Photo: Dennis Church
From the archives
Ecotourism is a canyon or an abyss that separates conservationists on one side and tourism promoters on the other. If we want to understand ecotourism, we have to create a bridge. Ecotourism is a unique niche within the tourism market. It has commercial value and it illuminates the goals of where all forms of tourism can lead – environmental and cultural sensitivity and sustainability.
Successful ecotourism operations demand inter-sectoral support. Numerous failures have been made by individuals coming from either traditional tourism enterprises or conservation groups. They know how to “talk the talk” of ecotourism to themselves and to people within their organizations but they don’t know how to get along with other people.
While the details vary in their nuances, most definitions of ecotourism boil down to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria:
1) it provides for conservation measures
2) it includes meaningful community participation and
3) it is profitable and can sustain itself
Imagine these goals as being three overlapping circles. If a tourism project or service met all three criteria – hitting the bull’s eye in effect, you’d have unmistakable ecotourism. But what about the projects that are just a little off the mark? Are they genuine ecotourism projects? If they are not, does the lack of accreditation generate a move toward ecotourism or a dismissal of the entire process?
Even if they agree on the big picture, conservation groups and tour agencies have decidedly different interpretations of what constitutes ecotourism. And if they agree on the basic criteria, they weigh the components differently.
For example, projects heralded by conservation groups may have good conservation strategies, but tend to lack marketing savvy and knowledge of the tourism industry. Unfortunately all too often, the lack of such knowledge causes these projects to fail in the marketplace. Conversely, some large tourism businesses offer nature tours that are highly profitable but that include little or no community partnership or conservation assistance. Consequently, very few nature tourism projects can meet all three criteria. This model illuminates not only what is ecotourism, but what could be ecotourism. It allows individual or specific projects to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. They can figure out in which areas they need assistance. Successful ecotourism demands inter-sectoral alliances, comprehension and respect.
These three components of ecotourism are difficult to accomplish individually, let alone as a package. Moreover, they are difficult to measure or quantify. Assuming you wanted to know which are the “best ecotourism destinations,” the question must follow: How is one to judge?
Membership in groups as the Ecotourism Society requires only the payment of a membership fee. The Society does not certify a member’s compliance, nor does it endorse any member product or organization. Instead, the society requires members sign a pledge stating that the member will be a “responsible traveler or travel-related professional who conserves natural environments and sustains the well-being of local people.”
While this ethic is admirable and the self-regulatory system boasts the best of intentions, missing are any type of audits. There is no system of double-checking information and no “teeth” in which members are judged or penalized for misconduct.
West Virginia/Latin America Parallels
Participating in the wonderful conversations at the Growing the Business of Ecotourism conference, I think there are three main issues that West Virginia shares with Latin America in terms of developing ecotourism.
1) There is a perceived clash between traditional tourism and ecotourism. For good reason. Traditionally, the tourism industry has not empowered local communities or promoted small-scale effort. In Latin America we see this in Mexico’s Yucatan, Honduras’ Bay Islands and in Panama. But can things be different? In West Virginia we heard from the large ski resort that wants to find ways to improve its community relations.
2) Ecotourism offers an alternative to extractive industries. This will become more evident in the coming decade. Ecotourism provides a means towards economic diversification as well as sustainable development. In the Amazon, ecotourism is heralded as a more healthy choice compared to oil drilling or forest clearing. Coal extraction still ravages much of West Virginia’s mountains. If this continues, West Virginia will lose the scenic beauty that attracts the eco-minded tourists.
3) Communication needs to be improved. At a recent forum of the Mexican Ecotourism Network, one participant complained that we can’t have communication until there’s information. Consequently, there is a great need for forums such as “Growing the Business of Ecotourism in West Virginia” as well as informal virtual networks.
One example is the Mountain Forum which convened an online conference in 1998 and published the report Community-Based Mountain Tourism: Practices for Linking Conservation with Enterprise.
I am also pleased to take part in the creation of the West Virginia Ecotourism Network (defunct) and look forward to seeing the discussion develop in the new millennium.
While parallels are insightful, it’s also important to see what’s different between ecotourism development in West Virginia and in Latin America. West Virginia has a responsive state tourism department that solicits and promotes a myriad of forms of tourism. State parks boast world-class visitor centers and guide service is well-developed. There are visitor centers and tourism information kiosks. These are all great tools that educate and motivate travelers in understanding the ecology of the region.
Suggestions for locals
If you wish to promote yourselves in the ecotourism market, begin to think in terms of the region and the bioregion — what types of ecosystems are shared, across counties and across state lines?
Learn about watersheds, air quality, migratory birds and medicinal plants. Learn about what interests you and what will interest the visitor. Educate yourself and share what you learn with others.
In commercial terms, thinking regionally works in terms of promoting your services to national and international visitors who pay more attention to natural divisions, rather than state or county boundaries.
Be proud of what’s local. Show off what’s in your backyard. If you don’t know the names of flora and fauna – ask! Conservation groups and government offices can provide answers and educational materials for yourself and your clients. You can even prepare your own pamphlets or small guidebooks so that travelers not only arrive but stay longer than they expected. They might even come back.
Opportunity to meet John Shores!