, Volume 84, Issue 2, pp 345–366 | Cite as

Is ecotourism a panacea? Political ecology perspectives from the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, India

  • Priyanka GhoshEmail author
  • Aditya Ghosh


Ecotourism is increasingly being promoted as an instrument that helps local socio-economic development and generate revenues to strengthen conservation of critically endangered biodiversity. It is often posited the magic bullet particularly across protected areas in the Global South. In theory, ecotourism can provide economic benefits to economically weaker communities living around protected areas and inspire them to protect the biodiversity in their own interest. This paper, however, provides empirical evidence that the so-called win–win is not an unqualified truism. With a case study on Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, world’s largest mangrove biodiversity and home of highly endangered Royal Bengal Tiger, this article examines complexities involved in ecotourism and urges the need to make it context-specific. It assesses ecotourism’s ability to provide livelihood alternatives to local communities and how can it help in conservation. The findings demonstrate an unequal, uneven, and skewed accumulation of benefits of ecotourism, often associated with market mechanisms of global environmental protection. As little as 36% of the interviewees claimed receiving direct or indirect benefits from ecotourism, the study finds. It failed to offer any benefits at all to the poorest and most marginal communities. On the contrary, it offered disproportionately larger returns to the remotely located capital invested in the local ecotourism facilities in the Sundarbans, thus defeating the principle behind the mechanism. In the area of conservation, tourism was blamed for increasing pollution and harming the health of the ecosystem by tourists who were considered ‘outsiders’ and insensitive to the ecology by the locals and conservation agencies alike.


Ecotourism Political ecology Community-based conservation Sundarban Biosphere Reserve India 



We thank local communities of Gosaba for providing valuable information and time during the fieldwork. We also thank Dr. Tad Mutersbaugh and Dr. P. P. Karan at the University of Kentucky for their thoughtful comments on a very early draft of the paper which provided it a defined direction. We sincerely thank Dr. Jonathan Phillips and Lynn Phillips at the University of Kentucky for reviewing the final version of the article. We thank Ryan Cooper and Raghava Davuluri for lending their hand in map-making of the Sundarbans. The research was financially supported by the National Science Foundation, US (DDRI No. 1029993), and Association of American Geographers (AAG) Dissertation Research Grant 2012.

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Conflict of interest

We, the authors hereby declare that we have followed the accepted principles of ethical and professional conduct required by your journal. We also confirm that there is no way our manuscript is in possible conflict with the ethical standards required by the journal.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of KentuckyLexingtonUSA
  2. 2.Faculty of Sustainability, Institute of Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability ResearchLeuphana UniversityLüneburgGermany

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