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Stones in the Road

Photo: Ron Mader, Kingman Wash (Some rights reserved)

(2022) Revisiting one of the early essays from the archives from 1997-1999

Good news! Today’s travelers are increasingly seeking ways of visiting places and people in a manner that supports choosing responsible travel and ecotourism. That said, visitors rarely self-define themselves as ‘I am an ecotourist. Where should I go?’ Neither do they proclaim ‘I want to support sustainable tourism. What are my options?’ or ‘Where I can go to a responsible tourism restaurant?’

Most eco-minded travelers let their actions speak louder than words and often expect that ‘green’ or ‘responsible’ options be self-evident.

INDEX: Communication – Cat Herding – Development AND Promotion – Certification – Financing – Continuity – Fatalism – Language – Seat Warmers – Small is beautiful – Politics – On the road again – Only the lonely – Greed – Centralization – Security – Fizzle – Myths

Unsustainable Tourism
The situation becomes complicated when we review the disturbing trend that a large number — perhaps even a majority — of ‘sustainable’ tourism initiatives around the world have failed. So, what’s the problem?

In a nutshell, what sounds great on paper is often difficult to implement in the natural world. And few officials, consultants or policy-makers speak the same language of the visitor. Officials tend to use code words – sustainable tourism, alternative tourism are good examples – and fail to listen to visitors who request something that’s offered but using different words.

Peacemaking, as defined by Harrison Owen as a mode of ‘gracious spaciousness’ changes the approach and simplifies the process and allows stakeholders an active role in working toward positive change.

Our recommendation – if it is impossible to agree on a common language, could we agree to explore common ground?

Talking about failure
We rarely talk about failure at public meetings, government workshops, or in reports to foundations or development banks, where it would benefit us most to concede ecotourism is a young niche market finding its way along the long tail of tourism options. The ‘stones in the road’ are ignored and forgotten.

We can learn from our mistakes if we are willing to admit it when mistakes are made. Before seeking greater investments in this emerging industry, it would be wise to reflect on the lessons learned. What follows is an examination of key problem areas in the development and implementation of ecotourism and sustainable initiatives. Paired with each is a possible solution.

The only time I know there is a meeting is when I am invited to speak.
– University professor

Many stakeholders want to want to communicate. They are eager to discuss the nuances of improved communication, but they do not follow through. In Spanish, this is called ‘querer querer.’ Typically large organizations have a top-down communication structure are frequently as a loss in motivating their staff and collaborating with ‘outsiders.’ What’s missing? Listening.

While interior communication is poor, ‘public outreach’ is defined as telling others what the organization is doing, rather than soliciting input or engaging in a public dialogue. Where global and local players meet, there are few avenues for cross-sector communication. Academics meet with academics, NGOs with NGOs, businesses with businesses.

Bureaucracies — including environmental groups and tourism ministries — usually have a communications department in charge of information distribution. Unfortunately, this removes the ability and the responsibility to communicate from the principal players .

Lack of transparency is a serious obstacle at all stages of tourism development. Calls for contracts are rarely issued in public — and less so are they documented on the Web. Development agencies have done an inadequate job of documenting the success and failure of their projects, leaving most stakeholders in the dark.

For example, the mission of the World Bank is to alleviate poverty and is attempting to do so by investing in tourism. That said, when it comes to consulting these websites it remains a challenge to find relevant and timely information.

Solution? Encourage institutions to be more communicative at all levels. Employ a mix of online and offline communication strategies. Expand the rolodex. Get assistance from consultants who have a track record of success, not just filling out the proper paperwork. Re-imagine the role of institutional PR departments — for the most part they have become unnecessary. We recommend that tourism boards pay professional editors to edit brochures and websites with the potential client (traveler) in mind.

