Sociology of Eco-Tourism


In this post, I show how sociology can contribute to collective understandings of sustainable tourism in China. I was inspired in response to the #ISeeTheWorldWithScience initiative promoted by a community I co-manage, Science on Google+. This is a game where members of our community are invited to write a caption for science images using their scientific perspective. The image for this week was of a beautiful forest (above). The instructions were:

I See the World with Science Image Game

Pillars of solitude. Life grabbing hold. Misty Mountains eroded by time. 

What more does science let you see?

#ISeeTheWorldWithScience Game: Suggest a short caption for the picture.  The caption must be founded on solid science but the more surprising the better. The community moderators will choose the best caption and repost an image with the caption on it in. Vote for your favourites by +1ing to influence the moderator’s choice!

Discussion: Discuss any aspect of the photo and what any field of science tells us more about what we are seeing and it’s context, including how we are seeing it, why it’s important.*

I captioned my response with ‘sociology of eco-tourism.’ Here’s why.

Sociology of Eco-Tourism

My caption comes from the sociology of eco-tourism. I’ve adapted this from a quote in a comprehensive study by Linsheng Zhong and colleagues, published in the journal of Tourism Management. Their study included interviews with local government officials and rangers at the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (in China), as a well as large surveys of tourists  and with locals in the region. The study incorporates an analysis of various historical records. Zhong and colleagues show that the Park was officially opened as a tourist site in 1982, but it was poorly planned, leading to a high level of degradation that you cannot see in this photo. You may not really see it if you visit the park. But the evidence, hidden below the surface, shows that this ecosystem is in grave danger.


Government officials perceived that tourism would increase economic growth in the impoverished area and they focused on increasing visitor satisfaction, to the detriment of the environment. Zhong and colleagues show that around 61% of the locals who were surveyed drew their income through tourism. Yet most of the locals perceived that the greatest profit was flowing out of the region, to developers.

For example, a tourist sightseeing lift was a high source of revenue for external developers, but it has been linked to various environmental problems in the area. Moreover, as the park attracts an increasing number of tourists, more people have been migrating to the area, further contributing to degradation.

Environmental Damage

In a 23-year period, the population living in the park has trebled to over 3,000 people. This study and others cited below show that development of roads, tourist facilities (shops and resorts) and other tourist-related activities have negatively impacted on the soil, water and vegetation in the park and surrounding areas. Qiang Shi’s study also shows that tourist activity is causing serious soil degradation in Zhangjiajie.

This park was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. Since then UNESCO has passed on many warnings that the park is under threat, but the Government fails to act. On the one hand, locals depend upon the revenue in this area as there are few alternative sources of employment. The area previously had other agricultural uses, but these farmers were driven away as the economic function of the region changed to a tourist site.

A prevalent argument is that national parks can use tourist revenue to protect the landscape. As Zhenguo Zhang and colleagues have argued, this is not always the case.

Studying the  Ordos Relict Gull Reserve in China, the researchers note that sustainability does not really inform so-called eco-tourism policies and practice. Economic development in fragile ecosystems is not viable, as irreversible damage goes unheeded. At the very least, eco-tourism requires a heavy investment in educating tourists and locals, and providing resources to contain further damage and regenerate forestation where possible.

Strengthening Sustainability Policies

Jinyang Deng and colleagues argue that in the case of Zhangjiajie National Park, four measures should be put in place:

  1. Set up temporary fences to contain tourist disruption of the ecosystem;
  2. Regulate stakeholders’ activities – souvenir sellers have set up booths all over the park which leads to crowding, and trampling of soil and vegetation;
  3. Invest in environmental education;
  4. Explore redirecting tourist activities to less visited areas.  

A Sociological Reading of a Beautiful Landscape

Why have I chosen to be such a bummer with my reading of this picture? It’s because when I see the world with science, I think about the complex social dynamics that lie beneath the surface. Even in this beautiful tranquil scene, I see the majesty of nature, but I think how we must remain educated and vigilant about our relationship to our environment.

Through this evocative photograph, I see not just how human activity threatens the environment; I also see how it has led to greater socio-economic inequality, where locals now see little recourse but to continue contributing to land degradation, even though they are unhappy with what is happening in their homeland. I also see how education is not enough; people need to be taught to think critically.

To this end, science is ideally poised to improve awareness. While Zhong’s study finds that highly educated tourists are more likely to espouse knowledge of eco-tourism, this does not necessarily affect their behaviour. The researchers write:

“Tourists visiting the park may not come for the purpose of being in close contact with nature. Rather, they came to marvel at the wonder of nature, and then be whisked away to other places” [my emphasis].

Despite this evidence, I see something else: I see how science can help empower change. Empirical data on the environment and the social dynamics of stakeholders and tourists are central to protecting this park, and other reserves like it in other places around the world. 


Linsheng Zhong et al., Tourism Development and the Tourism Area Life-Cycle Model:

Jinyang Deng et al., Assessment on and Perception of Visitors’ Environmental Impacts of Nature Tourism:

Zhenguo Zhang et al., Ecotourism and Nature-Reserve Sustainability in Environmentally Fragile Poor Areas:

Qiang Shi, The Impact of Tourism on Soils in Zhangjiajie World Geopark:


*Other prompts provided for the game are as follows:

Some questions to get you started on this week’s photo:

  • How do these pillars form? How long ago?
  • Where is this?
  • How do plants get up there to seed in the first place?
  • What kind of rock is this?
  • Can any animals live here?
  • How have people historically ever used/seen/understood this landscape?
  • Is there anywhere else in the world with similar formations?
  • What else do you see?

Photo: Trey Ratcliff, Oct 5, 2010.

3 thoughts on “Sociology of Eco-Tourism

  1. Hi Zuleyka Zevallos . I see you are from Alice. I’m from Brisbane (CSIRO). I think we should definitely cross post our respective posts between BCLS and Science on G+. In the BCLS community, we have different leaders/moderators  specialized in different disciplines (functional ecology, ecological economics, political/social ecology, eco-anthropology/ethoecology, ecopsychology) to understand biocultural diversity, landscapes & seascapes. We still need someone with interest in linkages between sociology/political ecology. I would like to offer you this leading position in BCLS. Would you be happy to take it?  Hope you will accept the offer. Best regards – jb


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