What led you to coining the term 'ecotourism' and has your
definition changed since then?
I have actually been an "ecotourist" since my childhood. In
the 1950s and 1960s I began traveling all around Mexico, getting
to know and admiring its many natural and cultural heritage features.
By the 1970s and 1980s my ecotouristic forays (including as a
prime component the activity of birdwatching, but also a great
interest in archeology) had extended to five continents.
I coined the term 'ecotourism' in early July 1983, when I was
performing the dual role of Director General of Standards and
Technology of SEDUE (the Mexican Ministry of Urban Development
and Ecology) and founding president of PRONATURA (an influential
Mexican conservationist NGO). PRONATURA was lobbying for the conservation
of the wetlands in northern Yucatan as breeding and feeding habitats
of the American Flamingo.
Among the arguments that I used to dissuade the building of
marinas in the Celestún
estuary area was the presence of an ever growing number of tourists,
especially from the United States. Back in those days I was already
convinced that such people could play an important role in boosting
the local rural economy, creating new jobs and preserving the
'ecology' of the area, and began using the word "ecotourism" to
describe this phenomenon.
I also provided the preliminary definition of ecotourism later
that year, at a presentation in Mexico City for PRONATURA: "Ecotourism
is that tourism that involves traveling to relatively undisturbed
natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and
enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well
as any existing cultural aspects (both past and present) found
in these areas. Ecotourism implies a scientific, esthetic or philosophical
approach, although the 'ecotourist' is not required to be a professional
scientist, artist or philosopher. The main point is that the person
who practices ecotourism has the opportunity of immersing him
or herself in nature in a way that most people cannot enjoy in
their routine, urban existences. This person will eventually acquire
a consciousness and knowledge of the natural environment, together
with its cultural aspects, that will convert him into somebody
keenly involved in conservation issues."
This definition was also presented by its author at the forum
"Conservation of the Americas", organized by Partners for Livable
Places, in Indianapolis (November 18-20, 1987), and an article
based on this presentation appeared in the January 27, 1988 issue
of the Mexico Journal, published in Mexico City. The Merriam-Webster
dictionary acknowledges this early use of the term 'ecotourism'
in its 1998 edition, the Mexico Journal article being credited
by Merriam-Webster Etymology Editor Joanne M. Despres in her letter
of June 23, 1997 to me, which I keep in my files.
My preliminary definition was popularized by the book "Ecotourism:
The Potential and Pitfalls" (of which I am co-author), edited
by Elizabeth Boo and published by WWF-U.S. in 1990. I revised
this preliminary definition in 1993 to "Ecotourism is environmentally
responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural
areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying
cultural features - both past and present) that promotes conservation,
has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially
active socio-economic involvement of local populations". This
definition appears in my 315-page book, "Tourism, Ecotourism,
and Protected areas", published in 1996 by IUCN (The World Conservation
Union). IUCN officially adopted this definition during its 1st
World Conservation Congress held in Montreal in October 1996 (Resolution
CGR 1.67 'Ecotourism and Protected Area Conservation').
Many countries have different definitions for the term. What
does the lack of a single, accepted term signify?
Ecotourism has to adapt to different environmental, socioeconomic
and cultural circumstances. Ecotourism in Australia is a very
different occurrence from, let's say, ecotourism in Ecuador. It
is for this reason, I think, that different people and institutions
in diverse countries have arrived at different definitions (some
of them, by the way, quite similar among themselves). However,
I think that this multiplicity of definitions is causing much
confusion in many instances, so I believe that it would be worthwhile
to adopt a single definition that encompasses the whole phenomenon
and implications of ecotourism. In that sense, I believe that
my definition, which has been adopted by IUCN (probably the most
respected and influential conservation organization at a worldwide
level) should be applied internationally.
Another serious problem is that, in many cases, the notion of
ecotourism is confused with the broader concept of sustainable
tourism or with certain types of adventure tourism that have nothing
to do with ecotourism. This causes much difficulty in proper communication
when discussing these different concepts.
You have championed ecotourism around the world since the
mid-80s.... what results have you seen?
Twenty years ago practically nobody understood the meaning or
concept of 'ecotourism', although there was a vague feeling that
travel and visitation to beautiful, pristine areas could somehow
provide some economic benefits to the countries and local peoples
involved in this process, and that perhaps conservation could
also benefit from this. So I spent the first few years spreading
the concept, characteristics and constraints of ecotourism to
a wide audience around the world. Of course, over these last 22
years there have been moments of frustration, but also many satisfactions.
Among the many gratifying moments of my career in ecotourism,
I would like to mention the following.
In 1993, I carried out for the Ecuadorean government (funded
by GTZ - German Technical Cooperation) the Ecotourism Master Plan
for the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazonian region of Ecuador.
