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Tourism Management 28 (2007) 1168–1179
Progress in tourism management
Twenty years on: The state of contemporary ecotourism research
David B. Weaver
, Laura J. Lawton
School of Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, USA
Received 16 January 2007; accepted 7 March 2007
The ecotourism literature is focused on market segmentation, ecological impacts of wildlife viewing, and community-basedecotourism, but there has been minimal attention to critical areas such as quality control, the industry, external environments orinstitutions even as the components and parameters of ecotourism are being extended. This imbalance, combined with the fragmentationand lack of integration within the literature, suggest that ecotourism, as a field of academic inquiry, is still in a state of adolescence.
2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Ecotourism; Literature review
1. Introduction
When the term ‘ecotourism’ (or sometimes ‘eco-tour-ism’) first began to appear regularly in the English-language academic literature in the late 1980s, no onecould have predicted the prominent position that this thenobscure niche product would come to occupy 20 years laterwithin the tourism sector and more specifically as a topic of investigation within the field of tourism studies. Indicationsof this prominence include the declaration of 2002 as theInternational Year of Ecotourism (IYE) by the UnitedNations, and the establishment in that same year of thespecialised peer-reviewed
Journal of Ecotourism
. Ecotour-ism is now offered as an elective or core subject withinmany university and college tourism programs, andoccasionally as a concentration or degree in its own right.These subjects and programs are supported by anexpanding array of textbooks both general in scope(Fennell, 2003;Page&Dowling, 2002;Wearing&Neil, 1999;Weaver, 2001a, in press) and addressing specific ecotourism topics (Black&Crabtree, 2007;Buckley, 2004a,b;Fennell&Dowling, 2003;Garrod&Wilson, 2003;Zeppel, 2006), and also by more than 400 refereed  journal articles as of late 2006 in which ecotourism is theprimary focus (as calculated from the publication databaseleisuretourism.com—see below).These developments indicate a ‘coming of age’ forecotourism as a field of academic enquiry, and it is thepurpose of this review to determine to what extent such anassessment is justified. This review is based on the English-language academic literature and peer-reviewed articles inparticular, as obtained from the search engine leisuretour-ism.com, maintained by the UK-based academic publisherCABI Publishing. As of late 2006, this database containedover 75,000 abstracts pertinent to the fields of tourism,leisure, recreation, sport and hospitality, going back to themid-1970s and derived from more than 6000 periodicals aswell as academic book publisher lists. Coverage of refereed journals in these fields appears inclusive, while articlesrelated to these elds in other disciplines such asgeography, economics and ecology are also included inthe database (CABI, 2007). The authors searched all titlesand abstracts for relevant terms such as ‘ecotourism,’ ‘eco-tourism,’ ‘ecotourist(s),’ ‘eco-tourist(s),‘nature-basedtourism,’ ‘nature tourism,‘wildlife watching,‘whalewatching,and ‘bird watching.Abstracts were read toeliminate sources in which the coverage of ecotourism wastangential. The remaining sources were consulted by theauthors, and organised, based on the abstracts, intointerrelated topics as described inFig. 1.Structured loosely on the chapter organisation of Weaver (in press), this schemata begins with a basic
www.elsevier.com/locate/tourman0261-5177/$-see front matter
2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2007.03.004
Corresponding author. Tel.: +18037777014; fax: +18037771224.
E-mail address:
supply/demand dichotomy, with the latter entailingmarket segmentation and the former incorporating sub-topics on the nature of ecotourism, venues (mainlyprotected areas) and the relevant industry. A thirdtopic incorporates specialised and non-specialised institu-tions, including planning and policy themes. The ecolo-gical, economic and socio-cultural impacts of ecotourismconstitute a fourth topic that also includes associatedquality control mechanisms and the issue of ethics. Finally,Fig. 1includes external environments, both human andbiophysical, that affect and are affected by the ecotourismsector. Citations to the literature within these categories arenecessarily selective rather than inclusive. Each category iscritically assessed in terms of the research.Fig. 1organises the field of ecotourism into five majorinterrelated subject categories, loosely based onWeaver(2001b). (elaborate) Each will be critically assessed in termsof the research that has been or
been undertaken,and this is followed by an overall assessment of thestate of contemporary ecotourism research and its implica-tions for the future development and management of the sector.
2. Supply
 2.1. The nature of ecotourism
The first sub-category under ‘supply’ concerns the natureof ecotourism itself. An important indication of thematuration of any field of study is agreement or near-agreement over the terms of reference that pertain to thephenomena of interest and subsequently allow them to beinvestigated, and knowledge accumulated, in an orderlymanner. It is therefore not surprising that the issue of definition constitutes an important theme in the literature,particularly during the 1990s.Fennell (2001), for example,identified 85 definitions of ecotourism and found thatvalue-based dimensions such as conservation, ethics, susta-inability, education and community benefits tended to bemore prominent in the more recent offerings. There is now
definition, criteriatypesoverlap
protected areas
viabilitysectors- ecolodges- tour operators- mediated attractions
as a market segmentmarket segmentation- geographic- demographic- behavioural
policiesplanningorganisations- specialised- non-specializededucation/training
ecologicalsocio-culturaleconomicquality control,ethics
other tourism-3S-hunting/fishingagricultureloggingclimatesocio-political milieu
Fig. 1. Ecotourism sector schemata.
