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Johan Knols
Blogger, safari specialist, professional wildlife guide (Woerden, Netherlands)

Johan Knols is the owner of the planyoursafari blog. He studied tourism in the Netherlands and has been working in the African tourism industry for nearly 15 years. Starting as lodge manager in the Serengeti in Tanzania, he eventually owned his own mobile safari company in Botswana. Johan received his professional wildlife- guides licence in 1998 and was awarded the title of Honorary Wildlife Officer with the Botswana Wildlife and National Parks authority in 2005. During his time in Africa he has managed upmarket safari lodges and has done overland trips in the luxury and semi-luxury sector. At the moment he is a full-time blogger giving tips and advices on everything related to African safaris.


Putting ‘Eco-Tourism’ In A New Jacket

Published 30th March 2010 - 27 comments - 18395 views -

There is too much confusion about what eco-tourism is

When I established my safari company in 1996 and wanted to promote it, I was hesitant in using the word eco-tourism. With all the impact that safaris have, it just did not feel like the right thing to do.

During the 1980’s the travel industry slowly discovered that it had to jump on the ‘green’-bandwagon in order to increase the number of tourists to far away and exotic places. European tourists were sick and tired of visiting the completely ruined coastline of Spain and our own concrete jungles and hectic lifestyles opened our eyes for a more active and green way of spending our vacations.
Tourism in Africa is for many countries the second, if not the first source of income (as it is with many more developing countries on other continents), so when a clever oak came up with the term ‘eco(logical)-tourism’ it looked like it would benefit the tour-operators in the developed world as well as the suppliers in the developing world. And it did, as can be seen from this 2005/6 report, indicating that the yearly tourism increase to developing countries is 9,5%, compared to 4,6 % worldwide.

What is eco(logical)-tourism?

Let’s have a closer look at the word ‘ecology’ and look at its meaning:  “Ecology is the scientific study of the way that living organisms interact with their environment. "Ecology" comes from the Greek words oikos, meaning "house," and logos, meaning "logic" or "knowledge." The term was coined by German zoologist (scientist who studies animals) Ernst Haeckel in 1870.” (Source). There is nothing here of particular worry.
The World Tourism Organization defines tourism as people that: “ travel to and stay in places outside their usual environment for more than twenty-four (24) hours and not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes not related to the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited." (Source).
One would expect that the definition of an ‘eco-tourist’ would be a combination of the previous two definitions. Funnily enough it is not, since a lot more characteristics have been added, creating confusion and abuse. Listen to the video below and see for yourself in how many ways eco-tourism is described...

During my search to find definitions of eco-tourism, I encountered two definitions. The definition from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and of course the definition from Wikipedia. What surprised me the most is that the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) does not have one, but describes it as follows:
“While there is not a universal definition for ecotourism, its general characteristics can be summarised as follows:
1. All nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas
2. It contains educational and interpretation features
3. It is generally, but not exclusively organised for small groups by specialised and small, locally owned businesses. Foreign operators of varying sizes also organise, operate and/or market ecotourism tours, generally for small groups.
4. It minimises negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environment
5. It supports the protection of natural areas by
• generating economic benefits for host communities, organisations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes,
• providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities,
• increasing awareness towards the conservation of natural and cultural assets, both among locals and tourists.

Yet, I dare to say that Eco-Tourism in Africa does not exist and I would like to explain by taking a closer look at the 5 characteristics of the UNWTO.

  1. The UNWTO speaks about the motivation of tourists to observe traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.
    Is the UNWTO referring to the Bushmen that were chased from the Kalahari desert in Botswana, the Maasai that might be ousted  from the Ngorongoro area in Tanzania or the Himba people in Namibia having to move for a dam?  
  2. I have witnessed too many education providers (safari-guides) that did not come much further than pointing out animals instead of adding the knowledge that would generate a deeper insight into nature. In many countries a strict exam is still not in place.
  3. What is a locally owned business? Does this mean that the business must be registered in a country and have its head-office over there? Do the owners have to be locals? Can they be residents or must they be citizens? Is it allowed to receive money in one country while the operation itself is in another?
  4. That tourism in itself has a negative impact on the natural and the socio-cultural environment is indicated by the word ‘minimise’. The natural environment is being damaged simply by flying to an African destination. Via de carbon-footprint calculator I calculated that a return flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi would emit 2.28 metric tons of CO2 (this is including the Radiative Forcing Factor of 1.9). I also had difficulties in finding a nice way of imagining what 1 ton of CO2 looks like, but I am happy I found an image to simplify it. Guess what, I produced 2.28 of the below squares of CO2 by the time I am back from Kenya.

