Ecotourism is a relatively new word. It was first used in Central America and defined by Hector Ceballos-Lascurain (1983), as: "Environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features-both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations."
In 1991, the US based Ecotourism Society (now The International Ecotourism Society) defined it as "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people." Both these definitions include the elements of environmental conservation, community development and responsible travel to/from the destination.
It is now becoming increasingly accepted that the tourism experience should be sustainable, an ingrdient that seems to lack in the two definitions. Currently, ecotourism is considered the fastest growing sector of the tourism market in the world. The International Ecotourism Society (1995) identified the trends leading to the fast growth to be:
- Increase in the overall travel market
- Growth in popularity of vacation to natural areas
- Dissatisfaction with simplistic travel packages offered by travel firms and facilities
- Urgent need to generate funding and human resources for management of protected areas in ways that meet the needs of local rural populations
- Recognition of the importance of tourism within the field of sustainable development
Not only is ecotourism a potentially positive force in Kenya, it is also something that people want to do. Consumers are increasingly becoming interested in ecotourism products. Conde Naste Traveler, one of the most respected travel magazines in the US and UK, has an annual ecotourism award issue, in which it dedicates up to three pages on ecotourism tour operators, destinations and hotels / resorts.
For the past 6 years they have featured unique ecotourism activities all over the world. British Airways, under the Banner "Tourism for Tomorrow" provides free publicity and promotion to top winning facilities. The year 2002 marked the climax of ecotourism in the world - It was declared the "International Year of Ecotourism" and this has generated a lot of positive publicity.
While this looks excellent for Kenya, there is need to realise it is an intensely competitive market, and is becoming more so every day. There are problems associated with ecotourism development. It is important to keep in mind, however, the positive attributes of the ecotourism industry, and its potential as a tool to resolving some of the issues faced in rural and poor areas.