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A new species of tourists.

NIGHT FELL WITH a chorus of jungle sounds--birds, crickets, howler monkeys, and the rumbling thunder of a tropical rainstorm in the distance. A wooden canoe crept along the banks of a muddy Amazon estuary. Standing in the bow, a lookout scanned the reeds with a flashlight, searching for telltake twin red points of light--alligator eyes. Focusing on one set of glimmering eyes, he plunged an arm into the water, emerging with a three-foot-long gator in his hand.

Three tourists in the canoe--an American and two South Africans--snapped pictures, stroked the gator's tummy and examined its toothy grimace for a few minutes before returning the unharmed creature to the water. Guide Elcio Alves do Nascimento grinned, his mission accomplished: another batch of tourists introduced to the wonders of the Amazon. The next day the group went fishing for razor-toothed "piranha," their boat encircled by curious pink dolphins. After a nature walk through the dense jungle located three hours up the Rio Negro by boat from Manaus, they visited the simple shack of a fisherman to see how the locals, caboclos, live. Back at the rustic jungle lodge, four different kinds of monkeys swung through the trees, some climbing up on visitors' shoulders.

A thousand miles to the south, naturalist Douglas Trent accompanied a group of American bird-watchers on a tour of the fauna-rich Pantanal, the world's largest wetland area, where they photographed hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and small mammals.

And in Rio de Janeiro, travellers convinced there is more to Brazil's tourism capital than Sugar Loaf Mountain and sandy beaches took half-day guided treks through Tijuca Park, the Atlantic coastal rain forest that cuts through the middle of the city. Others shunned the cable cars and climbed Sugar Loaf's rocky face, while still others paid U.S. $50 to jump off the 1,560-foot Pedra Bonita mountain and float down to one of Rio's prettiest beaches on the back of an experienced hand-glider pilot.

All of these travellers are part of an important, new trend called nature tourism or ecological tourism--ecotourism for short. Bored with traditional itineraries that concentrate on city sights and monuments, there travellers are out for an adventure. If they visit the Amazon rain forest, they want to sleep in a hammock or in a floating lodge, not in an air-conditioned hotel room. If they take a riverboat cruise, they want a scientist aboard to explain the animal and plant life they see along the way. Tired of crowded national parks in the more developed countries, they revel in the relative isolation of Latin America's vast nature reserves, toting their fly-fishing equipment for the thrill of catching--and then returning to the water--a species new to them. Determined to enjoy these areas without spoiling them, they take home their memories, not in the form of animal trophies, but on film.

Travel agents began noting an increase in nature-oriented tourism early in the 1980s. But many believe the real boom now underway was sparked by the Amazon forest fires that dominated the news from 1987 on. The record hot temperatures registered during recent northern hemisphere summers rekindled concern over how dramatically the world's climate might change if mankind continues to spew factory pollution and plumes of forest smoke into the sky, damaging the ozone layer.

The best-known endangered areas, such as the Amazon, began to attract travellers anxious to see virgin forests before deforstation and population growth take their toll. But other areas not in the news also benefitted, as today's better informed tourists began asking travel agents to seek out little-known destinations. Latin America, home to 58 percent of the world's remaining tropical rain forest, has been a target for many of these adventure travellers. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Panama alone has as many plant species as all of Europe; the Peruvian Tambopata reserve is the world's richest habitat for birds and butterflies; and the Lacandona jungles is the largest in Central America. And the mighty Amazon river carries not only over one-fifth of all the world's fresh water, but also one-fifth of the world's five million wild plant and animal species.

With a growing concern for the environment and a potential 400 million tourists of all types this year, the future for ecotourism looks bright. In a random survey conducted by the World Wildlife Fund, 47 percent of the travellers interviewed in Latin American airports replied that nature-oriented trips played an important factor in their vacation plans. Moreover, industry experts estimate that U.S. $55 billion is spent each year worldwide just by 120 million sports fishermen from the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Tourism planners around Latin America are actively trying to grab a share of the market. For them, ecotourism is the perfect industry: it doesn't pollute, it attracts plenty of foreign currency, and it gives an economic boost to regions that otherwise would remain undeveloped. "It doesn't make sense to make the Amazon an untouchable area that no one can see, and forget that the people who live there have economic needs," said Ronaldo do Monte Rosa, president of Embratur, (Empresa Brasileira do Turismo) the Brazilian national tourism board. "Ecotourism is ideal because it can substitute a few of the more predatory activities, such as agriculture, cattle-raising and mining, yet it allows an area to develop at the same time."

