of the research framework developed in tourist destinations that seek a situational analysis of the activity, as a way of identifying impacts and problems, alternatives and the improvement of the sector.
Gradually, the understanding of sustainable tourism has undergone considerable advancements, with questions passing through increasingly specific spheres in order to achieve the cohesive development of the activity. These questions include:
- Being ecologically supported and economically viable simultaneously
- Equitably distributing benefits
- Observing ethics and being socially accepted by the host community
- Integrating with all aspects of the environment to respect fragile areas and the support capacity of the areas visited
- Encouraging the participation of all actors involved, as the conservation of cultural and natural heritage involves cooperation, planning, and management
- Ensuring tourist satisfaction while driving their behavioural towards the conservation of environments and respect for local culture
- Being integrated into the local economy and promoting the improvement of the quality of life of host communities
- Being necessarily planned and applying the principles of sustainability to all components of the tourist product, from transport used to the harmony of built facilities with the environment, sanitation issues, and efficient use of energy
- Conducting responsible marketing
- Researching and monitoring tourist activity to ensure that development takes place in accordance with sustainability principles and criteria, so that advances are maintained, and setbacks are avoided. (France, 1998 apud Brazil, 2007b, p. 44-5)
It is relevant to note that ecotourism is linked to the development of sustainable tourism, which is defined by the UNWTO as “Tourism that fully takes into account the current and future economic, social, and environmental repercussions to satisfy the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and the host communities.” This definition provides the basis for sustainable development and management practices in all forms of tourism. However, to guarantee its long-term sustainability, ecotourism activities must be aligned with the principles of environmental, economic, and sociocultural sustainability and strike an appropriate balance between these three dimensions.
Therefore, sustainable tourism must:
- Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a fundamental element of tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural resources and biological diversity.
- Respect the sociocultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their cultural and architectural assets and traditional values, and contribute to intercultural understanding and tolerance.
- Ensure viable long-term economic activities that bring well-distributed socio-economic benefits to all actors, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services for host communities, contributing to reducing poverty.
A common guideline for pursuing sustainability is the Sustainable Development Goals 2015-2030 (SDGs), developed by the United Nations (UNWTO, 2015). In the field of tourism, many indicators for sustainability have been developed and applied, and recently, the relationship between tourism and its indicators with the SDGs has been increasingly analyzed (Rasoolimanesh et al., 2020; Spenceley & Rylance, 2022). In practical applications, advances towards sustainability in tourism highlight the need to strengthen governance and partnerships between the local population, entrepreneurs, civil society, and the government, among actors at different levels, with attention to horizontal, vertical, and power relations (Scheyvens & Cheer, 2021). Generally, the relationship between SDGs and tourism and ecotourism can be illustrated as shown in the table below.
Sustainable Development Goal - SDG
Themes and actions related to tourism and ecotourism
Provide income, job creation, poverty reduction, promote entrepreneurship and empowerment of less favoured groups, particularly youth and women.
Promote sustainable agriculture, supply hotel and restaurants with local production. Sales of local products and agro and rural tourism enhancing tourism experiences.
Tax income from tourism invested in health care, maternal health, preventing diseases and reduction of child mortality.
Promote inclusiveness, invest in developing skills for workforce, provide learning opportunities for youth, women, and people with special needs.
Empower women, provide direct jobs and income, promote women engagement and leadership
Contribute to water access, security, hygiene, and sanitation for all. Reinforce efficient use, pollution control and technology efficiency.
Promote the shift towards renewable and clean energy sources. Reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate climate change, and contribute do access of energy for all.
Decent work opportunities, enhancing positive socio-economic impacts.
Promote and influence infrastructure initiatives and policies, towards sustainability, innovation, resource-efficient and low carbon practices, attracting tourists and other investments.
Reduce inequality and engage local population, giving people the opportunity to prosper in their place of origin. Tourism as a tool for economic integration and diversification.
Promote regeneration and preserve cultural and natural heritage, green infrastructure, smarter and greener cities.
Adopt sustainable consumption and production norms and tools to monitor impacts and economic, social and environmental outcomes.
Play a leading role in the response to climate change. Promote low carbon growth and reduce carbon footprint.
