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Ecotourism: new hope for rainforests?

Meet Don Pedro, citizen of the Costa Rican village of Puerto Rios. Machete in hand, rubber boots on his feet, this stocky man is the very model of the modern peasant farmer, a man who might cut down an acre or so of this region's lowland rainforest every two years in order to continue raising a crop of corn. As such, he would be part of the reason 140,000 acres of tropical rainforest are felled worldwide each day.

Little doubt exists that the number of foreign travelers taking nature tours is on the rise-even among families with kids.

It may be no consolation that Don Pedro is, in fact, not a farmer but a professional hunter. He proudly admits that he once prowled this forest in search of game, including the jaguar, which he could sell or use to feed his family of four.

These days Don Pedro still hunts for jaguar, but now as a guide for tour groups from the nearby Selva Verde jungle lodge. The lodge is at least a half-day's drive from the nearest city, but the tourists who fill its 26 rooms in winter don't come for the shopping or night life. They come for the wildlife, particularly the birds that make the Costa Rican rainforest their winter home.

And Don Pedro, who now earns more than ever, has gotten into the swing of things. On a recent hike, he used his talent for mimicking animal cries to start a shouting match with a group of howler monkeys hidden in the treetops. Later he bent to point out the tracks of a big cat; his old quarry was in the neighborhood.

It's a bit hard to think of Don Pedro, in his ripped T-shirt and jeans, as being on the leading edge of a trend, but he is. Across the Third World, more and more men and women are turning from subsistence farming, logging, and hunting to jobs in the tourist industry. Presently the trend is small, yet it is being encouraged by some Third World governments, conservation organizations, and several prominent individuals, one of whom envisions a system of roads and parks to promote tourism in what was once the Mayan empire.

More farmers are putting down the axe and taking up the guidebook because of an unprecedented surge in nature tourism by citizens of developed nations, particularly the U.S. No hard data exists on how many nature tourists were among the estimated 12.5 million Americans who took foreign trips in 1988, the most recent year for which there is data. But a survey of wintertime tourists to five developing nations, conducted by the World Wildlife Fund, found that at least half visit at least one park during their stay. Nature-tour operators say their young businesses have never been better. Approximately 200 travelers went on tours sponsored by The Nature Conservancy in 1989, twice as many as the year before.

The governments of developing nations, particularly those in the crucial rainforest regions of Latin America, have also noted an increase in nature tourism. In recent years, largely because of this surge, the following events have occurred:

* Mexico has created a 1,700-acre preserve that includes a newly excavated Mayan site near the Guatemalan border.

* Guatemala has created 33 national parks and committed to the preservation of 1.7 million acres.

Costa Rica, which had no national parks in 1969, has dedicated 11 percent of its landmass as parkland.

According to a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, Costa Rica, with 1/10th of the world's birds species seems to be setting itself up as Latin America's premier destination for nature tourists. Some Costa Rican parks receive over 200,000 visitors annually, helping to make tourism the nation's second largest source of foreign currency.

One of the most successful destinations in Costa Rica is the privately run Monteverde Cloud Forest, a 10,000-acre highland rainforest that is home to 400 species of birds, including the resplendent Quetzal.

Does nature tourism affect local economies? In Monteverde, a cooperative of women who make and sell souvenirs, grosses about $50,000 annually

Even in the U.S., nature tourism is offered as an alternative to harvesting the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Pointing to layoffs that loom in the logging industry due to outdated sawmills, Shawn Boles, a city councillor in Eugene, Oregon, says that nature tourism "is just starting to be realized as a way to go." Boles is working to educate state and local tourism officials on the issue and is advocating the use of multilingual roadside signs in the region's forests, the better to serve the West European travelers who he finds increasingly drawn to the woods.

The Nature Conservancy estimates that pristine animal habitat is being destroyed so fast that none will be left in the world's tropics by the year 2020, Nature tourism may be the answer-or part of it. Five years ago, University of Wisconsin professor Robert Horwich convinced 12 adjoining landowners in Belize to protect the habitat of howler monkeys living on their property. Trees were saved and monkey hunting was banned in the so called Community Baboon Sanctuary. Now the monkey population is up 20 percent, and local people are benefiting from the new tourist attraction.

Meanwhile in the developing African nation of Rwanda, tourists pay $170 each to view mountain gorillas in the Parc Nacional des Volcans, providing revenue to protect habitat, prevent poaching, and help make tourism Rwanda's No. 2 source of foreign currency, according to a report from the World Resources Institute.

That environmental think tank's report adds: "Although some 7,000 protected areas exist throughout the world, comparatively few enjoy de-facto protection, and most of those in developing countries that do can attribute their survival to the revenue they earn from tourism."

Nature tourism as an alternative to tree cutting is still a relatively new idea, and so it has often been up to individuals such as Professor Horwich to promote the concept. Others, such as Giovanna Holbrook, a travel agent in Gainesville, Florida, have opened rainforest lodges and in doing so have taken a financial risk. In 1986, Holbrook learned that 500 acres of Costa Rican rainforest were about to be logged, so she bought the property-borrowing $520,000 with her house as equity-and set up a private nature preserve featuring a lodge called Selva Verde.

