Conservation Tourism: Interview with Ralf Buckley, International Centre for Ecotourism Research

At the end of 2010, CABI published the world’s first book on Conservation Tourism. The book was written by Professor Ralf Buckley and his colleagues at the International Centre for Ecotourism Research in Griffith University, Australia. Featuring 100 international case studies from private marine reserves to bird watching lodges, this book covers key topics including sources of capital and operational funding, corporate and organizational structure, marketing strategies, primary conservation outcomes and spin-off effects, links to public protected areas, future plans and global trends. Learn more & order this book from CABI.

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Interview with Professor Buckley

TIES: How do you define conservation tourism, and how is it different from ecotourism?

Prof. Buckley: We defined conservation tourism as commercial tourism which makes a net positive contribution to the continuing survival of threatened plant or animal species. There are a number of different possible mechanisms for positive contributions to conservation, but the key issue is to calculate net outcomes after subtracting the negative impacts. Many definitions of ecotourism do include contributions to conservation, but there are very few companies that can demonstrate their overall net contribution at global scale is positive. So, conservation tourism is a very small sub-sector of ecotourism, which is itself a small sub-sector of the multi-trillion dollar tourism industry. Budgets for conservation are small and stretched, especially in developing nations. Conservation tourism, while very small, is very important as there are several rare species where significant populations are protected in private reserves funded by tourism.

TIES: Where do you see this research going in future, and what are the most critical issues which need to be addressed?

Prof. Buckley: The companies considered in this book are driven by visionary individuals who saw the potential to use commercial tourism as a conservation tool, who understood the practicalities of both tourism and conservation, and who had both the charisma and the perseverance to combine them successfully. As we showed in one of our earlier CABI books, Case Studies in Ecotourism, nature based tourism can certainly generate money; but tourists and tourism development generally have negative environmental impacts, unless there is a system to harness it specifically for conservation. In Conservation Tourism, we show that a few companies do this directly and voluntarily; but usually, it only works if there are public national parks, and systems of fees.

There are several parallel lines of research. The first is to extend what we did in Conservation Tourism, as tourism funded models for conservation on private and community lands become more widespread worldwide. We’re just starting to see these models extend into Asia and the Pacific, for example, and we will try to track how they develop in different countries.

The second research theme relates to individual tourists visiting public national parks. This is a longstanding area of study, but as conservation in many countries is now heavily dependent on park entry fees, the large scale interactions between parks agencies and their visitors are becoming more significant for conservation.

The third is the management of small scale commercial tourism concessions in public national parks. Many countries permit small scale commercial tour operators in their parks, and some contract out quite large proportions of their visitor services. The US National Parks Service recently held an international meeting to compare concession management models. Historically, these concessions have made very little contribution to conservation, but the demand is certainly there, and parks agencies might well increase their permit fees considerably. In fact, some developing countries have already done so.

The fourth theme relates to relatively large-scale privately owned tourism accommodation and infrastructure inside national parks. Of course, property developers push for this, because they can profit under the pretense of partnership. By tracking existing examples worldwide, we found that most are there through various historical accidents, and that very few indeed yield any net gain for conservation – usually, only those operated by the same companies that run their own private reserves.

TIES: What types of destinations are most or least vulnerable to the negative effects of tourism, and why?

Prof. Buckley: While of course the answer depends on the type of tourism, generally, the marginal impacts of tourism will be less in areas which already have high human impacts, such as urban or agricultural landscapes. In wilderness areas, whether national park or not, even very low levels of human visitation can have major impacts, especially on any endangered plant or animal species.

That is true in any kind of ecosystem, but of course, different types of tourist activities have different impacts in different ecosystems. The 2006 CABI book, Adventure Tourism, discusses the types of activities; and the 2004 CABI book, Environmental Impacts of Ecotourism, the types of impact. And we have a new review in the 2011 volume of Annual Review of Environment and Resources, which updates the picture on environmental impacts and management.

TIES: What kinds of positive benefits can tourism bring to the environment, and how can we harness these benefits?

Prof. Buckley: One of the most important benefits of tourism, especially in less wealthy nations and regions, is that the money it generates. So, it’s all about what happens to that money, who gets it and what they use it for. In Conservation Tourism, we described cases where tourism funds conservation directly, by establishing private reserves and funding rehabilitation works, wildlife relocation, anti poaching patrols, and so on. In cases where communally owned lands are converted to conservation, or indeed where local residents help to reduce poaching in public national parks, it’s generally because they get immediate local gain from doing so.

