Community Ecotourism on the Frontiers of Global Development

Community Ecotourism on the Frontiers of Global Development

This article is published as part of our special series Ecotourism Then and Now, commemorating the 20th anniversary of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), through a joint effort by TIES and Megan Epler Wood, author of this article and founder of TIES.

Part 1 - Ecotourism Then

In the early 1990s, hundreds of small scale ecotourism companies were working in remote areas of the planet engaging communities and seeking practical and legitimate solutions to delivering community benefits. Many mistakes were made. But action was heavy. By 1996, private firms like the Conservation Corporation, based in South Africa, were scaling up with a $60 million operation and a goal of creating 60‐100 luxury lodges in East and Southern Africa, all to employ ecotourism principles. In Ecuador, the Kapawi Lodge was founded with a $2 million investment, formulated from inception to be a full partnership project with the Indigenous Organization of Ecuadorean Achuar nationalities (OINAEI).


Dozens of small scale ecotourism projects were financed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), with tens of millions of dollars invested to develop ecotourism enterprises in rural areas worldwide as a tool to help local communities and conserve biodiversity. Local governments across the planet followed suit, as did donors from Europe. A boom in investment in community‐based ecotourism was underway with 161 donor projects taking place in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as documented by The George Washington University in 2002.


The idea that responsible tourism can conserve the environment and benefit local people has always been part of the definition of ecotourism. But ecotourism pioneers were undoubtedly unclear how to perform this task properly in the early 1990s. The need for guidelines and forums soon had The Ecotourism Society fully engaged. While many skeptics pointed out that ecotourism was just another means to exploit local populations, this discounted the genuine possibility that ecotourism could help to reinvent tourism development practices for the better. Communities from the Serengeti to the Amazon, on the frontier of any type of global development, were more than interested in becoming a vital part of the tourism planning, development and implementation process.


By the mid‐90s, the small office of TIES was brimming over with information on tourism and community benefits from around the world. Our tiny staff, which at that time was 3 dedicated souls with one or two interns, based on the second floor of a house in Bennington, Vermont, collated the most well presented examples, and published information as quickly as it could be properly vetted, reviewed by peers, printed, and shipped. Between 1998‐1999, TIES published Volume 2 of the best selling text, Ecotourism, A Guide for Planners and Managers with three chapters on community benefits from ecotourism, Meeting the Global Challenge of Community Participation in Ecotourism, Case Studies and Lessons Learned from Ecuador with The Nature Conservancy, and an edition of Cultural Survival Quarterly on Protecting Indigenous Culture and Land through Ecotourism. These materials provide very good examples of how closely the question of ecotourism and community benefits was being investigated in this activist period.


Much more was transpiring on the ground. In Ecuador, the TIES sister organization, the Ecuadorean Ecotourism Association (EEA), launched a national review of community benefits and ecotourism. Workshops were held in both the Amazonian and coastal regions of Ecuador for local community input and participation, and a national forum was held with the goal of preparing guidelines. At this time, there was controversy regarding how community‐based tourism could obtain the legal status needed to operate, as some operations in the rain forest regions of Ecuador had even been shut down by the government. Guidelines created at this forum spelled out the requirement for special licensing for native guides at the national level and separate legal designations for communities to manage their own tourism businesses.


My own visits to Ecuador in the mid‐1990s were frequent, as I was investigating how community ecotourism was both flourishing and failing in this landmark country via a small grant given to TIES by The Nature Conservancy. While many local communities were rising to the challenge and finding whole new means to support themselves via ecotourism enterprises, others were failing badly. TIES worked closely with EEA and sought to support their efforts for better legislation to protect community ecotourism enterprises. Just as the conference in Ecuador was concluding, TIES founding chairman, Dr. David Western, known to all his peers as Jonah, got in touch. He had been named Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and wanted to bring international expertise on ecotourism to Kenya to improve community ecotourism development methodologies. Jonah had a long‐term vision to foster small tourism enterprises outside Kenya’s parks that directly benefited local communities and thereby encouraged more direct local engagement in the sustainable development of the wildlife‐rich ecosystems of Kenya.


Ecotourism Conference in KenyaWe decided that a national conference could galvanize interest from industry in more community involvement in development on community managed lands. This conference came to be known as Ecotourism at the Crossroads. It was funded by KWS and managed by KWS and TIES. I remember feeling a pretty weighty obligation, when I arrived in Kenya on a pre‐conference visit and found that KWS had made their bush aircraft available to us, to allow our small team immediate access to meetings with communities in pivotal regions of Kenya, from Laikipia, to Maasai Mara to Amboseli, to determine the best means of organizing meaningful workshops and develop the agenda for the national forum.


In communities throughout Kenya we found that there was a hunger for more opportunity to become genuine partners in the ecotourism development process. The conference generated vital dialog between international experts, industry and local communities that helped empower communities to lay out their own terms on the partnerships they sought.


By the end of 1998, TIES had galvanized national forums on community benefits from ecotourism in two landmark countries, Ecuador and Kenya. It had published far‐reaching documents and discussions on methods to improve practices of both private businesses and donors. Enterprises and programs that would make ecotourism culturally, socially and economically successful for local people were increasingly being financed and developed. Costas Christ wrote in Volume 2 of the TIES text, A Guide for Planners and Managers, "the days are gone when one wondered whether adopting the principles of ecotourism could make tourism become a catalyst for nature conservation and community development. There is, finally, ample evidence that this is true."

