For the past 20 years or so, the reality of ecotourism has largely failed to meet its promise. The notion that tourism could not only have a lighter footprint but also promote social and environmental good seems to have been lost amid the vast hodgepodge of what passes as "ecotourism" these days: five-star spas, jeep safaris, posh eco-lodges, "sustainable development tours," and all the rest. (Among my favorites: helicopter tours offered by the Hawaii Ecotourism Association.)
One might easily conclude that the term is, essentially, meaningless.
And yet "ecotourism" has meaning. According to the Green Globe 21 International Ecotourism Standard (download here in PDF), it refers to "ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation, and conservation." (Note the absence here of Hawaiian helicopters and Ayurvedic masseurs.)
True ecotourism does more than protect the environment. It improves the welfare of local people -- giving them not just jobs, not just handouts, but skills that engender self-sufficiency. It empowers the locals to become stewards of their communities in a way in which they benefit from tourists' visits, and can do so for generations, without degrading their culture or the land that nourishes them. It's tourism that's not just benign, but beneficial.
One shining example of how ecotourism can work is Dos Margaritas, a nonprofit with which I've become familiar in recent years. Founded by two women -- a successful American dot-com entrepreneur and a Chilean travel industry veteran -- Dos Margaritas has shown what's possible when stunning scenery meets savvy strategy.
Ground zero for Dos Margaritas is in Futaleufu, in a narrow, pristine, and increasingly well-known river valley in the Patagonia region of Chile. Futaleufu has become quite the hotspot destination of late. A Google search yields hundreds of rafting, kayaking, and hiking outfitters in the region.
Joaquina Peña saw it coming a decade ago. She also saw the Chilean government's plans for hydroelectric dams along the Futaleufu River, part of the Pinochet government's efforts, launched in the 1980s, to privatize Chile's energy and water resources. Peña, who had been working with U.S. outdoor companies bringing tourists to Chile, already had seen one major river, the Bio Bio, fall victim to dams in the mid 1990s, flooding thousands of acres of indigenous communities. Peña vowed this would not happen to the Futaleufu. She found a parcel of land adjacent to the river and in 1998 began to raise funds to create a beachhead for locally run tourism.
That's when Lisa Gansky showed up. Gansky, a veteran of several Internet start-ups and self-described "marketect," found her way to Chile as part of a year off of travel and contemplation. She helped raise money for the downpayment on the 1,000-acre parcel and developed a business plan for a new nonprofit, dubbed Dos Margaritas ("two daisies" in Spanish). They recruited locals to build a series of classrooms, dormitories, and other facilities that would serve as an ecotourism training center, harvesting fallen trees left behind by timber companies.
Today, that school teaches teenagers and young adults to become world-class outdoor guides, offering classes in English, first aid and rescue, whitewater rafting and kayaking, rock climbing, mountaineering, fly fishing, environmental science, social studies, computer and business skills, and "great customer service." Dos Margaritas students also learn the basics of organic gardening, beekeeping, and goat raising, enabling them to grow much of the food that is served at the school.
The result: a new generation of talented indigenous eco-guides and entrepreneurs, able to host the mostly American and European turistas with all the TLC that only locals can muster.
But it's much more than that, as Peña and Gansky told me recently. "The biggest change is in self-esteem," says Peña. "They go through school that is a tough boot camp. After that they realize they can achieve anything that they want. They arrive feeling they are poor and need help. They leave knowing that it's not about help, it's about how they can do it themselves."
The impact of Dos Margaritas has been leveraged beyond the students who go through the year-long training. "The people who we've impacted directly have affected and infected other people in the community," says Gansky, noting that the program has graduated 350 people in a community of just 1,500. "Organic gardening and compost were new. The reality of solar energy and green building materials and recovery of fallen trees were things people wouldn't normally do. Some met with resistance, but eventually they've become accepted."
Peña and Gansky founded Dos Margaritas with the goals that it be both self-sustaining and replicable. Neither goal has yet been achieved, but it's only a matter of time. "One of the main concepts after seeing this project happen is that it's very replicable," explains Gansky. "As we go to other parts of Latin America, these kinds of programs can be tailored to the local environment and culture of the people living there. The fundamental concept is embracing and supporting the local people to become part of the wave of ecotourism."
