Ecotourism in South American Countries: Has the Agenda Changed?
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In many South American countries, there is a program in effect called Ecotourism. When the idea was initially though of, many of the developing countries of South America, had very poor economies as well as many suffering people. To act as a means of improving the status of these poor countries, the idea of Ecotourism was developed. In essence, Ecotourism is a program that permits tourists to visit and explore countries in South America while contributing their foreign capital to local economies. For the tourist, this is a great opportunity to see places of the world that have not been destroyed or inhabited by many. Though the idea of Ecotourism was one with good intentions, the local people in the countries where Ecotourism has been in effect are not gaining much at all. For this reason, I do not think that Ecotourism should be a continuing program in these countries. If the native people (whose best interest was at heart initially) are not benefiting from Ecotourism, then why has it been allowed to exist? The answer is simple: greed and selfishness.
History of Ecotourism:
The idea that led to Ecotourism emerged in the late sixties when people like Oswaldo Muñoz, now president of the Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association, started guiding tourists around their countries to view natural wonders. Many companies began to set up lodging near parks and reserves and even began to develop tours of those areas. The vision of showing off exotic plants, animals and the overall natural beauty of countries like Ecuador also attracted them. Yet early on, this did little to help the local economies. It actually contributed to other problems: In Ecuador, half of the country's rain forest disappeared, and environmental groups and other organizations promoting ecotourism flocked to places where endangered species, including many indigenous populations, lived. But with the growing environmental awareness of the seventies and the realization that large resorts like Acapulco and Cancun were devastating to the environment, both governmental and non-governmental organizations began to look for ways to both protect the environment and stimulate local economies. Thus ecotourism was born.
Ecotourism began in hopes of developing local economies in South American countries while attracting tourists to the natural beauty and exotic wonders of the land. The Vermont-based Ecotourism Society defines it as "responsible travel to natural areas, which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.
" Ecotourism ideally allows native people to profit from their customs and culture, while allowing tourists to hike and explore, contributing foreign capital to local economies. For the traveler, it is a chance to view some of the many places left on earth that are unspoiled by the encroachment of civilization. The people of these countries embraced the idea of maintaining a stable economy based on their natural resources. Ecotourism would be a change from the many years of resource-extracting operations such as oil drilling and logging that have drained much of the life from the land that is their home. Native people would profit from their customs and culture, while tourists would hike, explore, and shop.
Today, Latin America is considered to be the heartland of ecotourism. In Costa Rica, for example, Ecotourism is estimated at a growth of 20 percent each year. The country has a hotel program with a certification of offering genuine Ecotourism activities. Mexico is one of the few Latin American countries whose leaders of tourism and environment have signed an agreement to collaborate on Ecotourism development. The Brazilian government has also launched a massive Ecotourism project in the Amazon Basin in hopes of luring millions to their tropical paradise.
As a result of this growth and popularity in Ecotourism, millions of dollars are being generated. But is this money going to and staying within local economies? Elizabeth Halpenny, workshop and marine programs coordinator for the Ecotourism Society said, "In the last eight or ten years there was a significant amount of misuse of the ecotourism label, but that seems to be abating now that native people, conservation-minded organizations, and the tourism industry are showing what real ecotourism looks like." An example of this is in Guatemala, where a local organization called Pro Petén Conservation International has been training natives as guides for ‘Ecotours’ since 1993. Also, The Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association conducts Ecotourism field workshops for guides, tour operators, lodge owners, and conservationists to improve the role of those working in the tourism industry. The Rainforest and Reef Conservation Fund which is based in Michigan, also sponsors ‘Ecotours’, and tries to employ guides from the host country. Other groups are also working to come up with ways to certify organizations that practice real Ecotourism. The Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association has a program called the Green Evaluation Pilot Program that is helping to draft a law to involve local communities in Ecotourism activities. The law would set equal and fair conditions for collaborative programs among all people involved in Ecotourism and conservation. The United Methodist Church is working to educate travel agents about Ecotourism. Even the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is considering setting standards for such environmental marketing claims as Ecotourism.
Ecotourism Problems and Shady Business:
Though despite the best efforts of all these numerous organizations and governments, many of the problems that existed before the environmental awareness of the seventies still persist. Many Latin Americans say that they have reaped some benefits from Ecotourism, but in most cases those gains have come at a huge price. Many critics of large-scale tourism projects say the early concept of Ecotourism has been left behind and changed into a marketing tool for large corporations. The original meaning of a local economy building and an environment-friendly form of economic development has been lost to the detriment of native communities. In countries like Belize and Costa Rica, large hotels and unchecked tourism have increased in fishing villages, displacing village communities, causing deforestation, and damaging water supplies. In the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, an expanding tourist market has slowly contributed to the destruction of their local environment. Rivers and streams have become greatly polluted because of increases in various types of waste. The natural habitats of many species have been lost, and in some cases the species themselves have now gone extinct. At the same time, other places, still relatively unspoiled, are now the hot markets for foreigners hoping to build attractions for American and European tourists.
