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Goodness Sells: A Modest Proposal for the Rebranding of Ecotourism in the United States
by Frances Figart

PLANETA WIKI

Publication date: 2005

 

FLICKR ALBUM: Visitors, aka Tourists
SLIDESHOW


Editor's Note: This featire led to the development of the Practicing Sustainable Tourism Panel at the March 2006 National Tour Association Spring Meet.


"Wanted: Ecotourism Sales Manager... We are looking for that individual who has the skills to develop this new market, build a database, and turn these efforts into 'booked business' for our tourism partners and liaison and develop new ecotourism events for the city."

When I read this ad on The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) website, I was ecstatic. Because ecotourism is still a new concept to many professionals in the U.S. travel industry, it was exciting to hear of a destination marketing organization in Texas -- and a National Tour Association member -- taking bold steps to develop new product in this sustainable market niche.

But when I checked in with Linda Fort, CTP, director of destination sales at the Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau to learn more, I found out something rather sad. "It turns out we will be calling this position 'nature-based tourism' as opposed to 'ecotourism,'" she said. Why? "The ecotourists are often perceived as 'tree huggers,' as the media has not always reported their activities in a positive light. So we are stressing nature-based tourism. We want to make sure we don't get involved in environmental issues; we want to send the message that our city is nature-friendly, and we have a variety of events for all nature lovers."

Though disheartening, Fort's decision to rename her new sales position bears testament to no shortsightedness on her part, but rather to the greater marketing issues faced by the travel industry today when trying to speak the words "ecotourism" and "United States" in the same breath. What does it mean when a city has to leave ecology out of the picture in order to be perceived as nature-friendly? What does it mean when a CVB can't advertise for an "ecotourism sales manager" without risking being labeled environmentally extremist?


DEFINING ECOTOURISM

Before investigating these questions further, it's only sound practice to agree upon a working definition of the term "ecotourism."

TIES defines ecotourism succinctly as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people."

It further espouses that those who participate in ecotourism activities should:
• Minimize impact
• Build environmental/cultural awareness and respect
• Provide positive experiences for visitors and hosts
• Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
• Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
• Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental and social climate
• Support international human rights and labor agreements

In a comparative study of ecotourism policy in the Americas by Steve Edwards, Bill McLauglin and Sam Ham for The Organization of American States (OAS), out of the 25 government tourism agencies that chose to define "ecotourism," 21 chose to create their own definition.

While the details vary, most definitions of the term boil down to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria:
1. it offers an element of environmental conservation
2. it provides for some level of meaningful community participation
3. it is profitable and can sustain itself over time

I choose (like all the other individualists in this field of study) to augment these with a fourth criterion:

4. it incorporates an educational or interpretive component

Collectively these four will be the type of tourism I refer to when I say "ecotourism."

ECOTOURISM'S BRAND IDENTITY

A word's definition is one thing. But its connotation -- what it is perceived to mean by those who encounter it, in whatever context -- more closely resembles what many who work in the marketing field would call a "brand." A brand is a network of associations representing the sum of all experiences between an individual and a product or concept. Popular definitions hold that a brand should be a deliberate result of strategic considerations on the part of some group of professionals about a product or concept's value (paraphrase of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell).

What, then, is the brand identity of ecotourism in the United States?

"I don't think ecotourism has a brand awareness with the general public at this point," said Mac T. Lacy, publisher and cofounder of The Group Travel Leader in Lexington, Ky. "The term and the product are still too new in the marketplace to have any kind of general awareness other than with those in the industry and a very limited number of consumers who are already buying the product."

Although Lacy credits travel professionals with a general awareness of the term, their impression seems to be nebulous, at best. Barbara J. Bowman, director of sales, Grand Junction Visitor Convention Bureau, Grand Junction, Colorado, concedes the term is very muddy for her. "Sometimes ecotourism can have a very negative connotation for people: I've actually heard someone say, 'I'm not going on some tree-hugging tour,'" she says.

Like her fellow DMO Linda Fort in Texas, Bowman is under pressure not to use the term. "I have taken some real heat for even trying to promote ecotourism in this area, from the conservative community and even from the tourism office itself." She echoes Fort's sentiment when she says the prevailing attitude is that people don't want to be connected with this form of tourism.

"Ecotourism smacks of biodegradable soaps and composting toilets, of 'the only thing you want to leave behind is footsteps' and 'you take out what you take in,'" said Bruce Beckham, CTP, executive director of Tourism Cares for Tomorrow in Canton, Mass. "I think ecotourism has been branded as being green tourism, having to do with the ecology of the earth."

If Beckham's assessment is on target, we'd expect someone who leads tours that educate people about ecology to call them ecotours. But ecologist, wildlife researcher and leader of natural history tours for the Maine Audubon Society, Smithsonian Study Tours and National Wildlife Federation, Chris Lewey says, "I never use the term ecotourism associated with anything that I do. When I hear 'ecotourism,' I think of travel to really remote places with an underlying theme of sustaining a third world economy by providing them with tourism for dollars so that they don't exploit their resources."

