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Bridges and Borders: Go Slow Now
by Ron Mader

PLANETA WIKI

This essay was originally published in 1997.

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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 are.

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 sense strategies:

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.

Website Update:

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 website.

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 of.

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.


AUTHOR

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



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