Linking Conservation and Ecotourism: a challenge for conservation organizations

Lucia Prinz, business development manager for Rare’s Enterprises program, shares her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for developing locally-run ecotourism businesses.   

The focus areas of RARE´s Enterprise Development Program are often found within Biosphere Reserves, characterized by the presence of indigenous populations often excluded from the economic and social development in their countries.  These areas are also affected by high levels of unemployment and the lack of opportunities for significant income generation.   The consequence is that people have a very low income, so they have to subsist on agriculture, fishing and hunting activities and the application of these activities often depletes the natural resource base.

The principal objective of ecotourism projects is to look for sites with ecotourism potential within protected areas, and to train local people to become tourism service providers, thus moving away from unsustainable resource extraction practices. I am sure it is very challenging for all the organizations that work in tourism to achieve this goal.  First, training local community members to work in ecotourism takes a long time, given that the concept of “tourism” alone is very abstract to them and most communities have never done an activity like that in their lives. In some cases, we influence a change in their culture, since by introducing tourism we introduce a new way to earn money – after hunting and farming has been the norm for generations. Another challenge we face is to teach people with a very low education level to become entrepreneurs and expect that in a short period of time they can manage a multitude of tasks such as marketing, negotiating with tour operators, and manage all the logistics related to a complex industry such as ecotourism. And if you think these are not challenging enough, we still have to link the benefits of ecotourism with conservation of natural resources … because in the end that is our main goal.

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Elmor Wood and Lucia Prinz (right) in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, site of a Rare-supported ecotourism enterprise that both helped develop.   

At the International Ecotourism Conference in Oslo a discussion was generated on how to really impact conservation through ecotourism. At the community level, ecotourism can address certain threats to the natural resource base through job creation and substitution; however, this does not necessarily translate into a positive impact on conservation. As long as the demand for non timber and timber forest products remains strong in developed countries, people in developing countries will devote themselves to supplying this demand. At the macro level, in order to impact conservation we need to work with governments in reinforcing and creating better conservation policies for protected areas, and in investing money and resources to enforce environmental laws.

At the community level, in order to impact the conservation of natural resources ecotourism projects should have a two strong components. One component should be to train people in a variety of income-generating activities (ecotourism, forestry, handcrafts etc.) while facilitating access to markets to sell their products in order to fight poverty in a fair trade system. The other component should be environmental education. Adults and children living in natural parks need to be aware of the importance of conserving natural resources, and of the many economic benefits that come from this, as well as preventing natural disasters such as floods.

By combining these two activities I am sure we can impact conservation in the long term. Participating in the conference in Oslo and hearing about all the ecotourism experiences around the globe, I realize it is not easy to link ecotourism with conservation. It is a process of change that takes time since it involves changing attitudes, traditional economic activities, and attempting to give people ways to improve their livelihoods while also trying to involve macro level stakeholders to take action. Successfully accomplishing the objectives of all these ecotourism initiatives is challenging, and the threats are overwhelming.  Nevertheless, everybody (including me) agrees that we should keep on working in order to promote conservation all over the world.