‘Meaning’ is a simple word with complicated denotation. According to Cambridge International Dictionary of English (1995, P.878), ‘The meaning of something is what it expresses or represents’, while Longman Contemporary English Dictionary (1988, P.861) explains it as ‘The idea intended to be understood’. At the same time it may also mean ‘importance or value’ according to both. When the term ‘ecotourism’ first existed, it was invented by combining the two words: ‘ecology’ and ‘tourism’. Ecology is ‘the pattern of relations of plants, animals, and people to each other and to their surroundings’ (Longman Contemporary English Dictionary, 1988, P.447). It is obvious that ‘ecotourism’ refers to tourism concerning about the environment and its inhabitants in this sense, but is this meaning meaningful?
Fennell (2001) has found 85 definitions of ecotourism and examined them. Through his content analysis, one can see that some definitions only concentrate on the motivation of the ‘ecotourists’ (E.g.: Ceballos-Lascurain, 1987, cited in van der Merwe, 1996, cited in Fennell, op cit), while some (E.g.: Wallace & Pierce, 1996, cited in Fennell, op cit) stress on the impacts brought by such tourism related activities. Ecotourism is a comparatively new concept according to Fennell (op cit), as there were only 10 definitions identified before 1991, with the first definitions seen published in 1987 (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1987, P.14, cited in Diamantis, 1999, P.96). All these definitions vary, from perspectives to foci. Out of the 85 definitions, 47 were defined by individuals, while most of the others were defined by organisations in America. This has shown a limited scope because of the regional constraints. And somehow surprisingly, basis of definitions were not necessarily related to ecology, as one of them was based on economics instead! Across the wide range of definitions, only 3 out of the 12 generalised components were mentioned in more than half of the definitions, i.e. locations, conservation and culture. With this brief description of Fennell’s findings (2001), one may already find it difficult to understand ‘ecotourism’ as it can be rather confusing.
2002 was named ‘International Year of Ecotourism’, and World Tourism Organization (WTO) was promoting ecotourism best practices in that year (Buckley, 2003, P.xi). It makes it obvious that ecotourism should be something good and ought to be promoted. Sustainable ecotourism was encouraged. Special attention should be paid to the term ‘sustainable’, which has become a new keyword here. Sustainable tourism is an even newer term, while sustainability is the main concern. One may argue that sustainable tourism and ecotourism are interchangeable, yet sustainable tourism differs from ecotourism in a lot of ways, including it may refer to tourism in urban landscapes, or even in theme parks (Swarbrooke, 1999). Buckley (2003, Pp.240-245) has stated the possibilities of operating ecotours in large scales, while most of the existing ones are small-scaled, not without reasons. The most noticeable reason is that, bigger impacts would probably be brought to the destination when the size of groups is larger. So, it brings back the concept of ‘conservation’ and ‘impact’, which one of them (impact) is not even mentioned in half of the existing definitions of ecotourism (Fennell, 2001). When considering from this perspective, it is obvious that ecotourism aims to minimise the impacts brought to the environment.
However, definitions are only theories, how can they be put into action? Or how practical these definitions are?
There is a very good example of how ecotourism is beneficial to the local society. In Halong Bay area in Northern Vietnam, the national park in Cat Ba Island has functioned well to keep its original forest cover, as well as to allow regrowth of trees in replacing the cut firewood (Buckley, 2003, P.88). Also, it is the home of about 100 to 150 white-headed monkeys, and the road to the park is heavily gated and fenced (Buckley, op cit, P.88), so the visitor numbers can be strictly controlled. The entrance area provides the villagers there with job opportunities in restaurants and tourist shops, while an environmental education centre does not only teach the tourists, but also the locals. A quango department is responsible for the municipal infrastructures and hygiene there (Buckley, op cit, P.88). In another island, a lagoon has become an attraction for tour boats and snorkelling (Buckley, op cit, P.88). And there are 24 caves in these limestone islands. In the most heavily visited ones, entrance fees are collected (Buckley, op cit, P.88). The Managing Authority consists of the staff themselves to balance the point of views. Local people are benefited from the income from tourist boats and kiosks, as well as guides (Buckley, op cit, P.88) and some of the money goes back to the development of ecotourism. It shows the reasons of the eagerness of governments and non-governmental organisations ‘to develop ecotourism in protected areas to benefit local communities and to help preserve ecosystems’ (Walker, 1996). It has demonstrated the possibility of realising ‘a win-win development strategy for underdeveloped rural areas’ (Place, 1995, P.162, cited in Schaller, 1996), what people are longing for in such locations.
