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Latin America Ecotourism
by Ron Mader


Latin America is the cradle of ecotourism. What is it?



There are many definitions of ecotourism, sustainable tourism and responsible travel. There is little consensus. That said, in our view ecotourism is overreaching at its finest and calls upon inter-sectoral alliances, comprehension and respect among stakeholders.

While the details vary, ecotourism is special form of tourism that meets three criteria:

1) it actively facilitates environmental conservation

2) it includes meaningful community participation

3) it is profitable and can sustain itself.

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 alternatives.

In many Latin American countries officials intrigued by the promise of ecotourism have attempted to regulate this niche market. In each case, the first challenge has been uniting energies of the tourism and environmental departments.

Unfortunately, there have been more failures than successes as leaders have difficulty working together, preferring to be 'in charge' of projects that require collaboration and communication.


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 the region for passionate eco travelers.

The status is unclear of the Mesoamerican Ecotourism Alliance and the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. These efforts were initially well-funded, yet 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.

Cynicism arises from the fact that in the 1990s several Central American countries set up their own national ecotourism associations. 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 ecotourism development.

USAID, for example, funded and promoted several ecotourism associations throughout Central America, most of which existed solely on paper and disappeared within a year of their creation. Like "paper parks," "paper ecotourism organizations" give the illusion of action and coordination, but lack substance and continuity.

Some operators prefer to work within existing organizations.

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: "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."

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. The program's reputation is mixed. Some tout its usefulness and others consider it an example of greenwashing, the practice of giving a positive public image to an environmentally unsound practice.

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, but few have taken off. Obstacles, however, include a lack of coordination in-country and throughout the region. It remains a challenge to get current information from the government tourism institute, let alone details about eco-friendly tourism services.


South America's best source of responsible tourism information is the South American Explorers, with clubhouses in Quito, Lima, Cusco and Buenos Aires. Travelers have access to well-stocked libraries and trip reports compiled by fellow members.

In Ecuador a national ecotouurism association (ASEC), works on policy issues. However its communication, or lack thereof, frustrates members and travelers.

In Brazil operators complain that the national government confuses authentic small-scale 'green' tourism with corporate concerns. Certification efforts have only confused matters.

"There's no participation by anyone who can even remotely claim to represent tourists," says Bill Hinchberger, editor & publisher of BrazilMax. "Many of the participants at the meeting that created the Brazilian Sustainable Tourism Council (Conselho Brasiliero de Turismo Sustentável) spent much of their time dissing tourists. Now, many tourists deserve to be dissed, but not by certification groups that need to attract their support."

"Even responsible tourists are unlikely to pay attention to certification. And if they don't, there's no point to this exercise," added Hinchberger."This is partly a marketing problem, but marketing seems to be at most an afterthought in all the certification schemes I've seen.


Mexico should be the case example of things done right.

It is one of the few Latin American examples in which the Tourism and Environmental Secretariats signed an agreement to collaborate on ecotourism development. This took place in 1995.

However, while the offices are officially working together, coordination remains problematic. Also, lack of continuity is a problem at federal- and state-level tourism levels.

That said, Mexico has spurred on a number of initiatives, some regional, some national in scope.

A group of private entrepreneurs set up their own group, an association for adventure travel and ecotourism (Amtave). Created in 1994, Amtave was the outgrowth of a coincidental meeting of nine associates who met at the annual Tianguis Turistico in 1993. Unable to afford marketing their companies, they formed a group to share the promotion expenses. Amtave raises its funds via membership fees and profits generated at events that the organization co-sponsors and promotes.

This is not to say that everyone who offers nature or ecotourism in Mexico are -- or want to be -- members of AMTAVE. Many operators simply work out from environmental ethic and the knowledge that travelers are receptive to eco-friendly hotels and services.

"People talk about ecotourism, but the fact is that the tourism industry is always looking for a quick buck," said one hotelier. "Hotels throughout the Copper Canyon still lack waste treatment facilities. Some of the garbage is thrown into the canyon or disposed of near community wells."


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 showing how to visit protected areas. Mexico once published such a map (1995), but it quickly went out of print.

One of the best tools 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.

A key text that deserves special kudos 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.

Such books contrast with more traditional guidebooks that either belittle the "friendly people" or focus only on more popular coastal resorts. Such books are instrumental not only in directing travelers where to go, but how to travel in a responsible manner.


One of the frequent discussion threads during the Media, Environment and Tourism Conference is the value of local reporters versus parachute journalists. Why don't we write more about the places where we live?

No doubt the next stage of ecotourism reporting will be conducted more by travelers and locals. A good example is the afterwilma website, created to track news about development after Hurricane Wilma. While it's not focused on ecotourism, it pays attention to 'sustainable tourism' and has provided an opportunity for hundreds of people to collaborate in commons-based peer production.

Stay tuned for more developments in citizen journalism.


Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning website.

An earlier version of this feature appeared in 1995: Defining Ecotourism ... Latin America Style


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g Definitions
g Re-Imagining the Americas
g Stones in the Road
g Wish List



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