Thus, the spectrum of brand associations for what type of person might be an ecotourist ranges from the extremes of tree-hugging environmentalist to sociopolitical activist. And it follows that those who espouse the moderate middle ground of pure ecological sensitivity might be inclined to resist the label "ecotourist" because of its other, more extreme connotations.

"It seems to me that when people hear the word 'ecotourism' they immediately get a mental picture of someplace far away: the Galapagos Islands in an open launch, everybody dressed in multi-pocketed vests with cameras and binoculars hanging around their necks, or maybe a soaking-wet hike up an insect-infested mountainside on Maui."

This is H. Peter Jorgensen speaking. Jorgensen is an NTA member who understands and is doing ecotourism in the United States. His attraction tells tourists the story of American agriculture and the expanding capacity of American farms to feed the nation and the world.

The Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, comprised of 37 counties in northeast Iowa, was formed to support the interpretation of the region's heritage to its residents and visitors. It has all the elements in our working definition of ecotourism: environmental conservation, community participation, profitability/sustainability, and education/interpretation.

"In short, people think ecotourism is for diehard environmentalists and tree huggers who can afford to travel to far-flung exotic places," Jorgensen said. "But they don't realize that when they took the kids to Yellowstone Park, they were participating in ecotourism. Or when they visited Uncle Merle and Aunt Betty on their Iowa farm and saw how the environment of that farm was managed sustainably, they were ecotourists."


HOME AND AWAY

Thus it would seem that ecotourism's warped brand identity in the United States has, at least for some, obscured its true definition. But why?

Part of the reason lies in an aspect hit upon by Jorgensen and Lewey: that ecotourism is thought of as "away." There is no dearth of evidence to the fact that every other part of the world has developed this product to a greater degree than the United States, most particularly the Latin American countries, from whence the term originates. With such strong connotations as a remote, third-world endeavor, often with sociopolitical overtones, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to think of ecotourism as an activity that can occur in the U.S.

Yet, as we have seen, the U.S. travel professional is picking up on this product and making some effort to develop it. Otherwise, why would Linda Fort at Corpus Christi have strategized to create a position to manage sales for this market niche? What's happening to cause "ecotourism" to pick up steam and appear on the U.S. travel industry's radar screen?

"I argue it's a result of Sept. 11," said Ron Mader, Latin American correspondent for Transitions Abroad and founder of Planeta.com, based in Oaxaca, Mexico.

"If U.S. travelers are more reluctant to travel abroad [as a result of Sept. 11], then we bring those attractions here. Witness the great success of Las Vegas, where one can visit replicas of Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and European castles. The same principle holds true with botanical gardens; in Cleveland you can trek through replicas of ecosystems from Costa Rica and Madagascar. But I think the bug-a-boo remains the word 'ecotourism.' Where there are great examples of ecotourism in the United States, we don't really call it ecotourism. If you talk about nature travel or visits to the national parks, the image is terrific. If you limit the discussion to 'ecotourism,' the term is used exclusively for international travel."

How have we come by an image of ecotourism that is so far off its actual definition? To answer that, let's look at how we get our information in this country: the media.

MEDIA'S ROLE IN BRANDING

To what extent have the media contributed to propagating the existing ecotourism brand?

I was recently granted an interview with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, whom I have long admired. Davis is the ethnobotanist and anthropologist upon whose adventurous spirit the character of Indiana Jones was loosely based. In speaking with Davis, my goal was to give Courier readers a broader understanding of tourism's place in our culture. Hence, the interview was titled: An anthropological view of Travel and Tourism. Talking with Davis was fascinating and I learned a great deal from his perspective on modern tourism, especially in the case of travel to exotic destinations such as the Amazon and Tibet. Davis advocated tour operators educating their clients about other cultures before they attempt to visit them. All of this was constructive and helpful, as you can see for yourself in the August 2005 issue of Courier. However, the most disheartening part of the interview came when I asked Davis what he thought about ecotourism. This is what he said:

"I think that in principle, the idea of ecotourism, which is to have minimal impact -- to go to celebrate natural wonders as opposed to commercial extravaganzas constructed for the industry -- is a wonderful idea, and the idea of seeking knowledge through travel can only be beneficial for the world. What I find is that there is a correlation between sensitivity and difficulty of access; the harder you have to work to get to a place, the more interesting the interaction or sensitive the encounter. But I've always found that "ecotourism" as a term is kind of a conceit because it maintains the assumption that somehow if you travel with a backpack, polar fleece and a Nikon, as opposed to loud Bermuda shorts, a funny hat, sneakers and an old Kodak, you're somehow a different kind of tourist. I think that much of what ecotourism does is simply increase penetration of the hinterland, and I think ecotourism gets into serious problems in the realm of culture because it invariably then becomes a form of voyeurism. I've seen ecotourism operations that are set up in a competitive fashion with the goal of "contacting unknown peoples." I think it's extraordinarily problematic and exploitative in its essence. With that said, it's also important to note that tourism, when practiced sensitively, can be an incredible source of empowerment for local people -- and not just economically."

