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Latin America's Ecotourism:
The lack of a standard terminology has resulted in a myriad of definitions. In a comparative study of ecotourism policy in the Americas for the Organization of American States (OAS), Steve Edwards, Bill McLauglin and Sam Ham found that of the 25 regional government tourism agencies that define "ecotourism," 21 created their own homegrown definition. (See OAS website for details.)

Moreover, international organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Sierra Club and the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) have each created their own guidelines promoting eco-friendly travel.

"A few years ago I stopped using the word 'ecotourism' to describe our operations," says Amos Bien, owner of Costa Rica's Rara Avis Lodge, a pioneering effort with scrupulous ethics on how one creates a touristic enterprise precisely to save the surrounding rainforest. Bien now uses the term again, explaining that tourists are starting to understand the nuances in the definition and that Rara Avis sets an example when it comes to showing how tourism can benefit the environment.

In Latin America anything and everything "Eco" boomed in the 1990s -- particularly after the 1992 Earth Summit which was held in Brazil. In Costa Rica the most questionable example is the country's "Eco-Rent-A-Car." Mexico boasts "Eco Taxis," "Eco Cines" and "Eco Estacionamientos" - or "Eco Parking Lots" because of a few trees planted around the perimeter.

So what is "ecotourism?" For Bien and other pioneers, who had a clear vision of how tourism could assist conservation, implementation and action were more important than squabbling about terms.

The lack of a common definition is one of the factors influencing the development of ecotourism certification, a popular topic now within international institutions and national governments throughout the Americas. For all of its merits, however, the idea of certification should be scrutinized as much as the operations themselves because if not implemented wisely, the process could jeopardize the ecotourism it intends to foster.

This brings us back to the question of what constitutes ecotourism.

Evaluating Ecotourism's Bull's Eye

While the details vary, most definitions of ecotourism boil down to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria:

  • 1) it provides for conservation measures

  • 2) it includes meaningful community participation and

  • 3) it is profitable and can sustain itself.

Imagine these goals as being three overlapping circles. If a project or service met all three criteria - hitting the bull's eye in effect, you'd have unmistakable ecotourism. But what about the projects that are just a little off the mark? Are they genuine ecotourism projects?

This model attempts to illuminate not only what is ecotourism, but what could be ecotourism. It allows individual or specific projects to weigh their strengths and figure out in which areas they need assistance. Successful ecotourism requires inter-sectoral alliances, comprehension and respect.

That said, these three components of ecotourism are difficult to accomplish individually, let alone as a package. Moreover, they are difficult to measure or quantify. Assuming you wanted to know which are the "best ecotourism destinations," the question must follow: How is one to judge?

Membership in groups such as The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) or AMTAVE requires only the payment of a membership fee. For example, the TIES does not certify a member's compliance, nor does it endorse any member product or organization. Instead, the society requires members sign a pledge stating that the member will be a "responsible traveler or travel-related professional who conserves natural environments and sustains the well-being of local people."

While this ethic sounds good and this self-regulatory system boasts the best of intentions, what remains missing are audits. There is no system of double-checking information and no "teeth" in which members are judged or penalized for misconduct. The absence of "ecotourism certification" programs has prompted some to suggest the creation of a third-party organization, such as the firms that measure and certify organic coffee for the world market. However, ecotourism is not only a commodity - it is a social process, one that is exceedingly difficult to measure or regulate successfully.

Point of View

The lack of a common definition results in multiple interpretations. Even if they agree on the big picture, conservation groups and tour agencies have decidedly different interpretations of what constitutes ecotourism. And if they agree on the basic criteria, they weigh the components differently.

For example, projects heralded by conservation groups may have good conservation strategies, but tend to lack marketing savvy and knowledge of the tourism industry. Unfortunately all too often, the lack of such knowledge causes these projects to fail in the marketplace. Conversely, some large tourism businesses offer nature tours that are highly profitable but that include little or no community partnership or conservation assistance.

Consequently, very few nature tourism projects can meet all three criteria. This model illuminates not only what is ecotourism, but what could be ecotourism. It allows individual or specific projects to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. They can figure out in which areas they need assistance.

Ecotourism's success or failure depends on the eye of the beholder. Conservationists will measure the merits of a project by its contributions to local environmental protection. Travel agencies will focus on the bottom line - are they making a sufficient profit? And travelers each come to an ecotourism destination or provider with their own personal experiences and expectations.

