Global Tourism Controversies

November 9, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 40
Are destinations at risk from too many visitors? By Barbara Mantel

Short Features

Ecotourism Seeks to Conserve and to Give Back
Social Media Helps Drive Tourism

But critics say the practice falls short of its lofty goals.

Twenty-four years after civil war and genocide devastated Rwanda, “ecotourists” are flocking to this central African nation, where they can stay in luxury lodges and view spectacular sights, including volcanoes, golden monkeys and the main attraction — mountain gorillas.

The experience is not cheap, and that is partly by design.

To see the gorillas, an endangered species, a visitor must acquire a government-issued permit costing $1,500. A portion of that money — currently 10 percent — goes to communities near the national parks where the gorillas live to help build schools, clinics and housing.

For ecotourists, that fee is money well spent, said Paul Charles, CEO of The PC Agency, a travel marketing firm in London. “Those who go want to be tourist-philanthropists,” he said. “They want to give back to local communities.”1

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), an advocacy group in Washington that promotes ecotourism, defines it as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”2

But ecotourism, which grew out of environmental movement of the 1970s and surged to popularity in the 1980s, has long had critics, who say many hotels, lodges and tour companies use the term indiscriminately to lend a sheen to their businesses, a practice known as “greenwashing.”

To define ecotourism and set standards for the travel industry, TIES developed principles for ecotourism businesses to adopt, including:

  • “Minimize physical, social, behavioral and psychological impacts.

  • “Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.

  • “Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.

  • “Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.

  • “Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental and social climates.

  • “Design, construct and operate low impact facilities.

  • “Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People … and work in partnership with them.”3

Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard University and a consultant who helped develop these principles, says ecotourism has scored numerous successes globally. In addition to gorilla-watching tours in Rwanda, she cites environmentally conscious whale-watching expeditions in Mexico's Baja California Peninsula.

“It's just absolutely classic,” says Epler Wood, who returned recently from the region. “My guide was Mexican and had gotten an advanced degree on whale behavior at a university in Baja, and the local, so-called lancheros [boatmen] were running the small boats.” The Mexican government helped by building better docking facilities for the lancheros, she says. “There is often a public-private aspect to ecotourism.”

Epler Wood says the last accurate reckoning of ecotourism's size was conducted in 2002, which the United Nations proclaimed the International Year of Ecotourism. The U.N. then estimated it to be about 5 percent of global tourism. Even if that remains unchanged, she says, the absolute number of ecotourists must be significantly higher today, as overall international tourism has soared.

Tourists on a whale-watching tour in Magdalena Bay, Mexico (Getty Images/LightRocket/W. Kaehler)  
Tourists on a whale-watching tour in Magdalena Bay, Mexico, observe a gray whale in 2015. Ecotourism is a growing niche of the travel industry that focuses on environmental interests. (Getty Images/LightRocket/W. Kaehler)

Critics are skeptical about ecotourism's goals and effectiveness. “Claims that we can protect nature, benefit local communities and also bring national revenues to [these places] are faced with a different reality on the ground,” according to the Third World Network, a research and advocacy group for developing nations. “From Thailand to Belize, ecotourism has opened the doors to more forest destruction.”4

Anita Pleumarom, coordinator of the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team in Bangkok, Thailand, a private group that campaigns for social and ecological justice in tourism, said “ecotourism is fraught with romantic and delusional beliefs,” and the concept remains vague. No one, she said, has conducted empirical studies of how widely travel companies using the term have adopted ecotourism principles.5

Epler Wood agrees that such research does not exist. “I can only go by the work I've done in over 35 countries,” she says. “I've dealt with thousands of business, and I don't see [greenwashing] very often.”

Ecotourism's biggest weakness, says Epler Wood, is not greenwashing but the frequent lack of government planning for tourism development that occurs just outside protected wildlife areas. It can result in sprawl, she says.

Pleumarom's assessment is harsher: “Many people and communities whose territories have been turned into playgrounds for ecotourists have seen their remaining patches of natural forest disappear,” watersheds polluted and wildlife harmed “because of a plethora of tourism-related development projects and rapidly expanding numbers of tourists.”6

Travelers interested in ecotourism can check to see whether their hotel, lodge or tour operator is certified as “sustainable.” But they will want to be sure the certification body is legitimate, says Epler Wood. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council is a nonprofit in Washington that accredits certification bodies that meet its standards.

The problem is that certification is fairly rare, says Epler Wood. She urges prospective travelers to question tour companies, hotels and ecolodges about their greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife policies and whether their guides and suppliers are local.

“If the company has nothing in response, then move on,” she says.

— Barbara Mantel

[1] Laura Powell, “Rwanda Is Making a Push for the Right Number of High-Spending Visitors,” Skift, June 12, 2018,

[2] “What is Ecotourism?” International Ecotourism Society,

[3] “Principles of Ecotourism,” International Ecotourism Society,

[4] “2002: International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism,” Third World Network,

[5] Anita Pleumarom, “Ecotourism — an unsustainable delusion,” Briefing Paper 88, Third World Network, December 2016, pp. 1–3,

[6] Ibid.

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“People say the information is more up-to-date, more relevant to them.”