Ecotourism has affected more than just the environment. The worst thing is that the people in the places where Ecotourism is alive and active cannot even take part in the huge boom of money making in their own homes. Citizens of the host countries have no control over tourism or the moneys it generates. There are a group of people that have been making large sums of money and in the background, there are local people not getting any of it, and losing even more at the same time. Research by the Ecotourism Society states in their newsletter that as much as 55 percent of all revenue from tourism in some developing nations, many in Central and South America, actually leaves the countries. Much of the revenue could be shared with local people if they were given equal opportunity to work in the many facilities that exist to cater to the tourists. Yet even when jobs are created, they often go to non-natives. Those locals who do get jobs are often the lucky few, while the rural poor are exploited as cheap (meaning near free) labor. Some countries do not even use local guides to show tourists around the countries, they send for American guides. I cannot imagine how it feels to be a person native to these lands yet kept looking from the outside in on what could and should be profiting you and your community. This is as a result of the greed (as I stated earlier) from the large American corporations that used their power to state their claims to a portion of the revenue gained from the very popular Ecotourism activity.
Another problem associated with tourism and specifically Ecotourism, is the loss of culture and tradition among indigenous people. Often, when people plan trips abroad, they are unaware of the impact that tourism has or has had on native people, even though it may under the false claim of "Ecotourism." "There are a lot of things out there that claim to be ecotourism that are really bad," says Deborah McLaren, director of Rethinking Tourism in Minneapolis. When most people pick up a book or read an article about Ecotourism, nowadays it most often will describe huge resorts with golf courses and such. Never will there be information about the local community, the local (indigenous people), their culture, or their state of being. There is a problem with this. What has happened to the initial goal of shedding light on the exotic natural wonders of South America? This idea encompassed the land and the people, not a land absent of its history and original inhabitants. Articles such as this are placed under the category of ‘green-washing’. Pretending to be environmentally and Ecotourism-friendly, when indeed there is a hidden agenda.
Ecotourism Developments in Specific Countries:
Ecotourism in Mexico
In many Latin American countries officials intrigued by the ideals of "ecotourism" have attempted to promote and/or regulate this market. The first challenge has been the uniting of two very important departments: tourism and environmental. The problems arise when the government departments prefer sole control of the project.
In many areas, Mexico is the case example of things done right in terms of Ecotourism. Yet the country also has its faults. It is one of the few Latin American examples in which the Tourism and Environmental Secretariats (SECTUR) and (SEMARNAP) signed an agreement to collaborate on Ecotourism development. This agreement took place in 1995. Yet with more than 5 years past, there have been few results. The lack of continuity threatens any successful results for the development of positive Ecotourism.
A group of private entrepreneurs created their own group in 1994- Mexico's Association of Adventure Travel and Ecotourism (Amtave). The group was formed after an informal meeting between colleagues at the Tianguis Turistico in 1993. They decided to form a group to share the related promotion expenses. Amtave now raises most of its funds via membership fees (2,500 pesos or $250/year) and profits generated at events that the organization co-sponsors and promotes. This private group estimates its range of membership throughout the entire country. Yet, not everyone who offers nature or Ecotourism in Mexico are - or want to be - members of Amtave. Many people decide to work solely based on environmental ethic and the knowledge that travelers are receptive to eco-friendly hotels and services.
"People talk about ecotourism, but the fact is that the tourism industry is always looking for a quick buck," said hotelier Doug Rhodes, owner of Hotel Paraiso del Oso in Cerocahui, Chihuahua. "Hotels throughout the Copper Canyon still lack waste treatment facilities. Some of the garbage is thrown into the canyon or disposed of near community wells." Rhodes said that tourists are willing to pay for such environmental guarantees and added that the technologies aren't that expensive. "It's just a matter of will," he said.
In July 1999, Mexico hosted its first national trade conference on Ecotourism and adventure tourism in Mexico City's World Trade Center. States with a keen interest in promoting their natural wonders -- Veracruz, Oaxaca, Michoacan and Morelos -- purchased exposition space, alongside rafting companies, natural history tours and regional airlines.
Ecotourism in Central America
Central America is known to be the perfect destination for tourists seeking ‘nature travel’. This is due in large part to the reputation gained by Costa Rica over the past 20 years. Yet there are few efforts at developing or marketing the region as a destination for Eco-conscious travelers.