Help to conserve and promote healthy marine ecosystems, contribute to the sustainable use of marine resources, promoting a blue economy
Conserve natural heritage and biodiversity, preserve fragile zones, promote sustainable management and generates revenues as an alternative livelihood to local communities
Foster multicultural and inter-faith tolerance and understanding, benefits and engages local communities, and help to consolidate peace.
Strength private/public partnerships and engage multiple stakeholders to work together to achieve the SDGs and other common goals. Public policy and innovative financing are at the core for achieving the 2030 Agenda.
*Adapted from: https://tourism4sdgs.org/
Topic 6. Ecosystem services: the benefits of the natural environment to human beings and the important role of ecotourism
Humans have a constant relationship with the biodiversity that surrounds us and from which we derive our biological and social development processes. From the fruit we consume in the morning, the water we depend on, and even the beautiful views that fill us with happiness during our travels and tourism processes – they are all ecosystem services that contribute to our well-being. Nevertheless, what exactly are these ecosystem services, how can we identify them, how do they benefit people, and what is their link to ecotourism?
According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), ecosystem services are “the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems.” These benefits can be placed into four types or levels (MEA, 2005): 1) Provisioning services; 2) Cultural services; 3) Regulating services; 4) Support services. Let us look at these categories in detail.
- Provisioning services (also called supply or provision): These are the most easily identifiable ecosystem services. They are tangible products that we obtain directly from nature, such as milk, fruits, tea, coffee, and clean water for human consumption. Provisioning services also include materials like wood that can be used in construction or handicrafts, and natural fibers that can also be used in handicrafts or decorations (Fedele et al., 2021). Within ecotourism practices, there are multiple links in this category, such as the consumption of typical foods in the region and having drinking water on the routes.
- Cultural services: This category is intangible and associated with the different territories and relationships that we establish in each locality with the natural resources surrounding us. Here we find personal or collective experiences and sensations of joy, well-being, and other emotions that people obtain from their interaction with nature. Of course, this is a central service in ecotourism activities since it leads us to the search that people carry out to have contact with the natural environment. In addition, all those activities that are recreational, contemplation of a beautiful or unique landscape, or what we obtain through learning from the observation and knowledge of nature, and even what leads us to identify ourselves as cultures differentiated by our values and spiritual inspiration (Angarita-Baéz et al., 2017).
- Regulating services are services associated with the functioning of ecosystems that create beneficial conditions for people. Consider the vegetation of a forest, for example, which can capture CO2 and other atmospheric polluting gases while at the same time providing us with oxygen, filtering the air we breathe, and ensuring that living things can generate growth and biomass. Also, the vegetation in the paramo areas or high mountain forests captures and regulates water, which is gradually released into rivers and streams, ensuring a measured water flow. As part of this category of services are some insects, birds, and bats that play a fundamental role in pollination processes, both wild plants and the crops on which we depend (Rodríguez et al., 2015).
- Support services: This last category corresponds to the conditions for the other types of services to be provided. They are processes, such as photosynthesis or the decomposition of organic matter, that return essential nutrients to the earth to be used by other organisms, and upon which we indirectly depend (MEA, 2005). Some researchers do not recognize this category as ecosystem services but as processes within ecosystems (Rincón-Ruíz et al., 2014), without which none of the others could occur.
You have probably noticed that the benefits provided by ecosystems are all around us. However, the term “ecosystem services” was only coined in 1981 (Chaudhary et al., 2015) and gained popularity in scientific research and political discourse in 2005 with the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. This assessment found that about 60% of ecosystem services globally are degraded or used unsustainably (MEA, 2005). This is a critical point where ecotourism becomes both a cause and effect because if its principles are followed, it can be a means of interacting with the components and processes of ecosystems that can help us reverse this alarming situation. Conversely, misrepresenting these principles can significantly impact the balance of interactions in nature, undermining the very thing that defines and sustains it.
