The application of sustainable development in the tourism industry has been widely advocated, but its achievement in practice has been criticised. Ecotourism has been identified as a subset of sustainable tourism in which the challenges of achieving sustainable development goals in practice is played out. Ecotourism practice has resulted in mixed outcomes in general, and in the Philippines in particular. There is a need for better understanding of the factors that influence sustainability in ecotourism, based on practical on-the-ground realities to determine its potential for poverty alleviation in developing country settings.
This study adopts a multiple case study approach examining three ecotourism cases in the Philippines. These cases provide contexts where there are differences in: the way ecotourism development was initiated, how management is undertaken, the implementation methods used and actual ecotourism outcomes. These were analysed through a within-case analysis and cross-case synthesis based on an analytical model derived from a strategic planning framework in the literature. This model focuses on the convergence of three interrelated factors affecting ecotourism outcomes: ecotourism understanding, the implementation or development context, and stakeholder relationships.
The study results confirms the complexity and contentious nature of ecotourism where achieving holistic environmental, social, and economic benefits is difficult. In the cases, ecotourism is found to have resulted in both positive and negative outcomes and ecotourism’s potential as a catalyst for sustainable development is still problematic. The strengths and weaknesses of ecotourism as a form of sustainable development are related to contextual needs and realities, especially cultural and political, as well as stakeholder values and relationships. Understanding the interrelationships among these factors is critical in assessing ecotourism in order to build on the strengths and overcome weaknesses to address issues of sustainability.
This study has contributed to furthering knowledge about ecotourism and suggests important considerations for its development in order to achieve sustainable development outcomes. Case study 1 demonstrated that prescriptive approaches, while useful, may do more harm than good as how to implement ecotourism differs according to context and thus needs to be dynamic and adaptive to the realities in the area. This is because prescriptive approaches assume similar capacities and does not take into account the weak institutional frameworks that exist in developing countries, as well as culture that is political and complex, often prioritising smooth interpersonal relationships rather than good outcomes. Case study 2 exposed the threats to sustainability of having a purely environmental conservation or community-management bias in ecotourism development, and instead advocates for more pragmatic definitions of ecotourism that emphasises inclusiveness, where ecotourism practice can be manifested in softer forms while adhering to core criteria. Case study 3 revealed the critical need for refocusing priorities in ecotourism development to building lasting multi-stakeholder partnerships and collaborative institutions that would enable mutuality in articulating ecotourism development priorities consistent with the unique development contexts within which stakeholders operate and ecotourism is implemented. This also allows for the genuine independence and real empowerment and trust in allowing local stakeholders to decide their own futures. Overall, the cases taken collectively suggest the shifting of ecotourism development priorities to building collaborative institutions that fully integrate local complexities and diversity. As such, the development of ecotourism should not be solely based on prescriptive approaches.
Ecotourism is about achieving a balance between often-conflicting environmental, economic, social, cultural, and political concerns that reflect changing values and priorities. Current realities show that this is difficult to achieve and might require prioritisation of one over the other for sustainability. It is essential that knowledge from ecotourism practice continue to inform the ways in which sustainable development may be achieved.