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Ecotourism Champion: A Conversation with Hector Ceballos-Lascurain
by Ron Mader


The original interview occured in May 2000 and this feature was updated in October 2005.

Hector Ceballos-Lascurain

FLICKR ALBUM: Colibri Award

Winner of the Colibri Ecotourism Lifetime Achievement Award, Hector Ceballos-Lascurain is a Mexican architect, environmentalist and international ecotourism consultant. He is Director General of the Program of International Consultancy on Ecotourism (PICE), based in Mexico City, and also a Special Advisor on Ecotourism to IUCN (The World Conservation Union), The International Ecotourism Society and the World Tourism Organization.

Hector has performed research and provided consultations in more than 70 countries worldwide on all aspects of ecotourism planning and development, including the architectural design and construction of ecolodges and other environmentally friendly facilities. He has authored or co-authored more than 130 books, reports and articles and is widely credited with coining the term 'ecotourism' and its preliminary definition in 1983.

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 Amazonian area.

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 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 is playing in the promotion of ecotourism, not only in Mexico, but in the whole of Latin America, has an enormous relevance.

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 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.


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


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