Although the concept of ecosystem services has been widely accepted and disseminated, another proposal emerged in 2018 that integrates and expands upon it: the idea of “nature’s contributions to people,” or NCP. The Intergovernmental Scientific-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) defines NCPs as “All the contributions, positive and negative, of living nature (diversity of organisms, ecosystems, and their associated ecological and evolutionary processes) to the quality of life of people” (Díaz et al., 2018, p.270). These NCPs are divided into three groups: 1) material NCPs, 2) non-material or immaterial NCPs, and 3) regulatory NCPs. They are further divided into 18 categories and highlight the importance of acknowledging the local context in which these contributions are defined, whether they are seen as positive and contributing to human well-being or negative and detrimental to local communities, as this will vary according to each territorial context (Díaz et al., 2018).
Although the definition of NCPs is broader than that of ecosystem services, both ideas are based on “the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems” (MEA, 2005). Additionally, if you examine the three groups of NCPs, you’ll notice that material NCPs are similar to provisioning services, immaterial NCPs are similar to cultural services, and regulatory NCPs and regulating services are practically synonymous. However, it’s noteworthy that the definition of NCPs implies that nature can also produce things that harm us.
So, where is the novelty of the NCP, and what is its link with ecotourism?
- The categories and groups of NCPs are more flexible and dynamic than those of ecosystem services. For example, food can be considered a provisioning service under the vision of ecosystem services. However, the NCP recognizes that food can also have an immaterial dimension, as it is closely related to the culture of specific territories. Traditional dishes, festivals, and rituals associated with food can provide unique identities to these territories (Díaz et al., 2018).
- The role of culture in people’s relationship with nature and its services was not clear in the ecosystem services framework. The NCP framework allows us to better reflect the complexity of these relationships by abandoning a classification based on groups and categories. However, it also presents another level of complexity, which is the multitude of worldviews that exist in specific territories and that differ from the Western scientific approach.
- Therefore, the NCP framework aims to adopt a broader and less technical language that facilitates communication and information transfer between people with different interests and levels of knowledge (Kadykalo et al., 2019).
The IPBES published a report warning that around 1 million species are currently at risk of extinction (IPBES, 2019). Consider how all these components of biodiversity interact in unique ways to contribute to our well-being. Think about how people travel to visit unique sites with particular species in territories where human communities depend directly on them. Ask yourself how ecotourism can contribute to the knowledge, enjoyment, and preservation of these contributions and services that are both the cause and effect of this economic activity.
Topic 7. Natural resources for ecotourism: geology, fauna, flora and fungi, ecosystems, and natural landscapes
Nature is essential to our lives. However, to view natural resources as merely the manifestations and attributes of nature in their original form would be to ignore the fact that they constitute a patrimony or asset that humans can transform into a resource, or from which they can derive services, using the technical and economic means available to them in their cultural, political, and social context (Leno Cerro, 1993). In this regard, great responsibility is required in the planning and management of natural resources for ecotourism, since a natural resource becomes a tourist resource only when it becomes usable for tourism through human intervention, either as a natural tourist attraction or as a resource used by tourists during their experience, such as water, soil, or living things (Pires, 2013).
Despite the undeniable importance and ecological role of natural resources, not all of them are attractive for tourism. Therefore, natural tourist attractions are those natural resources that possess tourist attraction factors. As part of the planning and management process, it is necessary to identify the natural elements that are part of the ecotourism context, and to understand their relationship with tourism activities. This inventory involves the essential step of classifying different natural resources, which allows for standardized evaluation of different types of products and their respective attributes (Carelles, 1992). This step also constitutes a stage known as the interpretive plan, which falls under the scope of the heritage interpretation strategy (both natural and cultural) for visitors to tourist destinations (Murta & Goodey, 2002).
There are different ways to classify natural resources, such as: a) classifications based on the typology of resources; b) classifications based on the typology and importance of resources; c) classification of natural resources according to intensity of use; d) classification of natural resources according to their main and secondary characteristics; and e) natural resources classification system for national inventory.
One of the most common motivations for ecotourism is the landscape. These motivations are driven by the value that tourists assign to the relation between physical, biological, and cultural elements in a specific moment and space. This valuation can be based on intrinsic, aesthetic, spiritual, or utilitarian values, among others. For example, the visual perception of new and different landscapes is often a deciding factor for tourists, and the expectation of new experiences in different landscapes stimulates their travel. Therefore, the presentation of forms and elements that harmonize the visual composition of a landscape, whether natural or anthropized, is primarily derived from its geomorphology (e.g., mountains, rocky outcrops, canyons) and its surface elements (e.g., rivers, lakes, waterfalls).
