Photo: Claire Warmenbol/IUCN Web, Guatemala Seed Farm
From the archives (May/Mayo 2001)
by Bruce Conord
(San Jose, Costa Rica) — The Central American countries of Costa Rica, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Panama, and Nicaragua meet June 1 and 2 in Panama where they hope to announce a formal agreement to promote area-wide tourism, according to Walter Niehaus, Costa Rica’s Minister of Tourism.
A press conference that included the various ministers of tourism was held for travel journalists May 22 in San Jose, Costa Rica. Expotur – expotur.com/ – is an annual event where foreign travel agents and wholesalers meet with Costa Rican hotels, land operators, and destinations to negotiate business deals for the coming year.
Included in the ambitious multinational plan is a unified “Certificate of Sustainable Tourism” which will reward tourism projects that are environmentally sound. A certification process already initiated in Costa Rica, a “Green Certificate,” has been recognized internationally as a valid environmental certification and Mr. Niehaus is hopeful that other countries will follow Costa Rica’s lead. (See Costa Rica’s website – turismo-sostenible.co.cr – for details.)
“Central American countries have to learn a lesson [from Costa Rica], admitted Arturo Morales, Minister of Tourism from El Salvador. “Resuming [tourism] discussions at a presidential level will assign the necessary priority.”
Never known for their close cooperation, the various countries hope to promote the region as a “multi-destination” and have already been promoting themselves, through a common office, to Germany during the last year. Their idea is to have one regional face with different attractions and facilities. However, the regional marketing plan will only target European countries and Japan, despite nearby North America being the biggest tourist market.
When questioned on the priority of spending precious promotional dollars trying to attract the Japanese, for example, who are not a close neighbor, Lorenzo Guerrero, Minister of Tourism from Nicaragua, claimed that many European countries and the Japanese have donated money to the various governments and rightfully expect that any promotion should go back to them.
“Governments already have a direct strategy and we are well defined in the United States,” added Cecilia Perez Bolanos, Minister of Tourism from Panama, though several US-based travel trade journalists expressed otherwise. At the end of the press conference, Panama and Costa Rica signed a new relaxed customs agreement that Mr. Niehaus and Ms. Perez claim will speed up cross-border transportation, trade, and tourism.
“The fact that the region is working as a block and that we are all here together at Expotur to discuss marketing ideas means there is now the political will,” said Mr. Niehaus. “We will hear fresh ideas and we can also work together with more flexible marketing efforts than is normally in individual governments.”
The common sustainable tourism certification that the Central American countries hope to also agree upon are wide ranging. ‘The principals of sustainable tourism are based in ecology,” claimed Mr. Niehaus, “but now [we are considering] not only the solution between tourism and the environment but also social and economic implications.” Economic benefits to local communities were used as examples of the criteria, as well as cultural integrity. What was not addressed was what percentage of any economic benefits apply to hotel/business owners, the national coffers, or local communities themselves?
Additionally, what is being negotiated is a “Multi-destination” tourism plan, one that leaves room for mega resorts as well as ecotourism. Both tourism officials and activists are aware that there are major obstacles in developing “certification” programs, so environmentalists are taking a “wait and see” attitude until the details of the agreement are worked out.
“Evaluating ecotourism services and providers might show how “eco” the options are in a vast marketplace, but are the programs reliable?” questoned Planeta.com Webhost and environmental activist, Ron Mader. “Few people agree on how ecotourism is defined, so what is actually being certified? And to repeat an oft-asked question — who is going to certify the certifiers?”
If, however, this cooperative Central American tourism marketing plan is successful, expectations are high for a more consistent treatment of the environment in regional planning as well as a welcome increase in tourism.
Bruce Conord is a regular contributor to planeta.com and he and his wife’s book, Adventure Guide to the Yucatan, is an eco-friendly guidebook to Mexico’s most beautiful and endangered natural areas.