Tag: ecotourism

Navigating Ecotourism Certification

A guest post by Ryan Davila

Ecotourism is commonly defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). Simplifying this definition, ecotourism exists at the intersection of conservation efforts and sustainable development. While the idea of ecotourism sounds promising, there are many instances of ecotourism operators not delivering on the stated goals of the industry, creating concern that ecotourism is doing more harm than good on both conservation and sustainable development fronts.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

In order to combat these potential negative impacts and identify those businesses that are living up to the promises of the industry, many international organizations, national governments, and non-governmental organizations have implemented ecotourism certification programs. Certification programs are defined as “a voluntary procedure that assesses, audits and gives written assurance that a facility, product, process or service meets specific standards. It awards a marketable logo to those that meet or exceed baseline standards set by the certification program” (definition by Martha Honey). The key word that I want to emphasize in this definition is the word “voluntary.” Explaining further, only the ecotourism operators that want to go through the certification process will be assessed.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

The first programs were developed in 1985 and most focused on the environmental impacts. Many of these initial programs existed at the international level, meaning that these certification programs certified ecotourism operators all over the world. Fast forward to the present day, there are now roughly 200 ecotourism certification programs in existence. These programs are very diverse and, as mentioned, exist at virtually all geographic scales, ranging from international to local, and can include a variety of criteria and standards used to evaluate ecotourism operators. Although most, now include criteria that assess the socioeconomic impacts in addition to the environmental impacts of ecotourism.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

Today, certification programs and certified ecotourism operators can be found all over the world in virtually every country (and to make is easy on you, you can find information on most online).  Some of the most common certification programs to look for include, but are not limited to: Green Globe, Green Key, Rainforest Alliance, Green Leaf, and TravelLife. If there are multiple certification programs available in a specific destination (which there usually are since an operator can apply for as many certification programs as desired as long as the operator is within the geographic scope of the project), it’s a good idea to see which operators are certified by multiple certification programs. This is not to say that these highly certified operators are the best in the destination, just that they are more likely to be dedicated to accomplishing the goals of ecotourism.

(c) ABR 2016

(c) ABR 2016

As ecotourism continues to grow and become more and more popular, it is important that we, as ecotourists, begin paying more attention to the impact that we have on both the communities and the natural areas that we visit during our expeditions. If we research certification programs and choose ecotourism operators that are certified at our destinations, we starting on the right path to becoming more conscious travelers.
*If you desire more information on ecotourism certification, please visit The International Ecotourism Society website (http://www.ecotourism.org/) or the DESTINET website (http://destinet.eu/who-who/market-solutions/certificates/fol442810).*

Cautionary Tales for the Concerned Traveler: The Story of the Key Deer and Speeding

The Florida Keys have plenty of attractions to bring travelers from all over the globe – an otherworldly highway of bridges over the sea, a massive, empty fortress on the edge of American waters, and the sea-side town of Key West at the center of it all (all of which you can learn more about in my last post here).

Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016

Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016

These man-made wonders aren’t the only thing that makes the keys special. The keys are home to many different animals, all of which play a role in the systems that make this destination unique. Believe it or not, even things like poisonous plants and mosquito are essential building blocks for the nature that so enchants us. As travelers, it is our responsibility to protect  and respect these living beings (except the mosquito biting you, we all have permission to kill those rude ladies with a well-aimed slap), even if it means we don’t get that selfie we’d love to have, or get to hike through a cave or island with nesting animals.

Why is this our responsibility? As I mentioned before, each species plays a role in creating the environments that we travel so far to visit. If we value these places, it wouldn’t be right to leave it any lesser when we return home. Local people and future generations also deserve to have these environments and their inhabitants protected. Also, as many of us are animal lovers, and it is important to consider the consequences of anything that we do. The story of the key deer of the Florida Keys is a good example of why we must be careful, and the consequences of not doing so.

Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)

Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)

The key deer has the long and illustrious scientific name Odocoileus virginianus clavium – try saying THAT three times fast. For the uninitiated, the fact that this species has three components to its scientific name, means that it is a subspecies, which is basically a group of animals that has been isolated long enough to start to look like a new species, but isn’t quite there yet. The key deer is a subspecies of the more common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which most Americans have seen at one time or another. Unlike the white-tailed deer, however, the key deer is found in only one place in the entire world, the Florida Keys (specifically from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key), and it is easily distinguished from white-tailed deer due to its tiny size.