At the same time, landscape elements on their own can also be important for tourism, such as a river for kayaking or a bird for birdwatching. Their characteristics, such as their composition, distribution, and function, are essential in planning ecotourism activities. At the landscape scale, some factors to consider may include:
- Geomorphology, topography and slopes;
- Unique features such as special rock formations, rare geology and geomorphology
- Climatic and atmospheric weathering, such as: temperature, rainfall, winds, glaciers, insolation, snow, thermal amplitude and humidity.
- Different areas cover land as forests, but also the fauna which lives there.
- And the interactions between the people with this physical and biological factor through different times, like historical human activities in land use, relevant cultural aspects and prehistoric records.
- The land tenure, as a private, public, protected area etc.
But in a population or communities of fauna and flora it can consider:
- Conservation status of these biodiversity
- Life cycles
Tourism natural resources constitute a very broad category, and their diversity must be addressed. They can be classified according to the dominant and most useful landscape elements for tourists (Ruban, 2021).
What can be seen with this composition is a wide variety of natural attractions, especially in countries with high biodiversity and climate variation. At the same time, it is also possible to verify that the general nature of the information predominates, requiring a more detailed analysis at the level of typologies of natural attractions.
We can analyse the different types of natural resources following different criteria, as it can be seen in the following examples.
In terms of “geomorphology,” there are flat terrains, lowlands, sedimentary plains, plateaus, and landings. For landscape relief, there are mountains, mountain ranges, plateaus, valleys, cliffs, hills, high plains, mountain plains, high mountains, rocky outcrops, canyons, escarpments, cliffs, and abysses. For “hydrography,” there are rivers, springs, beaches, river islands, lakes, lagoons, and wetlands.
Regarding types of ecosystems, there are terrestrial, aquatic, and marine, as well as more specific ones like “coastal” or “seashore.” Examples include reefs, mangroves, dunes, beaches, coasts, fluvio-marine islands, inlets, bays, and sandbanks. As for fauna and flora, there are various species and their characteristics. Knowing the context of their habitat can make it easier to plan activities around them. For example, a photographic safari would need to consider species behaviour and the best places with good access and lighting conditions. Understanding the behaviour of species and the context of their habitat can facilitate activities like birdwatching, observing wildlife while diving, or sighting whales.
Observing the biodiversity habitat and understanding the interaction between the biophysical context can be enriched by visiting an Atlantic Forest or rainforest, or by contemplation diving on a reef.
There are ancient cultural aspects such as rock inscriptions, fragments of pottery, and indigenous lithic workshops. As for types of territory management, they can be public, private, or protected as a wildlife sanctuary.
The purpose of this identification is to create a preliminary inventory of tourist resources at a destination by organizing and systematizing collected information. The next steps involve integrating the process of planning and organizing ecotourism, conducting scientific research, or preparing ecotourism products.
It’s important to highlight the symbiotic relationship between conserving natural resources and the competitiveness of ecotourism destinations (Boley & Green, 2015) and the significance of the relationship between protected areas and tourism, where one needs and depends on the other (Eagles et al., 2002).
Topic 8. Cultural resources for ecotourism: Tangible and intangible cultural heritage
In many cases and places, ecotourism products and destinations not only rely on natural heritage, but also on cultural heritage. This occurs as in many natural areas one can encounter an important cultural heritage, which has historically evolved jointly with its environment. Many local communities promote that heritage as one of their ecotourism attractions, and it is usually combined with the rest of the natural heritage present in the area.
Cultural heritage is commonly divided into a material (tangible) and immaterial (intangible). Tangible cultural heritage is represented by real objects of indefinite duration: architecture, archaeological and historical buildings or remains, monuments, art, crafts, jewellery, clothing, and other objects.
On its part, intangible cultural heritage is manifested, among others, in the following areas:
- Cosmogony and tradition are represented in crafts and arts.
- Gastronomy and culinary arts.
- Social practices, rituals, and festivities.