Would all the people who cannot communicate, please SHUT UP
– Tom Lehrer

We have multiple definitions of what constitutes ecotourism or responsible travel, but if travelers call a tourism help line or visit a government website, chances are they will not find what they are seeking. There is a demand for sustainable tourism, but it simply won’t be articulated in the same language as policy-makers. During the Ecotourism Emerging Industry Forum one operator said, “No one buys an ‘ecotour’ per se. People buy bird safaris, wildlife safaris, natural history tours, hiking tours, rafting tours, etc. The destination is the first priority. We all like what ‘ecotour’ connotes but that image is not a driving force in tourist decision-making.”

Solution? We might not be seeing the same hues. It’s time to agree to disagree about language, particularly with terms that are not universally agreed. We would rather see how ecotourism or responsible tourism in action.

ReferencesDefinitionsCapetown Declaration – Quebec Ecotourism Declaration –Travellers reject sustainable tourism – Travelmole

While tourism is cited as one of the world’s largest industries, it is not afforded withreliable statistics. Financing for sustainable tourism remains limited. Instead of fostering specialization, development banks tend to lump tourism programs with other sectors, including forestry. Rarely do banks provide updated information about projects in the pipeline or evaluate grants and loans that have been processed.

Also, many investers do not appreciate how long it takes to make an operation successful. ‘It’s a steep learning curve and it’s expensive to learn,’ said one entrepreneur.

Solution? More dialogues and more user-friendly, community-friendly evaluations of tourism projects currently in the pipeline would be of great assistance.

If you appeal to the individual part of the psyche for a collective purpose, you’re on dangerous ground.
– Michael Ventura

The transport industry, particularly air travel, has a number of negative effects, including noise pollution, hazardous waste around terminals and climate-altering effects of burning hydrocarbons. The solution is not as simple as offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Some reports indicate that planting trees (usually in tree plantations) does more harm than good. Worse is that we pay others for our complacency.

Solution? If travelers and travel operators care to donate toward environmental and social projects, they should do so directly, not necessarily through ‘offset’ programs. Collective agreements should be developed and announced in public. And please, no more eco conferences that do not have significant online dialogue before and after the event.

ReferencesThe carbon shop: planting new problemsThe scam of global warmingMy Climate TicketClimate Guide

Cat Herding
I sent the club a wire stating, ‘Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.’
– Groucho Marx

As an often paradoxical niche connecting environmental conservation and tourism, ecotourism attracts independent-minded leaders including environmentalists who value public visitation of natural areas and tourism officials who respect the importance of conservation. It is not instructive to think of travelers, particularly eco travelers, as a homogenous group.

There is also a certain amount of ego. Said one university professor in all earnestness: “The government’s ecotourism program is failing because it is not following my paradigm.” Simply put, this is why ecotourism is sometimes dismissed as ‘egotourism!’

Organizing these leaders is akin to cat herding. Pioneers tend to ‘follow their bliss’ and generally do not like people telling them what to do. Associations say that they cannot get their members to report news about their operations and then complain the association does not do enough to promote them. A few people do most of the work and resentment grows in all quarters.

It is frustrating to hear people who all want to lead and have little intention of following. While collaboration is a must, how does any initiative unify such know-it-all mavericks? How can any association for ecotourism/sustainable travel work when they are comprised of so many strong-headed individualists? Practioners tend to play Devil’s Advocate more than Guardian Angel.

Solution? If you would like to understand ecotourism in its fullness, you have got to be both the cat and herder simultaneously. Create new alliances that support the diversity and strengths of its members. Meanwhile, be patient and engage in multi-sector dialogue that emphasizes communication rather than artificial consensus.

Development and Promotion
The development and promotion departments don’t communicate. So when the promotion department creates an ecotourism campaign, we have to do it all over because they didn’t understand the fundamentals.
– Former government official

Academic and government officials tend to compartmentalize development and promotion. That said, conscientious travelers are not just seeking the trips with the best ads; they want to know that the project has been financed and designed in an ethical and sustainable manner.

