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Ecotourism is very much in vogue and widely contested and debated. Understanding ecotourism and its impacts is subjective and depends on one’s perspective whether it is a genuine approach for sustainable development of a destination or a marketing ploy. Past interpretations place the concept on a spectrum of opinions offering both positive and negative conclusions and indicating lack of clarity of what ecotourism is and how it can be operationalised. Early studies neglected the negative aspects of this form of tourism, viewing it as a panacea for the ills of mass tourism. More recently, our attention has been drawn to the need for the protection of the natural and social environments as well as ecotourism’s contribution to the economic development in a more sustainable way. The debate on sustainable ecotourism is still ongoing and its complexities are now being recognised. The aim of this conceptual paper is to identify the main differential characteristics of ecotourism. In so doing, it looks at past studies attempting to distinguish ecotourism from other forms of tourism, and explores the relationship between ecotourism and sustainability, often taken for granted. The paper argues that positive expectations associated with ecotourism depend on how its operationalisation and development are planned and implemented.
Keywords: Ecotourism, ethical planning, sustainable development, ecotourism operationalisation, tourism impacts, overtourism, extractive industry