Learning Contents – Module 2. Creation and management of ecotourism products, partnerships and companies

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  • Learning Contents – Module 2. Creation and management of ecotourism products, partnerships and companies

Topic 1. Management principles for ecotourism companies and products: Planning, organisation, direction, and control

As explained in the first module, ecotourism is a process of developing a more sustainable form of tourism that includes contributing to the conservation of biodiversity, enriching the link between visitors and nature, sustaining the well-being of local people, providing an interpretation/learning experience, involving responsible actions on the part of tourists and the tourism industry, being delivered primarily to small groups by small-scale businesses, requiring the lowest possible consumption of non-renewable resources, and stressing local participation, ownership, and business opportunities for endogenous communities (UNEP, 2002). Therefore, ecotourism companies and products should be planned and organized following the principles of ecotourism.

The basic functions for supporting the management of ecotourism companies and products are planning, organization, direction, and control. They need to be understood as a cycle and a process in which the steps are systematically organized. Planning is the starting point and the other functions are interconnected to ensure feedback to the system (Sobral and Peci, 2013; Pender and Sharpley, 2012). These functions can be understood as (Page, 2019; Krause and Weir, 2009; Mason, 2003; Patterson, 2001):

  • Planning: an oriented effort to achieve a desired future state. It consists of goals and plans that inform you what to do and how to do it. Planning can happen at different levels, from the most strategic to the most operational activities in ecotourism. The basic planning activities are: assessment of current conditions (of the ecotourism enterprise, project, or product), definition of the time horizon, data collection and goals definition.
  • Organisation: it refers to the disposal of resources to allow objective achievement of the ecotourism project. The organisation must: distribute tasks and resources among its members and design the power structure (more centralised or more decentralised). In the case of ecotourism companies, the production of services must also be organised, considering the installed capacity, the distribution and sales channels, and waste management.
  • Direction: this function concerns the orientation of individual efforts for a collective objective of ecotourism project. It is an interpersonal process, which includes aspects of culture, values, persuasion, communication, motivation, leadership and influence.
  • Control: it includes monitoring, tracking, and comparing what was expected (planned) and what was achieved in the ecotourism project. This function allows correction, problem detection and quality control. The information is fundamental in the form of indicators and standards for ecotourism companies and destinations.

The managers are responsible for decision-making and performing the four basic management functions, seeking to combine efficiency (less waste of resources) and effectiveness (ensuring the achievement of objectives). They should focus on balancing the internal strengths and weaknesses of the organization with external aspects such as opportunities and threats detected in the environment.

In a holistic approach required by ecotourism management, we assume organizations as open systems. They are vulnerable to changes that occur outside and over which they have no control. The external environment is composed of forces of change (technological, political, demographic, cultural, environmental, etc.) that need to be monitored and understood. In ecotourism, a series of stakeholders that interact and influence the organization is part of this external environment (Novelli et al., 2022).

Planning in ecotourism is a tool to guide the development of tourism by synthesizing and representing the vision of all the stakeholders while fulfilling the conservation objectives for the site. It should result in a document expressing the stakeholders’ recommendations for how ecotourism is to be carried out in the zone or interest area. This planning could include the following topics (UNWTO, 2013; Diamantis, 2004):

  • The need to use ecotourism as a guiding concept or at least make the argument for low- impact, revenue-generating tourism activities.
  • The required funding and the technical and logistical support will be available when needed (technical assistance, logistical support, meeting, and communication expenses, etc.)
  • The appropriateness of applying ecotourism (legislation allow or facilitate ecotourism, threats identified that ecotourism can respond, difficult to implement the ecotourism concept, etc).

Management for ecotourism companies and products could include the following stages (Drumm and Moore, 2005, USAID, 2014):

  • Setting priorities: Identify targets (eg. priority species), set goals for number and distribution of conservation targets, assemble information and relevant data and design a network of conservation areas to meet goals.
  • Developing strategies implies to stablish for areas planning: systems (the conservation targets), stresses (eg. soil erosion), sources of stresses (eg. tourism-related impacts); strategies to identify and evaluate possible tourism related threat mitigation strategies and Identify and evaluate ecotourism development potential; stakeholder consultation and success measures through indicators.
  • Taking action: Prepare agreements with partners, build partner capacity, provide training, technical assistance, and resources (tourism-based conservation finance, threat mitigation, and community enterprise development.
  • Measuring Success: Biodiversity health, threat abatement (success of mitigation strategy), partner capacity and financial management, adjust priorities, strategies, work- plans (through participation in annual budget and goal setting).

Design of Ecotourism Products, Projects, or Companies: This section outlines the process of identifying products, developing partnerships, tapping local knowledge, incorporating research, aligning projects with the local environment, developing policies and guidelines, and promoting environmental education and marketing, while ensuring that service providers are knowledgeable, skilled, committed, and adhere to ecotourism principles.

Planning in Ecotourism Management: This section explains the nature and purpose of planning in ecotourism, the planning process, types of plans and objectives, the use of management by objectives (MBO) in ecotourism, types of strategies and policies, and the decision-making process.

Organizing in Ecotourism Management: This section covers the nature and purpose of organizing, organization structure, formal and informal groups/organizations, line and staff authority, centralization and decentralization, delegation of authority, staffing, selection and recruitment, orientation, career development, training, and performance of ecotourism projects, products, and companies.

Directing in Ecotourism Management: This section focuses on managing people, including leadership styles and models, barriers to effective leadership, theories of motivation, organizational culture, elements and types of organizational culture, and managing cultural diversity.

Controlling in Ecotourism Management: This section covers the process of controlling, types of control, budgetary and non-budgetary control techniques, managing productivity, cost control, purchase control, maintenance control, and quality control planning operations.

Topic 2. Ecotourism stakeholders at different levels. Principles and methods of stakeholder analysis

Successful ecotourism planning and management are highly dependent on the ability of individual and organizational stakeholders to share information and resources and collectively solve problems and support the business. Understanding relationships among stakeholders can determine the conditions that enable or constrain social processes in ecotourism (Blokdyk, 2021).

