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PLANETA WORLD GUIDE

Travel in the Age of Internet
by Ron Mader

PLANETA WIKI

The following are remarks prepared for the Second Annual Conference on Ecotourism and Conservation, La Ceiba, Honduras, April 20, 1996.

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FLICKR ALBUM: Web Seminar


La Ceiba, Honduras - The Internet has been compared to an "information highway." The metaphor calls to mind a high-tech, high-speed German infobahn, instead of a over- utilized and under-funded Latin American highway. This global network utilizes computers and phone lines to send and receive digitized information. Compared to faxes or phone calls, using the Internet can be relatively inexpensive.

One of the most popular uses of the Internet is that of educating and orienting travelers, who are already "surfing the net." Last year Brad Martin and Michael Swiggart co-created "rec.travel.latin-america", a usenet discussion group that provides a forum for questions and answers. "Virtual tours" are available, as are metro maps, airplane bookings and satellite weather photos.

The importance of the Internet lies not only in its providing information, but connecting people who have a common interest. Because of the multiple voices and lack of a control or censorship, the Web has been best described as the first functioning anarchy.

There is no chance, however, that we will arrive at the point when everything is so well documented via cyberspace that there is no need to make the journey ourselves. Internet does, however, radically change the reasons why we travel - instead of deceiving ourselves with a colonial mentality that we are indeed discovers (look at the people who try to photograph Mayan ruins when all the other tourists are out of the picture frame) we seek to uncover information that is tactile, that is emotional, that brings us into the community of both people and places.

Travel information on the Internet will benefit areas that have traditionally not received mainstream coverage. Travel providers and travel destinations in Latin America are either creating their own pages on the World Wide Web or contracting other businesses to do that for them.

Internet represents a radical paradigm shift in communications. I don't use this term lightly. Internet represents a way to connect people with people - not people to information. It can be and should be a lively forum for an interchange of ideas among humans - with all of our merits and faults. Unlike typical broadcast media which communicate from a one-to-many system, Internet provides a many-to-many system of communications.

Internet is the Radio of the 1910s and 1920s - but much more sophisticated and financially well-grounded. When radio was first invented, it was used by ham operators, department stores, governments, and community groups. In the United States, the cacophony of competing radio signals led to the creation of the FCC under the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. This led to the severe restriction of radio waves and created what would become very powerful networks - NBC, CBS and later ABC. Flash forward 70 years and we have FOX and CNN and Rupert Murdoch and that silly WB network, but again, this represents communications from one source to a mostly passive audience. One to many. Now we have the opportunity for greater interaction -- if that's what we want.


CENTRAL AMERICA

Central America formally comprises five nations - Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Informally, add Belize and Panama. Culturally, add southern Mexico and part of Colombia. The area of the primary seven countries is just a little more than half a million square kilometers, less than the size of Texas - my former home state. In 1993 the total population was 31 million and increasing by 2.7 percent each year.

Tourism is increasing. According to U.S. Department of Commerce figures, 278,000 tourists visited Nicaragua last year, up 17 percent from 1994. Nicaragua's Tourism Ministry projects that tourist arrivals will continue to rise by 15 percent a year through the end of the decade. Response from the Nicaraguan government - the budget of this agency was cut by 30 percent.

Successful planning and implementation of long-term tourism strategies requires some visionary actions. The Central American governments signed the Alliance for Sustainable Development signed in Managua on October 12, 1994. Sustainable tourism - including ecotourism - can be utilized as a long- term strategy. But we need to be honest, and we need to demand inclusivity and transparency both within government and non-governmental circles. We need to find information on project financing. And we need to push for cooperative and/or regionalized efforts.


LATIN AMERICA AND THE INTERNET

Latin America stands to gain the most from information on the Internet, and I'll explain why.

Tourism Industry Intelligence reports that 20 percent of the tourism income in developing countries comes from ecotourism. The World Wildlife Fund reported that earnings from ecotourism are 10 times greater than from agriculture (although WWF reports are often rather dubious). I think the time is long past to prove the worth of ecotourism - do we really need another study? - But now it's time to begin the work on the details. Travelers need information on destinations and tours; destination owners and tour operators need information on how to make their operations more environment friendly.

A quick scan of both travel coverage as well as headline news shows that Latin America is poorly represented in the international media. In the United States, I attribute this fact to cultural and political bias. We are a nation of mostly European and Asian immigrants, and we pay attention to these regions. As the demographics change, so will the focal point of our attention. Additionally, with NAFTA and regional free trade agreements, we are finally paying due to Latin America as full partners as well as neighbors.

Travel information on the Internet - for example, Costa Rica's Rara Avis ecolodge, provides information for net-savvy travelers who are not content to be laptop potatoes, but want an educational experience that carries them further into the heart of the Americas. Fortunately, expansion is carrying forward in Honduras. Honduras This Week and El Tiempo are now available on-line. After you return from this conference, you can check the current news from Honduras, whether you're in Tegucigalpa, Miami or Berlin.

Some of the best Internet web sites already hail from Latin America. The newspapers have usually been ahead of the curve - from Mexico's El Norte to Chile's Estrategia. Quito's daily Hoy led the way with its own listerv and of course, its own website.

We must realize that regardless of our nationality, we all live in both the First and Third Worlds. The social question becomes - what are we going to do about this?

The Internet allows - and I would say demands - communication among individuals. The networks are set up so that if you wanted to send an electronic letter - generated on your computer and sent through the phone lines via a modem - you can this very inexpensively and very, very quickly. There are snags - much too many to fully criticize here - and they are best described in the book with the halcyon title - Silicon Snake Oil : Second Thoughts on the Information Highway.

Internet is not the panacea, but it will make a lasting impact on 1) citizen or public participation, 2) accountability and transparency of institutions - whether they are government agencies, non governmental organizations or travel agents or manufacturers.

Who uses Internet? Who should use Internet? The number is growing daily, and while I'm suspicious of the marketing claims of 30-40 million users, I do not question the growth rate - marketed at 10-20 percent each month. Internet is not a fad, and it will grow and radically change every four months, reinventing its potential many times through the end of this decade.


BACK TO ECOTOURISM

When I did a survey of environmental solutions in Costa Rica in 1989, ecotourism was the big buzzword - along with "sustainable development." these words are still content poor descriptions of ideas most of us would agree to like ... if we knew what they meant. If it was a buzzword then, it's a buzzword now. Ecotourism is a lot like etiquette. We argue about the salutations, the way to address a letter, the fork goes on which side of the plate? - instead, we should be addressing what we actually are doing. What is the carrying capacity? Is there enough sewage treatment? Is there sewage treatment? Are species fleeing the tourists? Is the local community an active participant in the project?

And we need to ask - what can we be doing to provide an upward harmonization of environmental standards? Part of the problem lies in regulation and enforcement. A greater part stems from lack of information. Internet can be utilized as part of the solution.

Allow me to conclude with three earnest suggestions:

  1. Stick to your principals
    - Don't compromise your core beliefs.
  2. Do one thing well.
    - Don't try to do all things; work with other people. (Notice how we're stretching ourselves fairly thin in the 90s?)
  3. Dialogue with people you disagree with.
    - This is the most important point. Too often ecotourism gurus try to convert each other. We do not have a model of ecotourism or sustainable development that has withstood the test of time. No one has all the answers. But if we put blinders on and insist our perspective is the only way to view this evolving topic, we risk losing input from valuable sources.

AUTHOR

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


REFERENCES

g Working Notes from La Ceiba Conference (04/96)
g Eco Travels in Honduras


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