Over the past two years, Chinese tourists have been drawn to the white chalk cliffs that border the English Channel in East Sussex, England, inspired by the windswept landscape's appearance in social media and films. This summer, South Korean day-trippers discovered the cliffs, a two-hour drive south of London, after an actress from their homeland posted photos and a video of herself standing near their edge.

“When we search for London on social media, it's the first thing we see,” said Hyeon Hui Shin, a 28-year-old South Korean tourist visiting the cliffs.7

Social media is transforming tourism, says Richard Butler, professor emeritus of tourism at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and TripAdvisor are some of the platforms that allow travelers to browse photos, ratings and feedback when deciding where to visit. Critics, however, say social media has its downsides: It can exacerbate “overtourism,” in which popular sites are overrun with visitors, and lead to safety issues, such as when selfie-taking daredevils get too close to a cliff's edge.

But for its users, social media is a net positive. “People say the information on social media is more up-to-date, more relevant to them and more fun” than the information from tour operators, on destination websites and in guidebooks, says Ulrike Gretzel, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Center for Public Relations who studies social media and tourism. And people view it as more trustworthy than information from the tourism industry because it comes from other travelers, she adds.

Among Millennials, born between the early 1980s and 1990s, 86 percent are “inspired to book a trip based on content they viewed online,” and 87 percent “use Facebook for travel inspiration; more than 50 percent use Twitter or Pinterest,” according to a report by marketing consultancy FutureCast.8

Travel companies and tourism boards are catching on and creating social media campaigns to reach potential customers directly. For example, the regional tourism board in East Sussex, England, has hired a Chinese student to post about its chalk cliffs on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.9

A recent university report advised tourism operators in Southwest Australia seeking Asian visitors to start telling interesting stories on social media. “It is important that attractions in Australia's Southwest become more iconic by combining the unique features of the region with building popular social media moments,” said the study's lead author, Michael Volgger, a senior fellow in tourism marketing at Curtin University in Perth.10

Social media also is important to tourists, especially Millennials, once they reach their destinations. “It's a little bit of a security blanket for some people to let their friends and family know where they are, and for others, it can be a feedback and status kind of thing,” says Gretzel. In the Millennial travel report, 43 percent of Millennials reported that “the comments and ‘likes’ they receive from social media are as important or more important than a trip itself.”11

But the desire of many tourists to take clever selfies to post on Instagram, Facebook or other social media has led to dangerous behavior and even deaths. In the past six years, 259 people have died while taking selfies, according to a study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a group of public medical colleges in New Delhi. (The study did not say how many were tourists.)12

“In many places, people are climbing things they're not supposed to, they're jumping into fountains, and they're ignoring warning signs,” says Gretzel.

While social media can lead tourists to less crowded destinations that may welcome the influx, social media-using visitors also can overwhelm spots that are unprepared for the sudden attention. For example, Philip Evans, the head of tourism at the local council in East Sussex, said the visiting throngs threaten the chalk cliffs, which are crumbling in places.13

Social media also can concentrate tourists at already-crowded sites. “If you go to Pinterest, there are hundreds of posts about the 10 most photo-worthy spots in Los Angeles,” says Gretzel. Those posts drive tourists to those areas, exacerbating an already irritating problem for residents, she says.

But social media also can be part of the solution, according to Gretzel. “In many ways, social media is a blessing for destinations,” she says, “because this data allows officials to see where people are going and to potentially manage, and also anticipate, where problems might occur if suddenly there is hype around a certain place.”

In addition, government and tourism officials can work with so-called influencers, such as celebrities, to change travel patterns. “They can expose the influencers to different, less crowed places and therefore redirect their followers as well,” says Gretzel, citing Melbourne, Australia, and Switzerland as two places that are pursuing this strategy.

— Barbara Mantel

[7] Amie Tsang, “How Asian Social Media Transformed a Quiet U.K. Walking Spot,” The New York Times, Oct. 12, 2018,

[8] Skyler Huff and Leah Swartz, “The Millennial Brief on Travel & Lodging,” FutureCast, October 2016, p. 13,

[9] Tsang, op. cit.

[10] “Social media key: tourism report,” The West Australian, Oct. 22, 2018,

[11] Huff and Swartz, op. cit.

[12] Agam Bansal et al., “Selfies: A boon or bane?” Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, July-August 2018,

[13] Tsang, op. cit.

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Document APA Citation
Mantel, B. (2018, November 9). Global tourism controversies. CQ researcher, 28, 945-968. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2018110920
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ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Tourism and Vacation
Nov. 09, 2018  Global Tourism Controversies
Oct. 20, 2006  Ecotourism
Jun. 17, 1988  America's ‘Vacation Gap’
May 04, 1984  Tourism's Economic Impact
Jul. 21, 1978  Tourism Boom
May 14, 1969  Summer Camps and Student Travel
May 18, 1966  Tourist Dollar Gap
Apr. 19, 1961  Two-Way Tourism
Jul. 20, 1955  Competition for Passenger Travel
Jul. 03, 1946  Travel Boom
Jun. 17, 1930  Foreign and Domestic Tourist Traffic
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Land Resources and Property Rights
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National Parks and Reserves
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