Some positive signs in the forward direction of creating Eco-friendly tourism is the development of the Mesoamerican Ecotourism Alliance and the persistence of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. But while these efforts appear to be initially well-funded and secure, it remains a challenge to find out what exactly these organizations have done, who they recommended as local operators or guides, or to have access to timely reports. Again it seems that there is a lack of persistence related to being committed to such a program (as was the case in the Mexico).
In terms of national Ecotourism organizations, it is interesting to note that Costa Rica, the country with the best reputation for Ecotourism practices and destinations does not have a formal Ecotourism group. Says Amos Bien, the owner of Rara Avis Lodge: "The origins of Ecotourism in Costa Rica can be traced to the La Selva field station, Monteverde, Corcovado, Tortugero and Rara Avis. We've always been too busy to start a national Ecotourism association, preferring to work within the sub-commissions of the Environmental Secretariat or the Costa Rican Tourism Institute instead." This negative association with Ecotourist associations results from the fact that in the 1990s several Central American countries set up their own private Ecotourism groups. The problem was that, many of these were created in government conferences, often at the urging of international development agencies, so not many have exhibited a long-term commitment to national Ecotourism development. Most associations may exist completely on paper and then disappear within even a year of their creation. The phrase to describe these associations are "paper ecotourism organizations", they give the illusion of action and coordination, but usually lack substance and continuity.
In Honduras, for example, it seems to be a great potential in the field of Ecotourism. This is because of a number of new developments over the past few years. But of course, there are always obstacles in the way of success. Their (Honduras’) problems have included a lack of coordination within the country and throughout the region, in addition to difficulty of getting up-to-date information and details about Ecotourism programs.
The tourism industry can be a leader, though recent history throughout the region of Central America and other regions in South America has only shown a series of battles between traditional tourism and those who promote "alternative tourism" (such as Ecotourism). Yet there continue to be some positive developments. In Belize, for example, members of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BETA) set up the Belize Ecotourism Association. Hopefully new associations have learned what it takes to succeed in such a market by watching the failure of many other associations before them.
What the Tourist Can Do:
It is important for tourists to know the truth about Ecotourism in order for some of the associated problems to be solved. Tourists should try to educate themselves, whether it is important to them or not, about the affects of tourism on native people. A question regarding how much money goes to the local economy or whether local people are working as guides and/or in management positions is very relevant. It should also be important to determine if the Ecotour he/she is going on has a detrimental impact on natural resources. At least with this knowledge, tourists will begin to understand their impact and responsibility for the affects of Ecotourism.
A Hopeful Future?
I have described many local associations that seem to be committed to the promotion of positive Ecotourism in South America, throughout this entire paper. Why is it so hard for these organizations to achieve the goal initially sought out for? What has happened to the overlapping of the three interests: Environmental Conservation, Profitable Business and Local Benefits (as was displayed in the picture at the beginning of the paper)? Maybe no one really believes that Eco-friendly and local ‘people-benefiting’ tourism can exist. Hopefully this is not the case. What Ecotourism needs are committed leaders and less of big corporations taking over the market. Of course this is an ideal state, and big business will always run a money making market. Perhaps the detriment to the local people in these areas doesn’t matter to most, but soon the land that has become so largely inhabited by tourism will be depleted. What will happen then? If they are smart they will make the necessary improvements so that government and local associations can work together to make it better for everyone, or get rid of the whole thing before there is no land for tourists or the locals.
The following are statistics relating to the market of Ecotourism. They come from the Ecotourism Statistical Fact Sheet of The International Ecotourism Society in 2000.
Statistics for Ecotourism Destinations
• Domestic and international travelers made nearly 287 million recreation visits
to the 378 recreation areas administered by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS)
in 1998 compared to the 275 million visits in 1997.
• This is an increase of 4.4%.
• Travel to the United States National Parks Service areas generated direct and
indirect economic impact for local communities of US $14.2 billion and supported
almost 300,000 tourist-related jobs during 1996.
• It is unknown what portion of these visitors represented participation in
• In 1999 49.4% of 172.292 tourists to Belize visited Mayan sites, 12.8% visited
Parks and reserves.
• Important reasons for visiting Belize are: to observe scenic beauty, to be in a
natural setting and to observe wildlife.
• Cayes and Barrier reefs were visited by 87% of visitors.
• 82% of visitors to Belize were in the age group of 18 to 50 years old and 65%
were college graduates (Higgins, 2000)
• Galapagos nature tourism has grown steadily since the pioneering days of the
1970’s, to the present level of over 60,000 visitors a year, making an estimated
$100 million-plus contribution to the Ecuadorian economy.