If this is what ecotourism should mean, does this concept apply to every ecotourism product? Here is the case for Thailand: With rich natural resources, the flora and fauna in Thailand plays a significant role in biodiversity. National and marine parks, wild life sanctuaries and forest reserves can be found in the protected land and sea areas, which accounts for about 13% of the country’s total area (Ross, 2003). Although setting up of such parks seems a positive action in conservation, it is the opposite in practice. Ecotours are operated in the national parks everyday, and the natural environment is disturbed and seriously damaged as ‘tourist numbers often exceed the carrying capacity of the site’ (Ross, op cit, P.13). This situation is mainly due to the fact that ‘tour organizers and guides often have little understanding of the environmental impacts of their activities’ (Ross, op cit, P.13). The forested area in Thailand has dropped from 75% in 1950 to less than 25% nowadays, which are mainly mountainous regions, where tourists can hardly access (Ross, op cit, P.5). The natural environment is threatened especially in marine parks. In Phi Phi Island, where the movie ‘The Beach’ was shot, tens of thousands of tourists per year was having their ‘ecotours’ in the marine park, enjoying the sun, sea, beach and relaxing, ‘snorkeling, scuba diving and cruising around this magnificent group of islands in all kinds of speed boats, ferries and jet skis, with no controls’ (Ross, op cit, P.6). More common problems like sewages and pollutants which kill the corals are also affecting Samui Island and Samet Island (Ross, op cit, P.6). Worst of all is that Thai Government is still looking for growth in tourist arrivals nationwide (Kontogeorgopoulos, 1999), which could make the situation even more worrying.
From this example, it is clearly seen that the use of the word ‘ecotourism’ is being abused. On the other extreme, as seen from the above case, ‘ecotourism’ could be very destructive to local people, their culture and the environment. While the term was apparently established to mean something positive, constructive, even WWF (formerly known as World Wildlife Fund) has admitted that it means a lot of varied things. From a report prepared by Synergy for WWF-UK, it stated that
‘Strictly defined, ecotourism embraces responsible travel to natural areas that is determined by local people, sustains their well-being, and conserves the environment. This is a difficult definition for real-life business situations. As a result, the term is widely used to embrace a range of tourism experiences, which may or may not adhere to the sustainability criteria underpinning true ecotourism, including safaris, travel to remote or isolated areas, adventure travel (including walking, white water rafting, kayaking and mountain biking), travel specifically to view nature, travel to view cultural heritage; and travel to national parks’ (2000, P.vii).
Noted here is that a term ‘true ecotourism’ is mentioned; as discussed above, true ecotourism would be the desired form of ecotourism, which is closely related to sustainability, but it is seldom the case. Another related concept is responsible travel, suggested by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) (www.ecotourism.org), which underlines the importance of proper behaviours of tourists as well as suitable planning and control of local governments.
Ecotourism also characterised with a higher price. The higher prices are normally induced by the higher costs of transportation because of low accessibility, the special facilities built for tourists in a conserving manner (special designs involved), and the limited number of visitors accommodated at any time, etc. However, Wheeller (1993) has invented a term ‘egotourists’ to describe the ones who joined such ecotours. He claims that those tourists do not need to behave as they feel good about themselves, because they have paid higher prices. And just because they pay more, they are entitled to visit more fragile landscapes, thus made more serious harms. So he questions whether the term ecotourism is properly used.