One of the successes of that project was having contributed, by
providing ecotourism arguments during a Cabinet meeting to which
I was invited, to the achievement of a federal government ban
on all oil exploration and drilling activities in the reserve.
For the first time in the history of Ecuador, oil exploitation
has been stopped by providing more sustainable options for future
development through ecotourism. Today, the Cuyabeno Reserve is
one of the most popular ecotourism destinations of Ecuador and
provides considerable foreign exchange to the country, as well
as jobs and socioeconomic benefits to the indigenous communities
in the reserve. Ecotourism is proving to be a viable tool for
conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of that important
During 1993-94, I was invited by the Catalonian government (Spain)
to develop the Ecotourism Master Plan for the Ebro Delta, the
last remainig natural tract of Mediterranean coast in Spain. The
Ebro Delta is one of the main wintering grounds for European waterfowl
and the region also includes a wonderful cultural heritage (medieval
Moorish castles, Gothic churches, Roman ruins, picturesque old
towns and villages, excellent local gastronomy and old ceremonial
traditions - especially in the rural areas). As a practicing architect,
one of the components of my consultancy was to give technical
assistance in the design of an intended ecolodge, the first such
facility in this region, to a local developer. When I returned
to the Ebro Delta in late 1995, I was very satisfied to visit
and to be a guest of honor at the Ebro Ecolodge, which I had helped
to design, and which has become the preferred accommodation of
visiting ecotourists. The Ebro Delta Ecotourism Master Plan has
become the model for over 20 similar developments in Spain carried
out since 1994.
In 1987, when I was Operational Director of ECOTOURS, I organized
a scientific expedition (with the participation of representatives
of WWF-International, BirdLife International, Wild Wings Foundation,
and SEDUE among other institutions) to the Sierra Madre Occidental
of Durango, in search of the Imperial Woodpecker, the largest
woodpecker that ever existed in the world. Unfortunately, we did
not find the woodpecker - alas! it is now deemed to be extinct
- but we found a number of rare and restricted-range bird species.
I suggested to SEDUE that a tract of old-growth forest of pine-oak-fir
of about 3 square kilometers in the region of Calaveras be legally
protected, contending that the area also had an important ecotourism
potential. I was very happy to know that in 1995, attending to
my request, the State of Durango declared the area a natural reserve
created to protect the old-growth forest and also the Tufted Jay,
a spectacular endemic species found only in a very limited portion
of the Sierra Madre Occidental. So, what began as an ecotourism
expedition ended up in the declaration of a nature reserve.
In late 1990, I carried out for IUCN a survey of 14 national
parks in Australia, evaluating their ecotourism potential. In
those days, nobody in Australia understood the concept or scope
of ecotourism. I met with representatives of environmental and
tourism institutions of that country, discussing the enormous
ecotourism potential of the land "down under". I was very satisfied
to receive, in 1994, a copy of the Australian National Ecotourism
Strategy, accompanied by a personal letter from Mr. Bernard Knowler,
a Director at the Commonwealth Department of Tourism of Australia,
that states: "Your important role in the development of ecotourism
is acknowledged in the Strategy, and your definition of ecotourism
provided the basis of Australia's approach to the planning, development
and management of this burgeoning industry". Since Australia's
Ecotourism Strategy is now considered a model at the worldwide
level, this recognition has given me great gratification.
In 1998-99, I developed, for UNDP and the government of Yemen,
the Ecotourism Master Plan for Socotra Island, as part of the
Conservation and Sustainable Development Zoning Plan of the Socotra
Archipelago of Yemen. In 2000 the Council of Ministers officially
approved this Zoning Plan, which is considered a major milestone
in the history of the development and conservation of Socotra
Archipelago, which is now officially recognized as the prime biodiversity
conservation area of the Republic of Yemen. Since there had been
several attempts and threats to turn Socotra Island into a casino
haven and a mass tourism resort, the ecotourism component of the
Zoning Plan is regarded to have the highest priority, inasmuch
as the Socotra Archipelago is considered "the Galapagos Islands
of the Indian Ocean," with a very high ecotourism potential.
In 2003, my architectural design for an ecolodge in Sian Ka'an
Biosphere Reserve (carried out for SEMARNAT - the Mexican Ministry
of the Environment - and CONANP - National Commission for Protected
Areas) was selected by the Mexican architectural and construction
magazine OBRAS as one of 5 "Intelligent Buildings"of
that year, appearing as cover story in the July 2003 issue.
In 2004, I had the great pleasure and honor of being the recipient
of the first Colibri
International Ecotourism Lifetime Achievement Award from Planeta.com
and Canyon Travel. This was the first public recognition in Mexico
of my work in the fields of ecotourism and ecolodge development
(confirming once more that ancient proverb "nobody is a prophet
in his own land"), so this was very satisfactory.
Does ecotourism exist in Mexico?
