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Elephants in the Masai Mara

Ecotourism Decline Jeopardizes Conservation Efforts
October 24, 2001

CONTACT: Patricia Carrington Media Relations Manager
The International Ecotourism Society
TEL: 802/651-9818 FAX: 802/651-9819
EMAIL: patricia@ecotourism.org

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 travelers.

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: www.ecotourism.org.

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