There are pros and cons in using any specific viewpoint. If we insist on high environmental standards and minimal impacts, the costs skyrocket. This places the services and destinations into a "luxury class" tourism - sometimes without the amenities those who pay high-end prices are accustomed. These five-star operations often run into conflict with more humble, grassroots operations.

What is the best example of ecotourism - a rustic, community lodge or a foreign-owned, eco-friendly hotel? Too often architects and consultants promote high technical standards and luxurious eco-lodges because they have a personal interest in the business of certification or design.

Also at risk are rural and/or indigenous guides who do not have the financial resources to take part in established guide training programs - not offered in the field, but usually in the capital city. Good intentions lie behind guide training and accreditation, but if governments or agencies do not empower rural guides and tourism operations, the absence of "local participation" betrays one of the main components of ecotourism.

The Ecotourism Market

Much of the traditional means of measuring the tourism market by itself are deceiving. Who are the ecotourists? The short answer is that no one knows.

The longer answer begins with the observation that even general tourism statistics are often suspect. It remains difficult to freely check data produced by the World Tourism Organization (WTO), which in the early 1990s estimated that the annual arrivals growth would be around 7% and global receipts expected to rise to US$527 billion in 2000. The figures sound great, but missing are independent audits of the data (Hector Ceballos, Tourism, ecotourism and protected areas, citing information from the World Tourism Organization's Tourism Trends 1991).

In Mexico, SECTUR, the country's tourism secretariat, reported that the country received 21 million visitors in 1997. Most, however, are day-trippers and family members returning home, leaving 7.5 to 8.5 million visitors a year as "authentic tourists" spending roughly $550 per trip, and this figure includes business as well as recreational travel.

The necessary first step for understanding the tourism market is deflating and questioning these figures. Polls of "eco" tourists have been garnered in international airports and rarely in the field. Can these figures adequately depict what people would or would not do in rural areas? It is foolish to label anyone an "ecotourist" just because they visit a park or protected area. Yet this is exactly the case in the Dominican Republic, where 1.5 of the 2.5 million tourists are labeled "ecotourists" because they visit a park for a half day

Central America

Central America is known as a prime destination for those seeking nature travel. This is due in large part to the reputation gained by Costa Rica over the past 20 years. Yet there are few efforts at developing or marketing the region as a destination for eco travelers.

Some positive signs include the development of the Mesoamerican Ecotourism Alliance and the persistence of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. But while these efforts appear to be initially well-funded, neither organization has developed an effective communications infrastructure -- meaning that it remains a challenge to find out what these organizations are doing, who they recommended as local operators or guides, or to have access to timely reports.

In terms of national ecotourism organizations, it is interesting to note that Costa Rica, the country with the best reputation for ecotourism practices and destinations does not have a formal ecotourism group. Says Amos Bien, the owner of Rara Avis Lodge: "The origins of ecotourism in Costa Rica can be traced to the La Selva field station, Monteverde, Corcovado, Tortugero and Rara Avis. We've always been too busy to start a national ecotourism association, preferring to work within the sub-commissions of the Environmental Secretariat or the Costa Rican Tourism Institute instead."

This cynicism arises from the fact that in the 1990s several Central American countries set up their own private ecotourism groups. Unfortunately, many of these have been created in government conferences, often at the urging of international development agencies. Few of which show a long-term commitment to national ecotourism development. USAID, for example, funded and promoted several ecotourism associations throughout Central America, most of which existed solely on paper and disapperared within a year of their creation. Like "paper parks," "paper ecotourism organizations" give the illusion of action and coordination, but lack substance and continuity.

Honduras, for example, offers a great deal of potential in the field of ecotourism. The past few years have seen a number of new developments. Obstacles, however, include a lack of coordination in-country and throughout the region. It's difficult to get up-to-date information from the government tourism institute, let alone details about their ecotourism programs.

The tourism industry can be a leader, though recent history throughout the region is a series of battles between traditional tourism and those who promote "alternative tourism." There are some bright spots. In Belize, members of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BETA) set up the Belize Ecotourism Association. "We in the private sector have a tremendous opportunity to do something for conservation in conjunction with the government," ex-BETA President Jim Bevis told Richard Mahler as quoted in Mahler's book, Belize: Adventures in Nature.

