This dissertation explores the cultural unease emerging from a study of ecotourism narratives in which the relationship between tourist and host in the briefly shared natural and cultural environment is examined. It investigates why the term "ecotourism" continues to provoke controversy twenty years since its coinage in the early 1980s, a point demonstrated in debate surrounding the United Nations' designation of 2002 as the Year of Ecotourism. Such debate highlights the schism contained within the word. This schism is examined to ascertain whether the tensions between "eco," the ecological component, and "tourism," the market economy component, can be resolved to the extent that all parties, namely tourists, hosts and conservationists can benefit, in keeping with ecotourism's major objectives.
By using a grounded theory approach, this empirical study concentrates on ecotourism case studies in the mountain regions in Bhutan and the Annapurna Conservation Area in Nepal and wildlife destinations in Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park and Kangaroo Island in Australia. These case studies provide a basis for gathering material from a range of primary sources. The case study framework involves collating ecotourism narratives under the headings of tourist, host and environmental wellbeing, which comprise the three pillars of ecotourism.
Research results from the four case studies demonstrate that in the process of exploring ecotourism as a cultural phenomenon, concepts of authenticity surface as a major reference point in a range of ecotourism narratives. Among tourists, the desire for authenticity persists, despite a loss of belief in a Western-based (Christian) notion of an omniscient being or "centre." The study problematises ecotourism's ability to present an "authentic" natural and cultural environment through the process of commodification, since notions of the pristine and authentic are historically mediated cultural constructs, rather than essentialist realities.
"Host" narratives suggest that where ecotourism is an integral part of sustainable development or rural reconstruction programmes, especially those encouraging local participation, it can significantly enhance their general wellbeing through economic benefit, which in turn helps facilitate gender equity, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation. However ecotourism that excludes community involvement has an adverse effect on local community attitudes towards tourism development and conservation principles. Host community narratives also show that when ecotourists' sense of wellbeing is based on nostalgia for "things to stay as they are" it can result in resentment towards outside views, which construct their community as a place beyond the reality of the modem world.
Conservationists' narratives exhibit varying levels of concern about the ability of ecotourism to privilege its ecological component. Their perspective provides a counterpoint to the desires of tourists. Local ecological narratives help demonstrate that despite the frequent romanticised constructions of "nature," both in received Western narratives and in marketing representations, such desires are never purely innocent nor invisible. Thus, from an examination of the cultural concerns arising from ecotourism narratives, what emerges is an image of the natural environment, as a site of complex and varied nostalgic desires for "authentic Eden." At the same time the narratives reveal that ecotourism destinations are also sites of underlying anxiety about the prospect of an ecological apocalypse.