Ecotourism Decline Jeopardizes
October 24, 2001
NEWS RELEASE FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Patricia Carrington Media Relations Manager
The International Ecotourism Society
TEL: 802/651-9818 FAX: 802/651-9819
Costa Rica, once dependent on banana agriculture and small-scale
farming, has built a stronger economy, conserved land, and supported scientific
research on rainforests through ecotourism. Now these efforts are in jeopardy.
In a survey of its membership, The International Ecotourism Society
(TIES) found that Costa Rica, like many ecotourism and nature destinations, is
feeling the ripple effects of the travel industry slowdown caused by the September
11th attacks in the United States and the military action in the Middle East.
The unwillingness of many Americans to travel is sidetracking the goals of ecotourism--to
provide benefits to local people and to aid in conservation efforts.
Even with the current turmoil, TIES' survey indicates that booking
rates for North American itineraries remain positive and stable, and the World
Tourism Organization (WTO) still predicts positive growth for tourism worldwide.
During the first eight months of 2001 tourism was on track for a 3% increase,
following a record 7.4% growth rate in 2000. The WTO predicts that 2001 should
still see growth, although at a slightly lower rate of 2%.
In the past decade, key nature destinations have posted rates
of growth well above average, indicating ecotourism's strength as both an industry
and a travel preference. Costa Rica, for example, posted a 9% average annual growth
rate from 1990-99, according to the WTO. In the same time frame South Africa saw
a phenomenal average annual increase of 19.3%, Indonesia 8%, and Belize 6%.
After such exceptional growth over the past decade, the sudden
slowdown in the travel industry has deeply affected ecotourism providers. According
to TIES' membership survey, destinations and their citizens employed in the ecotourism
sector are feeling the threat and the pains of an international travel industry
damaged by terrorism and world conflict. Across the globe cancellations are high
and bookings are low. Ecotourism is being hit at its roots--local providers are
firing staff, reducing departures, and preparing for the worst.
"The local impact is huge. Who really gets hurt are those who
provide the services--the lodging operator, the growers of food, the people who
provide the transportation," said Richard Ryel, president of International Expeditions
and member of TIES' Board of Directors.
Ecotourism is especially important in developing nations by providing
additional funds and jobs at the local level, where they are needed most. A 1999
study by the United Kingdom Department for International Development found that
tourism is growing in all but one of the 12 countries that are home to 80 percent
of the world's poor-including Brazil, Indonesia, Nepal and Peru.
Known for its high level of biological and cultural diversity,
Peru has used ecotourism to improve the economies of local communities and to
conserve natural areas. According to Kurt Holle of Rainforest Expeditions in Peru,
the current slowdown in the tourism industry has affected its people--job opportunities
could become scarce and national parks are facing a decrease in revenue from visitation,
which could directly affect their conservation programs.
"Manu and Tambopata parks, both known for high biological diversity,
probably make around US$75,000 a year in entrance fees, which will be directly
affected by a decrease in tourists. Contracts for construction, usually handed
out to locals, may be paralyzed as lodges will have no money to invest. Handicraft
sales are reduced in direct proportion to tourism decreases. If things remain
as is--with a war, an anthrax scare, a pummeled economy--we will face a year in
which sales may not grow or may decrease 10-20%," says Holle.
Destinations suffer unfairly
Many tour operators in ecotourism destinations report that cancellations
have stabilized, but their real worry is bookings--Americans seem reluctant to
leave home. Americans' reluctance to travel to other destinations can be blamed
on the fear of the unknown, explains Ryel.
Unlike other recent conflicts like the Gulf War, Ryel believes
that since the danger does not appear to be confined to one place, people are
afraid to go anywhere.
Tour operators in Costa Rica feel spared by major cancellations,
because the terrorist attacks occurred in the low season for travel. But, while
it is the low season for travel, it is the high season for bookings. Preliminary
estimates have a 30% decrease in bookings from last year.
"This is booking season. The week before last we were getting
17 Costa Rica bookings, when we should have been getting 100 bookings," says Tamara
Budowski, president of Horizontes, an inbound tour operator in Costa Rica.
Many countries that are geographically close to the bombing in
Afghanistan are experiencing a significant decline in tourism, but still remain
safe destinations for travelers. Tour operators with itineraries to places like
India and Nepal, which have little to do with the current conflict, report cancellations
and continue to struggle with low bookings.
Even further from the conflict, tour operators in Kenya continue
to experience high cancellation rates. According to Anne Loehr, of Eco-resorts,
an inbound tour operator in Kenya, Christmas bookings for Eco-resorts were canceled
following the start of the bombings in Afghanistan. Information requests are also
down significantly. Loehr worries that the continuing decline will derail all
the positive economic and conservation effects that ecotourism has had in Kenya.
"This affects the entire region and Kenyan people, from the
farmer who supplies food to the hotels, to the mechanic who fixes the safari vehicles,
to the travel agent who books the flights, to the camp staff and guides who have
been laid off due to slow business. This will then effect the environment as all
these struggling Kenyans will naturally revert to subsistence-level farming and
poaching small game in order to survive," says Loehr.
However, the situation in other nature destinations provides a
stark comparison to the lows in Costa Rica, Kenya, and Asia. A tour operator in
Alaska, for example, reports virtually no change in bookings or cancellations,
since most trips do not begin until May 2002. And tour operators with North American
itineraries are faring well, since many Americans have changed their focus from
trips abroad to trips at home.
Backroads, an inbound and outbound tour operator based in California,
reports a shift in the demand from international trips to trips within the U.S.
They anticipate this shift to continue.
Travelers can make the difference
Although bookings are down, Budowski remains hopeful that Costa
Rica's proximity to the United States as well as the peaceful and healing qualities
of nature experiences will bring travelers back.
"There seems to be a consensus among many ecotourism operators
that nature has a soothing and healing effect on human beings. One of our clients
is talking about the 'tonic of wildness, of nature,' a Thoreau quote. Because
of nature's ability to sooth and heal, I predict that nature travel will be strong,
and has the best outlook within the travel industry," said Budowski.
Ryel is also positive that travelers will continue to choose ecotourism
because of the natural and cultural richness of the destinations.
"The destinations are still there-they still possess the same
natural and cultural wonders that provide enriching experiences," Ryel reminded
From the Amazon to the Arctic, many communities and small businesses
have made a commitment to conserve their fragile places and cultures using ecotourism.
Every traveler can contribute, and every responsible visit helps to reaffirm local
concern for preserving the natural environment and cultural diversity.
"As individuals find they want to renew their exploration of the
world, this choice will have significance in many people's lives, well beyond
America's borders," said Megan Epler Wood, TIES president.
Read Megan Epler Wood's statement "Global understanding in troubled
times" in the Ecotourism Observer www.ecotourism.org/observer/guest_column.asp
About The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)
Founded in 1990, TIES is the largest and oldest ecotourism organization in the
world. It currently has some 1600 professional members in more than 100 countries.
The organization's membership includes academics, consultants, conservation professionals,
governments, architects, tour operators, lodging facilities, and general development
experts. As a non-governmental organization, TIES is unique in its efforts to
provide guidelines and standards, training, technical assistance, research and
publications to foster sound ecotourism. For more information about TIES visit: