Posadas Amazonas is a model ecotourism
project. Nestled unobtrusively in a rainforest at the headwaters of the Amazon, the 30-room lodge is owned by the local indigenous community
and operated by a CI partner, Peru-based Rainforest Expeditions. It offers travelers an opportunity to experience the splendors of the rainforest, with little negative impact on that resource, while bringing direct income to the local people.
Nature travel has not always been this way. Twenty-five years ago, I was a primate researcher in Kenya, the epicenter for the world’s growing nature tourism industry. Every day, thousands of tourists traveled to and from Kenya’s national parks and reserves. This business generated millions of dollars, but provided little or no benefit to the pastoral Samburu and Maasai peoples, upon whose ancestral lands most of East Africa’s wildlife is found. In Samburu National Reserve, I witnessed local communities striking back, setting fire to the reserve. They killed wildlife, not for food but to make a statement, seeing protected areas and the tourism revenues generated by these areas as a threat to their survival.
Today, tourism in Kenya continues apace, but, as at Posadas Amazonas in Peru, there is a clear difference: The Samburu and Maasai indigenous communities of Kenya are allies in conservation, managing their own wildlife sanctuaries and protecting some of the rarest and most endangered animals on Earth, including the Grevy’s zebra and black rhino
. The catalyst that has made this possible: Ecotourism—defined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” In line with these principles, the Kenya Wildlife Service put new policies in place in 1994 to share park revenues with local communities. These, combined with innovative partnerships
among the private sector, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Maasai and Samburu community groups, resulted in new community-owned nature reserves. In the end, more wildlife land came under protection, and indigenous peoples had become the direct economic beneficiaries of tourism.
Pioneering a new approach to the travel industry
CI was among the few conservation organizations that saw the early potential of tourism as a conservation tool, becoming a founding member of TIES in 1991 and continuing to serve on its Board of Directors. Since that time, CI has emerged as an ecotourism leader, helping to develop successful enterprises from the lush rainforests of the Amazon
to the arid bushlands of southern Africa
. Owned and managed locally, all of these have brought in much-needed jobs and income to local communities while helping to conserve thousands of acres of species-rich landscape.
Recently, CI has broadened the type of support it provides for ecotourism projects. Rainforest Expeditions in Peru and Belize Lodge and Excursions, for example, have received backing from CI’s Verde Ventures fund, which provides affordable capital for well-managed, conservation-friendly businesses.
Also in Belize, CI provided technical and financial support through its ecotourism program and Global Conservation Fund to local NGO Friends of Nature. This support, which included the purchase of Little Water Caye for monitoring and enforcement, is enabling the group to better safeguard more than 36,000 acres of stunning coral reef
habitat while providing jobs for community members, many of them former fishermen.
None of this was easy. It is often a slow and cumbersome process to achieve successful ecotourism in practice, involving capacity building with local communities and creating effective partnerships among the private sector, NGOs, local authorities and funding organizations.
Taking ecotourism to the next level
The success of local ecotourism initiatives has set in motion a movement by CI and its partners to take ecotourism principles from the site to the global level. In 2002, CI addressed the United Nations, providing country delegates with an understanding of how ecotourism can play a role in economic development and biodiversity conservation. Subsequently, CI played an instrumental role in the UN-designated “International Year of Ecotourism,” helping to bring the voice of indigenous peoples and local conservation groups into a global ecotourism dialogue. We also provided input for tourism guidelines recently adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity. And last year, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme, CI published the first-ever global report on tourism and biodiversity. The report mapped tourism’s expansion in relation to biodiversity hotspots
and wilderness areas
around the world.
A key finding was that tourism in the hotspots was growing at a staggering rate. In Vietnam, for example, visitor arrivals increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1990 and 2000. In 21 of the 25 hotspot countries, tourism increased by more than 100 percent in that same time period. Such growth could be of enormous benefit to desperately poor countries. But at what cost to local communities and biodiversity? One need not go far beyond the resort destination of Cancun, Mexico
, where numerous bird, marine and other animal species
were driven out when their habitat was paved over to make room for mass tourism, or the coast of the Mediterranean in Spain and Italy to see traditional livelihoods disrupted and nature destroyed by uncontrolled tourism. Even nature travel can have a devastating effect on the environment. In Africa, for example, uncontrolled nature tourism has been linked to a decline in survival rates among cheetahs, as large numbers of tourists clamor to see the cats hunting up close. As the cheetahs and their offspring are frightened off hard-won “kills,” their food is scavenged by hyenas, leaving the cheetah cubs with nothing to eat.
How tourism develops in the hotspots and wilderness areas, therefore, is of great consequence to the future of biodiversity conservation, as well as to the local people whose lives it will impact. That’s why it’s so vital to take ecotourism principles beyond site-based projects to a much larger scale. We’ve begun this process in Gabon. With the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund, we are helping the country build an economy based more on ecotourism and less on logging
or other extractive industries. As part of this initiative, several conservation organizations, including CI, worked with the government of Gabon to take 11 percent of its territory out of logging concessions and to create 13 new national parks, protecting millions of acres of rainforest. Gabon is one of the few places where primary rainforest extends all the way to the ocean
, where you can see large herds of elephants walking along the beach and gorillas
in the wild. We believe that Gabon could stand alongside East Africa or Central American countries such as Belize and Costa Rica
as one of the truly spectacular nature tourism destinations.
On the other side of the globe, in Mexico and Central America, an initiative called Mundo Maya is under way. CI has provided direction, in partnership with the National Geographic Society and Counterpart International, to the Inter-American Development Bank for this five-country nature and cultural heritage tourism initiative. Our objective is to ensure that ecotourism principles are built into the design phase of the project.
On an industry-wide basis, CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business is partnering with the cruise ship industry to address the impacts of one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors. CI also launched the World Legacy Awards (WLA) in partnership with National Geographic Traveler magazine to acknowledge excellence in sustainable tourism practices worldwide. Winners have included South Africa-based Wilderness Safaris. With 41 lodges in six different countries and annual revenues of $100 million, this is as close to a mainstream tourism enterprise as you will find guided by ecotourism principles. Already, Wilderness Safaris—a new CI partner in Botswana—has helped to put almost five million acres of natural habitat under protection. That’s a tangible conservation result from ecotourism and another way we’re connecting actual practices on the ground with the larger industry and providing model examples for others to follow.
Toward an uncertain but hopeful future
All of this sounds like ecotourism is leading the way to a promised land of sustainable economic activity and biodiversity conservation. It isn’t, at least not yet. In Gabon, for example, logging companies are ready to jump at any opportunity to get back inside the forests
to harvest old growth trees. But from Posadas Amazonas in Peru, to Il’Ngwesi Maasai Ecolodge in Kenya, to Sukau Rainforest Ecolodge in Borneo, the past 15 years have shown ecotourism can work. And from places like the Spanish Mediterranean, where high-density hotel developments are being replaced by lower-impact and more culturally appropriate accommodations, to the rapidly growing nature travel sector, it is clear that the larger industry is beginning to recognize that the old, mass tourism model is badly in need of an overhaul. That’s good news. Ecotourism principles can provide the direction the industry desperately needs, promoting practices that help to both alleviate poverty and conserve Earth’s most endangered ecosystems.
Your Travel Choice Makes a Difference
Choose your travel destination wisely and you'll not only have a great vacation—you'll also benefit conservation and support local communities. Learn about these and other ecotourism destinations by visiting CI's ecotourism site. Other excellent online travel resources include the World Legacy Awards site and the International Ecotourism Society.