Ecologists warn, however, that ecotourism must be embarked upon carefully to avoid damaging the very natural treasures tourists come to see. Some believe the crush of visitors will overwhelm understaffed parks that lack the proper infrastructure. Others say increased park fees will help improve and protect the areas. Some even believe the presence of tourists will prevent destruction of some isolated reserves.

"We feel that when we take people into certain areas, we are there not only to show them the sights but also to serve as unofficial park guards," said Peter Wenzell, who helps run Oxygen Expeditions in Rio de Janeiro. "In some places, more damage is done because there are few people in the area keeping an eye on what's going on. Our presence may help scare off squatters and illegal tree-cutters."

Still, planners know that even carefully monitored tourism can provoke incalculable damage to delicate ecosystems. The pristine Galapagos Islands wildlife sanctuary, home to hundreds of unique species that helped naturalist Charles Darwin develop his theory on evolution, was visited by an estimated 60,000 tourists in 1989, more than twice the maximum load of 25,000 established by the Ecuadorean government in 1981. Worried that the crush of tourists and unchecked growth of local population would cause irreversible damage to the archipelago, President Rodrigo Borja Cevallos last year ordered a comprehensive plan to protect the area.

"Galapagos had reached a saturation point that was uncontrollable," says Bruna Stornaiolo de Avila, executive director of the Ecuadorean Tourism Corporation, who is helping to draft the plan. "In some areas we noted the appearance of non-native animal species, and in others we found water pollution stemming from inadequate control of purifiers on excursion boats." The plan, which will be ready in April, will place stricter-than-usual controls on all economic activities in the Galapagos. "Our intention is to put the environment first, the local population next, and tourism later. In the future, we want only educational tourism in the Galapagos, not leisure -oriented activities," she said.

Tourism officials in the rest of Latin Amerca are watching Ecuador's experience in the Galapagos for clues on how to prepare their own infrastructures for the massive inflow of tourists expected in the coming years. A new study prepared by the Organization of American States (OAS) estimates that the number of international tourists visiting the Amazon basin specifically for nature-oriented activities will triple or perhaps even quintuple over this decade.

The study said that in 1988, around 122,900 foreigners seeking nature tourism options visited the eight-member nations of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty-Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. By 1999, the number is expected to rise to at least 374,000 or perhaps as high as 500,000. Haitian-born Claude Larreur, a tourism development specialist for the OAS, presented the findings at a special conference on ecotourism held by the Amazon treaty nations in Manaus last November.

According to Larreur, nature travel is expected to grow twice as fast as conventional tourism in the 1990s. For the Amazon basin countries, that means that an increasing number of Europeans, especially from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland and France, will seek comfortable lodging but exotic activities to allow them to visit different areas of the 2.6 million square-mile basin. North American tourists surveyed showed special interest in scientific or adventure tourism, which features more rustic lodging or camping experiences in the company of trained naturalists.

"Today, everyone is talking about ecotourism by the phenomenon is not yet defined," Larreur says. "To us, a jungle hike is merely nature-oriented tourism. It becomes ecotourism only when the resources generated by that tourist's presence are used to improve and protect the natural resource base and the parks that drew him there in the first place."

Elizabeth Boo is the author of a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) entitled "Ecotourism: Potentials and Pitfalls," which focuses on Latin America and the Caribbean. Boo warns, "The demands placed on ecosystems and natural resources from increased tourism can destroy the very attractions that draw people. The vast majority of parks are not in a position to gain from the benefits of tourism because they do not provide adequate means for tourists to spend money during their visit or to learn about natural resource management. Most parks lack trained guides, interpretative information, entrance fee systems, and basic infrastructure such as visitor centers. Therefore, significant opportunities are missed to bring money into the park, to provide employment for local populations, and to offer environmental education for visitors."

