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Defining Ecotourism ... Latin America Style
by Ron Mader


Publication date: 1995


The following are rough notes from an August 1995 presentatio at the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers conference, held in Austin, Texas.


I publish the Planeta newsletter. I'm not bothered by the fact that my English language publication has a title in Spanglish. Living in the borderlands, Spanglish is common. Plus, living in Mexico City from 1992-1993, I became accustomed to hybrid titles like El Bujo Taquieria y I Can't Believe It's Yogurt!

Nor do I mind challenging readers who either a policy journal or a tourism cheerleader. covers both environmental news as well as tourism. Too often we leave the rainforests and the rivers in the hands of "policy specialists" instead of people who get out into and enjoy nature.

Carol Cespedes has asked me to briefly describe and define ecotourism. Perhaps it is possible to rate tourism destinations. I'd also suggest defining the various groups of eco travelers. The point here is to improve our environment, and that requires a dynamic form of education and communication.


John Shores wrote an article published in the February 1995 issue of Planeta that offered a ratings systems for ecotourism.

Level 0 or the entry level of ecotourism requires that the travelers be exposed to or made aware of the fragility of the ecosystems they have come to enjoy. This is the very lowest "awareness" threshold. Incidental nature travel would usually qualify at this level.

Level 1 ecotourism requires that a net positive flow of monetary support occur between the traveling ecotourist and the ecosystems visited. Financial earmarks, whether airport departure taxes or designations of a portion of land travel costs, would qualify at this level.

Level 2 requires that the ecotourist engage in a personal way in supporting the environment. Some ecotourists plant trees, others participate in litter cleanups.

Level 3 requires certifying that the specific tour system is benign to the environment. The system should include the international air travel as well as on-site transport and accommodation. Level 3 requires demonstrating that the net effect of the traveler's presence is positive or at least neutral.

Level 4 requires demonstrating that the net effect of the travelers is positive. On-site efforts use appropriate technology, low energy consumption, recycling, organic agriculture, sustainable harvesting methods, and the travelers make a personal contribution to ecosystem restoration. These balance less environmentally benign aspects of the larger travel system that might involve air travel, stays in luxury hotels, and excessive water or energy consumption.

A perfect Level 5 would be a trip where the entire system was operating in an environmentally sound way. The trip would not be advertised in non-recyclable magazines, or deluge households with third-class mail solicitations. Transportation must be environmentally benign. Heating and air- conditioning of accommodations would be solar-based and low-impact. Foods and souvenirs must be produced in sustainable ways.


Ecotourism is a lot like etiquette. In a way, most of our talk is about what we should be doing instead of what we are doing.

Ecotourism or nature-based travel or eco tours are a response both from committed individuals as well as a profit-hungry tourism industry. In Mexico you have green jet skis. Is this a form of ecotourism? Not one that I would promote.

Mexico is jumping onto the hottest growing segment of the world tourism market -- ecotourism. The options are limitless, but shouldn't be confused with short-term ploys to make a quick peso. If you want to see the future of Mexican ecotourism, look further south.

Costa Rica's major income comes not from industry or agriculture but from nature-based tourism and ecotourism. Apparently, tourists are no longer content to lie on sun-soaked beaches and meditate to the sound of crashing waves and Michael Jackson tunes, especially when native birds sing their choruses in the nearby forests. Eco travelers don't expect air-conditioned suites; they want to immerse themselves in the adventure of getting to know a particular place.

But if we interpret ecotourism not just nature-based tourism, but as tourism that assists in the conservation of natural resources, its usefulness expands. Its profitability can assist local projects and help explain scientific concepts such as biodiversity. Mexico, for example, is known as a mega-diversity country. Only Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Indonesia have a greater number of species.

Mexican tour operators, long accustomed to heralding megaprojects like Acapulco and Cancun, now are discovering profit potential in Mexico's lush natural resources -- the Sea of Cortez, the dunes of Cuatro Cienegas and the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve.

Previous tourism campaigns promoted images of Mexico that were selected because they appeared like European or U.S. cities. Now they are promoting destinations that resemble no other place on the planet.

Before last year, it was virtually impossible to get a map of Mexico's national parks and biosphere reserves. Previously, these places were charted only in official papers and scientific literature. Unlike other Latin American countries, Mexico paid only scholarly attention to its natural resources. This is changing.

Last year, Mexico's Tourism Secretariat (SECTUR) and Mexico's Environment Secretariat (SEDESOL, now SEMARNAP), collaborated on a color map of these areas. The campaign slogan: "ŐDejate conquistar por nuestros Parques Nacionales!" (Let our national parks win you over!) is creative. Meanwhile, state and foreign offices need to be informed of this option.

Recently, I paid a trip to Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. I stopped at the city tourism office and asked what natural attractions were to be found. I was told I couldn't find local parks or local artesenia for that matter - "We are an industrialized state," said the indignant clerk.

Nuevo Leon does have many splendid natural resources - from the Cumbres de Monterrey to Chapinque, a city park. Ecotourism is slowly developing here. Nearby you can find cloud forests, wetlands and the Chihuahuan Desert. As travelers show interest, no doubt the tourism officials will catch up to them.

In Quintana Roo, SECTUR promotes the low-impact, rustic tourism in the Sian Ka'an and Yum Balam biosphere reserves, just two hours away from Cancun. Tourism can promote not only the guardianship of the reserves, but scientific investigations and environmental education.

While Mexico develops its natural attractions, we should all be aware of the problems inherent in promoting eco trips. Are the local gems ready for increased traffic? You won't win a trip to the El Cielo cloud forest in the state of Tamaulipas on a game show. And maybe that's a good thing.

Countries with increased ecotourism such as Costa Rica and Ecuador have upped the entrance prices to the parks and reserves, often leaving local travelers unable to afford the journey. There are other problems. Do we all need to climb up the Mesoamerican pyramids? What luxuries will we insist on bringing to the rainforests? Golf courses? It's being proposed in Monteverde.



Equal attention should be paid to the quality of eco travelers as to ecotourism.

How can we provide support, education and information so that travelers are prepared for their trips? What do tourism destinations want? I'm reminded of a beleaguered Vancouver World Expo host who after zillions of faceless visitors paraded by, traded the word "tourist" with "terrorist." Ecolodges and ecotours need educated, informed tourists, not game show winners who have no idea where the plane is bound.

I started looking at ecotourism in the late 80s. "Ecotourism" was a buzzword then and it's a buzzword in the 90s. What are we going to make of it? This is an exciting time as we have an increased travel and communications throughout the Americas. How we use ecotourism may define not only environmental issues, but political, economic and cultural relations as well. What could be a greater opportunity?


Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning website.


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