Megan Epler Wood, founder of The International Ecotourism Society

TIES Founder Megan Epler Wood

On the Evolution & Future of Ecotourism


I was influenced by Megan Epler Wood long before I even knew who she was.


After getting her Masters degree in Wildlife Biology from Iowa State University, Epler Wood went on to create The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) in 1990, with a mission to make responsible tourism a tool for conservation and sustainable development worldwide. Serving as President of that organization for 12 years, Epler Wood helped define what ecotourism is, oversaw ecotourism projects in 25 countries, and developed an infrastructure for responsible, sustainable tourism that continues to grow around the globe today.


In the years since she stepped down, Epler Wood has written numerous books about using sustainable tourism as an economic development tool, served as core lecturer at Harvard on Environmental Management of International Tourism Development, served as Executive Director of the Planeterra Foundation, and recently became Senior Professional Fellow at Cornell University’s Center for Global Sustainable Enterprise.  With her own company, EplerWood International,  she’s consulted with countries such as Honduras, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Brazil, Bangladesh, El Salvador and Brazil, helping to create their respective sustainable tourism development strategies. In short, she’s the closest thing the ecotourism industry has to an international celebrity.


So you can imagine the honor when Epler Wood recently extended a personal invitation to us to travel with her to visit a new Maasai ecotourism initiative during the recent Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism Conference in Kenya. Unfortunately, we were unable to get funding for that trip, but were delighted when she agreed to speak with us about the past, present and future of ecotourism.



Megan Epler Wood Filming "The Environmental Tourist" in 1989

Filming “The Environmental Tourist” in 1989


What originally inspired you to get involved in ecotourism?

I was a wildlife biologist, hired out of grad school to work at World Wildlife Fund under the direction of a brilliant man, Russell Train, the former head of the EPA. Russell Mittermeier, who became head of Conservation International, was there, as was Thomas Lovejoy, who was working on biodiversity conservation before that term was even known. I had a great opportunity to work with all of these people.

In the 1980s, the idea of sustainable development was new, and there was a big conversation about finding ways to benefit local people who wanted to conserve natural areas. Later, my husband and I lived in Colombia on a joint Fulbright scholarship, working on a film for WWF. People visiting these wild areas in the rainforest were bringing a large majority of the benefits that those local folks were seeing. There weren’t a lot of other opportunities for them.

When I came home, I produced a film, The Environmental Tourist, which was approved for PBS. So that’s how the whole thing got started– getting involved in both the conservation and tourism community, and figuring out how to put it all together.


TIES' Principles of Ecotourism

TIES’ Principles of Ecotourism


Many people don’t understand the definition of ecotourism. How do you explain it?

After TIES was formed, the first board of directors came together on a retreat in Virginia in 1991, representing countries from Asia, Africa, North America, and Latin America.  They agreed on the definition of ecotourism that is still used today– “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people.” Essentially, it’s a kind of travel that results in positive benefits from helping to preserve natural areas. Of course, the devil is in the details. The travel industry has spent years on creating guidelines, and other ways of monitoring how ecotourism works.


Megan Epler Wood With a Huaorani Woman in Ecuador, 1997

With a Huaorani Woman in Ecuador, 1997


We’re coming up on 25 years since TIES was formed. How has the travel industry’s approach to ecotourism changed?

Ecotourism has been integrated into a larger sphere of more individualized travel, where there’s more attention to the details of the customer’s experience. In the early days, the idea of going to the rainforest was still relatively new. I did my thesis in Patagonia, and when I went to Torres del Paine there was nobody there! Now, it’s a routine stop on many itineraries.

The whole idea of customized nature travel has gotten much bigger. If you look at National Geographic Traveler or Conde Nast Traveler, they’re doing articles about “Experiential Travel,” but they’re essentially talking about ecotourism– bringing people into closer contact with nature and local people.

Many of the trends that were actually pioneered by the ecotourism world have gone mainstream, which I think is a wonderful thing on the side of the tourism experience.  But when it comes to monitoring and managing tourism from an environmental perspective, it’s been lacking.


Ecotourism: Principles, Practices & Policies for Sustainability

Ecotourism: Principles, Practices & Policies for Sustainability


What standards do you think the industry needs to adopt in order to be considered truly sustainable?

As an industry and an NGO movement, we’ve been looking for almost 20 years at how to set industry standards. The European industry, which is more consolidated and is working with a much larger economy of scale, is integrating environmental reporting in a very good way. The surprising thing is that it’s the big companies like Thomas Cook and TUI that are leading the way.

You’d think it would be the smaller experiential travel community in North America. They’re trying to do things, but not in the same way, unfortunately. They’re still using what I would call antidotal forms of environmental management. You often see owner-operated decision-making, and no sustainability management from a professional point of view. You see a lot of philanthropic decision-making, and there’s nothing wrong with that when you look at it case by case.

