Empowering Locals: The Vital Role of Local Businesses in Ecotourism Development


This paper considers the involvement of locals in various ecotourism businesses, which are an essential component of successful ecotourism initiatives in different areas.     Ecotourism has the potential to contribute to poverty reduction, employment generation, improved living standards, and long-term economic sustainability. The crux of the argument in this note is that the participation of locals in ecotourism practices offers greater opportunities for the regional economy compared to the involvement of non-locals. For ecotourism to be effective, it requires the active participation and engagement of the entire local community. Without genuine local involvement, ecotourism runs the risk of becoming a mere passing trend or a top-down development process that perpetuates exclusions. To ensure the participation of locals, several strategies for involving them in ecotourism-related businesses are suggested.

COVID-19 has profoundly impacted the global economy, making it one of the most significant occurences of the twenty-first century (Zenker et al., 2021). While some sectors, such as e-commerce and healthcare, experienced growth during these challenging times, the pandemic brought economic fallout to a considerable portion of the economy. One consequence of the pandemic was the migration of many workers back to their hometowns, which led to changes in wage rates and working days. This shift in the labour market created concerns about inflation as the cost of manufacturing and essential goods increased. As a result, consumer purchasing power declined, affecting people’s ability to purchase essential goods and services. In the early stages, during the first wave of the pandemic, individuals could rely on their savings to purchase necessities. However, as the pandemic continued and subsequent waves occurred, people’s savings became depleted. The financial strain caused by the pandemic forced individuals to reconsider their spending habits and prioritize essential purchases. This had a particularly detrimental effect on non-essential workers who could not work from home. One such group significantly impacted by the pandemic was the labour force employed in the tourism sector. Before COVID-19, the tourism industry was thriving, establishing new ventures and companies (Dasan et al., 2022). In 2019, approximately 1,461 million people travelled worldwide, but in 2020, this number dropped to 381 million, representing a staggering 74% decline (Verma et al., 2022). The consequences of the decline in travel and tourism were severe. Almost $4.9 trillion in GDP and 62 million jobs were lost by the travel and tourism sector in 2020 alone, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s annual Economic Impact Report. Furthermore, compared to other sectors, wages in the tourism and hospitality industry are lower (Dogru et al., 2019). The global labour shortage further compounds this issue, as uncompetitive wages make it challenging for the tourism industry to attract and retain employees in the long run (Brandt, 2016).

Following COVID-19, there has been a noticeable shift as travellers tended to be drawn towards ecologically friendly destinations, low-carbon tourism activities, and sustainable travel experiences and to attract more tourists in the post-pandemic era, it is crucial to transform tourism practices and prioritize sustainability(Vu et al., 2022). For businesses to thrive, they must adapt to meet the demands of travellers who seek distinctive and sustainable vacations. The crisis provides an opportunity to reassess the future of tourism and make necessary changes. The actions taken today will shape the industry’s future, making it a critical juncture for governments to consider the long-term effects of the crisis (OECD, 2020).To facilitate sustainable tourism growth, the Ministry of Tourism released the National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism in April 2022. This strategy outlines the nation’s vision, purpose, and key strategic pillars for fostering sustainable tourism. Recognizing the importance of the tourism industry, India’s Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, highlighted the tourism industry as one of the union budget (2023-2024) focus areas. The minister emphasized that tourism promotion will be undertaken on a mission basis, with active involvement from states and through public-private partnerships (PPPs). These initiatives and statements from government authorities reflect the growing recognition of the need to prioritize sustainability and develop a more responsible and resilient tourism industry.

The post-pandemic era presents opportunities for the ecotourism sector, which focuses on conservation efforts and local job creation. Costa Rica’s tourism strategy already recognizes the significance of ecotourism as a crucial component (Babli & Nadeem, 2021). The roots of ecotourism can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s, when it emerged alongside the environmental movement (Honey, 1999, p. 19). The allure of a new type of travel and the potential for sustainable development in previously unexplored locations attracted a growing market of travellers. Media coverage played a role in promoting this new form of tourism (Fennell, 2008). Early works on ecotourism can be found in the writings of scholars such as Fennell (1999), Hetzer (1965), Miller (1978), and Gössling (1999). These works laid the foundation for understanding and conceptualizing ecotourism.

Dr Nicolas Hetzer first used the word “ecotourism” in 1965 and identified its four pillars: minimizing environmental impact, respecting extinct cultures, maximizing local benefits, and tourist satisfaction. Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, a Mexican environmental architect, first used the term in 1983.

“Travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestation (both past and present) in these areas.” (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1987: 14; 1991a, b).

According to the International Ecotourism Society (IES), Ecotourism is:

“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment supports the well-being of the local people and includes interpretation and education,”.

“Responsibility,” “the well-being of local people,” and “education” are some of the ideas that are more intensely focused on sustainability (Stronza et al., 2019). While specifics differ, most definitions of ecotourism come down to a distinct kind of tourism that satisfies three requirements (Kiper, 2013)

  • It offers environmental protection;
  • It involves significant involvement from the community;
  • It is profitable and self-sustaining.

The International Ecotourism Society has established guidelines for what constitutes ecotourism.

  • Minimize the adverse psychological, social, behavioural, and physical effects.
  • Promote mutual respect as well as environmental and cultural consciousness.
  • Make sure both guests and owners have a positive experience.
  • Generate direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Produce financial benefits for area residents and private businesses.
  • Provide visitors with enduring interpretive experiences that heighten awareness of the host nations’ political, environmental, and social contexts.
  • Design, build, and run low-impact facilities.
  • Respect the rights and religious convictions of the indigenous people in the community and collaborate with them to foster empowerment.

In the Anthropocene era, researchers and professionals must better understand how to manage human activities to ensure the survival of various species, including our own. In order to utilize the opportunities provided by the world’s largest industry and further protect global biodiversity, it is essential to clarify the net positive benefits of ecotourism (Stronza et al., 2019). Ecotourism aims to conserve the environment and benefit local communities (Pratiwi, 2006). On the other hand, unplanned travel can lead to pollution, waste generation, and environmental damage (Nepal Sk, 2009; Nyaupane & Thapa, 2004). Tourism-related activities have also been associated with increased drug abuse, illicit sexual behaviour, and other illegal activities (Lipton & Bhattari, 2014). According to Dorobantu and Nstoreanu (2012), there are differences between mass tourism and ecotourism.

Table 1


Characteristics of mass tourism Characteristics of ecotourism


Large groups of visitors. Small groups of visitors




Touristic general marketing activities. Eco-marketing activities.


Average prices for purposes of market penetration.



High price with purpose of filtering the market.


Impact on natural environment.


Little impact on the natural environment.
Advanced control options Limited possibilities of control


Management based on macroeconomic principles


Management based on local economic principles
Anonymous relationship between visitors and local community



Personalized relationships between visitors and local community



General development goals Local development objectives


Behavior-oriented leisure activities / entertainment, opponents to education and

training actions



Loyalty in the process of training and education for appropriate conduct for the natural environment




Intensive development of tourism facilities Reduced development of tourism facilities

Dorobantu & Nstoreanu (2012)

To effectively protect biodiversity and ensure the sustainability of our planet, it is necessary to prioritize responsible tourism practices, such as ecotourism. By understanding and promoting the net positive benefits of ecotourism, we can harness the power of the tourism industry to contribute to global conservation efforts.

Contrary to the positive aspects of ecotourism, it is essential to acknowledge that the scale at which tourists observe and engage with plants and animals, even in ecotourism settings, can have varied impacts, including positive, neutral, or adverse effects (Buckley, 2011). As highlighted by Kumari (2021), ecotourism has the following drawbacks:

  • Pollution of lakes, seas, and other water bodies.
  • Overuse of precious freshwater resources.
  • Contribution to the likelihood of global warming.
  • Environmental destruction.
  • Reduction of biological diversity in the surrounding areas.
  • Facilitation of a market for increased substance use and a potential rise in crime rates.

These drawbacks emphasize the need for careful management and responsible practices within the ecotourism industry to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive outcomes for the environment and local communities. Developing sustainable tourism strategies that address these concerns and ensuring the long-term viability and conservation of natural resources is crucial.