Now Davis is a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in ethnobotany; his curriculum vita is the only one I've ever seen that is 42 pages long. He's written a dozen books, lived among cultures all over the globe and spoken to audiences in the highest echelons of education. While his focus is, of course, on international examples of ecotourism, and ours is U.S.-based, if his perception of ecotourism is negatively skewed, that means there is a real problem -- not only with the way the term is used, but also with the types of activities that are carried out worldwide in the name of ecotourism. Davis' "first contact" example was one that I myself had read an article about in a popular outdoor adventure magazine. This type of coverage suggests that not only have the media helped to propagate the brand of ecotourism in the United States, they have sensationalized it at that.

"The brand of ecotourism is not accurately portrayed in the media," agrees Ed Hall, CTP, president and CEO of the Rochester Visitors Association, Rochester, N.Y. "In our country it's very muddled. A lot of people embrace the term as a marketing term thinking it has some real warm and fuzzies connected to it, but not necessarily what I consider to be the real essence of ecotourism, which has to do with walking gently in the ecosystem that you're visiting and not destroying it in the process of enjoying it."

Jorgensen says the media tend to perpetuate the prevailing notion of ecotourism because "exotic" sells. "Nature shows like much of what's on the Discovery Channel tend to try to attract viewers with stories that are drawn from locales that most people are not going to see and get into situations most people frankly would not want to be in," he said. "I recently saw a film involving being in the middle of a herd of one and half million wildebeests on a riverbank where the migrating ungulates were being snatched and eaten alive by giant crocodiles. Fascinating stuff, but I'm probably not going to choose to endure the hardships that were suffered by that film crew."

Another NTA tour supplier member, John Shaffer, director of marketing and sales for Luray Caverns in Luray, Va., agrees and says, "the image of ecotourism currently presented in the media is too narrowly interpreted. Cruises in the Galapagos Islands are not all there is to ecotourism; Acadia National Park in Maine is also concerned about the environment when it takes tour groups into the wilderness. Some of the coverage for ecotours [presents them as] high-dollar tours with only luxury opportunities and [focuses on] the fact that they are exotic in nature."

Certainly, then, coverage in the U.S. media of exotic, overseas ecotours, whether or not they have the four criteria of our working definition, does play a part in why the brand of ecotourism is askew.


THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT AND MONEY

Shaffer says Luray Caverns has practiced sustainability and ecotourism for over a hundred years. They were fortunate, he says, to have in their hometown Shenandoah National Park, which shared its best practices and resources for sustainable usage. Together, the cave attraction and the national park taught themselves and each other how to practice ecotourism.

"We did this by protecting the assets that we have and going to all kinds of means to orient our employees as well as our visitors as to how they can enjoy this natural attraction in a way that preserves it and allows it to be just as good if not better for future generations," he said. "We own our attraction, but we would not do anything to harm it. This philosophy of sustainability and taking care of assets is much more widespread than is apparent from the media and than the public realizes. All natural attractions have to have this as one of the top concerns of their management. The days of exploiting a natural attraction for pure profit are long gone; those people are out of business because they've exhausted the product or because the public are purely revolted at the methods with which they handle those attractions."

When asked to provide an example of ecotourism in the United States, many travel professionals and industry experts immediately say: the National Parks Service, where the money is reinvested into the park conservation and educational programs. But not all park goers can be ecotourists.

"The sensitive areas in our country are dominated by the Park Service," said Rochester CVB's Ed Hall. "But you have the absolute dilemma of not putting a velvet rope around the parks so that they can only be accessed by fit backpackers. You've got to facilitate the ability of all types of people to enjoy the asset and at the same time protect it."

Joel Frank, chief of tourism, Northeast Region, National Park Service, Philadelphia, Pa., deals daily with this dilemma. "It is vital to engage the end users and make them understand that since the parks are theirs, they have a responsibility to be involved in helping to preserve and protect them," he said. "I believe that the successful implementation and marketing of a 'voluntourism' system within the NPS will allow people to take ownership and develop an attitude that 'this is my place and I need to do what is necessary to protect it.' And it is my hope that this newly found connection and personal accountability to nature will go beyond national park borders and be incorporated into their everyday lives as global citizens."

What does Frank think about the brand of ecotourism in the United States?

"We have to be careful that [ecotourism] doesn't become another buzzword, like 'organic' or the public may think that going to a park makes them an ecotourist. When they hear the word 'ecotourism,' the public thinks ziplines through the rainforest. The travel professional, on the other hand, will think Tauck."

Tauck World Discovery of Norwalk, Conn., is indeed one of the most eco-friendly tour operators in the United States. The NTA tour operator provides adventure tours to top global ecotour destinations and guests have been involved in ecological initiatives and endeavors while they are traveling on tours, primarily through voluntourism, which they invented. Tauck's relationship with America's National Parks began in 1926, when founder Arthur Tauck, Sr. first brought guests to Great Smoky Mountains National Park… in his Studebaker. Today, the company's 30 most popular North American itineraries result in 120,000 park visits annually to more than 50 national parks across the country. And yet, ironically, like ecologist Chris Lewey who provides lecture series for Tauck, the company does not brand the term "ecotourism." That's partly because they are a mass-market operator, but it's also partly because they don't see their tours as truly fulfilling every element of an ecotour proper, and they don't want to merely use the term as a label, according to Phil Otterson, executive vice president, external affairs and global alliances.