Customers, communities, unions, faculty members, researchers, associations, NGOs, suppliers, shareholders, employees, government, conservation authorities, and financial bodies are some that should be taken into consideration in ecotourism ventures or projects (Durham et al., 2014).

Stakeholder management could be organized into 5 steps (Diamantis, 2021; Harrin, 2020): (1) identification, (2) importance and influence determination, (3) dialogues and participation, (4) intervention, (5) communication plan.

Stakeholder identification and participation: it is important to use methods and techniques to identify stakeholders at different levels (primary and secondary stakeholders) that can influence or have a stake in the ecotourism project and product by interconnecting them. Moreover, it is important to understand each stakeholder’s area of concern, document the stakeholder’s needs, and consider the characteristics of each stakeholder group (Fennell and Dowling, 2003; Michopoulou and Buhalis, 2010).

Stakeholder importance and influence: after the identification process, you need to determine the importance of each one and their influence on your project or enterprise. A simple tool that can help you is the importance and interest grid by Zubayr et al. (2014). Using a Likert scale, it is possible to define who are the key players (high importance and high influence) on ecotourism development. On the other hand, who are the crowd (low importance and low influence) (Lelloltery et al., 2021). Based on that (see Figure 1), you can define different strategies for the stakeholders of your ecotourism project or product. You can also develop an approach for each type of group and relationship the management wants to build. Partnerships and alliances, joint projects, and closer communication channels can be developed too, as well as actions to mitigate any damage caused to any group.

Figure 1. Matrix of the stakeholder importance and influence

Source: Zubayr et al., 2014

Stakeholder dialogues and participation: it is fundamental to build strategies to design a stakeholder participation process for the ecotourism project and product where the stakeholder´s positions and willingness to change are justified in a dialogue (Paletto et al., 2015). Each type of group and every relationship you want to build will require a different approach. Partnerships and alliances, joint projects, and closer communication channels can be developed, as well as actions to mitigate any damage caused to any group.

Stakeholder intervention: in this step it is important to analyse and explain the intervention of the stakeholder dialogue by evaluating and reflecting on how they can contribute to an ecotourism project or product.

Stakeholder Communication Plan: to determine effective communication practices for each stakeholder group, the following questions must be addressed: is this group providing requirements, using requirements, or supporting the ecotourism project work?, which elicitation technique(s) will be most effective?, which presentation format will be most comfortable for this group?, the Stakeholder Analysis Worksheet, when and where will communications with each stakeholder be most effective? What are the best communication techniques for each stakeholder?

The Stakeholder management can also benefit from a set of concepts and tools called social network analysis. They support the identification of stakeholders with influence, power, and prestige. Besides it helps to identify structures for group dynamics (measures of density, centralization, brokerage, reciprocity, and transitivity), and affiliations networks.

This analysis shows the relational attributes of social networks, which can help to contextualize stakeholders within a broader framework. It can be useful to analyse the density or general cohesion of groups, calculated from the total number of connections divided by the total possible connections (Rusen et al., 2021). Additionally, we can measure the centrality of certain individuals, as a high degree of centrality can be considered as focal points, ‘hubs’ or ‘stars of the network’, whereas individuals with a low grade can be considered peripheral. Finally, it allows us to analyse the distribution of relationships among individuals. This represents the extent to which social relationships are concentrated in a few stakeholders in the network or dispersed among all potentials involved. Based on measures of homogeneity/heterogeneity, it is possible to identify key social actors in the networks that act as ‘opinion leaders’ and can play a more strategic role in effecting changes or developing projects.

Topic 3. Public-private partnerships, potential partnerships and opportunities for communities and local businesses to invest in, participate in and benefit from ecotourism

The study on partnerships involves a broad model with new forms of governance, in which collective decision-making, service provision, and accountability involve participation and coordination between three main sectors (government, companies, and civil society organizations) for joint action (Akintoye et al., 2016; Yescombe, 2018). Therefore, this process includes considerations related to management, different types of arrangements, normative and legal frameworks, as well as issues related to interests, rights, and the different forms of action of the sectors involved (Rodrigues & Abrucio, 2019).

Many economic and government sectors are investing in partnership programs (Leitao et al., 2017). Thus, the management model of partnerships in tourism, transport, education, health, and environment differs and is linked to the specificity of public policy. This means that in each public policy, the combination between the public and private levels will be different, as these categories will interact in different contexts (Rodrigues & Abrucio, 2019).

Partnerships express different compositions between the public and private levels. Through relationships called “public-private partnerships,” private entities and NGOs contribute to financing, management expertise, technology, and other resources that can support the development of ecotourism (Eagles, 2009; Thompson et al., 2014).

In ecotourism, partnerships should seek to: (1) conserve natural and cultural heritage, (2) raise society’s awareness and engagement in environmental issues, and (3) promote the well-being of local communities (Eagles, 2009; Wyman et al., 2011).

In this way, public-private partnerships can be a powerful tool for ecotourism development and enhancement, as well as for research, marketing, and conservation of natural areas. Although public-private partnerships may not be the best tool for every situation, the strategic use of partnerships can contribute to the development of an ecotourism program, improving experiences, minimizing impacts, and engaging local communities (Eagles, 2009; Thompson et al., 2014).

Different compositions of PPP are found, involving public-community partnerships, community-private partnerships, partnerships with civil society organizations, and other types. The characteristics of each type of PPP involve issues such as (Wyman et al., 2011; Rodrigues & Abrucio, 2019):

  • The economic scope of the project;
  • Tourism dynamic within territorial context;
  • Type of partner (individual, corporate, civil society);
  • Type of formal procedure (administrative decision, contract, cooperation agreement);
  • Duration of the contract.

There are several types of public-private partnerships, such as concessions, authorizations, or permits. In the case of concessions, for example, contracts involving large and medium-sized long-term investments are signed. Authorizations or permits are short-term administrative acts that aim to regulate the provision of small services such as tour guiding or boat rental in ecotourism programs (Wyman et al. 2011; Rodrigues & Abrucio, 2019).