Says Peña: "Now, others from different parts of northern Patagonia are calling to see how they can get in on the action -- how to grow their lifestyle without destroying it. Without mining for gold, silver, nickel, cadmium, and other minerals. Now everyone is taking about 'going eco.'"
And perhaps this time, "eco" will actually mean something.
We just returned froma trip to Mexico where we went on a couple of "eco-tours" that were just silly. Unfortunately, a visit to a self-sustaining Mayan community isn't quite enough for most tourists, so the tour included rapelling down a cliff (of about 20 feet) and a zipline across a small lagoon. The tour seemed like a mockery of the sentiment that purportedly was behind it, and it left me feeling guilty and exploitative.
I would love to see you guys do more coverage of ecotourism that is getting it right, because it can be hard to separate the good guys from the the ones who just want to cash in on a growing market.
I agree that more info about ecotourism is needed, and one way to generate the content is to create an ecotourism wiki -- a central repository for information about sustainable vacation options -- written by travelers for travelers. I've got the beginning of such as wiki as part of wikiforgood.org, so if you want to write about your trip, you can add the information there so others can benefit from your experience.
Being from Venezuela, I can not emphasize how important the "replicable" piece of DM's goals. We are chalk full of "natural resources" when it comes to incredible places to set up shop like DM did in Chile, and what is more there are plenty of folks who would be terrific at running these locales __if__ they are able to receive enough funding AND traning.
This is a great start!
You state "Patagonia region of northern Chile". You surely must know that Patagonia is in the southern part of Chile.
Ecotourism is defined by its lack of definition.
There has been no agreement on a standard definition. The important question is ... does that matter?
Google 'ecotourism' and you will find an eclectic mix of references and paid ads. Ditto Dicionary.com Looking in Spanish? Google 'ecoturismo'
In the Web Age, ecotourism means whatever you pay the ads to display. And certification is not much different. Who respects which certification scheme is a matter of insider politics.
The Quebec Ecotourism Summit refused to define the term, though it did issue a declaration.
It is good to see WorldChanging bring up this topic and hopefully WC will continue to examine the complexities of ecotourism, sustainable travel, responsible tourism -- all of these endeavors that are in fact changing the world.
For those interested, Planeta.com has compiled an essay with assorted links about the various definitions -- http://www.planeta.com/ecotravel/tour/definitions.html
We also take a serious look at ecotourism in Mexico, where ecotourism has been confused with adventure travel and the ubiquitous 'booze and cruise' trips. Please, there is so much more, but we need to be serious about our terminology and what travelers and locals have a right to expect.
I agree that more info about ecotourism is needed, and one way to generate the content is to create an ecotourism wiki -- a central repository for information about sustainable vacation options -- written by travelers for travelers.
This is music to my ears:) Knowing several outfitters on the Futa... Kayak Futalefu, NOC, Kayak International, Bio Bio, Earth River, I contemplated how change would occur among the locals.
This seems like a great vision that has come together on a grand scale. Keep up the good work!
My greatest issue re ecotourism is how it, almost always, is just as reliant on jet travel as 'normal' tourism.
Better, at the end of that eight hours of air travel, that one go to a sustainable hotel, employing locals, that uses local supplies, and do touring that doesn't abuse the environment ...
But, that jet travel is not sustainable ...
Let us not forget that for Church of England Christians, flying on holiday is now officially a 'sin'.
The Bishop of London says so (here) and he's right.
Today's tourism industry is completely unsustainable. In most cases, ecotourism is simple bourgeois self-delusion.
i am doing social work volunteer programs women empowerment, childcare, hiv/aids controls, and handicapped help volunteer.
I've got the beginning of such as wiki as part of wikiforgood.org, so if you want to write about your trip, you can add the information there so others can benefit from your experience.written by travelers for travelers.
Another recommended resource is Transition Abroad's Responsible Tourism Handbook, available as a free PDF download -- http://tinyurl.com/zh5b5
I'm getting the idea that the ideas of 'green' travel are about to hit their stride in the coming year.
This organization is a wonderful breath of fresh air in the tourism industry. Locals should benefit from tourism, both through $$$ and through permacultural designing. These communities will get exploited either way, letting the local people prosper and plan this development is always best. I don't agree people should travel around the world on jets to "vacation" but it with happen until their fuel runs out. We might as well help make tourism as positive as we can, because the bourgeois of the world will not stop pleasuring themselves for anyone.