"If you want to talk about national parks, fine. But if you want to talk about ecotourism, let's talk about the Galapagos," Otterson said. "Let's talk about governments and countries and local entities that have a true concern for ecotourism, and work towards change within the current U.S. government that has placed concern about the environment on the back burner."

Otterson isn't the only person who's convinced our government, despite the noble efforts of its parks system, stands between the U.S. and the development of real ecotourism product. David Cogswell, a senior editor at Travel Weekly in New York City, espouses a view shared by many:

"Our popular culture in the U.S. is formed in large measure by the big corporate media conglomerates, and they very consciously massage the public mind to favor a corporate agenda, which is anti-environment, among other things. The corporate agenda is essentially anti-democratic, anti-free market and anti-public property.

The environment is legally public property. Dating back to Roman law it is the commons, and it belongs to all the people. Corporations want to privatize everything so that they can take freely whatever they can make money on and then dump their waste products back into the public sector for the rest of us to clean up out of our tax payments. So when it comes to media, it is not a level playing field for environmental issues. You have to find ways to get around the natural anti-environmental bias of the corporate media. The key is the bottom line. Corporations don't 'believe' in anything but making money. Though they are essentially anti-environment in their very existence, the one value that supersedes all others is maximizing profit. So the way to get them on your side is to show how it can be profitable."

Tourism Cares for America's Bruce Beckham agrees that "it really all does come down to the money," but he views the issue more in terms of the importance of giving back. "From a tourism standpoint, there are very few philanthropic organizations that are not looking for some kind of return on investment, even if it is just feeling good about themselves. People just don't throw their money at something based on the fact that it's the right thing to do. They always have to figure out what am I going to get, and part of that is feeling good about themselves because they've done the right thing."

No matter what your views of government, philanthropy or big business, it does make sense to look at ways to show potential stakeholders that ecotourism can be a viable long-term investment. But that's an uphill battle as long as the current brand image of ecotourism is inaccurate, as long as a vice president at a large tour operator like Tauck can honestly say: "There is no such thing as ecotourism in my professional opinion in the United States." Otterson adds that "of course that's a euphemism and it isn't true, but compare whatever we are doing here to what's happening in other countries and the difference absolutely amazing. The flip side of this is, that's the opportunity. Now you have nothing, so how much worse can it get?"

Before the U.S. can begin to compete for ecotourism business in the global marketplace, I believe it is the joint responsibility of the travel professional and the travel media to change the perceived image of ecotourism in the United States, to rebrand ecotourism.

THE JOURNALIST'S RESPONSIBILITIES

First and foremost, journalists from all types of backgrounds and areas of expertise must take it upon themselves to learn the basics about ecotourism and sustainability before they can hope to accurately portray these subjects in the media. Learning includes studying and being aware of the proper definitions of the terms involved, so that these understandings will be conveyed to the consumer.

Ecologist Chris Lewey brings up an example of how the media often confuse or conflate terms related to "environment" and "ecology."

"Environmentalism brings in [humans] as far as having a perspective on what should be done, how it should be done, how we interact with the environment, whereas ecology is the science behind it that has nothing to do with decisions on recycling or land use planning – the two are totally different. Environmentalists might cite ecological law and theory in support of or to refute something. But it often stands out as I'm reading something [in the media] that it's really not clear the way people are using those terms."

Lewey stresses that the media's role is crucial here because "educating people influences the decisions that they make."

Kim Whytock, a tourism strategist operating Kim Whytock and Associates, Inc., based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, points out some misunderstandings about ecotourism have been perpetuated by the media.

"Media and the marketing people have perhaps contributed to the confusion by choosing to use the word 'ecotourism' to their own particular end and as a promotional word describing the 'what' of travel as opposed to the 'how' of travel. Ecotourism is more a principled type of travel that can [take the form of] many types of experiences and [occur] in all places, downtown New York to the Grand Canyon."

It is therefore the second responsibility of the journalist to strive not to slant stories toward a bias, angle or agenda that is defined by his or her own needs and interests and that therefore begs the question. This can happen when editors or publishers have expectations that stories will fit into a certain 'beat' or even agenda. When an ecotourism story doesn't fit the mold, it may be left out altogether.

"While a personal experience with understanding a farm's environment or a well-interpreted nature walk at Effigy Mounds National Monument here in Iowa can be a deeply satisfying one," Jorgensen says, "the story may not grab the attention of the reporter who wants to get his/her piece in the magazine or on the screen."
Sometimes Jorgensen's ecotourism work in Iowa has been overlooked by members of the media who are under pressure not to contribute to Iowa's image as a farming state.

