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Community views of ecotourism

Key Message

Ecotourism’s real connection to conservation comes through participation in ownership and management of ecotourism ventures by the community, rather than through economic benefits alone.


Stronza, A., & Gordillo, J. (2008). Community views of ecotourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 35(2), 448-468.


Ecotourism can be an incentive for conservation, especially when it triggers positive economic change. Yet it introduces many changes to communities:positive and negative, social and economic. The full range of change is seldom evaluated in direct relation to conservation at the local level. In this study of three Amazon ecotourism projects, local leaders discussed changes from ecotourism in their communities. Economic benefits were mentioned, but so were new restrictions on time, decreased reciprocity, and social conflict. Other changes included heightened self-esteem and greater community organization. Such shifts should be considered in relation to conservation as they affect the stability of local institutions and the prospects for long-term collective action for resource management.

Tourism is notorious for its potential to disrupt, disturb, or otherwise do damage to natural habitats and local communities. Especially in rural settings, tourism has been known to trigger a cascade of social, ecological, cultural, and economic changes not easily managed by local residents (Belsky 1999; Butler and Hinch 1996; Stonich 1998, 2000). Yet, it may also be the industry most lauded for its potential to do better. Alternatives like ecotourism, volunteer tourism, and agritourism are aimed at getting tour operators to tread more carefully in their encounters with communities and ecosystems (Eadington and Smith 1992). Ecotourism is the option perhaps most frequently touted for its potential. It has been ascribed with the power to sustain rural livelihoods (Honey 1999), catalyze new development (Weaver 1998), renew cultural pride (Epler Wood 2002), empower local peoples (Scheyvens 1999), and protect biodiversity (Christ, Hillel, Matus and Sweeting 2003).In 2003, leaders of three ecotourism partnerships in the Amazon regions of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia joined in a comparative study called the ‘‘Trueque Amazo´nico: Ecotourism Exchanges in the Tropical Andes’’. The aim was to bring local voices to the fore in ecotourism analyses. The ecolodges are community-initiated and community-managed, though all began as partnerships between indigenous peoples, private companies, and/or nongovernmental organization (NGOs). In these partnerships, indigenous communities link their knowledge, land, labor, and social capital with the investment capital, business acumen, and managerial experience of outside tour operators and environmental NGOs (Ashley and Jones 2001; Forstner 2004). The Trueque Amazonico was an opportunity to learn from three kinds of partnerships:
community-NGO, community-private company, and federation-private company. Community members in each site share profits, but they are also engaged in determining the direction and future of tourism in their region.


Scholars have found that incentives are often too short-lived to make a difference for conservation (Kiss 2004). Though income and employment can help prompt changes in what people do, there may be no concomitant change in peoples’ ideas and beliefs (Stem et al 2003). That is, ecotourism may alter local economies, but it probably stops short of truly changing fundamental social and cultural patterns of resource use. Without such shifts, the logic holds, people are likely to revert to their old ways when the cash flow ends and financial incentives disappear (Pretty and Smith 2003). Yet, even when revenues are present, the infusion of new earnings itself can present challenges for residents. For example, when people shift entirely from other income sources, they become vulnerable to boom-bust cycles and seasonal fluctuations of the tourism market (Epler Wood 2002).

Another challenge of new revenues is managing social conflicts that emerge from unequal earnings and increased gaps between rich and poor (Cousins and Kepe 2004; Ogutu 2002). Without experience in managing such conflicts, revenues can serve only to weaken trust and cohesion in local communities (Jones 2005). As income is often insufficient for—or can even work against—conservation and development, other kinds of benefits may be especially critical. Participation in ownership and management is a noneconomic benefit that is discussed often in case studies but seldom measured in direct relation to conservation, with a few notable exceptions. Scheyvens (1999) has argued that participation is linked with conservation because ecotourism ventures are more likely to lead to stewardship when locals gain some measure of control and share equitably in the benefits. Kruger (2005) likewise reports that participation matters for conservation. In a study of 57 projects, conservation occurred in 17% that had communities involved in decision making. Belsky (1999) also concludes that participation is linked to conservation, but only if communities truly benefit from the influx of tourists. An increasing number of scholars are hypothesizing that ecotourism’s real connection to conservation comes through participation in ownership and management rather than through economic benefits alone.

The catalyzing effect of participation may be that it can help build skills in leadership and strengthen local institutions while also ensuring that residents are able to translate economic benefits into broader goals. In other words, though new employment, cash, revenues, and other economic benefits may lead to more robust local economies (which ultimately will either support or undermine conservation), participation in ownership and management may lead to new learning and greater local cohesion. These kinds of changes that result from community participation—both as part of the process and as a benefit—have often been included in integrative assessments of development (Becker 1997; Bond, Curran, Kirkpatrick, Lee and Francis 2001), and more recently in tourism development (Li 2006).

A holistic framework for understanding benefits for communities will also require attention to processes as well as outcomes. This means focusing on the ways in which ecotourism catalyzes changes within communities and leads to new ways of thinking, interacting, and behaving. It also entails turning attention to how people are engaged, and not just what they gain or lose. Such analyses will lead to greater understandings of causal mechanisms among the factors identified in Ross and Wall’s (1999b) framework. That is, under what conditions and what processes of interaction do communities, protected areas, and tourism operations mutually benefit each other?

Additional Information

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Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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