  5. 1 ton of CO2

  6. And that the natural environment hardly ever gets protected by tourism should be clear from the article about the damages to the east-African coastline.   

So what should be done to make sure that we can use the word eco-tourism in a constructive way?
In my humble opinion we should first decide exactly how to define eco-tourism. Because without a proper definition it is simply too easy to use the term in the tourism industry and put the conscious traveller on the wrong foot. I opt for the following definition:

“Eco-tourism is an educational experience in the natural environment, devoid of damage, in the broadest sense, to the local community, its culture and surroundings with the aim of empowering it economically, socially and politically in a sustainable manner.”

Secondly it is important that the respective tourism boards and grading councils adopt this definition as to accurately label companies ‘eco-friendly’, prevent abuse of the word eco-tourism and inform tourists adequately.

I am interested to know if you agree with the new jacket of eco-tourism!



  • Ron Mader on 30th March 2010:

    If we haven’t come up with a standard definition of ecotourism yet, we’re not going to so now. We might as well ask for a standard definition of ‘football’ which is going to mean something different depending on the sport. While we tend to think about ‘ecotourism’ or ‘responsible travel’ as someTHING that can be defined, perhaps a better model would focus on the relationships among the players. If there is consensus about items of shared interest and a willingness to collaborate toward the goals, then tourism reaches toward its maximum potential.

    As I look at your website, I want to see your partners - who you work with, who you help, who helps you. Your goals are laudable. Please show us how you respond and interact with the communities you visit.

  • Johan Knols on 31st March 2010:

    Hi Ron,

    Thanks for your (not always clear)comments.The reason why we need a proper definition for eco-tourism is that tourists, who are willing to spend their money where Africans themselves are really benefiting from it, should know, through a universal eco-labeling, which companies or communities offer real eco-tourism and which ones just use the words to attract more business without working towards improvements for the local population or the local environment.
    I am glad that you had a look at my website ( I am happy to answer your questions.
    I am working without any partners because the aim of the website is to provide unbiased information for safari enthusiasts and future safari travelers. Since I worked in the safari industry for almost 15 years and write from own experience, I hope that I help safari companies, local as well as foreign, by promoting travel to (safari-)Africa. The only people that are ‘helping’ me are the ones that are advertising on my site (also a blogger has to make a living!). The only company I have tried to help so far is the one appearing in this article:
    In Dec. 2009 I was invited to give a talk during the ‘E-Tourism Africa Summit’ in Johannesburg ( )
    My interaction with communities on the ground is mainly through social media and old contacts.

  • Michael R. White on 01st April 2010:

    I have lived in Zambia, Papua New Guinea and Peru. It is very important that the local community participates and perceives the benefits. If they do not have adequate resources they may be tempted to hunt and gather excessively. Income to maintain shelter, food, health, security and education are fundamental, as is political stability.

  • Mark Homann on 01st April 2010:

    Excellent questions and well written. Ecotourism is of course important in large wildlife areas of Africa and lodges and operators should should keep their impact to as small as finically feasible.  This is of course more important in areas such The Ngorongoro Crater or Chobe. The most important factor in African conservation today is sustainable community based natural resource management that allows local communities to view their natural resources as an economic resource. Sadly while the intent is good the funds are not all ways available for a fully fledge eco-tourism program that leaves a minimal footprint. Some times the benefits of providing employment and revenues into an area can out-way the impact on the ecosystem.

  • Johan Knols on 01st April 2010:

    Hello Mark,

    I agree fully with your last two sentences. And that is why I referred to the fact that some companies also SAY that they are practicing eco-tourism, but in reality they aren’t.