Since 1994, at least officially, there has been a National Ecotourism
Strategy, which I carried out that year for SECTUR, at the request
of Mr. Jesus Silva-Herzog, who was then Secretary of Tourism for
a brief period (by the way, the only Secretary of Tourism in our
country whom I believe has really understood the concept and potential
benefits of ecotourism for Mexico).
Unfortunately, the strategy has not been implemented, and subsequent
Tourism Secretaries have done very little in developing ecotourism
in our country. So, it has been up mainly to the private sector
(the different nature tour operators and AMTAVE
-- the Asociacion Mexicana de Turismo de Aventura y Ecoturismo)
to develop some activities which, at least partially, could be
deemed as within the scope of ecotourism.
However, true ecotourism activities have been few and far between.
Most 'ecotour' activities in Mexico carried out by local tour
operators are more in the 'adventure tourism' category, and do
not always respect the fragile natural and cultural environment
in which they take place. For some reason which is not clear to
me, most local tour operators have considered that the ecotourism
potential of Mexico rests mainly on activities such as river rafting,
mountain biking, rock climbing, rappel and Tyrolese cable activities,
hang gliding, and other "extreme" sports.
As is obvious, these activities are carried out by a limited
age group. If you are less than 18, your mother normally won’t
let you practice many of these sports, and after 35 your wife
or your husband won’t either (so this seriously limits the
size of the market). Another particularity of Mexican "ecotour"
operators is that they are hardly trying to attract international
ecotourists, instead concentrating on the domestic adventure travel
market, and thus missing out on the possibility of attracting
large amounts of foreign currency, something which is badly needed
in our country.
To me, this is a real drawback, since Mexico has so much to
offer the true ecotourist: bird watching, botanical expeditions,
archaeological exploration, whale observation, ethnic studies,
etc. True, several foreign ecotour companies (mainly from the
US, UK, and Canada) organize regular tours to Mexico, but this
activity has been quite limited.
By the way, I would like to mention here that in late 1983,
in partnership with Dr. Richard Wilson (a mathematics professor
living in Mexico City and also an enthusiastic birder like myself),
I decided to create a travel agency serving people interested
in nature and Mexican culture. We called the agency ECOTOURS (the
first tour operator agency with that name - now there are dozens
around the world with that name). The aim of the tours was to
promote conservation by giving tourists a quality educational
experience while boosting the local rural economies. ECOTOURS
conducted nature and archaeological tours (the main clientele
was North American) around Mexico, but also in Guatemala and Belize,
between 1984 and 1992.
What have been the main stumbling blocks in the development
of Mexican ecotourism?
As I mentioned earlier, there has been little interest and support
from the public institutions that in principle, should be promoting
ecotourism: SECTUR and SEMARNAT. Also, constant changes in high
level public officers have meant that there is a lack of continuity
in government efforts. In addition, there is definitely a serious
lack of specialized training in ecotourism at every level. As
I already mentioned, another hindrance is that most local 'ecotour'
operators in Mexico are not orientating their services towards
the international scene (is it because they don’t want to
learn English?). The lack of appropriate ecolodges (especially
in or protected areas) is also a very limiting factor. It is very
sad that Mexican investors rarely go beyond the stage of preliminary
studies and architectural design. Several of them have told me
that they don’t want to take risks in this "new and
unknown" field of ecotourism and ecolodge development….
So, Mexico keeps lagging behind other well known ecotourism destination
countries. Summarizing, efforts seem dispersed and a well organized,
multi-sectoral mechanism for the optimal development of ecotourism
is still sadly lacking. Of course, the role that your web site
Planeta.com is playing in the promotion of ecotourism, not only
in Mexico, but in the whole of Latin America, has an enormous
What are the multinational institutions -- World Bank, IDB,
OAS -- doing or not doing to develop ecotourism?
Over these last 10 years or so, many multinatioal institutions,
like the World Bank, IDB, OAS, UNDP, UNEP, FAO, the World Tourism
Organization, IUCN, WWF, and Conservation International, have
carried out many different kinds of ecotourism projects around
the world. I have acted as an international ecotourism consultant
for all of the above-mentioned institutions and I am happy to
say that these institutions are definitely contributing to raising
awareness in the field of ecotourism and helping launch many practical
initiatives in many countries around the planet.
Ecotourism is now considered a high priority for conservation
and sustainable development, in great measure due to the efforts
of these international bodies.
Your book - Ecoturismo,
Naturaleza y Desarrollo Sostenible - has been featured online
Planeta.com but it's not
available via online purchase and it's now impossible to get a
copy at a bookstore -- even in Mexico. Suggestions?
The book has been out of print since 2002 and the publishing
company has decided not to do a second edition or printing. They
told me that, due to the book selling crisis in Mexico, technical
books don’t sell very well, so they are now concentrating
on selling biographies of narcotrafickers and books on techniques
for face-lifting. I am considering approaching another publisher
with a slightly different perspective.