Part 2 - Ecotourism Now

The wave of initiatives to incorporate local communities into the management of tourism operations hit a high point in the late 1990s, but subsequent reports of failing enterprises began to flow in, swamping any sense of progress. More and more community‐based tourism projects, designed to operate autonomously with initial donor investments, were virtually without guests and no longer operational by 2008‐2009. If one reads the excellent text, Responsible Tourism, edited by Dr. Anna Spenceley, there are numerous chapters dedicated to poor investment in community‐based ecotourism in southern Africa. These examples largely stem from misplaced international donor investments, where ecotourism is still seen only as a community development exercise which can help preserve biological diversity without the necessary analysis of business prospects, markets and access to markets.


When I wrote Meeting the Global Challenge of Community Participation in Ecotourism in 1998, I maintained that the problem with community based ecotourism was largely caused by the policies of international donors.


"Introducing a commercial venture into any local community, particularly indigenous communities, can raise false expectations and cause stress on local families if the communities must be responsible for the marketing of that venture once it is established. (sic) Funding assistance given to community tourism ventures must not be undertaken without taking into account the full business planning cycle for any business venture including an analysis of the investment needs of the venture, market potential, competition, transportation time, food and beverage availability, logistical concerns for making the venture viable, potential for partnerships, joint promotions, joint ventures, and other vital links to the commercial sector of the tourism industry."


Community-based ecotourism center in Chiapas, MexicoIn 2005, I was sent on a mission to review failing community‐based tourism enterprises in Chiapas, Mexico, for my international consultancy, EplerWood International. There had been an extraordinary amount of Mexican government investment in community‐based lodging, with the hopes of assisting indigenous people in the buffer zone of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. One group of community members I visited were sitting at the entrance to their beautiful lodge, waiting for visitors to arrive. They had none, and they kept the facility locked for special occasions. The solutions to their problems were not hard to confirm.


This and other lodges in the Montes Azules buffer zone were just two hours from Palenque, the famous Mayan ruins, and San Cristobal de las Casas, the mecca of alternative tourism in the state. Yet none of the local tour operators, based in these busy tourism destinations had been involved or even contacted about the establishment of the community enterprises nearby. When I reached out to the tour operators, they were more than interested in investigating the community operations to expand their itinerary options in this highly interesting and desirable rain forest region. Soon meetings between local tour operators, the government, and the local community representatives led to new alliances and more business for all involved. This type of alliance building is both relatively straightforward and key to the success of community operations. But the work of developing strong partnerships between local communities and the private sector requires patience, skill and a strong understanding of local community values.


One of the designers of the Kapawi Lodge in Ecuador, Arnaldo Rodriguez, wrote in the book Ecotourism and Conservation in the Americas, that the difference in principles between the community and private enterprise can be so conflicting, that at times, the community prefers to destroy the enterprise, even if it belongs in part to them. He notes that communities in the Amazonian region are very hesitant to create enterprises where benefits are not distributed immediately and equally, making it very difficult for them to partner with private enterprise. He concludes that community‐based ecotourism in the Amazon was subject to an overdose of enthusiasm and that the time and cost involved in partnering with communities is substantial.


However, Rodriguez concludes that in fact quite a few Amazonian communities had found ecotourism to be highly beneficial. He cites the benefits of the Kapawi Lodge to the Achuar people, the Napo Wildlife Center to the Quichua, and the Huao Lodge to the Huaorani. He reports that earnings of over $1 million in direct and indirect contributions for the Achuar were distributed to local communities from Kapawi’s profits between 1996‐2005. These funds served as an important incentive to block the entry of oil companies into Achuar territory.


In my work for EplerWood International from 2003‐2010, I have invested fully in recommending solutions where the full business development cycle is respected for launching community‐based tourism businesses, including feasibility studies, business planning and enterprise development approaches, and substantial effort on the development of international market linkages. In El Salvador, my firm has worked for nearly four years to create Ecoexperiencias El Salvador a branded portal and green tourism development program for small, community‐based ecotourism enterprises all operating autonomously under one brand which is managed by a local tour operator. The effort has resulted in a supply chain where international bodies such as have access to an array of community‐based products which will be highly marketable worldwide.


Young women in guide training, El SalvadorDiscussions continue forward on making community based tourism function. The reality is simple. The investment to work with communities to engage them in business approaches takes time and money and highly expert individuals who are talented in both business and community relations. The cost to accomplish these types of ventures is higher than it would be for standard business approaches.


TIES consistently worked to draw attention to practical approaches, and in my era more often than not found that partnerships between local communities and private enterprises held the most promise. When local entrepreneurs, from Lima to Bangkok, committed to working closely with communities to either give them partnerships in enterprises or ownership of enterprises with strong connections to the supply chain, successes were more often found. Differences in approaches throughout Africa, Latin America, and Asia have been important to learn, as each region of the world values land, enterprise and ownership in different ways.


Nonetheless, in all cases community enterprise must enter the commercial world. This requires partnering with representatives of the supply chain via agreements that give access to the global marketplace, while ensuring local well‐being, culture and conservation are all cared for. The right formulas continue to deserve investment and international support.


Photos by Megan Epler Wood


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