  • Roberto Plomp on 04th April 2010:

    Hello all,

    The question is not so much wether we practice eco-tourism, but rather to which extend and in which aspects do we practice eco-tourism. No matter how hard you try not to make an impact on the location you will always make an impact, which may to some organisms even be positive and to others negative. A compost heap for instance may seem very ecologically responsible - on the other hand it does influence the local eco-system. Three days ago I removed two Lancehead snakes (Bothrops atrox) from our camp and relocated them. Was I being eco-touristic. No, I was not, I have introduced two threads to a different eco-system andf disturbed the balance around my camp. I prefer not to use the term “eco-tourism”. Even the term I use “nature tourism” or “nature adventure” is inappropriate. In my opinion the most important thing is being aware that none of us are really eco-tourist or nature-tourism organizations. We can only make an effort to coming close.

    Regards Roberto.

  • Johan Knols on 05th April 2010:

    Hello Roberto,

    Thanks for your comment. I am happy that someone from within the industry agrees!

  • Barry Murphy on 08th April 2010:

    While I agree with your rservations about the limitations and inadequacies of various definitions of ‘ecotourism’, I agree with Ron in not believing a definition to be the point.
    Some absolute basics of ‘ecotourism’ for me include :
    1. Local ownership. I would seek a safari owned by Kenyans, or the locals of whichever nation I’m visiting and not by foreigners to that country.
    2. Education. Being driven around a safari in a jeep with a driver and observing wildlife is not education.
    3. Culture. Staying in foreign owned hotels is not experiencing the local culture. Culture is interaction with and immersion in people’s real lives. As a tourist, this is forcibly limited, but can be achieved to a degree.
    4. Effort in conservation. I say ‘effort’, because genuine and real conservation, where there is tourism, is extremely difficult. But eradication of non-native flora, for example, is one project that can be undertaken. Walking, rather than vehicular transportation is another. Total non-encroachment into particularly sensitive areas of biodiversity is another.
    5. Benefit to local community. Do we buy our goods from local growers ? Do we use local guides ? Do we highlight other local enterprises ? Do we interact with local communities on the ground through much more than just social media ?
    Barry Murphy, Ireland.

  • Johan Knols on 08th April 2010:

    Hello Barry,

    Thanks for your comment. The reason why I was aiming for a universal definition of eco-tourism is to be able to say: this company is truly offering an eco-tourism product and this company is not but just using the word for its own benefit. Now too many tourists believe that if a company SAYS it is offering eco-tours, that this is the truth, while in reality it is not.
    You mentioned the basics, are there other qualifications you would use to describe eco-tourism?

  • Johan Knols on 09th April 2010:

    I also mentioned this post on LinkedIn and you can follow the discussion on there via this link:

    Next time I will try to get the comments on the Th!nk3 site….

  • Menno van Tol on 16th April 2010:

    In my opinion it is clear that there has to come a new (and final) definition of eco-tourism. What you see now is that more and more accommodations are built ‘eco-style’. Lodge owners see the word ECO as a marketing tool to create more business. They want their lodge to be eco-friendly, but “comfort of the clients come first”. So they are only eco-friendly up to some level, but advertise with the eco label. Guests cannot check if the lodge is eco-friendly. So, a good defintion should help to seperate the golddiggers from the really eco-friendly lodges who want to help and participate with local communities.

  • Johan Knols on 17th April 2010:

    Hello Menno,

    Thanks for your comment.
    Do you agree with the ‘new’ definition I have come up with or is there something else that is missing in defining an eco accommodation?

  • Menno van Tol on 19th April 2010:

    Absolutely! And I hope that everyone in the travel business wakes up and truly is going to work with this definition as a guideline. After all, don’t we all strive for sustainable tourism?

  • Jack on 20th April 2010:

    Ecotourism as far as i am concerned is like ethical lawyers, responsible bankers and honest politicians, it hardly exists. As for trying to define it with specific criteria, where do you start - more importantly where do you end?
    Responsible Tourism is probably a better term although perhaps not so good for the marketing gurus.
    There is so much goody goody, touchy feely bollocks surrounding so called Ecotourism. the holier than thou attitude is doubly irritating when you know the industry and can see that back of house there is still a massive and detrimental environmental impact. But we are creatures of this planet, the world operates with us in it wether we like it or not, so we just have to do our best and live with our own concience, behave with our own ethics and stop bullshitting how enviromentally friendly we are when really we just want to make a lot of money.

  • Johan Knols on 20th April 2010:

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for your comment. How would you define ‘Responsible Tourism’ then?

