Bonito, Brazil: The Capital of Ecotourism?

Bonito, Brazil: The Capital of Ecotourism?

ecoDestinations Brazil

By Mikael Castro

"Welcome to the Capital of Ecotourism"

"Welcome to the Capital of Ecotourism" read the sign at the entrance of town Bonito, in Brazil's state of Mato Grosso do Sul. A rather ambitions statement, I thought, confident I would find only a few great ecotourism establishments among a pool of green-washed want-to-be’s. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find an amazingly organized, conservation-driven, municipal-wide, policy-driven, multi-stakeholder system for ecotourism.


"So what makes ecotourism in Bonito so special, that you can call it the capital of ecotourism?" I asked Clayton Castilho Gomes, the director of Tourism for Bonito.


"The key to our success in ecotourism," responded Clayton, "is the unique voucher system which ensures a standard for all ecotourism activities."


He broke it down for me:

  • All of the 38 accredited attractions in Bonito can only be booked by purchasing a unique voucher.
  • Unique vouchers for any of the trips can be bought at accredited travel agents of Bonito (found in most hotels and on the 'strip').
  • The price of each activity is regulated though the voucher. Prices are non-negotiable, no matter where you buy them.

I quickly understood the impetus for creating the unique vouchers, when we visited one of TIES’ members in Bonito, Estancia Mimosa. This amazing paradise of waterfalls is found on a private farm some 20km from the center of Bonito. It would have been a shame to arrive there and find out that they were all booked and then have to drive another 40km to the next best option.


It was clear that the vouchers aided in streamlining reservations, as well ensuring that there is a fair and fixed price, curbing hagglers and illegitimate under-cutters.


But how exactly does the unique voucher system help make Bonito the "Capital of Ecotourism"? For starters, to be approved as an accredited attraction and to get on the voucher system, the owners must undergo environmental impact studies to determine appropriate carrying capacities.


The unique voucher system is how more than 30 travel agencies can coordinate with the various attractions to ensure up to 1500 trips are booked daily without overbooking and violating of the carrying capacity limits. The system relies on constant communication of all stakeholders – hotels, operators, agents, outfitters, and guides.


"How about interpretation?" I asked Clayton. Without a well-informed and trained guide it is difficult to have a credible ecotourism attraction. "Every ecotourism activity in Bonito must be done with a qualified guide," explained Clayton, "and all of our guides must take a technical 2-year program at a federal university to be certified as a guide for Bonito." Clayton who seemed to have every right answer to squash any skeptic's doubts.


Balancing Development and Conservation

The key to Bonito's success in ecotourism lies on a delicate balance between tourism businesses and sustainable management of natural resources. All parties recognize that Bonito is an extremely delicate eco-system that can be easily damaged tourism development is not well regulated and maintained.


One of the most remarkable elements of Bonito is the amazingly clear water. It is world-renowned for having some of most transparent fresh waters in the world. I couldn’t help but wonder, when a mere step on the river-bottom will disturb enough debris to disturb such pristine water quality, how come the waters are kept clear and safeguarded from erosion despite the hundreds of snorkelers who float down these rivers daily?


The answer, as the tourism director noted, is the local guides and managers' commitment to sustainability, recognizing that "the livelihood of Bonito's tourism relies on maintaining our clear waters". Tourists are explicitly instructed by trained guides not to touch the river-bottom to protect the transparent waters and reduce negative impacts on natural habitats in the river system.


At Bonito's Rio da Prata, another TIES member, up to 120 tourists can float down the pristine waters for a breath-taking ecotourism experience. Negative impacts are reduced by limiting guided tour groups to 8 people leaving every 20 minutes. This also ensure guests have the priceless feeling of exclusivity.


There is no lack of hungry ecotourists waiting to experience Bonito. In 2008, Bonito served 170,000 visitors on the unique voucher system and this year the number of visitors was already at 165,000 in August. How will Bonito cope with the growing demand while staying true to its sustainable practices? If they stick to their well regulated system, it should be no problem at all. Clayton informed me that there are already four new attractions waiting for final approvals and permits before they are opened to the public in the coming months.


Photo by Mikael Castro



About TIES

As the world's oldest and largest international ecotourism association, TIES seeks to be the global source of knowledge and advocacy uniting communities, conservation, sustainable travel..




> The International Ecotourism Society 



The Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference will highlight global challenges and local opportunities, supporting sustainable development of tourism and promoting solutions that balance conservation, communities and sustainable travel.

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