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
"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
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
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 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.
Planeta.com hosted the
Re-Imagining Central America Ecotourism Conference in February 2001.
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.
Planeta.com 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
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
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
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.