  • Michael R White on 20th April 2010:

    If you live in a tourism area like a desert where marginal effects may be significant, you are more aware of the impact of more people, vehicles, erosion, plastic bottles and bags.

    We prefer to use public transport, rather than send additional vehicles through the countryside we describe on our tours. counts the numbers of visitors, vehicles, their timing and the weight and volume of refuse collected by type.
    They breed lizards to counter the detrimental effect of the increasing numbers of visitors and vehicles, but even then you notice how the site now attracts more sparrows, while the owl population shifts from pygmy owls to burrowing owls.

    At Machu Picchu they prohibit plastic being taken in.

    If you live in a big city, far from the effects, you may not realise the importance of trying to be green.

    The bottom line is you can some times reduce your costs or increase your income by going green.

  • Ian Johnson on 20th April 2010:

    Mostly semantics?  Different areas refer to “eco” in different ways. As they do “responsible” (Good discussion/read: Responsible tourism by Anna Spenceley [ed], Earthscan Publishers).  Is the question not about tourism, rather than any other flag (suffix or prefix) you give it?

    Not taking plastic into an area such as Machu Picchu hardly constitutes good environmental stewardship on its own, and in my mind would not justify the use of the prefix “eco”.  Not to say that it is not a good thing to prevent plastic being taken in etc., but rather that it is somewhat pathetic of organisations claiming status based on criteria that should be standard practice etc.

    Perhaps part of the problem is that too many criteria are being forced into one “descriptive term”: Eco-tourism.  For example, Barry Murphy has certain requirements for his definition (which I respect), however, am going to dissect.  Education: for many people in world that have never left a city, never mind had the fortune of visiting a game reserve, driving around in a “jeep” is education.  Taking away the Out of Africa imagery, those jeep rides do educate many people about the areas, the wildlife, the people etc etc.  And, as I am sure Johan can agree with, many Safari Organisations make use of their own vehicles etc to take local kids into the bush, again providing education opportunities etc.

    To quote Barry Murphy “interaction with and immersion in people’s {local} real lives” - Local Ownership and Culture again have their value, but how many cultures have been “polluted” by tourism (eco, or any other type)? 

    Do all of these above “criteria” need to fall in the term eco-tourism?  Surely some can fall under conservation?  Some under policing?  Some under some other already existing and inflated topic?

    Perhaps I am heading off the topic somewhat?  Going back to eco-tourism.  Sex-tourism! What does that phrase bring to mind?  Simple isn’t it!  We don’t have to break down the suffix “sex” to get an overall image of what that tourism is?  Eco-tourism?  What image do you get from that?  I wonder if we do need to break it down?

  • Johan Knols on 21st April 2010:

    Hello Ian,

    Thanks for your (very) interesting comment. You are hitting the nail on the head in the last section, when you suggest to keep it simple. I agree fully with you, which doesn’t mean that it is easy to get a similar effect as when referring to sex-tourism. Nobody advertises sex-tourism but everybody uses eco-tourism for their own advantage. That is why we need to know what we are talking about when we use the word eco-tourism.

  • Michael R. White on 21st April 2010:

    Investigation is important and should be objective and positive.

    However, nothing is perfect and I think it is positive that we tick as many ‘‘easy’‘, more difficult and important boxes as possible, rather than get bogged down in academic discussion.

    I do not have time nor resources to research everything they do at Machu Picchu, but I do see some positive intent.

    The influence of tour operators on destination management, and vice versa, should also be positive.

  • Ian Johnson on 21st April 2010:

    Johan: Coming from Holland, I am surprised to hear you say that nobody advertises sex-tourism?  Also, your article on Kenya is also likely to entice a few deviant tourists to visit Kenya, even though I am sure your article was not intended that way.

    In terms of knowing what we are talking about when we use the word eco-tourism: I think we need to know what the intent is.  Again, different areas, different cultures etc will deefine it differently.  Could you not say that discovering further meaning of eco-tourism is part of what eco-tourism is all about?

    Michael: I agree - positive intent is very important.  My comments re Machu Picchu were not meant in a negative light, but rather to highlight that one act does not constitute good governance or “entitle” the use or inclusion within a certain definition in this regard.  The act of not allowing plastic is however commendable, positive and in the right direction.  And, again, I agree that tour operators should have a positive infleuence on destination management.