Ron Mader sees Jorgensen's product as a perfect example of the kind of story that "straddles two different desks. Is it a tourism story, or is it an environmental story? Because it involves tourism, the eco desk turns its nose at it. And because it's eco, the tourism desk turns its nose at it. I think this is where ecotourism really falls through the net."

Finally, the journalist is responsible to cover ecotourism practices in a way that lends them credibility.

"It really is a matter of semantics, or the framing of the words," said Wendy Sailors, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association in Anchorage, Alaska, which uses the term 'ecotourism' in its brochures and on its Web site. "People seem to get this idea that with ecotourism that it's an extreme green thing. In Alaska, I don't know that the media is using that term or really putting it out there in a way that makes it a valid trade."

The media play a determining role in promoting and marketing ecotourism as well as in the community economic development ecotourism should aim to improve, according to Milagro Espinoza, a San José, Costa Rica-based communications specialist in sustainable tourism with the Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation organization. "The media can lend credibility to ecotourism in the eyes of the consumer, so stories in the press about ecotourism destinations can truly help promote the concept."

Planeta's Mader insists that the travel media in particular need to cover the serious issues. "I'd like to see a re-imagining of media that connects environmental journalism and travel writing," he said. "Too often travel media put a positive spin on their features and environmental media cover negative effects. The question in my mind is, 'How do we get away from the sensationalism, report on what's wrong, but provide some sort of continuity?' It would be good to see a serious mix."

Jorgensen agrees. "The media give a lot of press when an activist does some stunt like living in a redwood tree or running their power boat in front of an oil tanker, but give a big yawn when a farmer starts talking about conservation tillage and planting systems or how she is installing a digester system to turn cattle waste into methane fuel to heat and light the barn," he said. "My sense is [the media] needs a much broader understanding of just what ecology as a tour experience can mean."

The media can only get that broader understanding with help from the travel professional.


TRULY PRACTICING ECOTOURISM

The travel professional's responsibilities are myriad; I focus here on seven of the most important. First and foremost is practicing true ecotourism according to our working definition, not just saying you do it.

"The travel professional sees ecotourism as another marketing term, another selling point, like 'rack and pinion steering,'" said the National Park System's Joel Frank. "Are you truly an ecotourism company or is this just a tagline, like 'new and improved'? There is no standard to adhere to, so there is no repercussion if you don't do it. We've got the basis of what ecotourism means, but now we need to take the steps to get there; it's time for action. What type of action will differ for each company or organization."

What Frank is getting at is vital – and complex. In order to practice ecotourism in the true sense, each company or organization needs to define for itself what that should mean, and then hold itself accountable to that definition. For example, the reason I added the educational/interpretive element to my definition of ecotourism is that so many travel professionals held it up to me as the most important value of an ecotour from their perspective.

"Ecotourism has to bring an education and an understanding of fragile ecosystems – and if it works well, it makes people an ambassador when they go home to try to save them," said Rochester's Ed Hall. "If it doesn't do that, if it doesn't bring an appreciation for the sensitive nature of the interdependency of the living system, then it really fails."

Once a company or organization defines the term for itself, it also needs to establish a code of ethics and some working goals or guidelines for practicing ecotourism – and then adhere to them. It needs to make itself accountable.

A great example comes from the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association (AWRTA), a members-driven trade association formed to be a collective voice for wilderness-dependent businesses. AWRTA advocates for the sustainability of Alaska's natural and cultural resources, responsible tourism and tourism planning for communities. AWRTA members abide by the voluntary ecotourism guidelines adopted by the membership in 1995.

AWRTA ECOTOURISM GUIDELINES

1. Businesses seek environmentally sustainable economic growth while minimizing visitor impacts on wildlands, wildlife, Native cultures, and local communities by offering literature, briefings, leading by example, taking corrective action or other appropriate means.

2. Travel modes and facilities used maintain a low impact on the natural environment; tour use is sustainable over time without significantly altering the resource or negatively affecting the experience.

3. Businesses provide direct benefits to the local economy and local inhabitants thereby providing an incentive for local support and preservation of wild areas and wildlife habitat.

4. Businesses seek appropriate means to minimize their effects on the environment in all phases of their operations including office practices.

5. Businesses ensure that managers, staff and contract employees know and participate in all aspects of company policy to prevent impacts on the environment, Native cultures, and local communities.

6. There is an educational emphasis and purposeful desire for travelers to learn about the natural and cultural history of the places they visit.

7. There is a formula for the business and guests to contribute to local non-profit efforts for environmental protection.

8. The travel is in the spirit of appreciation, participation, and sensitivity. At some point, a tour group becomes too large to be considered "ecotourism."

PROPER MARKETING

The second responsibility incumbent upon the travel professional: once you are really doing ecotourism, marketing it properly – and that means telling success stories. Once again, an excellent example is H. Peter Jorgensen with Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area.