Sadly, this special little creature has been on the brink of extinction since the 1950s, when hunting brought its population down to 50 animals. We tried to address this problem by using the Endangered Species Act to stop people from directly killing these tiny, island deer, and in 1957 the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was established. The hope was, as it often is, that if we gave them some room, and kept the stressors of human activity away from them, that their numbers might start to grow. And they did! For a time.

key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)

key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)

The highway that makes the Florida Keys such a road trip destination isn’t innocent in this story. Since key deer have lived near ever increasing numbers of humans for decades, they have lost their fear of people and the roads that allow us to explore the keys with ease. However, even if they hadn’t lost that fear, Highway 1 cuts through their refuge, and this forces the deer to cross the road in order to find food and mates. Each crossing puts them in danger of cars that are move through the refuge, especially at night, when the deer are most active and people are the least able to make them out in time to slow down. So, altogether, this means that the popularity of Highway 1, as well as people’s mindset while they are travelling it, has created a continuing threat to the key deer (along with other issues that you can read more about here – https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/1997/Whats-Killing-the-Key-Deer.aspx).

So now you’re asking, how can I be part of the solution and not the problem? Well, if you ever find yourself driving through the keys, SLOW DOWN. There are plenty of signs informing you when you are entering their refuge area, and special speed limits imposed on the highway here as well. With a population of only around 300, a single deer killed on the road is a risk for the species. If you’re passengers complain, you can tell them to Google the key deer so they can look at their cute little faces and that they really should have gone to the bathroom earlier.

Travel and happiness go hand in hand for many of us, but often we don’t think about what impact we have on our journey. We should always respect the places we visit, and the people and animals that call those places home.

The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016

The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016

What Is Missing in Ecotourism?

I posted an entry last year about what ecotourism is, because this is not only something that I am passionate about, but it plays a major role in my PhD research, and thus I have learned a lot about it on an academic level. Since my last post on the subject, my research has progressed, I have seen a few more parts of world, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why the benefits of ecotourism have only manifested in rare occasions. Now, I want to spend some time discussing my thoughts on the matter, since I may be leaving for a field season in Haiti soon, so my other travel posts will have to wait.

(c) R Raschke

(c) R Raschke

Ecotourism is meant to do three main things: (1) support environmental conservation, (2) local financially support locals through employment and fair pay for their use of their resources, and (3) it should provide environmental and cultural education for travelers. In a few special cases, these things have been accomplished, much to the benefit of surrounding areas, but for the most part, according to conservation and tourism research, ecotourism has fallen short of most of these goals, most of the time. Furthermore, ecotourism, along with all forms of tourism, has the potential to exploit local people, and degrade human and natural spaces. The Caribbean, where I have focused my research, is just one area that currently exhibits many of the negative symptoms of mismanaged tourism industries. Foreign companies dominate the landscape of Caribbean tourism, between the all-inclusive resorts that have cropped up on beaches across the region and the cruises that frequent the many island nations of the area. Local resources and infrastructure is often overwhelmed by waves of tourists coming in off of cruise ships, and local people have developed some less than flattering stereotypes about visitors, which has sometimes led to antagonistic interactions with tourists. None of these are specific to ecotourism, or even common in the case of ecotourism, but they illustrate what can happen when tourism is allowed to operate in a way that does not prioritize the preservation and protection of the people and environments that that have attracted visitors from across the world.

I was tempted early on to blame these things on the companies that take advantage of the developing governments in the Caribbean, but it has become clear to me that the people providing tourism services can only cause and only fix so many problems in the tourism industry. So, what is missing in the puzzle that is so often discussed and studied by academics.

I think the answer is pretty simple, actually… what’s missing from all the discussions is the tourists. Us.

Most often, we aren’t pulling our weight when it comes to protecting the

(c) R Raschke

(c) R Raschke

things in the world that we love, and pay thousands to go see. We create the demand that shapes the tourism industry, we create the stereotypes that make locals antagonistic, and we sometimes sacrifice the well-being of the environments that we visit to satisfy our own needs. In some ways, this makes a lot of sense. We are on vacation, and we have paid a lot of money to see and do the things that we want in relative comfort. Even so, when I travel, I do like to think that I might be doing some good for the people in the places where I go. In the US, this is usually pretty obvious, especially in places where tourism is the bread and butter of some small, unique communities. The impact in developing countries, however, is less sure, and overall, without the help of tourists, tourism has little hope of changing for the better.

So, what does this mean for us? How can we make things better for the people and places that we love to dream about visiting, and hopefully will see in the future.

The first thing that I think we need to do, as concerned travelers, is educate ourselves about the ways that tourism can be good and bad for local communities. This will help us spot helpful and damaging practices in the places that we visit. We should also have an understanding of the ways in which we can be good or bad for different locations based on their culture, their environment, and the things that we want to see and do while we are there.

