Travel in the Age of Internet
by Ron Mader
The following are remarks prepared for the Second Annual Conference
on Ecotourism and Conservation, La Ceiba, Honduras,
April 20, 1996.
La Ceiba, Honduras - The Internet has been compared
to an "information highway." The metaphor calls to mind a high-tech,
high-speed German infobahn, instead of a over- utilized and
under-funded Latin American highway. This global network utilizes
computers and phone lines to send and receive digitized information.
Compared to faxes or phone calls, using the Internet can be
One of the most popular uses of the Internet is that of educating
and orienting travelers, who are already "surfing the net."
Last year Brad Martin and Michael Swiggart co-created "rec.travel.latin-america",
a usenet discussion group that provides a forum for questions
and answers. "Virtual tours" are available, as are metro maps,
airplane bookings and satellite weather photos.
The importance of the Internet lies not only in its providing
information, but connecting people who have a common interest.
Because of the multiple voices and lack of a control or censorship,
the Web has been best described as the first functioning anarchy.
There is no chance, however, that we will arrive at the point
when everything is so well documented via cyberspace that there
is no need to make the journey ourselves. Internet does, however,
radically change the reasons why we travel - instead of deceiving
ourselves with a colonial mentality that we are indeed discovers
(look at the people who try to photograph Mayan ruins when all
the other tourists are out of the picture frame) we seek to
uncover information that is tactile, that is emotional, that
brings us into the community of both people and places.
Travel information on the Internet will benefit areas that
have traditionally not received mainstream coverage. Travel
providers and travel destinations in Latin America are either
creating their own pages on the World Wide Web or contracting
other businesses to do that for them.
Internet represents a radical paradigm shift in communications.
I don't use this term lightly. Internet represents a way to
connect people with people - not people to information. It can
be and should be a lively forum for an interchange of ideas
among humans - with all of our merits and faults. Unlike typical
broadcast media which communicate from a one-to-many system,
Internet provides a many-to-many system of communications.
Internet is the Radio of the 1910s and 1920s - but much more
sophisticated and financially well-grounded. When radio was
first invented, it was used by ham operators, department stores,
governments, and community groups. In the United States, the
cacophony of competing radio signals led to the creation of
the FCC under the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. This led to
the severe restriction of radio waves and created what would
become very powerful networks - NBC, CBS and later ABC. Flash
forward 70 years and we have FOX and CNN and Rupert Murdoch
and that silly WB network, but again, this represents communications
from one source to a mostly passive audience. One to many. Now
we have the opportunity for greater interaction -- if that's
what we want.
Central America formally comprises five nations - Honduras, Guatemala,
El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Informally, add Belize
and Panama. Culturally, add southern Mexico and part of Colombia.
The area of the primary seven countries is just a little more
than half a million square kilometers, less than the size of Texas
- my former home state. In 1993 the total population was 31 million
and increasing by 2.7 percent each year.
Tourism is increasing. According to U.S. Department of Commerce
figures, 278,000 tourists visited Nicaragua last year, up 17
percent from 1994. Nicaragua's Tourism Ministry projects that
tourist arrivals will continue to rise by 15 percent a year
through the end of the decade. Response from the Nicaraguan
government - the budget of this agency was cut by 30 percent.
Successful planning and implementation of long-term tourism
strategies requires some visionary actions. The Central American
governments signed the Alliance for Sustainable Development
signed in Managua on October 12, 1994. Sustainable tourism -
including ecotourism - can be utilized as a long- term strategy.
But we need to be honest, and we need to demand inclusivity
and transparency both within government and non-governmental
circles. We need to find information on project financing. And
we need to push for cooperative and/or regionalized efforts.
LATIN AMERICA AND
Latin America stands to gain the most from information on the
Internet, and I'll explain why.
Tourism Industry Intelligence
reports that 20 percent of the tourism income in developing
countries comes from ecotourism. The World Wildlife Fund reported
that earnings from ecotourism are 10 times greater than from
agriculture (although WWF reports are often rather dubious).
I think the time is long past to prove the worth of ecotourism
- do we really need another study? - But now it's time to begin
the work on the details. Travelers need information on destinations
and tours; destination owners and tour operators need information
on how to make their operations more environment friendly.
A quick scan of both travel coverage as well as headline news
shows that Latin America is poorly represented in the international
media. In the United States, I attribute this fact to cultural
and political bias. We are a nation of mostly European and Asian
immigrants, and we pay attention to these regions. As the demographics
change, so will the focal point of our attention. Additionally,
with NAFTA and regional free trade agreements, we are finally
paying due to Latin America as full partners as well as neighbors.
Travel information on the Internet - for example, Costa Rica's
Rara Avis ecolodge, provides information for net-savvy travelers
who are not content to be laptop potatoes, but want an educational
experience that carries them further into the heart of the Americas.
Fortunately, expansion is carrying forward in Honduras. Honduras
This Week and El Tiempo are now available on-line. After you
return from this conference, you can check the current news
from Honduras, whether you're in Tegucigalpa, Miami
Some of the best Internet web sites already hail from Latin
America. The newspapers have usually been ahead of the curve
- from Mexico's El Norte to Chile's Estrategia. Quito's daily
Hoy led the way with its own listerv and of course, its own
We must realize that regardless of our nationality, we all
live in both the First and Third Worlds. The social question
becomes - what are we going to do about this?
The Internet allows - and I would say demands - communication
among individuals. The networks are set up so that if you wanted
to send an electronic letter - generated on your computer and
sent through the phone lines via a modem - you can this very
inexpensively and very, very quickly. There are snags - much
too many to fully criticize here - and they are best described
in the book with the halcyon title - Silicon
Snake Oil : Second Thoughts on the Information Highway.
Internet is not the panacea, but it will make a lasting impact
on 1) citizen or public participation, 2) accountability and
transparency of institutions - whether they are government agencies,
non governmental organizations or travel agents or manufacturers.
Who uses Internet? Who should use Internet? The number is
growing daily, and while I'm suspicious of the marketing claims
of 30-40 million users, I do not question the growth rate -
marketed at 10-20 percent each month. Internet is not a fad,
and it will grow and radically change every four months, reinventing
its potential many times through the end of this decade.
BACK TO ECOTOURISM
When I did a survey of environmental solutions in Costa Rica
in 1989, ecotourism was the big buzzword - along with "sustainable
development." these words are still content poor descriptions
of ideas most of us would agree to like ... if we knew what
they meant. If it was a buzzword then, it's a buzzword now.
Ecotourism is a lot like etiquette. We argue about the salutations,
the way to address a letter, the fork goes on which side of
the plate? - instead, we should be addressing what we actually
are doing. What is the carrying capacity? Is there enough sewage
treatment? Is there sewage treatment? Are species fleeing the
tourists? Is the local community an active participant in the
And we need to ask - what can we be doing to provide an upward
harmonization of environmental standards? Part of the problem
lies in regulation and enforcement. A greater part stems from
lack of information. Internet can be utilized as part of the
Allow me to conclude with three earnest suggestions:
- Stick to your principals
- Don't compromise your core beliefs.
- Do one thing well.
- Don't try to do all things; work with other people. (Notice
how we're stretching ourselves fairly thin in the 90s?)
- Dialogue with people you disagree with.
- This is the most important point. Too often ecotourism
gurus try to convert each other. We do not have a model of
ecotourism or sustainable development that has withstood the
test of time. No one has all the answers. But if we put blinders
on and insist our perspective is the only way to view this
evolving topic, we risk losing input from valuable sources.