Ecotourism: an Investment in Adventure
By: Carla Molina
"Learning, travel and yet more learning."
–Alexander von Humboldt
Ecotourism is sustainable tourism. It is an alternative
model of tourism, where natural areas, local culture and biological
diversity are clearly understood and wisely integrated and
managed as an important component for a society’s sustainable
economic growth. It works because more and more ecology-minded
tourists seek to escape their daily routines, get away from
the crowds and reconnect to nature in a pristine environment.
Jungles, forests and marine sanctuaries are taking a bite
off traditional tourism, its cruise-ships and resorts.
Tourism is the second largest industry on the planet, after
the industrial military complex. The Madrid based World Tourism
Organization’s (WTO) most recent figures show that there
were 595 million travelers worldwide in 1997. These spent
about US $425 billion. The number of tourist "arrivals"
in the world is expected to grow at a rate of 4.3% during
the next 20 years, while expenditure will grow by 6.7%. Tourism
comprises 7% of the world trade in goods and services.
However, the nature of tourism is changing and travelers
are changing, too. The 60’s and 70’s brought a
new awareness of our planet and of ourselves. In the 80’s
environmentalists managed to have their concerns included
in the national agendas in most nations. This thirst to better
understand the world we live in and to become environmentally
involved and responsible has powered a demand for culture
and nature based experiences. In the 90s this demand is definitely
on the rise. Travelers seek to have real contact and make
direct contributions to parks and protected areas and to the
preservation of endangered species, as well as to the communities
who live close to them. Before setting out they carefully
study offers that are both friendly with the environment and
respectful of the people and local traditions.
This "purposeful travel" as the ECOTOURISM SOCIETY,
based in Vermont, defines ecotourism has the potential to
transform the way we "understand culture and natural
history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity
of the ecosystem while producing economic opportunities that
make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local
people." It is also transforming the way we do business.
A responsible ecotour operator or ecolodge owner should be
able to quantify these economic opportunities while offering
authentic, educational and experiential trips.
Babyboomers, now in their mid 30’s to their 50’s,
want to meet real people and see real places. They prefer
jungles, rivers and caves to the props, traps and souvenirs
of a consumer oriented trip to a "traditional" destination.
Advertising for small groups to walk on the Himalayas with
Sherpas or walk through the Maya jungle with the Lacandones
is more appealing to those with an environmental consciousness
than Vegas. The eco-operator knows this.
Statistically, ecotourism is considered a specialty segment
within the broader nature tourism market, which represents
7% of all tourism. In recent years, the latter has become
the industry’s fastest growing segment, increasing at
an annual rate of 30%, according to the Stanford Research
Institute. This seems to reinforce the fact that one day all
tourism will be sustainable tourism. Ecotourism, then, should
be considered a sound investment... or is it still an adventure?
Ecotourism is one of the best long term investment opportunities
for the risk taker. Preserving our biodiversity can’t
hurt our future and that of our descendants. Especially, as
dollars, pounds, francs, marks and yen are at stake and demand
for pristine environments exists: conservation and economic
growth should go hand in hand! Support capacity, environmental
impact and comprehensive funding to the very resources that
are the basis of a country’s economic growth should
be well managed and planned. Examples for successful ecotourism
partnerships between entrepreneurs, rural communities and
the government level exist. The Belizean example is certainly
one to follow. There investing in ecotourism is not the exception,
but rather, the norm.
Guatemala has in fact the potential of becoming a leader
in ecotourism, not lacking any of the ingredients most sought
after by this rich market. Ecotourists will be pleasantly
surprised to learn that the Peace Accords take the environment
and sustainable development seriously into consideration.
They will want to visit agroforestry plantations and community
development projects in addition to visiting the parks and
preserves, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, caves and unique conservation
But before even purchasing a ticket they will demand to
know whether Guatemala is a safe destination. While the industry’s
casinos, resorts and amusement parks are still palatable to
many, progressive thinking investors are looking to nature
tourism and, more specifically, ecotourism for the next place
to put their dollars. Others still want to use old formulas
on emerging markets. However, the best investment opportunities
are in conservation itself, both at the government and the
private levels. The investment to reclaim a habitat that has
been lost is considerably larger than that of preserving one
that already exists in its pristine state. The tourism sector
for one, can’t afford to continue loosing valuable resources.
The ecotourists will also demand good services. Like all
tourists ecotravelers will use transportation and require
food and lodging. But they will be quite demanding and critical
of non-environmentally sound services! They want to know about
sewage and waste disposal at the facilities where they stay,
regardless of whether the service is provided by a lodge,
a camping trip or a day excursion! They may also demand to
know what percentage of the money paid goes into conservation
and how much remains within the communities they visit on
Ecotourism is not a quick return scheme for investors. Instead
it applies an often costly new type of marketing and it is
the way in which a new breed of travelers and operators understand
tourism. New commercial ethics of socially and environmentally
responsible trade are put to the test everyday in the field.
An agreement among a growing number of eco-oriented service
providers to voluntarily adopt a Code of Ethics is necessary.
In Guatemala and in our region such agreements are already
taking place: Alianza Verde in the Peten region is one successful
example. The other is a regional effort, managed by conservationists
and entrepreneurs, which counts with the participation of
international consultants and experts: Ecotourism and Adventure
Specilialists Alliance focusing in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
These alliances and groups should become an example for others
Carla Molina is director of Ecotourism and
Adventure Specialists* organization. The organization is an
alliance of entrepreneurs, conservation organizations, individual
members and associations in rural communities, and is committed
to conservation through productive alternatives.
For more information, please contact:
ECOTOURISM & ADVENTURE SPECIALISTS
4ave "A" 7-95 2nd. Apartment Zone 14 Guatemala City
Tel: (502) 2337-0009
Fax: (502) 5298-2753