Through this understanding, we should strive to modify our expectations and behaviors while we are travelling. There are some sacrifices that we need to make in order to have less of an impact while travelling. Follow all guidelines while travelling, even down to things like park requests that you don’t take anything (including rocks) from protected areas, and listen to guides who should be there to balance your needs with those of the place you are in. In certain places, this won’t be enough as some developing countries may not have the resources to develop proper guidelines or train guides. So, keep some general rules in mind for cultural and environmental sensitivity. Also, take any chance you have to stay in environmentally friendly accommodations, and those places that are run by locals. Some regular hotels also offer you more environmentally friendly options as well- such as not getting your towels washed or your room cleaned every day. Take these opportunities to save some resources when you can.

We should also seek out and reward the businesses that care as much as we do. Help locals starting new businesses to get the word out if you enjoyed your stay. Tell others about ecotourism-based hotels or excursions that you enjoyed, and strive to let your money support those people in the tourism industry that are trying to make things better.

(c) R Raschke

(c) R Raschke

And be sure to let companies (hotels, tour companies, etc.) know when you catch them doing things that you know are bad for the people and/or environment of an area. For instance, after becoming familiar with whale watching guidelines, I have seen some whale watch operators approach whales too quickly or too closely, and then they pursue the whales that they have scared. All very inappropriate behavior that I feel their guests wouldn’t allow them to continue if they knew what this sort thing did to the animals that they love.

Starting to think about these things, and changing what we do while we travel (and at home), we can start to help the small businesses and local people make tourism the tool for peace, cultural exchange, and environmental protection that the dreamers behind ecotourism hoped that it one day might be.

Any thoughts on this? Let me know. I think it is something that I will continue to consider and write about in the future.

Puerto Penasco: A Beach Paradise in the Desert

(c) Rocky Point Restaurant Guide

(c) Rocky Point Restaurant Guide

About four hours from Phoenix and Tucson alike, and a little more than an hour’s drive past the Mexican border at Lukeville/Sonoyta sits the formerly small fishing town of Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point to Americans and Ge’e Suidagi in Tohono O’odham). While it is currently a spring break/holiday hot spot for Arizonans looking to spend some time on the beach, Puerto Penasco’s major tourism development actually didn’t start until the 1990s. Initial development was slow, but by the 2000s the growth of the tourism industry and improvements in the city progressed at nearly a monthly rate. In some places, like the community of Las Conchas, condos starting at $100,000 were common- a mere 5 minute walk from the beach.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

I have been traveling to Puerto Penasco regularly for nearly a decade, and it is easy to see why people were eager to grab their slice of paradise here. The beaches, even at their busiest, were spacious compared to the overcrowded coasts that I have visited in California. Swimming here is easy- the water is warm and comfortable, the sand is soft, and when the tide is perfect there are large tracts of relatively shallow water to drift lazily through. At other times, the waves are good enough for body surfing or boogie bordering, and despite the generally sandy nature of the beach, there are also amazing tide pools here. Puerto Penasco’s beaches offer visitors a little bit of everything.

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Besides the beaches, Puerto Penasco is home to CEDO, a vibrant shopping/dining hub in Old Port/Malecon, as well as some ecological treasures (and formerly a little aquarium). CEDO is also known as the Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Oceanos or the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans. CEDO has their base in Las Conchas, which has a small museum and shop for visitors. CEDO also runs a variety of ecotourism trips, which include paddling out at Morua Estuary, trips to Pinacate (a must see!) and the San Jorge Islands, among other things. For any one interested in the outdoors, CEDO is your go-to for Puerto Penasco.

Alternatively, Old Port or Malecon is a nice dose of culture, although this area is heavily influenced by tourism, and for any seasoned traveler, it is pretty easy to see. There is lots of shopping here, and while there are definitely some gems to be found, much of what you find here are the cookie cutter souvenirs that most tourists appear to be after. There are areas of Puerto Penasco with more authentic wares, of course, but Malecon is still a great place to visit. Standing on the edge of the main road in Old Port, you can look at some of the oldest parts of the town on one side, and the ocean,

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

rimmed by mountains, on the other. Many of the restaurants in this area are built to cash in on this view, with many of them having large, second-story patios (there is even one restaurant that was built over the water). There are also many places in this area to buy fresh seafood from Puerto Penasco’s own fishermen.