Studying partnerships as a basis for planning and managing ecotourism involves understanding some essential aspects:

  • Introduction – basic theories of public-private partnership (PPP); evolution of forms of interaction between government and business concepts and recent practices of PPP; public values and PPP; benefits and limitations. The topic of public values is central to governance. According to this understanding and seeking to elucidate different roles between the public and private levels in partnership management, Reynaers (2013) developed a study on public values, such as accountability, transparency, and quality, which should be addressed in concession and partnership processes with the private sector.
  • PPP models – the concepts of “governance”, “collaboration”, “cooperation”, and “partnership”; basic models of PPP and legal frameworks in the world; dedicated PPP laws; types of PPP applied in ecotourism in protected areas; contents and effectiveness from an ecotourism approach. Participation of civil society organizations in promoting ecotourism.
  • PPP project life cycle – the life cycle of each type of partnership will be observed, as the stages may vary according to the model adopted. (1) Planning and project development – PPP proposals identification and screening; Expression of Interest (“EOI”) phase; prequalification of bidders and institutions; carrying out previous studies; public hearing and consultation. (2) Operation – application of operating standards; relationship between the public and private levels; infrastructure implementation; (3) Monitoring – performance system, establishment of indicators; accountability; public participation in monitoring.
  • Strategies and governance – steps, monitoring, evaluation of PPP; skills and resources required for managing PPP; practices that lead to successful partnering with the private and public sectors; the role of ecotourism enterprises in partnerships.
  • Risks in PPP projects – classifications of risks, key stages of risk management, risk identification, risk assessment, and risk treatment in ecotourism projects.
  • PPP financial mechanisms – the key models of PPP project financing; sources and tools of financing for local communities and civil society organizations.

Topic 4. Management of the value chain activities within the ecotourism frameworks

Ecotourism can be characterized as conservation- and nature-based travel that includes educational and interpretive elements to raise public awareness among residents and visitors, minimize adverse effects on the natural and socio-cultural environment, and benefit the local economies of host communities. The ecotourism product is multifaceted and includes both tourism components and certain behaviors and beliefs that are essential to this industry’s value chain. To meet customer demands, a tourism business manages productive factors so they can be turned into consumable goods or services.

As a result, the tourism industry functions as a unit of both social and economic production. Managing people, economic resources, and technical resources is necessary for its proper operation. In this way, a value scale that can be expressed in primary and support activities emerges.

The primary activities include product development, marketing, internal logistics, destination services, and post-sale services. Planning for destinations and infrastructure, managing people resources, developing resources and products, and using ICTs are examples of support or secondary tasks.

The value chain is depicted in the following table.

As shown in the table, the primary activities make up product creation, promotion, internal logistics, destination services, and after-sales services. Special care must be taken in the latter, given that after-sales generates the complete cycle that will generate added value. The support activities must generate infrastructure activities in destinations, a commitment of human resources, considering all environmental improvements with special care in the sustainability of destinations, innovation, and technology with the efficient use of TICs.

For a better understanding, ecotourism allows knowledge of its unique values and attractions and is capable of luring tourists and inspiring their exploration of the area, stopping at the attractions, engaging in activities, and utilizing the services that have been made available for that purpose.

The value chain in ecotourism implies that the consumer can understand the offer of services (physical and psychological) from these approaches (Iglesias, 1995: 149):

  • How a destination is perceived by visitors is determined by the total of its tangible and intangible components, which include its resources, infrastructure, tools, services, management engineering, brand image, and price (ESADE, 1996).
  • It can be summarized as the synthesis of three fundamental components: amenities (accommodation, food, recreation, and other services), accessibility (transportation infrastructure), and attractions (natural, cultural, and events) (Acerenza, 1982).

Tourist services include all the services that the tourist requires and consumes directly while traveling, such as accommodation, food, transportation, tour guides, travel agencies, etc.

The infrastructure supports the performance of a variety of economic and productive activities, including the growth of sustainable tourism. Tourist services include all the services that visitors need.

Therefore, it is relevant, depending on the vocation and type of tourist destination, to have the general conditions in infrastructure; basic services, transportation, roads, and commercial services to meet the basic needs of both residents and visitors.

All the services a tourist may need are included in the tourism services. To ensure that the experience of the visit is good and remembered with the sensation of “wanting to return,” the role played by those who have some direct or indirect responsibility in the provision of tourist services is crucial.

Efficiency, speed of service, and completion of all daily responsibilities, such as those assigned to hotel staff, are not the only considerations. Understanding that the production chain is interconnected is important because, even though tourists may receive services individually (excursions, food, lodging, car rentals, etc.), in reality, when they return home at the end of their trip, they will perceive and assess the destination as a whole.

In order for a tourist resort to live up to its projected image and, better still, beyond the expectations of its visitors, it will be required for it to have skilled and highly qualified human capital. The management of the location must be influenced and guided by its specialization in tourism and the activities it provides.

A rising demand in the tourism industry is for human capital to be educated and trained. As the number of tourists increases, there is an urgent need for highly qualified employees in tourism-related fields, and this is especially relevant for the ecotourism case, which should be a high-quality product.

Topic 5. Principles of marketing for ecotourism companies and products

Marketing is a set of ongoing activities necessary to create and stimulate consumer demand and to direct the flow of goods and services from the producer to the consumer in the process of distribution. Therefore, it is a societal process by which individuals and groups obtain what they need and want by creating, offering, and freely exchanging products and services of value with others. Marketing is an ongoing process of discovering and translating consumer needs and desires into products and services, creating demands for these products and services, meeting the consumer and their demand through a network of marketing channels, and expanding the market base in the face of competition (Kotler and Armstrong, 2013).