Ecotourism is a local AND global endeavor. For small businesses, it can be difficult to maintain perspective: how does one’s ecolodge prosper or suffer because of international perception of the region or country takes a tumble? Natural disasters and political upheaval lead to concern that any vacation in the region would be a mistake. Another problem occurs on the ground. For local tourism offices in the developing world, more money and resources are spent creating a ‘corporate image’ instead of being attentive to actual visitors.

Solution? Development and promotion are two sides of the same coin. Advertising needs to reflect the values of sustainable development. Officials should implement personnel sharing programs so that staff learn what the organization is doing.

Create an inventory of how a specific nation’s tourism and conservation image is perceived by potential visitors. What images are portrayed in the media? What is the international news coverage? For local offices, how easy is it for travelers to find adequate information?

When I see a drive towards certification it indicates to me that our leadership is at best, somewhat disconnected from our clientele and the realities faced by the average ecotourism operator. It’s most certainly in contradiction to what our clientele have taught us over the last decade.
– Tour operator

In efforts to standardize operations, most certification programs contradict one of the main components of ecotourism: local control. In fact, most stakeholders have been left out of the process. Certification of ecotourism services is not “market-driven” and unless travelers and locals care, it has little value as a tool for sustainability.

Solution? If certification can be redeemed, it will be in assessing the accomplishments of consultants, NGOs and government leaders in additional to local companies and hotels. We need to insist that strategies include a broader focus, asking that certification apply to consultants and other stakeholders as well as events. If this is too ambitious, how about evaluating events?

Continuity (and the lack thereof)
Every time a new tourism official is put in charge of ecotourism, we have to teach them all over again
– Tourism guide

Lack of continuity is the Achilles’ Heel in ecotourism and sustainable tourism development. Successful ecotourism depends on security and many stakeholders are uncertain whether they their operations will survive the coming year.

If the topic is considered hot, officials dedicate time and money in developing institutional presence in the field — regardless of whether it duplicates other efforts. When interest dwindles, the project is shut down and personnel sent to other divisions. We continue to see ecotourism development work managed by program directors with no expertise and frequently little interest. Given that ecotourism requires travel, many leaders are on the road. This leads to a start-go-stop-backward, go-again routine.

Another problem is called personalismo in Latin America, meaning that a project depends on one person. This works as long as the particular person is engaged, but if there are any changes — such a change of job — the project folds.

Solution? Instead of reinventing the wheel, conduct public inventories of work already underway. This helps avoid duplication. Donors should fund creative extensions to existing projects, particularly with individuals and groups with a proven track record. All players need to make a long-term commitment (3-5 years minimum)!

On the road again
I am leaving in an hour to travel half-way around the world.
– Consultant

Have you noticed how many tourism experts are . . . on the road? This industry promotes travel, so it’s no surprise to find out colleagues are often away from the office. The trouble is maintaining contact. Also, there is a great waste of time and resources when the trip to and from a particular conference often exceeds the time spent at an actual event. Officials are reduced to figurehead appearances and there is little opportunity for dialogue.

Solution? Find better ways to bridge events in the virtual and natural worlds. Make a stronger commitment to staying in virtual touch while traveling. Patronize business events and conferences that have an interactive blog or virtual press conferences.

Nattering Naybobs of Negativity
– Spiro Agnew, coined by William Safire

Ecotourism pioneers find it easy to ‘think outside the box’ and leaders often have an expectation that others will catch on. It usually does not work according to plan.

Many attempts fail for lack of long-term support. The uncertain future in regard to employment and financing compromise the prospects for success. Lack of certainty leads to lack of confidence.

Solution? Stop equating cynicism with insight. When stakeholders come to the table to describe challenges, they need to be able to work toward viable solutions.

Solution? Decentralization. Expand the rolodex and support local and regional dialogues and make sure summaries are posted online. Hire people who live further than 100 kilometers from a nation’s capital and always make certain you have the most genuine consultation you can with locals and visitors.