According to Chandel & Mishra (2016), the original concept of ecotourism has been lost by commercialization. This process is akin to “Green-washing,” which refers to “misinformation disseminated by a venture/organization to market itself as an ecologically responsible firm” (Samal & Dash, 2023). Financial constraints also make it challenging for ecotourism destinations to protect their natural resources globally (Wishitemi et al., 2015). Hatma Indra and others (2022) emphasize the importance of considering ecotourism in planning initiatives. Disparities between indigenous communities and external stakeholders in profiting from ecotourism have been noted (Hee et al., 2008). Similarly, host communities in ecotourism destinations often lack the support and resources to own and manage their homestays effectively. Inadequate planning, a lack of community education and awareness initiatives, and other factors contribute to this issue. Moreover, there is a reliance on nonlocal travel agencies, often established and managed by wealthy businessmen from neighbouring states, to market ecotourism packages, resulting in revenue leakage. While the local communities bear the financial burden of operating the businesses, they often require assistance to fully benefit from the economic opportunities presented by their own resources (Development Alternatives, 2018, cited in Sowards and Banerjee, 2021). Less-developed nations with ecotourism tend to have limited domestic involvement and minimal direct local impact (Weaver, 1998). Locals are often excluded from decision-making processes in tourism planning (Mowforth & Munt, 2016), which has led to criticism of the exclusion of the local population in ecotourism projects (Pratiwi, 2006). The absence of local participation is considered a significant factor in the failure of these projects to achieve their goals (Brandon, 1993). The evidence presented strongly supports the need for providing additional support to local communities. Ecotourism has been found to significantly affect local populations, whether directly or indirectly (Eshun & Tichaawa, 2019; Honey, 2008; Stem, Lassoie, Lee & Deshler, 2003, as cited in Schönberg Frank, 2021). Therefore, it is imperative to prioritize the well-being and empowerment of local communities in ecotourism initiatives.

In light of these issues, this study focuses on the involvement of locals in various ecotourism businesses as a key component of successful ecotourism in different areas. Increased participation of local communities can lead to employment opportunities, poverty reduction, improved living standards, and the retention of tourist spending within the destination, thus contributing to the local economy. The main argument of this note is that locals will gain more from increased participation in ecotourism than outsiders. For ecotourism to be effective, the local community must be involved and engaged. Otherwise, it may remain a mere “fad,” representing a top-down development process leading to exclusionary practices. To ensure the success and sustainability of ecotourism, inclusive and participatory approaches involving the local community are essential.

Ecotourism plays a significant role in preserving natural resources and promoting responsible use of natural and cultural assets. However, achieving its goals relies heavily on the solid support and involvement of the local population (Upadhaya et al., 2022). Local residents are recognized as a crucial resource for the long-term viability of ecotourism initiatives (Stone & Stone, 2011). Agenda 21 (Rio Summit in 1992) emphasized the importance of rural communities participating in the governance and control of their resources (Van Rooyen, 2004). The participation of locals, who possess experiential and anecdotal knowledge, enhances the understanding of the dynamics of the ecotourism system by providing ecological, social, and political insights that cannot be acquired through scientific methods (Folke et al., 2005). The involvement of locals in ecotourism brings several positive outcomes. They contribute by guiding ecotourists, producing handcrafted souvenirs, and showcasing their culture through performances and homestays. This enables the local community to access foreign currency, improve their standard of living, and be motivated to promote ecotourism (Upadhaya et al., 2022). Support for developing and managing small businesses within the ecotourism sector is crucial, as they contribute to a thriving local economy, stimulate innovation, and create employment opportunities for the local community (Alpheaus & Potgieter, 2020).

Entrepreneurs operating in the ecotourism small business sector must balance conflicting goals regarding business targets, lifestyle aspirations, and, most crucially, environmentally sound business practices (Swan & Morgan, 2016). Furthermore, ecotourism businesses can include adventure packages for visitors participating in ecotourism activities such as wildlife viewing, cycling, paragliding, kayaking, hiking and trekking, horseback riding, rock climbing, biodiversity experiences, safaris, snorkelling, and more. Such activities offer an excellent opportunity to discover, appreciate, and effectively preserve the environment. According to Sthapit and others (2019), many travels in today’s experiential marketplace to taste new and authentic cuisines. In a study by Piramanayagam and others (2020), most tourists said that one of the main reasons they travelled on their particular trips was to try the local cuisine.