From this perspective, ecotourism marketing is the process of achieving voluntary exchanges between tourists and organizations. Tourists want to buy products and services, and organizations offer the products and services (Camilleri, 2018). For example, ecotourism marketing involves activities such as designing an ecotour package, promoting an ecotour package, and selling the package (Gursoy and Chi, 2018). Ecotourism marketing can also be understood as a process that begins with understanding the needs of tourists (consumers) that can be satisfied by offering a suitable product or service (for example, an eco-tour package).

The main features of ecotourism products are as follows (Choudhary and Kumar, 2016; Hall, 2014):

i. Inseparability: Services are consumed and experienced by a customer simultaneously and as such makes it impossible to demonstrate the product being offered before it is actually consumed;

ii. Perishability: Tourism products are intangible in nature and cannot be stored like the other tangible products;

iii. Ownership: In ecotourism products, a customer buys only the experience;

iv. Heterogeneity: Ecotourism products are a combination of several services provided by people. The high involvement of humans’ results in variation in behaviour from one consumer to another.

These elements are fundamental to understand marketing strategies in ecotourism.

Moreover, it is crucial to understand marketing functions or tasks which can be considered as a system where interaction occurs between an organisation and a customer, the main functions or tasks are as follows (Kim and Wang, 2021, Santos and Silva, 2019, Ray, 2017):

  • Market research is the systematic investigation of the facts relevant to various aspects of marketing. It helps in identifying the needs of customers. It involves the study of different markets and customers, such as their tastes and preferences, and what they are willing to buy and when they are likely to buy. It is a systematic collection of information relating to the supply and demand for a product or a proposal. Therefore, organisations involved in the ecotourism business need to know who their potential tourists are, where they come from, their likes and dislikes, etc., so that a product can be designed according to their needs. This information will help an organisation to offer a product that can be effectively sold in the market.
  • Product planning and development are concerned with identifying customers’ needs, developing new products, and improving the existing products to meet the needs of customers. Ecotourism is a composite product; it is the sum total of a country’s tourist attractions, its natural beauty, climate, history, culture, transport, accommodation, and entertainment. Information collected through market research can help organisations to redesign existing products. For example, a new eco-tour package can be offered to a particular group of tourists.
  • Segmentation is a process of identifying groups of buyers of a total market with different buying needs or requirements. It identifies and analyses the socio-economic, lifestyles, and motivational characteristics of potential buyers into useful categories and launches advertising and promotional campaigns for these selected groups. Segmentation helps tourist organisations to design and offer products to a particular segment as per the needs of that segment.
  • Promotion refers to a mechanism of communicating, informing, persuading, and influencing customers to buy a product. The objective of promotion is to make the customers aware of the product to create demand for the product. Promotion is the mix of various communication activities which tourist organisations carry out with a view to motivating or influencing the target customers. Various techniques that are used in promotion include advertising, publicity, personal selling, and sales promotion.
  • Selling is the process of helping customers to buy the products and services that an organisation offers at a price to earn profit for the business. The basic purpose of all marketing activities is to sell the goods and services. Selling helps the business to satisfy the needs of customers.
  • The marketing mix is defined as a set of controllable marketing tools that a firm blends to produce the response it wants in the target market. It consists of everything the firm can do to influence the demand for its product. It constitutes the core of the organisation’s marketing system, which includes four basic decision areas known as the “four Ps” of marketing (Product, Place, Price, Promotion).
  • People are involved in offering services to customers; their performance plays a vital role in ecotourism. The behaviour and attitude of the service personnel in a hotel, transport, or a travel agency play a key role while performing the services visible to the tourists. They play an important role in attaining customer satisfaction.
  • Physical evidence can be used to build a strong association in the mind of tourists and also to differentiate the service from that of competitors. This element relates to the external and internal appearance of any tourism-related organisation.

These tasks indicate the importance of destination image development in ecotourism considering that the activities in tourist locations are primarily influenced by how tourists perceive the destination. As a result, it is essential to market tourism to encourage people to visit these places while being environmentally responsible.

From these elements, today marketing is the core of any business activity such as ecotourism. It is therefore important for a manager to understand the concepts of marketing and refer to the same in managing, planning, and controlling from the approach of ecotourism. Furthermore, unlike in other businesses, where competition may be among providers who are locally present, the tourism business opens the firm up to competition from destinations and locations all over the world. This means that to succeed in tourism marketing, it is necessary to be able to build a good image and benefits of the destination, which is fundamental in the promotion of ecotourism (Bly, 2018, Reske, 2017).

Topic 6. Communication techniques, including digital tools and social networks

Communication has an important role in supporting ecotourism and managing its multiple dimensions. Communication can create and facilitate a system that allows stakeholders to exchange opinions and arrive at consensual solutions. Effective use of communication tools can also link products to markets and can contribute to visitors’ safe and positive experiences. Moreover, the communication of eco-friendly tourism activities or services gives visibility to a destination and strengthens its competitive advantage (Tölkes, 2018).

Communication is key to enhancing the information flow along the supply chain from service providers to end users, ensuring that ecotourism initiatives and products reach potential tourists that may be thousands of miles away (Fennell & de Grosbois, 2023).

Communication can bring successful ecotourism development if it: i. involves all relevant stakeholders (including local communities) in decision-making; ii. facilitates networking and sharing of information and knowledge; iii. catalyses collaborative action; iv. encourages private sector investments; iv. advocates for necessary policy change; v. builds skills and capacity; vi. controls expectations; vii. supports adoption of good practices standards; vii. develops demand for ecotourism services and products; viii. links tourism products to markets; ix. explains cultural norms to visitors; x. enhances visitor experiences; and xii. scales-up impacts.

Communications in ecotourism include four categories during time:

i. Information and promotion refers to communications used to persuade consumers into product purchase using mass media communications and other, the emphasis is on rational, product-based information; process and imagery;

ii. Process and imagery describe communications that are used to influence the various stages of the purchase process. In this type, the emphasis is on product imagery and emotional messages;

iii. Integration means that communication resources are used in an effective way to enable customers to have a clear view of the brand proposition. The emphasis lies on strategy, media neutrality and a balance between rational and emotional communication;

iv. Relational refers to communication used as an integral part of the different relationships that organisations share with consumers. The emphasis is on value and meaning plus a recognition of the different communication needs and processing styles of different target groups.