What is the role to be played by the national governments? In 1999 the Costa Rican Tourism Institute launched a certification program for hotel sustainability. It's too early to tell if the program will succeed. It's very curious that the country's tourism portal makes no link to its own certification program or vice-versa. hosted the Re-Imagining Central America Ecotourism Conference in February 2001.

South America

Ecuador also has a nascent organization, the Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association (ASEC), which is currently undergoing a major transition. Membership is available to tourism operations as well as municipalities, universities and individuals who wish to promote the development of ecotourism. hosted the Re-Imagining South America Ecotourism Conference in November 2000.

The Role of Education and Information

Travelers interested in nature want to know how to get to where the wild things are and how to do so in a responsible manner. Unfortunately, governments rarely provide quality, up-to-date information for the general public. One missing ingredient is visual information, including maps. The tourism institutes of both Costa Rica and Honduras publish country maps with information on protected areas. Mexico once published such a map, but it quickly went out of print. What other Latin American countries have publicly available maps of their national parks?

Ecotourism conferences are offered throughout the region, but with few exceptions, they are either 1) closed to the general public or 2) prohibitively expensive. Again, international development groups as well as international governmental conferences prefer the closed-door sessions. This would not be so shameful if they provided timely access to the conference materials and participant lists. This rarely occurs. Trade conferences do offer access, but at a high cost. There should be more alternatives that can take advantage of the growing interest within the region.

Development agencies, foundations and environmental groups have combined forces to promote ecotourism in the region, with some success. Information about these efforts in the planning stage or analysis or project reports afterwards could be placed on the Web for global access. International environmental groups -- The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, to name a few -- have been culpable of hoarding information. Scholarly dissertations on regional ecotourism may cite the "unpublished reports" but few readers have access. Policy information is desperately needed, not only to know what's been done well, but what has failed. These experiences need to be thought of as experiments that we can learn from. Unfortunately, environmental groups are loath to discuss, let alone divulge, instances of failure.

One of the best places for travelers to find information about ecotourism destinations is not from government offices or environmental groups, but from regional guidebooks.

Guidebooks offer a holistic vision of a country or a region and are publicly accessible. The author freely crosses political and/or vocational borders to provide a manual of use to travelers from a variety of backgrounds. One good example is Joe Cummings' Northern Border Handbook (Moon Publications), the definitive (actually the only) guidebook that focuses on Mexico's frontier with the United States. Another key text that deserves to be recommended is The New Key to Costa Rica (Ulysses Press), one of the first guidebooks that explained the concept of ecotourism and sustainable development and promoted the hotels and lodges that were working toward environmental protection. These books contrast with more traditional guidebooks that either belittle the "friendly people" or focus only on more popular coastal resorts. Both books have been instrumental not only in directing travelers where to go, but how to go as well.


Achieving ecotourism is not so much hitting a stationary target, but taking part in a dynamic process. This is a particularly challenging task in the Americas where divisions between environmental groups and tourism threaten a workable application of what constitutes ecotourism.

The success of ecotourism depends on being able to coordinate activities and share information with people who do not come from a similar background. Rather than fretting about the definition, more attention needs to be spent on the application of ecotourism.

It's better when evaluating ecotourism to view these services not with a yardstick, but using a more fluid approach. Given the three categories that are widely accepted as components of ecotourism, it's more wise to measure the three in balance with one another as well as the tendency of a given project or service to move toward the center.

Ecotourism providers or services can easily tell in what categories they are strong and which categories need work. Instead of regulation, what I propose is a new form of communication. How can the services or destinations themselves choose how they need to improve?

Certainly, national and local governments will need to regulate the tourism industry for safety as well as for environmental protection. But any attempt to certify the actual providers or guides will only succeed if there is a pre-existing infrastructure and culture that has a more unified understanding of ecotourism.

Specific Recommendations

1) Certification of ecotourism must be kept on par with more constructive acts, such as improving the channels of communication among conservationists and tourism leaders within both regional and international spheres.

2) People working in ecotourism should respect each other's differences and build the bridge across the chasm separating traditional tourism and conservation.

3) The cost for ecotourism consulting, workshops and conferences should allow rural groups and students have access.

4) Development agencies, foundations and environmental groups should make project field reports, budgets, personnel lists, in-house documents, etc. freely available on their websites.



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