Long interested in environmental and sustainable issues, Jorgensen has been extremely resourceful in creating an agritourism Mecca, capitalizing on Iowa's most natural asset: its farming community. His latest project is working with a group of 300 farmers (Practical Farmers of Iowa) to create a themed "eco-farming" tour that will focus on sustainable agricultural methods. "These are folks who try to find ways to work within the natural systems with very humane raising practices and gentle management. They all have one thing in mind, which is, 'Can we farm without polluting the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico?'"

He tells some amazing stories about this endeavor, including one about a farmer who tried farming with modern land management methods that included straightening a stream on his property. "But he had two little kids, and when he straightened out this stream, he noticed he couldn't show his kids the bird populations that once lived there: they were gone. He also noticed that when there was a dry period, there was no moisture in the soil: it was all gone." So he undertook a project called "My sins against the Wapsipinicon," the river that runs through his area, and restored the kinks and the bends in the wetland, which cost a lot. The results were that his crops had more resistance to drought, there were more of the types of insects that were good for the crops – and the birds came back!

This is the type of story that travel professionals need to work to get before the press.

"It's all in how you spin it," said Colorado DMO Barb Bowman. "Ecotourism gets a bad rap, because of the marketing. We need use the media and marketing tools we have to educate our public about what it really means."

A good example of marketing ecotourism success stories is BEST Practices, a publication of Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel that was developed by The Conference Board and the World Travel and Tourism Council. It highlights successful business practices utilized by travel and tourism companies that advance their business objectives while enhancing the social and economic well-being of destination communities.


RECOGNIZING STAKEHOLDERS

A third responsibility of the travel professional is recognizing and giving credit to the multiple stakeholders involved in the development process as well as the sustainability of ecotourism.

One example is provided by Sailors of AWRTA, who is participating in The Arctic Project, which has six training modules that correspond to six guidelines similar to our AWRTA's ecotourism guidelines. "The community one is the most interesting to me because it talks about not just being involved in or caring about the community, but buying locally when you are there," she said. "And it's not always going to be the best price, but in the long term, you're building those relationships."

For Sailors and others trying to effect change, a big question is: How can you convince people that buying locally is the best long-term option?

One exemplary answer suggested by Kim Whytock is The Sustainable Tourism Association of Canada (STAC), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that acts as a clearinghouse of information and policies for the sustainable tourism industry in Canada. Using a quality assurance program, STAC works with stakeholders to develop, enhance and promote the sustainable nature-based tourism industry in Canada.

Another good example is the many awards programs our industry creates to reward companies that are doing good. Parks Canada's Sustainable Tourism Award, for instance, reflects the emphasis this parks system places on many of the values often associated with ecotourism. The criteria established for the Parks Canada Sustainable Tourism Award reflect the three pillars of sustainable tourism development: economic viability, environmental sustainability, and cultural appropriateness. Recipients of this award make a contribution to practicing and promoting sustainable tourism in Canada by:

• Demonstrating a commitment to excellence and encouraging an appreciation of, and respect for, Canada's natural, cultural and aesthetic heritage;
• Striving to achieve tourism development in a manner which harmonizes economic objectives with the protection and enhancement of Canada's natural and cultural heritage;
• Cooperating with colleagues and the tourism industry in promoting sustainable development;
• Offering tourism products and services that are consistent with community values and the surrounding environment; and
• Fostering greater awareness of the economic, social, cultural and environmental significance of tourism.

Recognizing the importance of encouraging studies related to sustainable tourism among future tourism industry entrepreneurs and employees, as part of the award, a $1,000 scholarship is given every year to a student entering his or her final year of tourism-related studies at a representative university or college in each of Canada's five regions -- Western Canada, Ontario, Québec, Atlantic Canada and Northern Canada.

Shaffer believes more U.S. travel professionals could benefit from some type of appreciation or accreditation program. "We need some sort of indication that a company has taken the time and effort to learn about sustainability and the fragile environment. To me that's a plus in the way you talk to the tour patron; they want to go with someone who is sensitive to the issues that we all are concerned about."

Certification programs are another means of recognition, but a caveat should be heeded: certification that is too rigid and standardized may defeat ecotourism's goal of sustainability. "In efforts to standardize operations, most ecotourism certification programs contradict one of the main components of ecotourism: local control," Mader says. "In fact, most stakeholders have been left out of the process. Certification of tourism is not a 'market-driven' option and therefore has little value as a tool for sustainability. If certification has value, it will be in certifying the accomplishments of consultants, NGOs and government leaders in addition to local companies and hotels."


WORKING WITH MEDIA 101

There are basic guidelines for working with the media that comprise a fourth responsibility for the travel professional. These include building relationships with members of the media based on trust and understanding, so that when a travel writer needs to get a quote from an industry expert about ecotourism, they will automatically turn to you.

It's always good practice to show your media friends that you have some understanding of their work and what they want to offer their audiences. "Ecotourism 'experts' need to be sensitive to media demands, ensuring that information is provided in a timely basis and that it is . . . fun," says Mader.

"Readers don't want gloom-and-doom or, even worse, boring travel sections."
Understanding and working with journalists' deadlines is key; as an editor, there is nothing worse than getting the information you really need, but having it come to late to be a part of the story. Understanding the way writers work also entails communicating with them in the form they prefer. Ask your media friends which way they'd like you get in touch with them; often e-mail is preferable because the telephone interrupts a writer on deadline.