Moreover, in ecotourism communications objectives can be divided into three categories (De Pelsmacker et al., 2010):

  • The reach goals of communication are to touch the target groups in an effective and efficient way. For this purpose, a good segmentation and audience definition is obligatory, as well as insights into the media behaviour of the desired groups;
  • Process goals are conditions which should be established before any communication can be effective. All communications should capture the attention of the target consumers, then appeal and finally be processed;
  • The effectiveness goals are the most important ones, since attaining goals only assures sufficient exposure, and process goals only ensure enough processing of the message to make the effectiveness goals possible.

Strategic communication is an integral part of generating results in ecotourism. This generally involves communicating a concept that satisfies a long-term strategic goal of an ecotourism organization. This theme introduces public affairs and campaigns in the digital age, assessing a wide range of communication activities, crisis communication, complaints management, and reputation management. Social networking, when channelled by properly designed digital tools, can be used to increase knowledge and awareness.

Communication in ecotourism is a challenge since, in many cases, tourists are unable to directly perceive or experience its attributes, and therefore an explicit communication strategy is required to demonstrate commitment to the environment and communities (Belch & Belch, 2019). Furthermore, a commitment to stakeholders about its products, services, actions, activities, benefits, among others, in a differentiated way, and with special interest to tourists and/or potential sectors, is also desirable. Several mobile apps use image capturing for content recognition. Although often not accurate, the level of success in taxa identification is increasing, and unsuccessful attempts are often related to the use of non-regional databases. The potential of these apps is unquestionable since taxonomy is often considered a difficult task. Biodiversity apps offer great potential in nature tourism, both for the tourist and for guides, who sometimes feel challenged to provide accurate information on the flora and fauna of their region.

The communication process in ecotourism can be analysed from the following elements to design strategies more effectively (Jutkowitz, 2017; Page & Parnell, 2018):

Context (the balance between the functional and emotional design of communication strategy that provides a suitable level of information, and is interesting and engaging in terms of the emotional satisfaction);

Content (refers to what is presented in different formats considering: Offering a mixed balance between information, products and services; Fine tuning the balance between Functional (attribute and benefits), Emotional (feelings and brand) and Multimedia (through a correct combination of audio, text, graphics, images and video);

Community (interactions between users and ecotourism company);

Customization (creating a communication strategy that is capable of appealing to the individual needs and wants of its users);

Type of communication (the type of relationship offered by the organisation promoting interactive communication);

Commerce (the ability of the user to conduct commercial transactions);

Connection (established with the potential users or tourists).

Topic 7. Benchmarking on existing ecotourism products, targeting potential audiences and developing new products

Ecotourism development in tourist destinations is realistic if all stakeholders can agree on priorities: ecological maintenance, local community, and tourist satisfaction. For these reasons, managers often aim to establish strategies and operational procedures that lead to the achievement of sustainable competitive advantage in tourist destinations, including benchmarking techniques (Kozak & Rimmington, 1999). Moreover, benchmarking with other ecotourist enterprises would allow for the creation of a virtuous cycle for long-term development from a systemic point of view.

To effectively manage primary and secondary information, and understand the best practices and procedures of businesses, institutions, products, services, and individuals in ecotourism projects or products, benchmarking models, comparison parameters, and qualitative and/or quantitative market research tools should be applied (Tatham, 2015). These are essential in this service because they serve as examples for planning, organization, and development.

In general, the main features of benchmark ecotourist enterprises could include the following (Wober, 2002): i. Environmental management (good quality of energy supply and efficiency); ii. Ecotourism/natural assets (high nature conservation, increasing tourism development); iii. Supporting assets (telephones/mobile phones in line with other national areas, presence of internet or wifi); iv. Cleaner production (average waste generated, discrete hygiene and sanitation); v. Tourism carrying capacity (high customer care positive image), among others.

Benchmarking is a process as follows (Kozak, 2004):

  • To determine the purpose of benchmarking (to specify the clients for information about benchmarking, to ascertain the information requirements of benchmarking clients, to pinpoint crucial success criteria, and to assess the benchmarking process);
  • Create a benchmarking team (team kinds, benchmarking as a team activity) roles and obligations, competencies and characteristics of an effective benchmarking practitioner, training.
  • Establish your own benchmarking information network, identify information sources, look for best practices and cooperative benchmarking partners, and establish networks., Other benchmarking information sources among a significant number of benchmarking partners)
  • In assemble and evaluate benchmarking data (“Know thyself”, data collection, benchmarking protocol, organisation of benchmarking, identification of possible product and process improvements, vision of the project as a whole).

The marketing strategy is a management tenet that holds that reaching organisational objectives depends on being aware of the requirements and desires of target markets and delivering the needed satisfactions more effectively than rivals. Marketing is the science of acquiring, retaining, and expanding profitable customers (UNWTO, 2007).

Ecotourism companies wishing to conduct a benchmarking analysis should consider the following key factors (Lennon, et al., 2006):

  • The differentiated value that is provided will determine how distinct an ecotourism market can be.
  • Knowing the five stages of the marketing process: the business focuses on client understanding, value creation, and connection building in the first four. The benefits of providing consumers with higher value are realised by businesses in the final step.

Ecotourism companies can obtain client value in the form of sales, profits, and long-term customer equity by creating this value. In this sense, it is very important to specify your intended audience. Establish differentiating goals for the ecotourism product, determine the target market in accordance with the ecotourism product’s qualities, and segment the market accordingly.

Topic 8. Identification of the needs and expectations of clients, and evaluation of the satisfaction of ecotourism activities

We live in a world where offering products and services is not enough. According to Pine & Gilmore (1998), “consumers – unquestionably – want experiences and increasingly companies are responding to this by explicitly designing and promoting them.” This phrase from 1998 may seem old and outdated, but the truth is that it still holds relevance today, especially in the tourism sector, and especially in ecotourism. Ecotourism needs to develop experiences that are differentiating and relevant to their customers, since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the sector to adapt to drastic changes, and consumers have changed their way of expressing consumption, forcing organizations to be attentive to these new needs and demands.

