Ecotourism fans may be in it for social media


Ecotourism offers a particular travel experience: It focuses on nature, education and sustainability. Often, these destinations highlight endangered or threatened species and engage people in making socially responsible decisions.

But a new study by investigators in the University of Georgia indicates Ecotourism’s altruistic attractions may be overshadowed by yet another advantage: photographs for social media.

“It’s been traditionally presumed that people are pursuing ecotourism because they are interested in making an environmentally or socially responsible choice–and this understanding is important for a host of reasons, including management and market segmentation,” said Justin Beall, the study’s lead author. “But our study throws a wrench in that a bit by showing that not only is it environmental values that are influencing people to participate in ecotourism, but people are also engaging in ecotourism so they can get good photographs to post online and present to their friends and loved ones.”

Beall, a recent graduate of the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, wrote the paper as part of his master’s thesis. Co-authors included Warnell faculty members Bynum Boley and Kyle Woosnam, as well as UGA alumnus Adam Landon, now with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Social status over sustainability

Say, by way of example, someone visits an ecotourism destination and shares descriptions and photos on social media. But, Beall said, travelers surveyed for the study demonstrated that how these photographs look may be much more important in relation to their particular environmental values.

“People have a tendency to do something that elevates their status–I think we all kind of do it. This idea is not new,” added Boley. “It used to be a Porsche or a wristwatch or jewelry, but now it’s a little more subtle, and channeled through travel experiences.

“So, our big debate is, do people choose ecotourism because they have strong environmental values, or is it a new way to show off to your peers that you’re cool?”

Earlier research indicates that ecotourists have motives beyond ecological and societal values. But with the rise of social and smartphones media, factors such as self-development, escape or relaxation have been taking a back seat into the prospect of likes and clicks. Boley has underscored this in more recent studies, showing how social networking is changing how we view and experience travel.

Now, with this newest study, it seems that the influence of social websites has also attained ecotourism.


While the travel industry is currently reeling from COVID-19, visitors to remote, natural-focused destinations are up from the U.S. On the one hand, this research presents an chance for the ecotourism business to market itself by highlighting panoramic opportunities to potential travelers.

But then there are issues of overcrowding to take into account. Too many tourists can also be a bad thing–especially when they are visiting sensitive all-natural areas. The problem is compounded for ecotourism destinations, in which a small staff normally handles a bigger and more delicate location. For example, visitors can stray off the recognized trail to their own set of photographs, drifting into sensitive regions.

For years, ecotourists were categorized as a highly desirable segment of the tourism market. They have money to spend, they’re environmentally conscious and they are concerned about their effects on their destination. But perhaps that’s no longer true.

“What if all of a sudden you realize most of the people who showed up to your site aren’t ecotourists that care about your site, but just want to get the picture?” Beall asked. “With ecotourism done well, you can have this sort of low-volume, high-value tourism. But if you have all these other people that are getting in on it, and they’re not concerned about their environmental impacts, where their money goes or what they do, then it could threaten the destination’s sustainability.”

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