Costa Rica, home to more than 1,200 species of orchids and 850 species of birds, made ecotourism a priority in the early 1980s, before most other countries had heard of the trend. Today, tourism is a well-organized, U.S. $220 million a year industry and the second biggest earner of foreign exchange, after coffee. Officials there keep close table on ecotourism's use of national parks and privately owned biological reserves, which together cover fully 20 percent of the country's territory. "People here realize that it makes sense to protect the nature reserves because they depend on satisfied tourist for their livelihood," says Tania D' Ambrosio, marketing director for the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. "So they cut very few footpaths and design their lodges to fit perfectly into the surroundings."

Nearly every country in the Hemisphere has something to offer adventure travellers, from the glaciers of southern Argentina to the steamy jungles of Central America. But Brazil, which covers more than half of South America, stands to gain most from the boom in ecotourism. Brazilian authorieis have made ecotourism their top priority and are setting down rules governing all aspects of the business, from the number of guests allowed to stay at each jungle lodge, to the disposal of trash. Lodges also must be architecturally integrated with their surroundings. For example, the Ariau Jungle Lodge, located a few hours by boat from Manaus, is painted olive green--plastic water pipes and all--and blends right into the forest. The dining area is screened in to keep curious animals out, yet the open, circular design makes visitors feel as if they are surrounded by jungle as they watch monkeys frolicking in the trees. In the rainy season, when the river rises as much as 35 feet, the hotel appears to be floating. In the dry months, the walkways and main structures are perched upon posts high above the ground.

Brazil's best known calling card is the Amazon jungle, representing one-third of the world's remaining tropical rain forests. In 1989, an estimated 500,000 foreigners visited the Amazon to stay in jungle lodges, swim at white-sand river beaches, and charter helicopters or small planes to fly over the thick forest canopy.

Increasingly, though, visitors are learning that the Pantanal wetlands, located in center-west Brazil, offer even better opportunities for wildlife viewing. More than 10 times the size of Florida's Everglades, the Pantanal covers 54,000 square miles and is considered the best place in the Americas to see a wide variety of animal and plant life.

Travellers there spot more than 600 species of birds, including the rare blue and yellow "Hyacinthine macaw," the largest member of the parrot family measuring 39 inches from tail to beak. Bird lovers also are treated to sights of storks, herons, kingfishers, isises, and limpkins. Visitors see dozens of mammals and reptiles, including marsh deer, black howler monkeys, jaguar, alligators, anteaters, the crab-eating fox, iguana, the guinea pig-like capybara, and yellow anaconda snakes that can measure up to 33 feet long.

"People are just astounded by the huge numbers and variety of birds they see in the Pantanal," says Douglas Trent, considered one of the best tour guides in the region. "In the first three hours of the trip, we've usually spotted 60 species of birds."

Trent, who holds a university degree in environmental studies, takes travellers to Porto Jofre, where in the late afternoons in June and July, they can witness the arrival of more than a million white-faced ibis and hundreds of thousands of roseate spoonbills and egrets. "It's truly one of the most magnificent spectacles you could ever hope to see," Trent says. "The ground is blackened, whitened and pinkened by the multitude of birds that fly in."

For many travellers, a visit to the Amazon or to the Pantanal is more than a vacation; it is an opportunity to learn, and to think about man's relationship to the environment. "Many people go into the amazon thinking they're just going to see a bunch of animals, and in the end they come out as novice botanists or orinthologists, proudly carrying lists where they've scribbled the scientific names of every creature they've seen," Wenzell of Oxygen Expeditions says. "People are overwhelmed by the immensity of the jungle; they begin to appreciate that man is only part of the whole scheme of things."

Sandy Trigg and Doug Gordon, a South African couple that honeymooned recently in Brazil, say their three-day visit to a jungle lodge near Manaus was an unforgettable experience. "You read so much about deforestation, and we frankly wanted to see the Amazon while there was something left to see. Now we realize how important it is that these regions be protected for future generations."

Geri Smith, an international correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, writes for U.S. News & World Report and major U.S. newspapers.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Perspectives on the Amazon; nature tourism in the Amazon River Region
Author:Smith, Geri
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Previous Article:Upstream, downstream.
Next Article:Running down a legend.

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