This presentation was originally made in 1996 at the Coloquio Internacional sobre Ecoturismo. This particular conference taught me a great deal. As usual, the most memorable parts of the event were unplanned. This conference introduced me to the work of Jorge Chavez de la Peña. It was an honor to participate in this event. I would like to thank the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca, the Secretaria de Turismo, and the Comision Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo for inviting me to speak.
Simply put, people won’t go to parks if they don’t know they exist. What needs to be communicated? Here are some lessons learned.
For the past few years we have hosted Planeta.com. In the past three months I’ve begun research for two books on environmental travel and conservation in Honduras and Mexico.
This had lead to two seminal observations. The first struck me while visiting Chihuahua’s Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon):
1) Ecotourism is the canyon, the abyss between conservation and tourism.
Ecotourism as abyss – tourism agencies and officials generally do not place a high regard on environmental protection. The focus is on the utilization of resources, not their conservation. Conservationists, for the most part, simply hate people – let alone tourists… Of course, this excludes present company.
Our challenge is to convert the canyon or abyss of ecotourism into an attractive summit. This ought to be the goal for conservationists and tourism officials. Who would argue against development that is sustainable, or economic income that enters into the local economy and provides a financial incentive to resource protection?
2) When people talk about the need for sharing information, they usually mean they want to receive or control information.
Too often, we create plans for information sharing that go no further than design. Too often, resource centers and universities want total control of the information. Whereas in the past, information was a symbol of power, and bureaucrats would zealously protect what little data they had – creating in effect an information mono-culture, today we are seeing greater efficiency, potential and power in new alliances. We need to cross borders, whether geographic or institutional. Cross-sectoral alliances are the midwives of new, organic information ecosystems. Conservation data multiplied by tourism information multiplied by academic research becomes highly valuable. This new information need not always be a cheerleader. But the information must be reliable and consistent.
The Web is one way to share information in an interactive manner. Conferences, bulletin boards, informal conversations hold the keys to sharing information which will be profitable to all parties.
What needs to be shared?
Where are the parks? How does one travel to these areas? What conservation groups are working in these regions? What is the history of conservation? Are all protected areas ripe for ecotourism? If areas are too fragile for tourism, we need to be direct with the traveler. Environmentalists complain of the long time it takes for data to be recorded, reviewed and published. Are there better ways of providing more contemporary data?
The most frequent complaint of my friends in tourism is the lack of information on qualified environmental travel providers. Too often, the agencies that do exist either place greater emphasis on “adventure travel” than “ecotourism” or if they are geared toward environmental travels, their service is sporadic and when it takes places, is often of a poor quality.
One reason I am here is to find out who to recommend to my readers. If a traveler wants to visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve, Cuatro Cienegas or El Imposible – what is the best way to go that actually helps protect the environment? Information is needed to ensure accountability of the management and financing of protected areas.
What’s on Planeta?
The Planeta website was created in 1994 to archive issues of a quarterly newsletter. I’ve said that this work does not merely fill a niche but it creates one. The website educates the reader. It brings together environmentalists and the travelers.
Traditional coverage of Latin America is either sparkling white beaches – or earthquakes and Zapatistas. No wonder U.S. audiences are so confused by life south of our border.
Online the website, resources are cross-linked so that the tourist can gain a greater perspective on the environmental realities of a given destination and the conservationist – whether an arm-chair traveler or an avid bird watcher – can find the environmental tours or lodging in these areas. I estimate that the Planeta website will receive 250,000 hits this year, more than double than what it received in 1995. Given the increase in the web audience, it should be very easy to attract a million hits in 1997. (Editor’s note: In 2004, it receives about 20,000 hits per day)
Thanks to my work as an environmental journalist in Mexico and along the US/Mexico border, I’ve created environmental contact lists for government agencies, NGOs, academic centers and media. This proved to be so popular, I’ve since added contact lists for Central American countries. Currently, the best developed lists are for Honduras and Guatemala. This is not my undertaking alone – dozens of people were instrumental in the creation of these lists. This is one way of decentralizing communication – allow people with a common interest to discuss the issues on their own terms.
In addition, there are bibliographies, lists of travel providers, Spanish language schools and hundreds of pages on environmental destinations and news from the region. The site is growing rapidly, and I just added a calendar of events.
I have established links to several dozen websites throughout the world, and I credit everyone who has helped out. There’s the Tropical Conservation Newsbureau in Costa Rica; ELAN and various Mexican sites. With webmasters, fellow writers and travelers there is currently a tremendous boom of information about environmental tourism on the Internet. In the past few weeks we’ve added Hector Ceballos’ document, Estrategia de Ecoturismo Nacional, as well as materials on the COOPRENA network in Costa Rica, protected areas in Honduras and environmental contacts in Guatemala. Everyone does what they do best – consider this an Internet jam session.
Of course, we need to move beyond the electronic realm, and that’s why I publish El Planeta Plática in a print version and participate in various forums. We need to encourage discussions such as this as well as the publication of useful materials. There is a great need throughout the Americas for publications on ecotourism strategies, case studies and technical guides.
Ecotourism in Honduras and Mexico
Finally, a few words on information and ecotourism in Honduras and Mexico. I am very impressed with the development of community groups in Honduras which are taking an active role in the management of protected areas. It is a make or break situation. We see an unparalleled opportunity here for the development of community-based ecotourism. The groups need technical assistance more so than money. How do you build a trail? What kind of flora and fauna are present? And the most pressing question – how do you let people know that guides are available and have been trained in spectacular rural areas that are (so far) off the tourist trail?
Mexico’s success with tourism and its scientific expertise in biological sciences bode well for the development of ecotourism. Lacking are the details of environmental tourism. How does one visit Cuatro Cienegas? Yum Balam? El Triunfo? Travelers have seen the brochures and TV documentaries and have a desire to visit these places – the only question is how?