Information requests not only need to answered on time, but new information needs to come to reporters in the form of a press release. Surprisingly few travel professionals really have this skill down, and rural communities especially need to learn it. But once you get to be friends with a reporter, sometimes just a brief pitch in an e-mail will be all you need.

EDUCATING AND CONTROLLING

A fifth responsibility of the travel professional is educating the media about ecotourism, sustainable practices and travel industry trends.

"The tourism industry needs to communicate with journalists and make them aware of ecotourism and sustainable initiatives," says the Rainforest Alliance's Espinoza. "Unless journalists are aware of what ecotourism means, they will find it difficult to write a story that accurately portrays local community efforts to develop ecotourism activities. Keeping journalists up to speed with ecotourism news will help educate others about market trends, how ecotourism works and its growing importance."

It also falls to the travel professional to supervise and control the interview as well as the end product as much as possible, which is the sixth responsibility. As the person in your company who understands ecotourism fully, it is important for you personally to speak with the media representative, rather than leaving this task to someone who might not be as well informed.

Mader points out that most large organizations "usually have a communications department in charge of information distribution. Unfortunately, this often takes away from the principal players the ability and the responsibility to communicate. We should rethink the role of institutional PR departments; for the most part they have become unnecessary. We recommend that tourism boards pay professional editors to review and redo brochures and Web sites for operators and communities."

Espinoza reminds us that the tourism industry "must always direct part of its promotional efforts toward the media, not only by responding to media queries but also by being proactive, by closely monitoring the news in order to take advantage of opportunities to reach out to journalists and connect ecotourism stories with what is currently being covered in the press."


PARTNERING AND SUSTAINABILITY

The seventh responsibility of the travel professional is partnering with other travel professionals for community economic development through ecotourism. And this is the area where perhaps the greatest pitfalls can be encountered.

Ron Mader's excellent essay Stones in the Road addresses the realities of ecotourism's Achilles heel, and makes suggestions for positive ways to work together. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

"Many of today's travelers are choosing ecotourism and sustainable travel over other, more traditional vacations. Yet, studies indicate that a large number -- perhaps even a majority -- of initiatives to foster ecotourism and sustainable travel have failed. So, what's the problem?

In a nutshell, what sounds great on paper is often difficult to implement in the real world. When it comes to generating tourism that benefits both the environment and local economies, we are all on the learning curve. But we don't talk about failure at public policy meetings, government workshops, or in reports to foundations or development banks, where it would benefit us most to concede we are a young niche market finding its way. We can learn from our mistakes if we are willing to admit it when mistakes are made. Before seeking greater investments in this emerging industry, it would be wise to reflect on the lessons learned."

Looking back at the components of our working definition of ecotourism, we see:
1. environmental conservation
2. community involvement
3. profitability and sustainability
4. education and interpretation

Ed Hall points out that sometimes the first component is in conflict with the third one. "And that's the difficult part: balancing that number one and number three objective – and there has to be both," he said. "Making the two work together is not easy and it sometimes involves a partnership of an NGO working with the community along with a sensitive tour operator along with a customer that understands their role, too."

Since our survey of ecotourism's brand identity has shown that the environmental conservation element (number one) is what has the greatest brand awareness in the market, it would seem our priority in collaborating might be to attempt to swing the pendulum back in favor of the sustainability and profitability element (number three).

Peter Levick, director of external relations for Parks Canada in Gatineau, Quebec, says "we actually don't use the term 'ecotourism' to describe what we do because there is such a cultural and heritage element to it, and we feel like 'sustainability' better brings that aspect into the picture. 'Ecotourism' is so narrow that it doesn't get at that."

Kim Whytock, who developed much of the sustainability language used by Parks Canada, agrees. "'Ecotourism' is unfortunately used in many ways to be a synonym for nature-based tourism, scenic touring or environmental advocacy tourism," he said. "I think it should be more closely related to 'sustainable tourism' in the context of both its impact and relation to natural and cultural heritage experiences and the contribution of tourism and travelers to the well being of the places that host the tourism. Therefore the brand promise should be similar to the definition for sustainable tourism used by The Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) and Parks Canada."

TIAC and Parks Canada use this definition: "Sustainable tourism actively fosters appreciation and stewardship of the natural, cultural and historic resources and special places by local residents, the tourism industry, governments and visitors. It is tourism which is viable over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place."

Their ethics statement is: "The Canadian tourism industry is guided by the values of respect, integrity and empathy in designing, delivering and marketing sustainable tourism products, facilities and services." And its ends are "to create a sustainable tourism industry that: promotes sensitive appreciation and enjoyment of Canada's natural and cultural heritage, contemporary landscapes, cultures and communities; balances economic objectives with safeguarding and enhancing the ecological, cultural and social integrity of Canada's heritage; and shares responsibility by being a full participant and contributor to the economic, environmental and cultural sustainability of the destinations and assets it utilizes."