The first step to understanding customer needs is to know who my customer is, and for that, segmentation strategies can be developed based on demographic, geographic, psychographic, and attitudinal segmentation criteria. It is important to point out that what is relevant in segmentation is to know who my customers are, grouping them mainly by tastes and preferences, since segments with the same demographic and geographic characteristics can be completely different.

In the case of ecotourism, we can affirm that everyone is a potential ecotourist, has been or will be, and we can segment them into four large groups based on their relationship, knowledge, and level of interest in the activity they are developing. Some characteristics of each are described below (Dixit et al., 2022).

  • Occasional ecotourist: This is the tourist that accidentally takes an Ecotourism service, as a product of the contracting of another larger service, and their interest in the environment is low or null.
  • Natural landmarks ecotourist: They visit certain points of interest, with the intention of getting out of the routine, where their main motivation is to live an adventure in a natural environment.
  • Interested ecotourist: Tourists who are mainly looking for Ecotourism activities, because they love nature and do not want to spend their vacations in big cities or popular beaches.
  • Dedicated ecotourist: They are mainly scientists, researchers and nature scholars, as well as people with a high environmental vocation, who want to learn or help in the conservation of the environment. They are people who see Ecotourism as an instrument of conservation and want to contribute a grain of sand.

After understanding broadly how to segment customers, the next step is to understand what their needs are. For this, there are several methodologies. One can be to create what is known as the customer archetype or buyer persona, which is to humanize the ideal customer in a semi-fictional representation where patterns of behaviour, motivations, lifestyles, needs, and interests of people are represented, allowing to design ecotourism experiences that are of value to customers.

On the other hand, when we talk about identifying needs, it is important to remember that needs are discovered, not created. So, the process involves discovering a latent need, stimulating desire, and generating demand with a product that adapts to the needs of customers.

In this same sense, when a customer has a need, that is, he/she has a lack and begins a process of searching for how to satisfy that need, and in that process will be the total set of companies he knows. Then, he will advance to the companies of consideration since, from the total set, there are companies or services that he will not access for multiple reasons. Finally, he will make the decision and evaluate the service, creating a perception either positive or negative.

From the point of view of organizations working in ecotourism, understanding this is key. So, the application of tools such as Customer Journey Maps will help to identify each and every one of the points of contact that the customer will have, from the search that today we know begins in the digital world, to navigation, booking, or payment, and then the experience in the physical world (Brewer and Holmes, 2021).

Many companies make the mistake of generating a very good brand image but not properly managing the customer touchpoints, being inconsistent with the value proposition. This is of vital importance since companies must identify these points of contact and analyse in-depth how their customers relate to them, detecting failures in the flow to eliminate the frictions that prevent their proper functioning to generate positive experiences (De la Riva et al., 2020).

Thus, it is imperative to speak of excellence or quality in tourism service. When we speak of quality in tourism, this is mainly associated with the tourist experience. But what is quality in tourism? According to the WTO, it is “the result of a process that implies the satisfaction of all legitimate needs, demands, and expectations of consumers with respect to products and services, at an acceptable price, in accordance with mutually accepted contractual conditions, and with the underlying factors that determine quality, such as safety, hygiene, accessibility, transparency, authenticity, and harmony of a tourism activity concerned with its human and natural environment” (WTO, 2003).

In ecotourism, quality is much more demanding, almost as a basic and implicit attribute in the service. It is assumed that quality is a must in this type of service since people who practice ecotourism are generally more demanding than traditional tourists. Ecotourists want to see the species of flora and fauna they have paid to see, seek tranquillity to enjoy the natural attraction, need a lot of information, well-prepared and excellent guides, transportation, and comfortable accommodations, among other major demands.

Delivering ecotourism experiences based on the needs of consumers translates into growth for companies since it provides greater satisfaction and memorability, building customer loyalty in an organic way. Customers are likely to buy again and recommend the brand.

It is imperative to measure the customer experience in ecotourism since something that cannot be quantified and measured cannot be managed. Companies that do not measure their customer experience cannot make informed decisions. It’s like trying to drive a car without a speedometer, rear-view mirrors, gas meter, etc. and want to get to your destination safely.

Many companies do not measure their customer experience, and even more serious, they believe they deliver an excellent service, but only a very low percentage of their customers. Customers tend to keep silent without giving feedback to the company about their bad experiences. They will talk about them with their close ones, which can increase the impact of the negative experience by up to 10 new people who will not consider the company’s services after a bad recommendation.

Companies that design and measure the customer experience use methodologies to design the customer journey within the purchasing process. They use the most common metrics such as the Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Advocacy (CA), and Customer Satisfaction Index (CSAT) to measure customer satisfaction and recommendation. However, these metrics do not reflect whether the customer will buy again or will be loyal.

The metric that best predicts repurchase and increased consumer spending is the Customer Effort Score (CES). The CES aims to know the level of effort incurred by a customer in a purchase process since customers today more than ever are looking for companies to give them solutions quickly and simply.

Thus, it is of utmost importance for ecotourism companies to design and measure the experience of customers in contact with the organization, making room for disciplines such as User Experience (UX) and Service Design (SD), both within what we know as Customer Experience (CX). The purpose of CX is a holistic view of the customer, putting them at the centre, seeking to make the entire purchasing process and all possible interactions, whether with staff or contact channels, positive experiences.

Topic 9. Sustainability practices that can be implemented at company level

Policymakers, businesses, and destination management authorities, tourism operators, local communities, and visitors each have a role to play in ensuring that tourism enhances, rather than diminishes destinations as places to live, work, visit and enjoy (Seba, 2012). Making ecotourism a reality is a process, not a goal. Developing and implementing practices that help to enhance the positive effects and reduce the negative effects of tourism activity on a daily basis is an important part of this process, where consumers are demonstrating that they are increasingly influenced by ethical and sustainability issues in their purchase decisions (Goodwin, 2011). This applies to travel and tourism too, where several consumer-driven trends are demonstrating consumers’ increasing interest in embracing ecotourism practices.