- Music and performing arts.
- Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of intangible cultural heritage.
- Knowledge and uses are related to nature and the universe.
More specifically, the World Tourism Organisation defines intangible cultural heritage as: “the uses, representations, expressions, knowledge, and techniques – together with the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces that are inherent to them – that communities, groups and in some cases individuals recognize as an integral part of their cultural heritage [and is] transmitted from generation to generation and is constantly recreated by groups in response to their environment and their interactions with nature and their history, which gives them a sense of identity and continuity” (UNWTO, 2012).
However, some voices have emerged that claim that the distinction between material and immaterial heritage is not so clear neither necessary (i.e. all tangible heritage embodies intangible components such as symbology and meanings, especially for a particular social group) (Munjeri, 2004).
In the intangible cultural heritage, the participation of local actors in tourism projects allows them to benefit from the activities economically and at the level of awareness and appreciation of their own culture. It reaffirms their sense of belonging and the development of social participation. However, the most important thing, it allows sensitising the (eco)tourist of the diversity in cultural richness, generating respect and knowledge about culture, traditions, and identity.
Note: It is not about dramatizing culture based on tourist activities.
Good practices to promote cultural heritage as an ecotourism resource with the participation of communities imply:
- Strengthen community organisations.
- Make traditions visible and rescue those that have been disappearing.
- Establish equitable agreements between tour operators and local communities.
- Improve the living conditions of the population and rescue cultural identity.
There is an aspect of managing ecotourism products with a cultural component that we cannot ignore, and it is the gender perspective. It can help us better understand the role of different actors in these cultural tourism activities. Talking about gender is not just about women; it is about understanding that the needs, interests, and knowledge about cultural activities and the natural environment are different for different genders (Birrel & Risquez, 2016).
Local, traditional, or indigenous knowledge refers to a set of knowledge accumulated over time by both men and women in their respective communities. This knowledge relates to the management of their environment and living conditions, which is connected to their culture, natural environment, and socio-economic history. These aspects are vital for planning and managing ecotourism activities with a cultural component.
Topic 9. Protected areas: characteristics, categories, and opportunities for ecotourism
When we consider protected areas, we refer to areas that are specially protected due to their natural characteristics. According to The Protected Planet Report 2020, these areas totalize at least 22.5 million km2 (16.64%) of land and inland water ecosystems, and 28.1 million km2 (7.74%) of coastal waters and the ocean. Such protection comes mainly from state policies and governmental initiatives, but many more square kilometres might be protected under private or regional projects. Protected areas are considered the main, but not the only, means to conserve biological diversity, with an ever-growing understanding that wherever nature is present, there is an opportunity for conservation. However, protected areas have indeed overseen the preservation (strict measures) portion of conservation, given their magnitude.
Since the creation of Yellowstone National Park in the United States of America (USA) in 1872, considered a milestone in the history of protected areas, the justifications, and motivations around the creation of protected areas have varied according to different views on nature and on the importance of its protection. These views, in turn, reflect the cultural, social, political, and scientific contexts prevailing in each situation and time, encompassing a better understanding of nature’s natural rhythms and human needs.
In general, protected areas have been created over time with two main objectives: i) to guarantee a rational use of natural resources so that they can be used by present and future generations; ii) to protect places of great scenic beauty, with their geological aspects, flora and fauna, and ecosystems.
During the second half of the 20th century, the way of addressing the issue of nature conservation changed. From the preservation of wilderness, with its sublime landscapes and charismatic flora and fauna, there was a shift towards the conservation of biodiversity. The urgency to prevent the destruction of biodiversity caused many biologists to become conservation biologists. The increasingly scientific focus, the need to deal with the issues of the “real world”, especially those involving human interests, and the importance of managing what, in principle, is untamed wilderness has made biodiversity conservation one complex task. The transformations are accumulated and overlapped, but a thin line of continuity persists: the assigning of an intrinsic value for biodiversity, based on an aesthetic sensitivity and on a sense of empathy for the diversity of life.
