Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Earth and Environmental Sciences


The challenges facing today’s human population in tackling environmental and social issues from a sustainable perspective have substantially increased. Ecotourism, as a sustainable development strategy, became officially recognised in the mid-1980s as a way to enhance environmental conservation and improve the quality of life of marginalised communities. Simultaneously, impact assessment procedures rose as planning instruments in the 1970s to control and monitor the effects of future human activities and therefore, reach sustainable development objectives.

The theory behind these two mechanisms primarily recognises a shift of development goals in which both the environment and society have to be viewed as equally important. These approaches to sustainable development, however, have been challenged due to their failure to achieve sustainability goals. Today, the theory and practice of these two concepts have been substantially contested, and the model of sustainability and its achievements through these instruments has produced substantial academic research in both developed and developing countries. It has been argued that ecotourism can be environmentally and socioculturally detrimental and as equally destructive as mass tourism practices if adequate planning and analysis of potential impacts are not properly addressed. It has been also stressed that ecotourism has often been utilised as a marketing strategy via the ‘eco’ tag where responsible and ethical tourism practices are rarely adopted. Similarly, it has been argued that impact assessment procedures have failed to identify and/or prevent potential environmental and social impacts of human activities due to political and bureaucratic interference and the deficient application of scientific and social based knowledge into impact prediction and monitoring. It has also been argued that impact assessment procedures often poorly incorporate intrinsic social and cultural values essential to the interests of all stakeholders, and potential impacts on socio-cultural values.

This study aims to critically analyse the issues and constraints that affect the application of impact assessment procedures for ecotourism using a comparative case study approach between Australia and Mexico. By analysing the quality of impact statements within four on-ground ecotourism operations, this study evaluates their practical role in addressing potential impacts of enterprises performed within protected areas acknowledging that ecotourism is also practiced in other urban and rural natural areas.

The significance of this study has profound implications for the two countries due to a) their deeply rooted Indigenous heritage, b) immense biodiversity values, and c) high development pressures from tourism practices. Using a range of qualitative research methods, the theory behind ecotourism and impact assessments was briefly addressed to understand the gaps in their practical application among the four case studies. The ongoing constraints in the planning and assessment of ecotourism were explored using semi-structured interviews with ecotourism and impact assessment experts. Structured interviews with ecotourism operators and the analysis of on-ground ecotourism activities were performed to evaluate the effectiveness of individual impact statements in addressing potential effects prior developing each enterprise. Results show that issues are diverse in both the theory and practice of these two sustainable development mechanisms. On the one hand, ecotourism operations were thought as a sustainable development strategy to directly achieve socio-economic development and indirectly increase biodiversity protection at the tourist destinations. However, the idea of ecotourism and its complex and interlinked environmental and cultural implications was poorly understood derived from the lack of appropriate consultation from EIA/SIA advisors. In addition, the limited knowledge about the impacts of ecotourism made tour operators relatively unaware of the implications of developing such a business, hence underestimating its potential impacts. In regards to the quality of ecotourism EIAs, results show that current environmental legislation and polices did not thoroughly enforced methods for impact identification and assessment, nor monitoring strategies to plan for potential impacts. Each ecotourism EIS was based on broad impact assessment guidelines produced for mass tourism operations and overlooked case specific mechanisms to enhance sustainable tourism practices according to tour operators’ management skills. Furthermore, ecotourism EIS were used as justification tools to gain development consent and not as instruments to adequately identify and prevent specific potential impacts. Furthermore, the study found that the analysis of environmental impacts relied on irrelevant and insufficient scientific data while the analysis of socio-cultural impacts were based on financial indicators prioritising economic benefits of ecotourism activities such as number of jobs but dismissed important cultural constraints such as spiritual beliefs and historical social problems. Accordingly, the lack of expertise in interdisciplinary work of the EIA consultants resulted in the preparation of sloppy and deficient impact statements.

This study recognises the need to adopt alternative mechanisms to analyse potential environmental and socio-cultural impacts of ecotourism. Collaborative and multidisciplinary efforts between government agencies, NGOs and academic groups are critical for enhancing the quality of impact assessment methodologies. Improving the role of state and local EIA guidelines in enforcing ethical and responsible development proposals that incorporate the interests and need of all stakeholders are also important. Furthermore, both countries require adopting EIA/SIA accreditation schemes to ensure that experienced and skilful EIA/SIA consultants effectively plan for potential environmental and social impacts. Moreover, this study also recognises that future ecotourism businesses require substantial capacity building to better plan, manage and operate ecotourism activities in order to achieve conservation, sustainability and socio-economic development.

Finally, this research has helped to highlight the need to improve impact assessment methodologies that are not financially and politically constrained and are performed by qualified multidisciplinary experts, using an ethical approach and the best available scientific and social based knowledge to provide adequate conservation of both environmental and socio-cultural values.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.