D.B. Weaver, L.J. Lawton / Tourism Management 28 (2007) 1168–1179
near-consensus, thanks largely to the contributions of Blamey(1997, 2001), that ecotourism should satisfy three corecriteria, i.e., (1) attractions should be predominantly nature-based, (2) visitor interactions with those attractions shouldbe focused on learning or education, and (3) experienceand product management should follow principles andpractices associated with ecological, socio-cultural and eco-nomic sustainability. Each criterion, however, leaves ampleroom for interpretation, giving rise to ongoing deliberationsabout the appropriate parameters of each and promptingWeaver (2005a)to identify both a ‘minimalist’ and ‘compre-hensive’ mode of ecotourism. Ironically, this attainment of something resembling a consensus on criteria (if notdefinition) has therefore been accompanied by a new themein the literature characterised by attempts to dramaticallyexpand the boundaries of ecotourism beyond its originalconfiguration in the mid-1980s as a nature-based form of alternative tourism. Extreme examples of this involveattempts to challenge the ‘consumptive/captive exclusion’principle implicit in most if not all ecotourism definitions.For example,Holland, Ditton and Graefe (1998)andZwirn, Pinsky, and Rahr (2005)argue for the potentialinclusion of recreational angling as a form of ecotourism,whileNovelli, Barnes, and Humavindu (2006)do the sameon behalf of trophy hunting. All base their contentionson the purported contributions of these activities to con-servation and revenue generation as well as their obviousnature-based focus. With regard to the captive aspect,Ryanand Saward (2004)consider the possibility that zoosre-designed to mimic non-captive habitat could qualify asecotourism.It is not yet clear whether such proposals herald a radicalre-conceptualisation of ecotourism or are merely anephemeral curiosity. More certain is the staying power of attempts to expand the boundaries of ecotourism byincorporating more of the cultural component into theattraction mix and by recognising overlaps with conven-tional mass tourism. The role of affiliated culturalresources as a legitimate secondary attraction in ecotour-ism has long been recognised. However, a growingtendency to see culture as a core component of theecotourism attraction mix is discernable, one underlyingreason being the failure of terms such as ACE tourism(Adventure, Culture, Ecotourism) (Fennell, 1999) thus farto gain traction as descriptors for nature/culture tourismhybrids. A second factor is the realisation that
supposedly ‘natural’ environments are directly or at leastindirectly affected by human activity, so that ‘culture’is therefore implicit and often explicit in all such venuesand cannot be divorced from ‘nature’. Finally, this latterissue has been emphasised in the growing sub-field of ‘indigenous’ ecotourism, wherein it is argued that cen-turies of co-existence between indigenous people andtheir surroundings have profoundly blurred the bou-ndaries between the natural environment and culture(Hinch, 1998, 2001;Nepal, 2004;Zeppel, 2006) (see also Section 5.2).The extension of ecotourism into the realm of conven-tional mass tourism has its origins in the contention, madeas early as the 1980s byLaarman and Durst (1987), thatecotourism exists in both a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ dimension.Although made more commonly in association withmarkets (see Section 3), this distinction has clear implica-tions for products, soft ecotourism being associated with ahigh level of services and facilities to mediate encountersbetween venues and potentially large numbers of visitorsmore casually engaged with the natural environment. Theconcept of ‘mass ecotourism,’ recognised byWeaver(2001b, 2005b)andKontogeorgopoulos (2004a)among others to reflect the scale at which such products can occurwhile allegedly remaining true to core criteria, is rejected byothers who contend that ecotourism is essentially a sub-setof alternative tourism (Boyd, 2000;Diamantis&Ladkin, 1999;Fennell, 2003). This debate influences the issue as to what extent conventional mass tourism can be perceived asan external environment to ecotourism (Section 6), andalso confounds attempts to ascertain the size and growth of the market (Section 3).Less controversially, the literature has witnessed theemergence of new ecotourism sub-fields with their ownattendant issues and themes, the above-mentioned focus onindigenous people being one example. Other high-profileexamples include whale watching (which entails cetaceansin general) (Curtin, 2003;Hoyt&Hvenegaard, 2002; Orams, 2002, 2005;Parsons, Lewandowski,&Lu  ¨ck, 2005),and Antarctic tourism (Cloesen, 2003;Mason&Legg, 1999;Stonehouse, 2001;Stewart, Kirby,&Steel, 2006). As discussed in Section 5, both are associated with a relativelyhigh level of engagement with quality control and scientificresearch. An indication of increasing specialisation is thepresentation of bat-based ecotourism as a distinct sub-typebyPennisi, Holland, and Stein (2004).
 2.2. Venues
Virtually all ecotourism case studies involve protectedarea venues (Antarctica may be considered a type of protected area due to the rigorous provisions of theAntarctic Treaty System), and hence this supply-side topicis
de facto
the largest subject of research within theliterature. However, although several studies have focusedon protected areas in general from an ecotourismperspective (Lawton, 2001;Marion&Farrell, 1998), no effort has apparently yet been made to analyse the casestudy literature more generally to identify major themesand trends pertinent to the ecotourism/protected areainterface. What is apparent even in the absence of such aninvestigation is that case studies from the less developedcountries (LDCs), and those in Latin America, Africa andSoutheast Asia in particular, dominate this literature,perhaps in recognition of the degree to which ecotourismcan potentially serve as a vehicle for economic developmentin such areas. With the major exception of Australia,protected area visitation studies in more developed
D.B. Weaver, L.J. Lawton / Tourism Management 28 (2007) 1168–1179

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