Ecotourism practices are therefore about planning, developing, and managing tourism in a way that ensures that (World Tourism Organization, 2020; Wood, 2017): negative impacts are managed and minimized, and the net benefits tourism can create for places and people are enhanced; natural resources are conserved, and biodiversity is protected; cultural traditions and heritage are respected, celebrated, and preserved; local economies and livelihoods are strengthened; the well-being and quality of life of communities are enhanced, and they are involved in tourism decision-making. Therefore, ecotourism is not a product, a niche, a market proposition, or even a ‘form’ of tourism – all types of tourism can be made more sustainable.

Ecotourism could adopt the following practices at company level to promote sustainable travel (European Travel Commission, 2021, Bien, 2006, Charters et al., 2003):

  • Developing a shared vision for the destination based on cross-sector consensus creating mechanisms for long-term and deep cooperation between private, public and community stakeholders;
  • Building sustainability into tourism strategy and planning identifying the impacts of tourism and an understanding of its costs and benefits will help shape and prioritise strategic actions, as well as those who can lead and contribute to them including environmental aspects, such as responsible resource consumption, investment in green infrastructure, application of circular economy principles, reducing water and energy use, low carbon transportation and renewable energy; and social impacts as resident views on tourism and host-guest interaction; economic issues, including decent work and strong supply chains;
  • Developing tourism within a broad-based economy ensuring that tourism is firmly aligned with the place’s environmental and social objectives;
  • Consulting and placing local communities at the centre of tourism planning and development carrying out actions to raise awareness of the importance of tourism to the local economy, and help to demonstrate the benefits that it brings to local community life;
  • Regenerative tourism: using tourism to positively contribute to the destination and its environment as part of a broad “ecosystem” recognising that there is an opportunity to go beyond mitigating negative impacts and generate positive social and environmental benefits for people and place when developing tourism strategies and action plans;
  • Creating sustainable financing mechanisms for tourism development and management ensuring that revenues generated contribute to reducing negative impacts of tourism, enhancing the destination and protecting its assets, and raising living standards and the quality of facilities for local residents;
  • Setting new measures of success: prioritising local wellbeing and value over volume developing metrics specifying benefits for the destination, such as small business development, sustainable supply chains, local sourcing, income distribution, protection of natural and cultural resources, environmental management and progress;
  • Identifying climate risks and aligning tourism development objectives with carbon reduction commitments identifying and advocating for how tourism can contribute to national and regional carbon reduction objectives;
  • Using tourism revenue to protect and conserve natural and cultural heritage assets identifying ways in which tourism revenues can contribute to the conservation, protection and celebration of cultural and natural assets on which destination attractiveness is based, and serve to mitigate negative impacts of tourism;
  • Monitoring visitor demand pre-visit and in-destination to predict and manage visitor growth;
  • Promoting a strong sense of place working with local people to identify what is special about the destination, to engender community cohesion and local pride as well as increased support for the type of tourism local people would like to see;
  • Embedding sustainability into industry practice to make it part of ‘business as usual’ supporting tourism and hospitality businesses to adopt sustainable practices to create benefits for the destination, particularly in respect of resource consumption and environmental management but also in relation;
  • Building responsible, transparent and inclusive supply chains and procurement policies;
  • Providing consumers with information to make responsible choices creating accessible platforms where consumers looking for products and services, and operators looking for suppliers, can find information on the sustainability performance of tourism businesses and low-carbon transport options.

Moreover, there are many tools available to ecotourism companies that can help them develop sustainability (Bustam, 2010): sustainable management strategies, such as tourism certification, eco-labelling, and eco-costs (levied as charges and taxes); measures for mitigating the impacts of tourism supply, demand, planning, and development, such as regulatory pressure and environmental management, including water- and energy-saving measures, waste minimization, use of environmentally friendly materials, green advertising/marketing guidelines, green events, and business events; conditions necessary for sustainable tourism, such as the involvement of local communities in tourism development and operation, which is an important condition for sustainable tourism; and other tools such as life cycle management, eco-business, environmental management, social sustainability management, sustainable procurement, supply chain sustainability, product stewardship, extended producer responsibility, environmental claims, labels, and declarations.

Topic 10. Corporate social responsibility and ecotourism

Corporate social responsibility is a strategy to improve products, profits, and brand equity. The idea of corporations as simply wealth-creating organizations with no obligations to the environment is no longer acceptable. Globalization, combined with increased transparency of corporate operations, has revealed significant variations in how organizations are attempting to balance the pursuit of profits and good corporate citizenship (Hall et al., 2015). Increased measurement of natural resources, pollution controls, monitoring of ethical supply chains, and expanded training of employees are growing globally, revealing interesting results. Stakeholder expectations have also accelerated the need to monetize these initiatives; however, the lack of standardized methodologies and metrics has confused many industries, hindering greater progress (Abdelli et al., 2022). The continued progress of corporate social responsibility represents a significant emerging opportunity for ecotourism’s new competitive advantages.

The components of corporate social responsibility in ecotourism are related to (Gualiani and Rizwan, 2016, Font and Lynes, 2020):

  1. From the economic perspective: ecotourism has an effect and supports economic growth;
  2. From the social-cultural perspective: ecotourism can contribute to the increase in the employment level, revenues and improvement of the quality of life, the culture level, acceleration of the process of social progress, integration in the global system of values, revitalization of the poor areas, etc.;
  3. From the environmental perspective: an unpolluted environment, with a well-preserved diversity of landscapes, flora and fauna is a good support for ecotourism development, a key element of attractiveness and generation of comparative advantages, having priority in the criteria of choosing destinations.

