Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Two Sides of the Same Coin: A Discussion on Eco and Ethnic Tourism


Over the past several decades the tourism industry has seen notable changes in the types of destinations and activities sought out by international travellers. These changes have been in large part characterised by a shift from traditional mass tourism to newer alternative forms of tourism such as ecotourism, adventure tourism, ethnic or indigenous tourism and volunteer tourism. A hot topic in current tourism literature, the success and effectiveness of alternative tourism and its ability to meet its desired aims (e.g. sustainability, positive outcomes for local communities and the environment) continues to be debated. The following sections will briefly discuss two of these alternative forms of tourism, what distinguishes them from one another, and what ultimately binds them together.

The Two Sides of the Coin

When looking at the research to date regarding alternative tourism, the concepts of ecotourism and ethnic tourism often times overlap and in many cases are simply merged together within the same category. Ethnic tourism hasn’t quite reached the same buzz worthy status as its eco-counterpart within the tourism literature and as a result, the ethnic and cultural side of things are often simply lumped in with definitions of ecotourism, which makes sense on some level when considering the clear link between the environment and local peoples. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), for example, defines ecotourism on its website as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. In this definition, ecotourism is characterised by touristic activity that benefits both the local environment and its inhabitants. Scheyvens also emphasises this connection between the environment and local peoples, including the ability of ecotourism to improve the agency of indigenous communities, stating that “benefits to the local population should be an integral part” of any ecotourism activity. However, though I do agree with this tenet of ecotourism, I would also argue for a clear distinction when discussing ecotourism and ethnic tourism, as both are unique phenomenon that should be examined in their own right. Although I accept that they are inextricably tied and share many common features with one another, I would suggest that rather they are two sides of the same coin, both of which are constantly interacting and in many cases are mutually beneficial to one another.

By asserting that ecotourism and ethnic tourism are in fact two different forms of what researchers refer to as alternative tourism, the question then becomes what is the main distinction between the two? It appears to me that one of the main differences is the focus and motivation of the tourist themselves. In this instance, I am describing ecotourism as a touristic endeavour in which environmentally-conscious tourists seek out remote and pristine natural attractions in order to appreciate and experience these sights while maintaining a low impact on the local environment. In this definition of ecotourism the tourist’s main interest lies in the natural environment he or she is visiting, and the individual may or may not interact directly with local peoples. Ethnic tourism on the other hand is culturally-motivated tourism sparked by the traveler’s interest in the exotic, particularly the idealised and romanticised image of native or indigenous societies, supposedly untouched and unspoiled by modernity. In this case it is the local peoples and culture and the opportunity to interact with them which holds the appeal for the tourist, and a concern for the local natural environment may not necessarily be at the forefront of their concerns. These differences in tourist’s motivations may not necessarily seem overtly significant or relevant at first thought, but in fact they can have major implications for how tourism develops within a specific area, what activities are promoted, what facilities are built, what type of employment is created, etc., which can ultimately have even further impacts on the local society (e.g. effects on local gender/ethnic/class relations).

A Reciprocal Relationship

Despite these distinctions, it cannot be denied that these forms of tourism can and often do occur simultaneously within an area. This is especially true when considering how local peoples, particularly those living in more remote and isolated communities and the subjects of the ‘tourist gaze’, are culturally, spiritually, physically and economically tied to the natural environment in which they live. Thus often times, it is these local peoples who influence, regulate and shape both the cultural and natural aspects of tourism within their own communities and spaces. The following two examples attempt to demonstrate this reciprocal relationship between the eco and the ethnic side of tourism.

Manupirua Thermal Springs-1 (2)During my time in New Zealand this past November, I visited Lake Rotoiti’s Manupirua Thermal Springs. The hot pools in which I leisurely soaked are fed by the nearby natural volcanic springs. These hot pools are privately owned by the local indigenous Maori (as is much of the property surrounding the lake), who describe the springs on their website as an “unspoiled and pristine” haven in which you are immersed in “the beauty of the land that surrounds you”. In this instance, it is the natural environment which draws visitors to the area, and despite me and my fellow tourists’ lack of direct interaction with any locals during our visit to the springs, the local Maori are nevertheless the main actors involved in the sustainable management of local resources and in doing so successfully benefit their community economically.

Another example which demonstrates the other side of the coin is southern and central Mexico, a popular destination sought out by tourists interested in indigenous culture. In the state of Puebla, the Nahua, the largest indigenous ethnic group in the area, have become directly involved in the local tourism industry in a variety of ways. In this particular region, local indigenous groups have a history of organising themselves into indigenous cooperatives in order to promote local indigenous businesses and crafts to tourists. One such cooperative, consisting purely of indigenous Nahua women, have taken advantage of this interest in Mexico’s indigenous culture, and have successfully established an ecotourism hotel known as Taselotzin in the town of Cuetzalan . Here tourists can immerse themselves in traditional aspects of the local Nahua culture including traditional cuisine, medicine and crafts while also engaging in eco-friendly activities and tours . In this instance, the hotel is targeting and catering to those tourists who are visiting predominantly for the cultural experience, yet, in the process, are also promoting local environmental conservation, while maintaining a low-impact, sustainable and indigenously-owned business.


As the notion of alternative tourism has become increasingly popular among tourists over the last few decades, a number of new forms of tourism have emerged that deviate from the large-scale, unsustainable and consumerist nature of traditional tourism, and are instead characterised by small-scale, low-impact and environmentally and socially responsible travel. Ethnic and ecotourism are just two forms of tourism that fall under this category, yet these particular two often go hand in hand. While they differ in some significant ways, particularly the motivation of the tourists themselves, where eco tourists’ main interest lies in the natural environment and ethnic tourists in the local, indigenous peoples, they also share many common characteristics and goals. And because of the close connection that often exists between the environment and local peoples, ecotourism and ethnic tourism tend to be interconnected and share a mutual capacity to benefit both local ecological environments and communities.



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