From this viewpoint, it seems that such tour operators also play an important role in influencing how people perceive ‘ecotourism’. If the keyword ‘ecotourism’ or ‘ecotour’ is keyed in for searching in search engines like Google, Yahoo, Hotbot, etc., ecotour operators have dominated the first few pages of listings, although Planeta, TIES and Ecotourism Australia are also found through searching about ‘ecotourism’. Only through AOL Web Search that the category ‘ecotourism’ can be chosen with the ecotours listed in a separate category. If one follows the first few links of the search result of ‘ecotour’, one would easily access websites of ecotour operators, which sell such tours and try to explain ecotourism in their own ways. When these sites (E.g.: about.com/travel; ecoclub.com; www.nbbd.com/ecotourism; www.naturetours.com) are examined, the tours described are nothing more than sun, sea, sand holidays and nature-based tours, while some luxurious facilities and large groups of nearly 20 tourists are sometimes mentioned. These tours are nowhere near the concept of true ecotourism.
If the use of the term ‘ecotourism’ is to be controlled, standards have to be set to ensure the quality. Would such certifications help in giving the public a clear concept of ecotourism then? Ecolabels and environmental accreditations are assets in marketing, in addition to whatever they indicate (Synergy, 2000; Buckley, 2002). ‘While environmental groups endorse some and reject others, all these players hope that individual consumers pay attention’ (Buckley, 2002, p.183). Green Globe 21 (Synergy, 2000; Buckley, 2002), for example, is a large-scale, and the only ecolabel covering the entire tourism industry, which is recognised easily and trustworthy; but many other smaller accreditations might be misleading. Other reliable ecolabels like Blue Flag (Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe, 2000, cited in Buckley, op cit, P.195) and Green Leaf (Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), 2000, cited in Buckley, op cit, P.195) (integrating with Green Globe 21) are limited to regional scale. In this area, ecolabels can help tourists identify environmentally friendly tours or ecotours, yet it does not always help clarifying the meaning of ecotourism, as the criteria of awarding are not listed in many cases (Buckley, op cit).
In conclusion, the term ‘ecotourism’ is not well-defined after years. It should aim at something good to every stakeholder, while facts proved the theories seldom work well in business. Although ecotourism was invented as a positive term, the misuses of it give academicians like Wheeller and lobbies like Tourism Concern a bad perception towards it. The dislike of this word is probably correct as some tour operators simply renamed their old tour packages ‘ecotours’, and possibly raised the prices to attract the so-called ‘ecotourists’. As ecotourism has become a kind of trend, people tend to abuse the use of this word. When the definition of ‘meaning’ is to be looked at again, it is not easy to tell ‘the idea intended to be understood’ (Cambridge Dictionary, op cit) by simply looking at the word ‘ecotourism’ with the existence of the large range of confusing and contrasting variations of definitions. One point which should not be overlooked is that, there is no way to standardise the meaning of ecotourism even by accreditations and ecolabels. At least it has not yet succeeded in doing so. The appearance of the idea and the term of ‘sustainable tourism’ could be seen as a proof of the failure of ‘ecotourism’ in explaining itself, while ecotourism was supposed to be sustainable in nature, according to many authors (E.g.: Chalker, 1994; Nelson, 1994, cited in Diamantis, 1999, P.105; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2003). To a certain extent, sustainable tourism was clarifying the grey zones in ecotourism, putting the emphasis on sustainability. The malpractices of governments, tour operators and tourists also contributed in giving ecotourism a bad name with their destructive behaviours.
If people do not know what ‘idea to be understood’ behind a word, it is justified to call it a meaningless word. For ‘ecotourism’, with too many different meanings, it is impossible to tell its meaning after all. Ecotourism can mean ‘good’, and it can also mean ‘bad’. With so many meanings, ecotourism is simply a word without meaning. Referring to the dictionaries again, meaning can also mean ‘importance or value’, but it does not help clarifying the meaning of ‘ecotourism’, since there is not a clear value behind it as well. If it has a value, it may be one for arising people’s concern about the abused use of this term. All in all, ‘words without meaning’ is believed to be a fair reflection of ecotourism, in either way ‘meaning’ is interpreted.