Besides dining downtown, I would highly suggest that anyone who visits Puerto Penasco stop and have lunch at Pollo Lucas. This is my favorite restaurant in the whole city, and while the dining is outside, beneath a thatched roof, it is the best Mexican food that I have ever had. Everyone that I have ever have brought here has loved it. It is simple, delicious, and affordable. I highly recommend it.

And if you have any questions about Puerto Penasco or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂

My next update will be on November 15th; about the historic Tonto National Monument!

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

What Is Ecotourism?

A large component of my PhD project focuses on ecotourism, and many of the concepts and development strategies that have evolved around this idea. The more I read about it, the more convinced I am that we, as tourists, aren’t as informed about the concept as we should be.

The primary misconception that many people I have talked to, as well as myself before my research started is that ecotourism is simply nature tourism. The working definition, however, is much more complicated, and implies considerations that are very important to me as a traveler. First, ecotourism is not only nature-based, but the money earned through ecotourism should help support conservation efforts and sustain the natural resources supporting tourism in the area. This can be done in a variety of ways. Visitor fees for national parks can be partially used to pay for conservation research, management and protection of native species, and the expansion of protected areas, among other things. Some ecotourism companies will also use some of their revenues to support conservation organizations, or purchase land that they plan on protecting themselves. Whatever the strategy utilized, a true ecotourism venture will not only use nature to entice travelers to visit, but they will care for the resource as well.

Second, the local people should be supported by ecotourism. In many cases, especially in developing countries, people from outside of the destination community benefit from tourism including foreign investors and development companies. This channels much of the money earned by tourism businesses out of the countries that travelers are visiting, and this can be made worse in areas where the goods needed to support the industry must be imported as well. In some cases, such as certain Caribbean countries, this can be so bad that nearly 70% of the money spent by travelers in these nations will be lost to outside entities. Ecotourism, on the other hand, should support local people by providing jobs and training opportunities, while also supporting local agriculture and businesses. Strategies for supporting local people will vary, but this is an integral component of ecotourism nonetheless.

Finally, ecotourism should provide relevant environmental education for visitors, and, when possible, to the local people as well. This aspect of ecotourism not only makes the experience of travelers more enjoyable, but it has the potential to help concerned visitors to improve their behavior, and get involved in protecting the aspects of the natural world that entice them to explore. Local education opportunities can do likewise, while improving local support for conservation, and serving as a chance for capacity building.

While it is hard to tell how many of these things are actually being accomplished by the ecotourism businesses that we choose to purchase from, there are a few different certification schemes that can help travelers such as myself sort through all the different options. Travelers may also make their individually planned trips into more of an ecotourism experience by seeing and donating to protected areas/species, staying in smaller, locally run accommodations, and seeking out businesses that train and hire local people.

Relevant Links: The International Ecotourism Society and The Rainforest Alliance

Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, Sonora, Mexico

El Elegante (c) AB Raschke

I have travelled down to Puerto Penasco several times a year since 2005, but despite that fact, I wasn’t aware of Pinacate until recently. Once I did find out about it, however, I was hooked on the idea of visiting the park. This area is home to some utterly surreal landscapes, with ten massive Maar craters, and North America’s largest active sand dune field. In fact, this area is so unique and otherworldly that NASA used it to train astronauts for the moon in the 1960s and 70s. Currently, the park is split into two sections that are easily visited by travelers. The first is a long dirt road that allows access to three of the reserve’s volcanic craters, and the second is a new visitor center that was built in conjunction with the UNESCO world heritage designation.

Coming from Puerto Penasco, the visitor center is the first part of the park that we visited (73km marker on highway 8). Although the building pales in comparison to the natural attractions of the park, it is a good way to start exploring. The architecture of the center is integrated into the volcanic landscape, and is perched on the wave-like structures of an ancient lava field. Pamphlets about the center also proudly mention that this is the first building in Latin America to be entirely energy self-sufficient, and the arrays of solar panels lining the roof seem to support this claim. When we arrived, we were greeted by a center employee, who not only helped us get our tickets sorted out, but actually gave us an interpretive introduction to the area with the use of the mosaic compass that fronts the center entrance. There we learned that the location of the center was chosen due to its view of the dune fields, Pinacate peak, and the Sierra Blancas. As there are several interpretive trails leading out from the center, any traveler can appreciate the significance of this decision.

These trails are not only beautiful in-and-of themselves (as they weave through the undulating, black lava fields), but they offer some best views of the dunes and the Sierra Blancas that the park offers. Besides this, these particular tracks showcase the unique landscape that has evolved in the Gran Desierto de Altar. As lifeless as one might expect a lavafield tucked away in a desert to be, the area around the visitor center (and much of the rest of the park) is typical of the Sonoran Desert.

