Specialists

THE ORIGINS OF ECOTOURISM

By Robert Keith Reid

Meet the High Priest of Ecotourism, Hector Ceballos-Lascurian How high? He actually coined the term back in 1983. Ceballos-Lascurian, an engaging enthusiast is one of Mexico's top architects, Director-General cf the International Consultancy on Ecotourism, and special advisor to the World Conservation Union.

He's carried the ecotourism gospel to more than 60 countries and has just completed his first mission to the Pacific Islands. "I am tremendously impressed by the South Pacific's ecotourism potential," was his reaction. "You have very good forests, endangered birds, and lots of cultural alternatives. It is very important for the South Pacific to encourage this new type of tourism."

"So what precisely is ecotourism? Before Hector (it's easier to call him that) invented it there were travellers who travelled in pursuit of nature and culture more or less as back-packers. They were willing to rough it for the sake of being at one with Mother Nature, preferably alone, far from the beaten track of mass tourism.

Well, ecotourism is still that, but a trifle more complicated. This is because it's getting to be big business, bigger and bigger business but still, insists Hector, only a niche in the overall tourism picture.

Yet it is growing at a rate of 15 percent annually compared with global tourism growth of 3-5 percent. Indeed, nature oriented tourism is the largest foreign exchange earner for South Africa. Kenya and Costa Rica.

Ecotourism is already established In parts of the Pacific Islands. You'll find it in Vanuatu, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Fiji's Turtle Island Resort has just landed two of the world's top ecotourism awards - the International Hotel and Restaurant Association's Green Hotelier of the Year for 1999 and the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow 1999 award. So. what Is ecotourism?

"Sometimes it is easier to explain what ecotourism is not," Hector replies. "It's not casino tourism, it's not riding around at 70 kph on a jet ski in a mangrove swamp. It's not downhill skiing with lots of facilities. Too many contraptions is not ecotourism."

There is now an internationally accepted definition of ecotourism, forged mostly by Hector. Here it is:

"Environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas In order to enjoy, study and appreciate nature and any accompanying cultural features that promote conservation, has a negative visitation impact and provides for substantial beneficial active socio-economic involvement of local populations."

Since that is just a bit heavy, back to Hector for lighter, nitty-gritty illustration.

"Rainforests are becoming very interesting as an attraction around the world," he says. In Arizona people go to see 2000-year old cactus other people will cut down in five minutes. The more unique and interesting, the more ecotourism is attracted.

"Ecotourists are (usually) older people who like to move around in a low impact way In canoes and kayaks and down side roads. Biking is great. Sometimes having air strips in an ecotourism area has less Impact than roads which attract settlement.

Ecotourists aren't necessarily self-condemned to nights under the stars only to be dumped on by a cloudburst or assailed by mosquitoes, ants or the odd passing person-consuming tiger.

Some do like to rough it that way, or else under the shelter of a tent. Many more now book into an eco-lodge. What is an eco-lodge?

Well, says Hector, take a conventional lodge. It's liable to have patios, terraces, lawns, gardens, swimming pools, golf, tennis, windsurfing, gymnasiums and posh cutlery and plates, not to mention silk sheeted beds.

An eco-lodge is basic. Comfortable, clean, with some of the usual conveniences and with simple but hearty meals of mainly local stuff to eat. Some of Hector's eco- lodge rules are:

  • an eco-lodge has to be at least a thousand metres from a village so as not to interfere with village life.
  • avoid air conditioning. Design for cross ventilation. Ecotourists don't like airconditioning all the time.
  • the customers want to be completely surrounded by nature; design to merge with the landscape; solar energy for light and hot water is ok.

Ok?

What's a great eco-lodge? There are quite a few now. Hector says there's one 250 kilometres up the Amazon; stilts, mosquito nets, no electricity, more birds in the area than anywhere else in the world; the only approach is by boat. Perfect.

But the most important thing about an eco-lodge is the It is not the most Important thing." he says "It is the quality of the surroundings that counts most, the nearby natural and cultural attractions and the way ecotourism circuits are set up, operated and marketed and also the way in which local populations are actively involved in the process."

Ecotourism sounds simple, says Hector, but it isn't. It now has rules. Break those rules and say goodbye to ecotourism and hello to the tramp of millions of heavy feet in mass tourism.

Here are some more commandments from Hector's ecotourism bible:

  • Governments should allocate funds for environmental education at national, state and local levels;
  • Private industry, like hotels and tour operators, need to work with local communities. Get them round a table for joint decisions.
  • For any ecotourism area you need to specify a physical master plan and a zoning scheme to specify areas for agriculture, mining, fishing and different categories of tourism. Some zones may be off limits to tourists.
  • Very intensive training is needed for government officials, tour operators, local people and hotel owners. If you don't have local people involved, it just won't happen.
  • Ecotourists must involve government, the private sector, local communities, non-government organisations, journalists, development agencies and ecotourists.
  • Ecotourists want to know what kind of experiences to expect so an inventory of eco-attractions is needed.
  • Nature trails are important and information posts; sometimes just a post with a number and details explained in a pamphlet.
  • Local guides are vital, some with a Western scientific perspective and other expert on local culture. It's a good idea to have both.
  • Handcrafts are very important; a tourist goes direct to the site where they are made; no 80-90 percent mark-up middle people. And sell local food and drink.
  • Training; "we need a lot of training of people in this new and complicated business."

"I am not trying to sell ecotourism as the only means of tourism in the South- Pacific," Hector says. "It is just a new niche. It is happening in a lot of parts of the world and it is bringing a lot of benefits. It's a tool for conservation, an instrument for sustainable development and its a good business.

"Ecotourism is not a panacea. People live in rural areas and continue doing their usual activities. It is just additional income for them plus additional pride."

There are different eco-tourism market segments. There are:

Bird watchers, divers, nature lovers, archaeologists, speleologists, trekkers, people in search of spiritual enlightenment, mountaineers, environmentalists. The list is almost endless.

Individually they add up to lucrative business if they are catered for the way they want to be catered for. Take bird watchers. In the United States and Canada alone there are an estimated 60 million of them. Each year 25 million of them make trips to watch birds and the figure is increasing. They will go to immense lengths to spot rare birds to add to their score list. There are about 10000 species of birds.

Hector is a bird watcher. "I have seen 3100." he told the recent South Pacific Tourism Conference in Samoa. "In Samoa I've added 14 more to my list, some to be seen nowhere else on Earth."

Now that Hector Ceballos-Lascurian has blazed the trail. Samoa can expect more arriving bird watchers.

This article was printed in the "Air Pacific Islands" Volume 1, 2000, magazine