If Barb Bowman can't market "ecotourism," she hopes to create similar product under the more acceptable auspices of "sustainable tourism." Colorado's historical society has recently provided a grant for hiring a staff person at the Colorado Tourism Office to be devoted to cultural and heritage Tourism. "A big part of that position is focused on sustainable tourism, which is very exciting," she said.

So perhaps "ecotourism" works best when used with an adjective before it. Perhaps it is worth thinking about branding it as "sustainable ecotourism."


GOODNESS SELLS

So, how can the travel industry better promote ecotourism to the media, and by proxy to the public and to stakeholders, as a viable long-term strategy?

"The travel industry first has to be convinced that ecotourism is viable," is Mader's answer. "If the industry does not believe it (and ecotourism is still emerging), then the picture it paints to the media will be superficial. Communication, cooperation and collaboration speak louder than certification at this point in ecotourism's emerging brand."

Remember that earlier we said a brand should be a deliberate result of strategic considerations on the part of some group of professionals about a product or concept's value?

It's time for those who want ecotourism to be the success in the U.S. that it is in South America, Africa and Australia to decide what they want ecotourism to be? And what they are willing to do to get it there.

Mader suggests one way to go about this is to create an inventory of how ecotourism is perceived by the public in the U.S., similar to what we have done here. What sorts of images are portrayed in the media? What is the international news coverage? Then use that information to put a positive spin on ecotourism in the U.S. through marketing that will alter any negative perceptions.

"I think every NTA tour is environmentally sensitive, but we might not do that good a job of explaining that to our patrons," said John Shaffer of Luray Caverns. "We could use every opportunity on a tour to take a dollar out and let the group know that in some way our visit here is going to benefit the preservation of this national park or natural attraction. Goodness sells: I think that can be a marketing tool."

H. P. Jorgensen agrees. "There is no better marketing hook than personal buy-in. If a company is truly committed to organizing itself and its products around being a part of the solution rather than part of the problem, the consumer will buy in to the 'feel good' aspect of being a part of a larger community effort."

Bruce Beckham of Tourism Cares for Tomorrow sees that "feel good" aspect as the key to the travel industry learning to collaborate. The organization's Tourism-Caring for America projects that help to preserve and protect national treasures in the United States are the most successful aspect of Tourism Cares. "Getting people together for a common cause is really what needs to be done on a consistent basis so that people make that part of their regimen, and so that part of their existence in the travel business and the tourism industry is a matter of giving back," he said. "If you get people physically involved, they feel a social responsibility as well as an industry responsibility. The people have to turn around when it's all said and done and see the results of their labor – the return on their investment of their time. That will give them the mindset they have to have to work together in other ways."

Speaking from the international, and particularly the Latin American, perspective, Mader reflects on where we have been, and the existential nature of where we're going: "For years ecotourism was described as a profitable, fast-growing niche. Reports were wildly exaggerated about the size and the potential of the market.

For those seeking short-term profit, ecotourism has been a disappointment. For those searching for sustainable development, ecotourism is key. Sustainable tourism depends on long-term investment and cross-sector sharing of responsibilities and profits. There is a lot of work to be done. So we need to be honest about what works and what does not. We also need to be creative. The early converts to ecotourism were drawn by the possibility of doing something that had never been done before. How we channel creativity into collaborative efforts will determine whether or not we make responsible travel and ecotourism more successful."

AWRTA's Wendy Sailors reminds us that "ecotourism is not a bad term to use when you are marketing to the world." And this is key, because we are!

But we are still at a disadvantage because ecotourism in the U.S. is, at best, in its infancy. Mac Lacy of the Group Travel Leader cautions us with an analogy: "I would say that ecotourism is a 'PBS' term right now and it will be a long time before it is a 'commercial radio' term. If I were in the business of marketing an ecotourism product or company, I'd be sponsoring something on a local PBS affiliate -- not advertising on the local rock, country or talk radio station."

Shaffer believes that with the advent of hands-on technical tours and agricultural tours to farms and factories, the industry is now poised to have more meaningful tours that talk about the environment. "I think there is an opportunity for tour operators to make a new niche for people who are sensitive to these issues," he says. "We all just need to see it as an opportunity to sell more tours to natural areas. And we need to collectively take the idea of ecotourism and make it much more broad than it's interpreted today."

Thus, ecotourism's future is yet to be decided. "Unless it gets irrevocably attached to a really extreme point of view, which often occurs with anything that focuses on environmental issues, the term -- and the products it describes -- should become very relevant to many people in the years ahead," Lacy said.

I argue that it is up to those of us who have an investment in the concept of 'ecotourism' to create its future by thinking strategically and collaborating effectively to rebrand ecotourism and make it what we believe it should be as a representation of the United States on the global playing field.

As Jorgensen has proven in Iowa's farm country, "the environment isn't someplace 'away,' it's omnipresent, and you can literally be an ecotourist in your own back yard if it's interpreted well."


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Figart was editor-in-chief of Courier Magazine, the official publication of the National Tour Association (NTA).


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