The problem comes when you start checking out destinations. For instance, I’ve recently been looking at Zanzibar, a hot destination where a lot of smaller companies are going now. Unfortunately, the archipelago is being throttled by all types of problems because there’s no coordination of environmental management. How we achieve that is going to be the question…


Megan Epler Wood With Locals in Sierra Leone, 2005

With Locals in Sierra Leone, 2005


Can you talk about some of the emerging destinations that are doing interesting things in terms of developing an ecotourism infrastructure?

It’s a completely different thing when you go to a country that hasn’t had much time to build up yet. It’s hard to think about visiting countries like El Salvador or Sierra Leone, which both suffer from the negative image of their well-publicized, long-past civil wars.

And yet they are both absolutely terrific places! The opportunity to implement ecotourism in both places is exciting. The local people are so ready to learn, and so hospitable. The natural resources are extremely beautiful. You can get off the beaten path and experience the authenticity everybody’s looking for. I’d say it’s 100% safe to travel there, and it’s now possible to find small local tour operators. People are looking for business, and go out of their way to help visitors.

El Salvador is going to be as beautiful as Nicaragua, and Sierra Leone is going to be as great as Ghana. I think those countries have a lot to benefit from people traveling there, and they’re great from an ecotourism perspective.


Megan Epler Wood Meets the Maasai in Kenya

Meeting the Maasai in Kenya


You recently led select VIPs to visit Kenya’s South Rift Association of Land Owners during the Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism Conference. What, for you, makes that project such a model of sustainable ecotourism?

That particular land association has 100% Maasai-owned land located between two of the most important parks in Kenya, with Maasai Mara on one side and Amboseli on the other. The major roads do not go through that area, so you have to go all the way around it to go between the parks.

It’s extremely strategically located, and there is almost no tourism there now. It is 100% managed by the Maasai, and the landowners’ association is designed to give indigenous people greater control over what happens to their land. It’s 850,000 hectares (2,100,396 acres), and includes the Olorgasaili Prehistoric site where 900,000-year-old hand axes were discovered. They’re on display in a very small museum there.

It’s just spectacular! They have a resource center where educational organizations can go, and they’re doing a lot of community well-being projects. Then we went out into the area with the lion researcher. I didn’t see one tourist the whole time I was there– which in Kenya is really something– and we saw giraffe, wildebeests, lions, etc. My hope is to get involved in these development projects and help them advance so that they can start bringing in responsible tours.


Megan Epler Wood Receiving Her Lifetime Achievement Award in Kenya, 2013

Photo Courtesy of


You were presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from TIES at ESTC for your ongoing dedication to ecotourism. What did that honor mean to you?

It’s been over 20 years since we founded TIES. One of the most meaningful things about getting the award was that it happened in Kenya, where I originally proposed to Dr. David Western– a Kenyan, and our first chairman of the board– that we launch such an organization.

I had been working in Washington, DC with the conservation community, but I needed a highly respected, internationally known leader to work with me. He agreed to do it, which was a very generous thing for him to do. He had some sources of funding, so the two of us put our funding sources together and, in many ways, it was a joint venture. He received the lifetime achievement award last year, and I presented it to him.

I still remember what he said in 2012: “Megan, I have to tell you, I never thought it was going to work!” But still he gave me the ball and let me run with it. His faith and confidence in me meant a lot, and so having him there and in Kenya this year was really a wonderful thing.   –Bret Love; photos provided by EplerWood International



If you enjoyed our interview with Megan Epler Wood, you might also like: 


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Easy Ecotourism: 10 Simple Steps to More Sustainable Travel

The Benefits of Ecotourism: 20 Travel Bloggers on the Importance of Nature Travel

37 Responses to INTERVIEW: TIES Founder Megan Epler Wood on the Evolution & Future of Ecotourism

  • Jennifer says:

    Wow. This is so cool. I’ve been influenced by her my entire adult traveling life, yet I didn’t know this until now. Thank you for this fantastic, in-depth and enriching interview.

  • Lindsey says:

    Megan’s work is inspiring! Great article!

  • What an inspiration! I applaud her work in changing the world, and the way we experience it. Travel is so important to ethnorelativism, but intelligent, cultural travel is key – not just hitting the big attractions and eating at big chain restaurants. I am looking forward to seeing what she does next!

  • What a wonderful interview, and thank goodness we have people like Megan, who was visionary enough to see where the world was headed and Dr. David Western, who didn’t think her ideas would work but was willing to support her anyway.

  • Krista Ross says:

    Great interview! It’s so exciting to read about Megan Epler Wood and humbling to realize that despite my familiarity with TIES and the fact that she and her organization have had such a huge impact on my approach to environmentally and culturally aware travel, I am only now learning her name and incredible history. She is a rockstar and it’s great to see her work brought to light! It was so funny and understandable to read that her partner initially didn’t believe that it would work, but joined in none the less and as a result, they have managed to change the world and create extraordinary wide-spread awareness! Loved reading this!

  • What an inspiring interview – thankyou. I was unfamiliar with TIES, however like you was obviously influenced by Megan before I even knew who she was! Amazing to think just how much of an impact one person can have on the world and how much change can happen from one person’s passion and motivation. This was an amazing read, thankyou for such a great interview!