With the growing concern for the conservation of biodiversity, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, launched the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). A very broad and functional definition of biological diversity or biodiversity was reached, covering three levels: diversity of species, genetic diversity, and diversity of ecosystems. The CBD also joined the strictest concerns with the preservation of biodiversity with the concern for its sustainable use, especially by indigenous peoples and local populations, emphasizing the concept of equity in the distribution of profits arising from exploration and the establishment of patents from the knowledge of biodiversity.
A systematic effort to establish a terminology of protected areas began at the 1933 International Conference for the Protection of Flora and Fauna in London. This recommended a four-stage typology: national park, strict nature reserve, fauna and flora reserve, and reserve with prohibition for hunting and collecting. The issue was raised again in 1961 when IUCN’s International Commission for National Parks (now known as the World Commission on Protected Areas, WCPA) edited the first World List of National Parks and Equivalent Reserves. From then on, IUCN developed a categories system based on management objectives issued as a set of six categories. Although designed primarily as a framework for reporting data to the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), the categories have increasingly also been used as an instrument for policy, planning, and even legislation. This extension beyond their original remit has caused some concerns. Two main issues focused attention: i) there has been mounting concern that protected area designations were being used as an excuse for relocating indigenous peoples from their traditional territories; ii) in 2000, IUCN members voted in favor of a recommendation at the World Conservation Congress suggesting that governments ban mining, mineral extraction, and exploration in certain IUCN protected area categories, causing a furor in the mineral industry.
IUCN undertook a four-year consultation to identify points of contention and possible changes needed in the categories system. A task force of the IUCN WCPA was established to rewrite the guidelines, involving further consultation, and a new definition of a protected area was drawn up: “A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” As such, the IUCN protected areas categories were readjusted as follows:
Category Ia: Strict Nature Reserve – These are strictly protected areas set aside to safeguard biodiversity and possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use, and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values. Such protected areas can serve as indispensable reference areas for scientific research and monitoring.
Category Ib: Wilderness Area – These are usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed to preserve their natural condition.
Category II: National Park – These are large natural or near-natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational, and visitor opportunities.
Category III: Natural Monument or Feature – These are set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, seamount, submarine cavern, geological feature such as a cave or even a living feature such as an ancient grove. They are generally smaller than previous categories of protected areas and often have high visitor value.
Category IV: Habitat/Species Management Area – These areas aim to protect particular species or habitats, and management reflects this priority. Many category IV protected areas will need regular, active interventions to address the requirements of particular species or to maintain habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.
Category V: Protected Landscape/Seascape – a protected area where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural, and scenic value; and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.
Category VI: Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources – these areas conserve ecosystems and habitats, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. They are generally large, with most of the area in a natural condition, where a proportion is under sustainable natural resource management, and where low-level non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims of the area.
Tourism in protected areas has been pointed out as a way of reconciling economic development and biodiversity conservation. It is an opportunity to bring people closer to nature and emphasize themes dear to humanity, such as the biodiversity crisis and the importance of protected areas and ecosystem services. On the other hand, disorderly visitation without management that seeks to optimize positive impacts can become a threat to biodiversity, precisely in those territories where the persistence of native species and healthy ecosystems is most promising.
The concept of ecotourism emerged with the aim of valuing the nature and culture of the places of visitation, but many times it ended up being appropriated by the marketing sector, becoming more of a label, and approaching conventional forms, focused mainly on economic motivations, and less concerned with the conservation of natural or cultural heritage. Ecotourism has an important role to play in conserving the biodiversity and socio-diversity of planet Earth. We have great potential to create an expanded awareness of the importance of conserving the most varied natural and cultural heritage and to generate economic resources for research and biodiversity conservation, to contribute to the financial sustainability and management of protected areas, as well as for the improvement of the living conditions of the populations of the localities visited around those protected areas.
Ecotourism allows the traveller to know, admire, experience, and learn about natural and cultural aspects that were previously foreign to them. It allows people to go beyond the immediate benefits and reflect on the broader ethical and philosophical principles that should guide its practice. A clear win-win connection between ecotourism and protected areas can be established, and in fact, it currently occurs in many places around the world.
Topic 10. Positive and negative impacts of tourism in the natural environment. Patterns of environmentally responsible behaviours of tourists / visitors in natural areas
Impacts from the tourism industry are hard to quantify since we must include traveling, lodging, travel companies, activities, and other aspects that lead to both positive and negative impacts.
