One of the goals I've set for myself this year
is to slow down.
Last year's rush of guidebook research left me exhausted.
I'd jet from Miami to Tegucigalpa or Mexico City and return
only to prepare for another trip. I plan to spend most of the
coming year puttering around Mexico and the southwestern United
States. Perhaps I'm generalizing, but in western society, we
foolishly measure importance by how busy and inaccessable we
In addition, I was becoming increasingly critical of lackluster
institutions. The information age (and coming century) values
individuals. Institutions will survive only if they empower
individuals. Otherwise, the funds and energies are wasted.
The new issue of Planeta
focuses on mountain-based tourism in Latin America, and gives
readers food for thought while promoting local initiatives.
This is where I sense the real work lies.
Repeatedly, I'm asked for advice on environmental tourism
projects. I don't believe there exists a model for ecotourism
in Latin America, let alone a specific country. Every locale
has different opportunities. That said, there are some common
Build from the ground up and stay within your budget
A common mistake of development funds and international conservation
groups is the construction of large visitor's centers. Fine,
if they are self-supporting, but many rural projects can't afford
the maintenance and end-up boarded up. The alternatives are
simple - if you want to provide an introduction to local ecology
and responsible tourism, place the information at the local
bus station, a restaurant or if a sheltered kiosk.
Be open to tour groups and individuals
The tourism industry caters to the packaged tours, most of which
remain uninterested in environmental tourism. While there are
many good tourism providers, don't ignore the independent traveler,
who will be the first to spread the word about the project's
attractions or problems. Unfortunately, official tourism studies
depend on statistics, which are more easily uncovered for packaged
tours than individual expeditions.
Develop communications savvy
For the project to succeed, communications must be clear within
the community itself and within the national and international
spheres. Make sure that operations are as transparent as possible
so you can avoid local conflicts. Simultaneously, connections
must be made with outside contacts. Post updates on the internet
or develop a simple newsletter. Be inclusive, rather than exclusive
in developing your contacts.
Make a wish list
Perhaps the best idea I encountered last year in Honduras was
the idea that too often projects are on hold while a grant or
a loan is sought. Foundations and development agencies seem
to foster the megaproject mentality, especially during project
formation. Instead, what could you do with a $100 contribution
or a $1,000? Make a list of priorities - or a wish list - to
show both the local community and potential funders what is
being developed in real time.
More information on ecotourism - its pros and cons - is available
on the Exploring
Ecotourism page, which archives original documents and provides
links to related websites.
When we started the El Planeta Platica newsletter at the
beginning of 1994, I certainly didn't imagine the rambling journey
the newsletter would carry me on. Within a few months, the newsletter
was on the internet and it became the core of the Eco Travels
Since then there have been several thousand students who have
used the archives to research borderland environmental issues,
sustainable development and ecotourism. Travelers continually
write to thank me for the Directory
of Spanish Language Schools and the new Cybercafes
in the Americas page. More than 5,000 people visit the site
each month and that number is climbing.
As a writer and author-friendly website, I can't pay for articles,
but I provide biographical info and email links. Replies still
drift in to authors of articles published a year ago. This is
the best example of decentralized communications I can think
For example, for more than two years, the site has promoted
tourism in Cuatro
Cienegas, Coahuila. This summer a Brazilian journalist wrote
to express her thanks for travel info and with news that her
article will appear in the Brazilian press this fall.
My personal goal in 1994 was to write a guidebook on environmental
travel after, say, five years. Instead, two guidebooks with
my name - Mexico:
Adventures in Nature and Honduras: Adventures in Nature
- with James Gollin) will appear in February 1998. You can order
them here via this website or - better yet - ask your local
bookstore to stock the titles.