(c) AB Raschke

As the wettest desert in the world, Sonora hosts a wide array of flora and fauna, and the biosphere reserve is no exception to this. The juxtaposition of the vibrant desert plants with the black, unwelcoming surface of the lava fields is mesmerizing. Animal life abounds as well; the air was filled with the soft calls of desert doves, and side-blotched lizards were basking in the sun all along the trail. It does take some care to navigate the uneven, often jagged ground of the lava fields, but the trails are short enough that they can be taken slowly, and thoroughly enjoyed along the way.

The other half of the park is a few miles down highway 8 (km 52), and consists of a loop dirt road, which is about 70 kms long. This road gets rough in a few spots, so vehicles with some nice clearance are preferable when travelling through this area, but the woman at the visitor center insisted that most cars could handle the road. In either case, it should be travelled with some caution, as much of the road is one-way, and is fairly narrow. The main attractions of this part of the park are the three craters that can be visited along the way, El Elegante, El Tecolote, and Cerro Colorado, but the road itself has a special appeal. There are several interpretive stations along the way, that do a good job of telling the enthralling history of the park, with its turbulent, volcanic origins, to its importance to the Tohono O’odham people, and the early explorations of the area by Europeans. It is also a great way to see the varying species assemblages that make up the colorful mosaic of life in the Gran Desierto de Altar.

El Elegante is the first crater on the dirt road, and it is probably the most breath-taking crater of the three. The drive towards the crater is unassuming, and it built up my anticipation, as I couldn’t help but try to look further down the road for the chance at an early glimpse of the formation. As it is, El Elegante doesn’t reveal itself until you actually hike up to it, and it does not disappoint. The impression that I got of this place is similar to what I feel when I visit the Grand Canyon.

El Elegante (c) AB Raschke

The crater is so large that it is hard to fully grasp its size, and its cliff-like walls seem to be so perfectly round as to have been carved out by some massive artist. Closer inspection reveals imperfections in the crater’s edges, but each one is fascinating, and tells a part of the dynamic story of this formerly explosive area. There is a loop trail that runs along the edge of the crater, and the length of this track gave me some perspective on the true massiveness of El Elegante, as we walked about 2 kilometers and hadn’t even made it half way around.

El Tecolote is something of a surprise after El Elegante. After reaching the large parking lot built to accommodate visitors to the second crater, we made our way down a trail that led up through the softly sloping hills of this area. Here yellowing grass peeked up through black and red volcanic soil, and intimidating chollas seemed to dominate the landscape, the harsh desert sun making their golden spines glint like painful halos. After about 20 minutes braving the climbing trail, we topped the large, rounded mountain that was the main feature of the path, and found ourselves wondering where El Tecolote was.

View of El Pinacate from El Tecolote (c) AB Raschke

It took some consideration of the area to figure out that we had been scaling El Tecolote the entire time. The mountain that the trail weaved it’s way up was the lip of the crater, and the base of the trail had passed through the opening that had been blasted out of the formation back in the days of Gran Desierto’s violent past. The beauty of El Tecolote was nothing like that of El Elegante. Looking out from the top of the trail, it wasn’t the crater that caught my eye, nor was it the crater that ended up making the hike worthwhile, but rather the view that the its edge offered. To the west, the lava that once flowed from El Tecolote was still apparent, forming a permanent, black shadow across the landscape, and Pinacate ruled the skyline in the distance. To the east, Cerro Colorado was apparent in the distance, a smooth, tan hill rising out of the dark, volcanic ground. Much of the park accessible from the road was apparent from El Tecolote.

Cerro Colorado was the final attraction of the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, and lacking any sort of trail, it took less time to explore than El Elegante and El Tecolote. Approaching this last crater, I couldn’t help but compare Cerro Colorado to Ayer’s Rock (not that they are at all the same in actuality).

Cerro Colorado from a distance (c) AB Raschke

Cerro Colorado was in stark contrast the rest of the black and red formations of that were apparent from the road, and driving up to it, its smooth, slopping back dominated the otherwise flat, creosote carpeted grounds. The crater itself, viewable from the end of the road, was something of the mix of El Elegante and El Tecolote to my mind. The road followed the curve of the edge of the crater that had been blasted out, and across from the viewpoint were steep, severe cliffs like those that ringed El Elegante. After a long day of hiking and driving, Cerro Colorado was a calm finale to the surreal beauty that could be found around every corner of the park.

Links:
Official Site
UNESCO Site

Cerro Colorado (c) AB Raschke

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