Ecotourism is becoming very popular, especially in protected areas where wildlife concentrate and is easier to observe, but the consequences of associated disturbance have seldom be quantified other than in the short-term, making the sustainability of this activity untested. We combined a historical, an empirical and an experimental approach to assess the long-, medium- and short-term consequences of disturbance to wintering wildfowl (Anatidae) in a wetland of international importance in the Camargue, Southern France. In the short-term, disturbance made teal (Anas crecca) move away temporarily from observation blinds without leaving the waterbody. Wildfowl fed more after disturbance, disrupting their normal resting activities. In the medium-term, waterbodies with more tourists did not host fewer birds: conversely the most heavily disturbed one hosted the highest wildfowl density. In the long term, wildfowl numbers were not related with the number of visitors. When practiced with appropriate guiding of people, and where appropriate facilities are provided to limit human disturbance as done here, ecotourism may not affect wintering wildfowl other than reversibly in the very short term. The legitimate demand of the public for access, even in fragile protected areas, may therefore be sustainable under some conditions.