Many complain that bureaucrats just take up space. If they are not actively sabotaging ‘sustainability’ projects, they are not supportive. We can’t build sustainable tourism on red tape. Bureaucracies — including environmental groups and tourism ministries — usually have a communications department in charge of information distribution. Unfortunately, this removes the ability and the responsibility to communicate from the principal players .

Solution? A call for meaningful transparency and dialogue among the players.

I have been asked to provide not only my own fees for a consulting project, but the names of colleagues who could do the same work. The idea seems to be creating a competitive environment, but it has transmogrified to a wink, wink, nudge, nudge agreement among professionals to provide the appearance of bids when the reality is the entire set-up is fraudulent.

Solution? The moral high road is often a bit lonely and underpaid. So here’s my question — are there established guideline for the conduct of consultants working in tourism? If not, could we create them?

Seat Warmers
Some people are just keeping their chairs warm.
– Government tourism official

Many officials are genuinely proud and let travelers know how best to enjoy their visit. That said, the true believers are still in the minority. Those who get the job done complain that their co-workers are present ‘just to collect the paycheck.’ Tour operators criticize government officials and NGO staff alike for doing only as much as it takes to justify their existence. They’re ‘tick the boxes’ supportive of ecotourism, but they’re not engaged.

Solution? If we want more passionate leaders — in government, private business, academia, media or environmental groups — we need to praise the individuals and the institutions who deliver results.

Small is beautiful
Small is beautiful.
– E.F. Schumacher

Whatever happened to the ;small is beautiful’ concept made famous by E.F. Schumacher? Local environmental groups compete for funds with multinational NGOs and usually lose. Likewise, Mom-and-Pop tour operators receive insufficient support.

Solution? Sustainable development works when we match top-down strategies with bottom-up grassroots initiatives. And vice-versa.

You have to go to 20 meetings with the government for them to tell you ‘no.’
– Consultant

There are a number of challenges brought on by politics. One problem in particular is the misplaced notion that visitors understand political boundaries; for the most part they do not.

On the web many national tourism portals divide their countries by political boundaries, when visitors generally are unfamiliar with the division of state or municipal boundaries. Municipal and state rivalries complicate matters. For example, the tourist information office in downtown Mexico City represents the Corazon de Mexico program, an initiative to promote tourism in the central part of the country. Visitors seeking information for states outside of the ‘heart of Mexico’ are told to look elsewhere.

Complicating matters further are the number of politicians entering tourism without much background. Many tour operators complain that these leaders require a lot of time to get up to speed, at which point they are replaced by … other politicians!

Solution? Simplify government regulations and educate travelers as much as — and in the format in which — they wish to be educated.

Only the lonely
Many of those who work in this field are loners. Ecotourism attracts a solid core of solo travelers and couples. This is not to say they shun the package tour — on the contrary. Operators also nurture a sense of loneliness. They build or assist remote eco lodges. Some sense a kindred spirit with other loners. One example. In West Virginia a couple runs a successful inn with very little guest-host interaction. ‘Put your money in the box, get a key.’

Solution? Recognize the loner crowd as key players. Recommended reading:Party of One

Everyone wants a piece of the pie, but they’re not waiting for the pie to come out of the oven.
– Tour Operator

There are several examples of greed. First are the tour companies and services that rip off travelers. The rationale is that this is the only opportunity to make money from the traveler. But there is a growing market of return travelers and this strategy makes less sense than ever.

Solution? Sustainable tourism depends on long-term investment and cross-sector sharing of responsibilities and profits.

When it comes to tourism that benefits both the environment and local economies, we are all on the learning curve. For every new ‘stone’ we can list here, there are solutions, most of which begin with improving communication and the opportunities for genuine conversation.

For those searching for sustainable practices, making tourism more eco and more responsible is key to long-term success. Sustainable tourism depends on long-term investment and cross-sector sharing of responsibilities and profits. There is a lot of work to be done. We need to be creative and this means trying things that have not been tried before.

The early converts to ecotourism were drawn by the possibility of doing good. This is a team effort and how well we collaborate will determine our success.


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