Starting with the positive impacts, the most obvious is the revenue increase for everyone involved, from the airline companies to the local tourism businesses and entrepreneurs that promote tourist activities. For many countries and regions, this is perhaps the most significant contribution to their gross domestic product (GDP), for instance, the Small Islands Developing States (SIDS) (Seetanah, 2011). Overall, islands and continental regions with natural areas are usually sought out for their nature. Examples of economic valuing of individual natural elements for tourism can be found in coral reefs (Spalding et al., 2017), marine mammals (Vieira et al., 2018), sharks (Torres et al., 2017), among others. In general, protected areas are the key elements for nature-based tourism, particularly on islands (Fonseca et al., 2014), where marine ecotourism is often a vital sector of the blue economy (Ressureição et al., 2022).
Another positive aspect related to tourist activity in the natural environment is the possibility of raising funding to support conservation efforts (e.g., Schirpke et al., 2020) and bring awareness to sustainable tourism practices. Finally, evidence, particularly relevant during the COVID-19 lockdown (Fagerholm et al., 2021), shows that our mental health benefits greatly from contact with nature (Buckley, 2022). However, tourism in natural areas presents several challenges due to the negative impacts of recreational activities, leading Wolf et al. (2019) to wonder whether nature conservation and nature-based tourism can coexist. These negative impacts range from altering the quality of natural resources such as recreational water (Kurniawan et al., 2022), deforestation and land cover changes (Hoang et al., 2020), to the impacts associated with the built of tourist infrastructures (Miller et al., 2020), littering, and potentiation of climate change effects (Monz et al., 2020).
There is a great deal of literature dealing with the negative impacts arising from the tourist recreational activities taking place in protected areas. On terrestrial habitats, the most well-known impacts are those felt on the soil and native vegetation (Ballantyne & Pickering, 2015) since hiking along trails that cross sensitive areas is becoming a popular ecotourist activity. Changes in animal behaviour and possible fauna displacement from native habitats regarding the built and use of these tourist infrastructures are also of concern (Miller et al., 2020). But off-road vehicles have much greater impacts on sensitive areas (e.g., beach dunes), than the impacts arising from just walking on or trampling these areas (Enríquez-de-Salamanca, 2021). Thus, permanent monitoring of protected areas is needed to avoid high levels of degradation that will be hard to reverse, and drones can be a useful tool to achieve this goal (Ancin-Murguzur et al., 2019).
As for aquatic ecosystems, both fresh and saltwater, they are also vulnerable to recreational activities that take place therein. Apart from the impacts felt on the quality of recreational water, coastal ecosystems are also vulnerable to the presence of an increasingly large number of tourists and inexperienced scuba divers, who can degrade sensitive coastal ecosystems (Singh et al., 2021), particularly corals (Uyarra & Côté, 2007). There is also a possibility of tourists trying to interact with sub-aquatic wildlife (turtles, sharks, etc.), something that can only be prevented by the adoption of strict guidelines and codes of conduct from tour operators (Trave et al., 2017).
Although it is impossible to avoid adverse changes in the natural environment resulting from tourist activities, it is always possible to minimize their consequences. Since environmental knowledge has been considered a strong predictor of attitudes that lead to higher pro-environmental behaviours from tourists (Abdullah et al., 2020), promoting environmental literacy will allow for responsible behaviour from tourists that should avoid littering and picking up plants or any other natural element; keep noise to a minimum so as not to disturb animals; and stay inside the designated trails to avoid further impacts on soil and vegetation (Barros et al., 2013). For tourism enterprises, Corporate Social Responsibility is a voluntary strategy that companies can adopt to contribute to the sustainable development of the tourism sector, acting within sensitive areas (González-Morales et al., 2021).
Topic 11. Regulation of public use and management of natural areas affected by tourism pressure
Tourism is an activity that is closely connected to the territory, landscape, and culture and requires management according to sustainability criteria. Ecotourism and nature tourism often occur in fragile environments around small and isolated communities, so their impacts can be significant and permanent. There are numerous instances worldwide where unregulated tourism has caused severe problems for the environment and local communities, highlighting the need for adequate territorial planning that establishes efficient sustainable management and delimits areas of public use managed to achieve and maintain sustainability standards.