    However, I do think “academic” discussion is what Johan intended here.  Spread some light so to speak.  It is not about getting bogged down, but rather about sharing opinion and experience.  This way, perhaps we wont commit “ecocide”?

  • Johan Knols on 21st April 2010:


    You are right, every small initiative to be eco-friendly (whatever that may EXACTLY be) is welcome and should be encouraged.


    We have to be careful which way the discussion is heading. The article was about CHILDREN being involved in sex-tourism in Kenya and I still have to find anybody in Holland advertising for that (or even for sex-tourism for adults). If you know of a company doing that, please let me know. Obviously I am now referring to the ‘legal’ tourism industry and not some dodgy hanky panky websites.
    To come back to the intent of a proper definition for eco-tourism, the most important part is to make sure that the word eco-tourism is not abused in PR and marketing campaigns by tourism companies. The public has a right to know where (not) to book if they want to do their bit of ‘good’.
    ( Thumbs up for the word ‘ecocide’!)

  • Ian Johnson on 21st April 2010:

    The two comments are separate.  The first refers to the “red light district” - which Holland does advertise and which as far as I am aware, is primarily about sex-tourism?

    The second refers to “awareness” in terms of the mere mention (blog) of the situation in Kenya, could unfortunately “inform” people who are attracted to that sort of activity - hence the reason for saying, I am sure it was not your intent.  The saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity comes to mind - the people orchestrating the situation in Kenya are getting exposure (...and yes, the situation is also being exposed, which is good) - that was the point I was trying to make.

    But, this is now way off the topic. 

    I do agree with you in terms of the end result: creating an environment where people are able to make informed decisions about organisations that they chose to use and what those organisations stand for.

  • Johan Knols on 21st April 2010:

    Hi Ian,

    Your last remark is spot on about what I wanted to say in the original article.
    As far as the first comments go, those would be more suitable under the article with this link:

  • Kim Thompson on 23rd April 2010:

    I have been reading all these comments and opinions with interest. As a consumer of safaris (in that I travel to Africa fairly regularly to photograph and paint wildlife) I am always aware of the eco- tourism label which many companies now proudly brandish…. and I must admit that I do sometimes view them with suspicion. It is easy to adopt this label in order to attract more business and never think beyond a statement on your advertising. Actually implementing eco tourism must demand a big commitment and possibly more expense than ‘ordinary’ tourism practices.
    I agree wholeheartedly with Johan that some sort of universal definition of eco-tourism needs to be established. This would surely be helpful to both clients searching for a holiday and those companies seeking to run their businesses in an eco - friendly way. Maybe some sort of star system could be set up to grade companies on their level of eco- tourism. Most travellers would like to know that their holiday is having a positive rather than negative impact on both the environment and the local people in the area they visit and indeed are more than happy to contribute to conservation and humanitarian initiatives especially if these are linked to the company they are travelling with. I am sure a grading system of some sort can only be a good thing. It will oust the fakes from the eco-tourism market and set up a clear (hopefully) guideline for consumer and operator alike. This should be done sooner rather than later. Eco-tourism is gaining in popularity as the way to travel and consumers and the wilderness need to be protected.

  • Johan Knols on 24th April 2010:

    Hi Kim,

    The idea of an ‘eco-star’grading system has occurred in my mind. After having done some research, it appears that it is not that difficult to come up with a grading system. What IS difficult is trying to do it in an unbiased way, and cheap, so that accommodations (especially in Africa) are not put of by the price tag. And people need to have trust in the grading system.It would therefore take an organization with cloud to participate in this.
    I already have some ideas.

  • Kim Thompson on 25th April 2010:

    Hi Johan,
    Affordability and trust are essential if an eco-star system is to be a success and adopted across the board. I have just been reading about the Virgin Responsible Tourism Awards:
    Does Responsible Tourism give you a more realistic set of criteria to run a business by than eco-tourism? If you are looking for clout then Virgin are probably a fair bet!

  • Johan Knols on 27th May 2010:

    Hi Kim,

    I believe that responsible tourism and eco-tourism are not that different. Although, I tend to say that eco-tourism includes responsibility already. But responsible tourism does not necessarily include ‘eco’.

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