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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 areas.

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 their tours.

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 to follow.

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:

4ave "A" 7-95 2nd. Apartment Zone 14 Guatemala City
Tel: (502) 2337-0009
Fax: (502) 5298-2753
e-mail: mayaworld@intelnet.net.gt


© 2002 Ecotourism and Adventure Specialists Inc.