By Professor Ralf Buckley,International Chair in Ecotourism Research

The term ‘ecotourism’ was first defined about a quarter of a century ago, but practitioners and academics are still arguing over definitions. The United Nations declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism, and held a World Ecotourism Summit which produced an official Declaration.

The most important component is that under some circumstances, ecotourism can make a net contribution to conservation of endangered animal and plant species. For extra clarity, we can use the term conservation tourism.

Whilst tourism researchers and practitioners argue over whether or not ecotourism ought to contribute to conservation, conservation researchers and practitioners have tried to measure what it does in practice.

Measuring the impact of ecotourism

Ecotourism does have ecological impacts, now studied for hundreds of different species. But it also contributes funding for conservation, also including several hundred threatened species.

Most of that funding is from visitor entrance fees at public national parks. Some, however, is from ecolodges in private conservation reserves. Some provides economic incentives for private or communal landowners to switch from consumption to conservation. Some supports anti-poaching, breeding and feeding, veterinary and translocation programs.

These conservation contributions from ecotourism have not been well recognised by international conservation agencies such as IUCN. They were also ignored when scientists published conservation reviews in top-tier journals.

Just recently, this has changed. A group of eminent conservation scientists published an article in Science on conservation of lemurs in Madagascar, and they called for ecotourism as a key component of future strategies.

But in fact, for 13 of the endangered lemur species they listed, ecotourism already does contribute to conservation. We had described these mechanisms in our 2010 book Conservation Tourism ( Lemur tourism is not all positive, and our book described ecological impacts as well.

Ecotourism recognition

On 25 April, Science published this information in a short letter which they entitled “Protecting lemurs: ecotourism”. This seems to be the first time that ecotourism has received recognition, under its own name, as a significant real-life conservation tool.

We had previously published two previous notes in Nature, about ecotourism and threatened species in Africa and India respectively; but neither actually used the term ecotourism. So this latest letter may reflect improved scientific recognition. That is an encouraging boost for Griffith University’s expertise and longstanding research program in this field.