Moreover, involving local populations in the planning process is imperative for the overall growth and success of the tourism industry (Bramwell & Sharman, 2002; Strzelecka & Wicks, 2010). Studies show that the involvement of indigenous women in ecotourism projects empowers them socially, economically, and politically (Deori & Das, 2013; Irandu & Shah, 2014). Additionally, findings of a study (Snyman, 2014) show that rural households are highly dependent on the market economy, particularly ecotourism, for support and emphasize the crucial role ecotourism employment plays in local socio-economic development in isolated, rural areas. Youth involvement in ecotourism sites is also essential, as exemplified by their active participation in the planning and protecting of the Tangkahan Ecotourism Area (Lubis et al., 2018). To garner community support for ecotourism initiatives, hiring locals as project consultants or leaders can be effective. Governments can provide work training and education to equip locals with the necessary skills to engage in ecotourism and interact with foreign tourists (Nash, 2001). Guided government intervention is crucial for the success of local ecotourism businesses; without the income, they will fail. Increasing wages for employees in ecotourism businesses may incentivize locals to stay in their place and be more committed to their work rather than go out to cities. Likewise, in return for higher wages, workers might put in more effort at work, considering they are more satisfied with their jobs (Akerlof & Yellen, 1990; Wu et al., 2013, as cited in Sturman et al., 2017). In light of the issues raised earlier, increasing employment opportunities in the ecotourism sector can address the issues discussed and benefit the local population. Providing job opportunities within their communities can prevent migration of the local labour force to urban areas in search of work. This helps maintain the community’s social fabric, improve the standard of living, and strengthen the local economy. Ultimately, prioritizing employment in ecotourism contributes to community development, prevents urban migration, and promotes a more sustainable future.

Ways for involving locals in leisure-related businesses:

  • Employment Opportunities: Provide employment opportunities for locals in various roles, such as cooks, managers, receptionists, servers, and housekeepers in local restaurants and accommodation units. This includes establishments like homestays, ecolodges, and guest houses located near ecotourism sites.
  • Local Entrepreneurship: Encourage and support local entrepreneurship by assisting locals in establishing and developing their leisure-related businesses. This can contribute to the local economy and create more sustainable livelihoods. Government intervention is necessary to provide funds and resources for ecotourism businesses run by locals to ensure their success.
  • Competitive Wages: Ensure that new eco-friendly business startups offer competitive wages to attract the local labour force. This can help prevent locals from migrating to cities in search of jobs and encourage them to work in the leisure sector in their communities.
  • Involvement in Guided Tours: Involve unemployed young locals in guided tours for ecotourism activities, such as wildlife adventures or village tours. These activities should be managed by qualified interpreters who can educate and entertain the visitors while providing employment opportunities for the local community.
  • Tour Guides and Drivers: Hire locals as tour guides and drivers, allowing them to showcase their knowledge of the local area and culture. This enhances the tourist experience and generates income and employment for the local population.
  • Inclusion of Indigenous Women: Ensure the inclusion of Indigenous women in ecotourism projects that can empower them economically and promote cultural diversity within the leisure industry.
  • Local Cuisines and Handicrafts: Set up stalls near accommodation units and recreational spots to sell local cuisines and handicrafts. This allows locals to earn income and showcase their traditional products, enhancing the tourist experience.
  • Traditional Music and Dance: Incorporate traditional music and dance performances into leisure activities. This can be produced by locals living in the specific location, showcasing the area’s unique cultural heritage. Employing young, unemployed locals in these performances can attract tourists and encourage them to revisit the area.
  • Motivational Ecotourism Businesses: Create new and innovative ecotourism businesses specifically designed to attract and involve locals in employment generation. These businesses can tap into the unique resources and attractions of the area, providing opportunities for locals to participate in the leisure industry actively.

By implementing these strategies, local communities can actively engage in leisure-related businesses, fostering economic growth, cultural preservation, and sustainable development. Additionally, several concerns need attention when involving locals in leisure-related businesses and promoting ecotourism, including the following:

  • What types of businesses can unemployed locals engage in within the context of ecotourism?
  • What kind of new ecotourism business needs to be created in a way that attracts tourists while ensuring environmental sustainability and benefiting the local population?
  • How to motivate or inspire the local population to start eco-friendly businesses?
  • Why choose ecotourism, and how to attract tourists to less developed tourist sites which can benefit the local population?
  • How is ecotourism progressive for society? Will it benefit all?
  • Does it challenge other practices prioritising mass tourism, resource exploitation, and disregard for local communities and the environment?
  • Is ecotourism profitable (its cost and benefits)?

In the post-pandemic scenario, focusing on planning, offering solutions, and resetting the leisure industry to benefit local communities is essential. Coordinated strategic efforts are required to address the various challenges and ensure sustainable growth, involving locals, tourism stakeholders, researchers, and government authorities at both the state and central levels.

Pema Choden Bhutia is a Research Scholar at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. Her research interests include tourism, ecotourism, environmental valuation techniques and tourist preferences.

Email: [email protected]


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