Perhaps the grandest dream of any proponent of nature tourism, though, is that held by Wilbur Garrett. In the November 1989 issue Garrett, then the magazine's editor, authored a cover story that laid out his plan for what he calls La Ruta Maya, the Mayan route. "Like a drawstring on a treasure pouch," this 1,500-mile route around Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and into Guatemala encircles the former kingdom of the Mayas, with its pyramids, offshore reefs, and rainforest.

Garrett envisions this Mayan Route as a continuing effort which has already begun (without any official opening ceremony or new treaties), which has no expected date of completion, and which supports many strategies (including arboriculture) to preserve the wild lands of that region.

What La Ruta Maya is not, he maintains, is a development scheme. No new roads must be built, though some will need to be improved, he says. Lodges will be established, preferably by local businessmen, as the need arises rather than in response to any master plan.

The next step, land preservation, is also showing signs of success, Garrett reports, pointing to a joint plan by Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala to place "bios here" status. Ultimately, Garrett dreams of the establishment of a peace park that spans the borders of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. Such a park would be significant, he notes, because the nations involved have been on uneasy terms, with Guatemala at one point claiming Belize as its territory.

Though its name evokes images of birds and backpackers, nature tourism can bring with it environmental problems as great as those it offers to solve. (See "Nature Tourism's Dirty Face" on page 42.) To keep nature tourism from becoming an environmental or cultural scourge, a movement has arisen that seeks to promote nature tourism while educating the public and tour operators in environmental sensitivity. This movement advocates a new type of tourism, an "ecotourism, where people are really concerned about the environment they're, visiting and are treading on it with a light foot," says M.J. Kietzke, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, travel agent specializing in erivironmentally sound scuba trips.

In the forefront of the ecotourism movement are at least two groups, the Center for Responsible Tourism of San Anselmo, California, and The Ecotourism Society of Alexandria, Virginia, whose members include anthropologists, conservationists, travel agents, and nature filmmaker Megan Wood, the group's executive director. Both groups act as clearinghouses for ecotourism information and seek to, in Wood's words, "inform the consumer on how to be a responsible tourist."

The foremost question on an ecotourist's mind, she says, should be: "How much is the local community involved?"

Such an attitude is crucial in developing nations, since the lands their governments have set aside are not nature preserves in the U.S. sense; they are biospheres where local residents are often permitted to continue living as long as they do the forest no harm. "The forest has to survive in harmony with the people who live there," observes Fred Van Bolhuis, senior associate at the World Resources Institute. Unless they benefit substantially from the tourism, the forest is not going to survive."

Unfortunately, some Third World governments don't see it that way. World Resources Institute researcher Craig Lindberg reports that Rwanda's government earns about $1 million a year from a gorilla park but returns only about $125,000 to the park. "The government is making a nice profit," he observes.

In many cases, though, the national government levies little or no admission fees, and park administration suffers accordingly, reports Elizabeth Boo, ecotourism program officer at the World Wildlife Fund. In addition, the World Bank reports that 55 cents of every tourist dollar spent in developing nations goes straight back to the industrialized nations anyway.

As a result, local people must sometimes take matters into their own hands. In Nepal's Annapurna region, the lodge operators have formed a conservation organization that regulates development and forest use and levies fees on tour operators-money that has since funded a school, the region's first clinic, and a nursery of trees that can be used for fuel.

Local regulation has also worked especially well, conservationists say, in the Galapagos Islands, which had virtually no tourism before 1970 and now receive 36,000 visitors annually. "In the Galapagos, tourism control is extremely strict and hinges primarily upon a system of licensed naturalists who work for private tour companies but are held personally responsible for the action of their passengers," the magazine Bioscience reported recently.

Besides questioning the extent of local involvement, ecotourism specialist Boo mentions other issues for an ecotourist to consider:

* What environmental material will be sent before the trip?

* Are conservation groups in the host nation involved?

* What contributions does the tour operator make to nature preservation?

Both nature tourists and tour operators often make generous donations to conservation efforts in the regions they visit. The Nature Conservancy, for example, raised $150,000 for the Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos by sending a fund-raising mailing to the addresses left by visitors in the station's guest log. That organization also levies a $300 charge on its tours per person to fund the host nation's conservation efforts.

Clearly, ecotourism represents one of what may be dozens of solutions to saving endangered habitat. Yet it is one of the few solutions that is here now, awaiting no government action or massive spending effort. It is also one of the few that is small-scale, based on the travel decisions of citizens in one nation and on the rise of a tourist economy in another. True, ecotourism may bring with it environmental problems of its own, but if the price of saving the rainforests and animal habitat is finding a Coke can beside a jungle trail or seeing a tribal chieftain with a boom box, the cost will have been small indeed. AF
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; Focus
Author:Warner, Edward
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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