  • Megan seems like quite the individual, I’m glad she’s done so much to help move the ecotourism movement forward. I hope more countries realize the potential for ecotourism to benefit everyone involved.

  • I was there at ESTC’12, when Megan presented the TIES Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Western. Their live video-conference was a touching moment between these two ecotourism pioneers. I’m thrilled to see the award go to Megan this year. Megan personally has done more to support responsible tourism than have most of the field’s NGOs.

  • What an inspiring woman! So great she had the support for her ideas, even if Dr Western was afraid they wouldn’t get pulled off the ground. It’s clear that she has helped and influenced a lot of people over the last 20 years too.

  • Sam says:

    Wonderful interview! As someone who is very interested in sustainable development and environmental conservation, I find ecotourism to be a perfect marriage of the two. I think for it to be truly successful it needs cooperation from many sectors, from international institutions, national governments and local communities to non-profits and private businesses. As Megan mentioned with ecotourism’s future in Zanzibar, these small companies with wonderful intentions need the support of federal officials to get through the red tape. Without this type of cooperation, ecotourism will have trouble gaining momentum.

  • NJ says:

    This is a wonderful article! I really enjoyed reading about the benefits that both tourists as well as local residents would be able to acquire from ecotourism. It is truly a novel form of travel and I look forward to seeing several more destinations thrive from its invaluable benefits.

  • Elle says:

    What a fantastic interniew… and such an inspirational lady.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Elle x

  • Turtle says:

    It’s really interesting to hear what she has to say about countries that are only now trying to grow their tourism. In some ways you think it might be easier to integrate ecotourism into a country when there is already little there. Then again, if certain countries see the potential growth, they might be tempted to ignore responsible travel and instead chase quick and easy money. Luckily there are plenty of experts willing to work with destinations to help them get it right. Let’s hope they make the most of those opportunities.

  • It is so inspiring to read stories of people like her. Ecotourism is also a big problem in some areas here in the Philippines. I wish we had more people like Megan who will make it their advocacy.

  • Jeff says:

    What an inspiring interview. Keep it up Megan, hope most of the countries will understand benefits of ecotourism and embrace it.

  • What a powerhouse and we agree with her: El Salvador IS a wonderful country with plenty of opportunities for smart, sustainable tourism. She’s seen and influenced so many changes in the way people experience the world and she’s still going strong. Inspirational.

  • Thank goodness for people like Megan and Dr. David Western. It’s heartening to know that there are so many people who are interested and sincerely support this movement. I’ve always been “eco-conscious,” and apply that to every aspect of my life. Now I’m inspired to try to make it to some of these developing places she talks about so enthusiastically. Great writing.

  • This is such an inspiring interview!! We need more people like her in the world.

  • James Paulson says:

    You truly are a treasure to the green community, Megan Epler! Thanks for your crusading spirit and bringing the dawn of an inspiring industry! Can’t wait to see pics of even more of your awesome trips! #jealous

  • Meredith Radke says:

    It is too bad you couldn’t get funding to go to Kenya with Megan, but her description of the Maasai owned community conservation project sounds awesome! I would love to visit it next time I’m in the area.

  • Micki @ The Barefoot Nomad says:

    Such an inspiring interview. It’s heartwarming to see people like Megan Epler Wood, who contribute so much to responsible travel.

  • Thanks so much for publishing this inspiring interview. I am especially interested and gratified to read that respect for local cultures is part of the definition of ecotourism, for that is my passion: “they’re essentially talking about ecotourism – bringing people into closer contact with nature and local people.”

    When I travel, my interest is in making close contact with local people. In fact, I do not like being a tourist. I would rather move in for awhile and become part of the neighbourhood.

  • Kate says:

    What an amazing person.

  • Michael says:

    Inspiring stuff. I love people who are passionate about what they do and love. Megan definitely has that!

  • Very inspiring. I wish her ideas will spread more in the next years.

  • Linda McCormick says:

    Megan has been such an inspiration over the years, it was great to see her win the lifetime of achievement award. I’m sure she’ll still continue doing great stuff. Fab interview, thanks 🙂

  • Thanks for introducing me to such an awesome woman.

  • Vaivhav says:

    Though a member of TIES, I didn’t know much about Megan and the life she has dedicated to spreading ecotourism. A really inspiring lady and an enlightening post.

  • Hello,

    What a great article! I was also at the ESTC event in Nairobi this year and enjoyed spending a few minutes with Megan. Your interview is so inspiring and it summarized perfectly what I was thinking the whole time I was there: that Megan has not only accomplished something great that has changed the landscape of tourism but is also determined to continue her work. I wonder if we might be able to collaborate? I would be honored to publish your article on our website: Please let me know if you are interested. Thank you!

  • Nicola Booker says:

    What a great interview! So cool to understand how it all begun and the people we have to thank

  • Larissa says:

    What a fascinating woman! I’m going to start investigating El Salvador now 🙂

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