The main determinant to adopt corporate social responsibility in ecotourism business are the following (Durlacher et al., 2019, Koutra, 2017 Pascauriu and Frunza, 2011):

  • Increase in interdependencies between tourism and sustainable development (which implies to associate the concepts of ecological development, ecological responsibility, social responsibility, integrated quality of the ecotourist product portfolio and competitiveness);
  • Increase the role of the public-private partnership and integration in networks for the strategic development of the ecotourism enterprises (social responsibility integrates the social and environmental aspects in the enterprise policies, considering the interests of all the types of “parties” involved directly and indirectly (customers, shareholders, employers, civil society, population and local environment);
  • Ecotourist occupancy exceeds the capacity of absorption and regeneration of the receiving space in the areas with high tourist intensity, affecting the social-cultural area, the environment and biodiversity;
  • Inequalities in the access to tourism; the access to tourism has become an indicator of the life quality; by integrating the social component, the model of the sustainable tourism also means reducing disparities and discrimination in the tourist consumption, by supporting the disadvantaged groups; taking on the corporate social responsibility by the tourist industry supposes the identification of opportunities to facilitate access to tourism;
  • The social deficits at the level of the labour force used in ecotourism by a high potential of employing the labour force, especially on disadvantaged segments, with relatively small chances of integration on the labour market: young people, women, people with an average / a low level of education and professional training; such a function is very attractive for the growing regions, where there are not too many alternatives of employment;
  • The tendency to adopt architectural styles in the tourist infrastructure without a connection with the local architecture; the ecotourism enterprises can contribute to the preservation of authenticity and specificity of the attractive resources of the destination by taking on the responsibility of the new building’s architecture; among others.

Topic 11. Criteria and initiatives for certification of ecotourism and sustainable tourism

Certification is an audit process that provides certainty about some infrastructure, process, product, service, or management system. Its objective is to serve as an information tool for the general public so that they can identify and guide their consumption preferences. Upon reaching specific standards or levels, it is validated and ensured in writing that these requirements are met (Buckley 2002).

Since the 1970s, several certifications related to the promotion of environmentally appropriate procedures and standards have appeared as a response to the concern of consumers and social institutions regarding the deterioration of the environment due to the impact of the industry, society, and consumption habits (Buckley and Cabaret 2007). Therefore, certification is considered a mark of higher quality in a product or service and an indicator of the product’s economic, environmental, or social responsibility (Honey and Stewart 2002).

Green certification appeared in Europe and quickly achieved global distribution and broad diversification of forms. In general, those who obtain the certification are given a seal or logo used as a marketing strategy. Also known as “environmental seals,” “eco-seals,” “green logos,” or “eco-logos,” they are defined as “a visual medium that allows consumers to be guided within a society, seeking that they prefer products or services that affect the environment to a lesser degree, compared to similar products or services. It is a set of registered and recognized symbols that usually certify to society that the product meets a series of requirements and standards established to protect the environment of a community. Here the processes are involved by producers, marketers, and consumers” (Haaland and Aas 2010).

The tourism industry was one of the first to adopt certification standards as a marketing strategy and provide information to the client about the actual quality of the offer. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have recognized quality standards through the five-star system (AAA in North America and the Michelin Guide in Europe) (Buckley, 2002; Hamele, 2004). These systems manage quality aspects in the offer of services such as lodging and food, and later aspects of health, hygiene, and safety were incorporated (Bien 2007). Starting in the late 1980s in Europe (with the ‘Blue Flag’ campaign in Denmark), aspects of quality and environmental impact began to be incorporated, and in the mid-1990s, socio-cultural aspects (Well 2007). Such certificates gave rise to a proliferation of certification systems, with more than 60 certification systems for the first decade of the millennium and green seals associated with tourism offers (including hotels, operators, transportation, recreation, and other related services), where we find global, continental, national, and even local certifications (Buckley, 2002).

Today there are several types of certifications for the hotel industry. When considering social and environmental impacts, we can show as an example the criteria developed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), which are mainly based on the following points (Conefrey and Hanrahan 2022):

  • Demonstrate effective, sustainable management.
  • Maximise social and economic benefits for local communities and minimise negative impacts.
  • Maximise the benefits for the local cultural heritage and minimise the negative impacts.
  • Maximise the benefits for the environment and minimise the negative impacts.

Within the fundamental elements to consider in the last point (maximising the benefits for the environment and minimising the negative impacts), we see three large sections:

  1. It has to do with resources such as energy, water, consumer goods, and materials.
  2. Based on reducing pollution generated (air, water, waste management, hazardous substances, noise, light).
  3. Directed mainly to conserve biodiversity, ecosystems, and landscapes.

As certification exercises are based on the management of a specific project, the evaluation of the scope of the processes must respond to defined criteria and be understood in the same way by different actors (producer, certifier, and consumer). Depending on who performs it, this evaluation defines whether the certification exercise is first, second, or third-party (Buckley 2002), where each level varies in terms of rigor and credibility. In first-party certification exercises (lower degree of rigor and credibility), evaluation and monitoring are performed by someone who has a direct interest in the evaluation outcome. Usually, the organization defines its standards and reports on those standards. In the second-party, an individual (or group of individuals such as consumers) external to the organization performs the evaluation and monitoring. However, they have an indirect interest in the result of the evaluation. In third-party exercises (third-party certification), an individual (or group) who has no interest in the final product performs the evaluation and monitoring. In the context of green markets, third-level certification is the most accepted to enter international markets such as North America or the European Union (Borck and Coglianese 2009). However, it must be considered that the type of verification (assessment) and the definition of standard depend on the needs or desires of the interested individuals (producers and consumers), so rigorous certification criteria can be found in the market or first-level voluntary exercises (performed by conscious producers) may suffice (Buckley 2002).

The benefits obtained from these certification exercises and their recognition through the seal are evident from a commercial point of view. For example, they can help colonize new markets and increase the sale price. There is evidence that certification could be a helpful tool in environmental protection services. However, these programs must be subject to continuous review and regular audits (Buckley and Crabtree 2007).