• An estimated 10.3% of tourists that visit Peru prefer to go birdwatching in
natural areas (Proyecto PRA.
• 47% of foreign tourists to Peru visited natural zones. Of this number, 44%
combined visiting natural zones with visiting cultural attractions and 3% came
only to visit natural zones.
• The flow of visitors to 26 of the 52 Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado –
ANPE, increased 250% during the 1990-1999 period. Just in 1999, the number of
visitors was estimated in 642 336, according to the figures provided by the
Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales – INRENA.
• Five million visitors came to Brazil in 1999; five times as many as in 1991.
• Brazil has more than 150 conservation areas, of which there are 40 National
Parks. An estimated number of 3.5 million visitors went to these National Parks
• The last two years the number of foreign ecotourists has grown: it had 600,000
Brazilian ecotourists and attracted 200,000 foreign ecotourists in 1998.
The Ecotourist Market
35 - 54 years old, although age varied with activity and other factors such as cost.
50% female and 50% male, although clear differences by activity were found.
82% were college graduates, a shift in interest in ecotourism from those who have
high levels of education to those with less education was also found, indicating an
expansion into mainstream markets.
No major differences were found between general tourists and experienced
A majority (60%) of experienced ecotourism respondents stated they prefer to
travel as a couple, with only 15% stating they preferred to travel with their
families, and 13% preferring to travel alone.
The largest group of experienced ecotourists (50%) preferred trips lasting 8-14
Experienced ecotourists were willing to spend more than general tourists, the
largest group (26%) stating they were prepared to spend $1,001-$1,500 per trip.
Important elements of trip:
Experienced ecotourists top three responses were:
(1) wilderness setting,
(2) wildlife viewing,
Motivations for taking next trip:
Experienced ecotourists top two responses were (1) enjoy scenery/nature, (2) new
** Experienced ecotourists = Tourists that had been on at least one “ecotourism” oriented trip. (Ecotourism was defined in this study as nature/adventure/culture oriented travel).
Positive and Negative Impacts of Mainstream Tourism
("Positive" impacts (+), "Negative" impacts (-))
+ Economic growth (GDP increase); positive contribution to foreign exchange
earning and balance of payments
+ In comparison with other sectors, tourism market is little protected; market
comes to producer
+ Generation of direct employment and income, plus multiplier effects for
different sectors of society. Economic activities directly and indirectly
stimulated by tourism
+ Backward linkages into national economy (use of energy, resources and other
primary goods as well as use of capital goods)
+ Potential to create forward linkages; tourists' demand for "modern" Western
standards can beget a modernization incentive for other sectors and foster
entrepreneurial activity; improvement of regional/national infrastructure
+ Tourism can be seen as a form of modernization, transferring capital,
technology, expertise, and 'modern' values from the West to Less Developed
+ Usually, percentage of women working in tourism sector is higher than elsewhere
- Limited economic benefits: often only 35 % to 50 % of income remains in third
- Seasonality of production and employment; labor-intensive industry (mostly in
service sector with poor productivity prospects); little increase in labor
skills/few spin-off effects
- Heavy infrastructure costs; inflation
- Dependencies on external markets (increased export instability) and destruction
of traditional local economies (subsistence agriculture, internal service sector
etc.), pressure to import to fulfil tourist's needs (leakages)
- Ecological damage from air and car traffic pollution, sewage, garbage and other
- Exploiting and reckless behavior of tourism companies; local resistance in large
tourism areas (due to unsustainable planning; wasteful luxury hotels in poor
areas; no backward linkages for locals; sex tourism etc.)
- Lack of information, arrogance, and ignorance among many travelers: tourism has
yet to become a tool for intercultural understanding
- Western consumerism and materialism creates counterproductive effects on non-
Western cultures: accelerates acculturation, internal social problems (e.g.,
erosion of social/family values and structures), alienation from local culture.
Mader, Ron. “Latin America's Ecotourism: What is it?” Planeta. Com. September 1,
R. Jaura, "Tourism: Developing Nations Expect Big Cut from Tourist Income," Inter-
Press Service, 11 March 1998.
The Ecotourism Society, "TES Ecotourism Statistical Fact Sheet," found at the
Ecotourism Society's website (http://www.ecotourism.org/textfiles/stats.txt),
accessed March 2004.
The Ecotourism Society. "Uniting Conservation & Travel Worldwide". North
Bennington, Vt.: TES, 1992. http://www.ecotourism.org/data.html
The International Ecotourism Society. Ecotourism Statistical Fact Sheet. (2000).
UNEP. “Ecotourism in the Wider Caribbean Region: An Assessment”. CEP Technical
Report. No. 31: 1994.