Tourist activity must work on the basis of conservation, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defined as “The human use of the biosphere so that it yields the maximum sustainable benefit while maintaining the necessary potential for the aspirations of future generations.” This implies that tourism must be developed to achieve its maximum potential in terms of sustainability, which requires regulations, protocols, and administrative management systems that ensure safety in the environment and contribute to the local economy.
Protected areas have socio-environmental objectives and seek to contribute to the conservation and preservation of biological diversity through comprehensive management. To meet conservation objectives, protected areas are managed through a Management Plan based on the open standards for conservation methodology. The management plan is a management instrument based on a planning process that includes technical, regulatory, and guiding aspects aimed at ensuring the conservation of a protected area through its use.
In the creation of protected areas, facilitating visitor access with a sense of social equity is essential. The community, both national and international, has the right and the need for recreation in full contact with nature, as well as improving their knowledge about the natural and cultural values that these areas contain. As a result, the management plan of a protected area must consider the delimitation of public use areas that are particularly dedicated to the development of recreational activities and must have their respective Public Use Plan or Tourism Master Plan, which can have different names depending on the country.
One of the most comprehensive definitions of public use in natural spaces or protected areas is the one established by Europarc Spain, which defines public use as “the set of programs, services, activities, and facilities that, regardless of who manages them, must be provided by the administration of the protected area to bring visitors closer to its natural and cultural values in an orderly and safe way that guarantees the conservation, understanding, and appreciation of such values through information, education, and heritage interpretation” (Europarc España, 2005).
The planning carried out in protected areas, both global and specific, is also important in the social sphere. In the current globalized world, the activities contained in the planning must aim to deliver not only indirect benefits but also direct benefits to the local environment, particularly to neighbouring populations and even those within the protected areas.
In this context, specific planning regarding public use (Public Use Plan), which is compatible with the planning of the entire territory of a protected area (Management Plan), must involve the participation of local agents from the beginning of the preparation process for the respective Public Use Plan. These local agents include anyone who is linked to the management of the protected area, whether as a promoter or operator of sustainable tourism services, a provider of other types of services, or someone who can contribute technically to the administration of the area, such as Municipalities, National Tourism Service, Chambers of Tourism, non-governmental environmental organizations, or others. This vision aims to break the paradigm of isolationist management of protected areas that prevailed in many countries in past decades, which tended to turn protected areas into “islands of protection.” This implied little involvement of the local community and the risk that said community was not committed to progress in environmental protection or good environmental practices, both in the protected area and in its own environment.
According to Europarc España (2005), public use plans should ideally include a series of specific programs, namely: reception; management and direction; environmental education; research; participation; training or capacity building; quality; monitoring and evaluation; and economic programs.
In addition to the previously mentioned documents, there is a set of tools and techniques for managing visits to natural spaces. These strategies are related to the limits and regulations of visitation of each area, the range of recreational opportunities, the behaviour and profile of visitors, the monitoring of the impacts of tourism, the equipment and infrastructure available, among other aspects necessary for the management of public use (Leung et al., 2018).
Finally, it is important to mention a powerful protected area management tool already installed in many of them, but which needs to be strengthened and/or updated to improve the ecotourist experience. These are the Environmental Interpretation or Heritage Interpretation Programs. Although the principles of this discipline are old, proposed by Freeman Tilden in the 1950s, they are still very much in force and have been reinforced by the methodology proposed by authors such as Sam Ham (and Jorge Morales as its translator into Spanish), raised in his book “Interpretation: to make a difference intentionally” (Ham, 2014). Ham defines interpretation as “a creative process of strategic communication that produces intellectual, emotional, and attitudinal connections between the visitor and the resource that it is interpreted, making it generate its own meanings about that resource, so that it appreciates and enjoys it” (Ham, 2014). The interpretation of heritage, according to Morales, tries to explain more than inform, to reveal rather than show, and to arouse curiosity rather than satisfy it, provoking the visitor and committing them to acquire a more active role in the conservation of natural and cultural resources that we call heritage.