The usual problem is that some people gain, but others lose, so it becomes a question of redistribution within a local community, which is outside the control of tour operators. This applies just as much in the wealthy continents as it does in the poorer regions. Tourists want to see wolves, for example, but farmers still kill them.

In some cases, the benefits of tourism can be harnessed through control of funds generated by tourism, for example when parks agencies charge tourist entry fees and use the money for conservation. This itself is a hugely complicated process, because it also depends on how their ability to earn money from tourism affects their other sources of funding, especially from central governments. Park fees, in addition, are part of a broader political context. In most countries, rich or poor, governments want their citizens to visit and appreciate national parks, so they want to make that affordable for all. So the best strategy depends on the country, and whether it is cash or political support that is most critical at the time.

TIES: What about the social and community impacts and benefits of tourism?

Prof. Buckley: Tourism is both an engine of economic growth, and an agent of cultural change. So, of course, the individuals who gain from tourism are happy, and the ones who see themselves losing out are not. Injecting new wealth into any community, no matter what the source, creates social changes, and some people will see those changes as good, others as bad. This applies for all kinds of tourism in all kinds of communities.

Cultural changes can work both ways too. Sometimes, locals want to become like tourists, copying their clothes and music. Sometimes, tourists want to become like locals, trying to learn their artistic or outdoor skills. Sometimes, tourism leads to loss of local traditions; but sometimes, it renews pride in traditional skills and practices. Even within our own societies, it’s not always easy for people with different backgrounds, trades and professions to find mutual respect for each other; and between widely different cultures which live in completely different ways, it can be even more difficult. But it seems to me to be a goal well worth pursuing.

TIES: Anything else you would like to add?

Prof. Buckley: Just one thing. We have summarized the whole of Ecotourism: Principles and Practices into short bullet points, and put them together as 120 easy to read powerpoint slides, to use as teaching materials with the textbook. And with permission from CABI, these will be available for download from Griffith Research Online. We are also doing a short PDF version as a study guide. Of course these are just outlines, for the full picture you need the book too. We have not yet done the same with Conservation Tourism, for which we’re still at the initial case study level, and tour operators are still experimenting with different approaches and strategies. It is possible with ecotourism, because it is a well-established field. For conservation tourism, it will be a few years before we can boil it down to key points. Watch this space!

More about CABI
CABI is a not-for-profit science-based development and information organization that applies scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment, to address the challenges of food security, and to improve access to agricultural and environmental scientific knowledge. CABI’s mission and direction is influenced by member countries who help guide activities undertaken. These include scientific publishing, development projects and research, and microbial services. CABI has published numerous books on the subject of tourism and ecotourism. For a complete list of these publications, visit the CABI bookstore here.

Pack for a Purpose: Making a Difference, Five Pounds at a Time

How to Make Big Impact with Little Effort

Pack for a Purpose™ is a newly founded non-profit organization dedicated to providing needed educational materials and medical supplies to children around the world. The organization was founded on the principal that every little bit helps, and all it takes to get involved is to use a small amount space in your luggage for supplies when packing for a trip abroad.

The concept is simple, and getting involved is easy. The Pack for a Purpose website lists, by country, the contact information for lodges around the world already supporting legitimate educational and medical community projects, and their specific needs based on the projects they sponsor.

All travelers need to do is visit the site, find a listing for a location where they are staying on their vacation, and bring a few pounds of the requested supplies in their luggage to drop off when they arrive. Each lodge listed on the Pack for a Purpose website has been contacted about the program, has agreed to participate, and will eagerly welcome all contributions from travelers.

The first time we took supplies, we visited a local school in Botswana and the kids were playing soccer with a ball of rags tied together with string. It’s startling to see just how little some of the schools and clinics have to work with.

Five pounds can be as much as 400 pencils or five deflated soccer balls. While crayons, Band-Aids and similar items are very simple things that most Americans take for granted, many people in the places where we have traveled just don’t have them. We can all find a little space in our luggage for a bag of supplies. If enough people make small contributions, we have the potential to make an enormous positive impact.

Changing the Way World Travelers Pack

The idea behind Pack for a Purpose came to me while talking to my travel agent regarding a trip to Kenya in 2008. I asked the agent why his other safari clients did not also use some of their luggage allowance for taking supplies. “Because nobody thinks about it,” he said. That was my Aha moment. “Then I need to provide a way for them to think about taking supplies.” I told the agent.

From that conversation, Pack for a Purpose was born.

One of the first contacts we established for the program was Michelle Puddu of Wilderness Safaris in South Africa. My husband and I had personally worked with Puddu to bring many hundreds of pounds of school supplies to South Africa and Botswana over the course of several different trips.

“The idea is a brilliant one – it costs almost nothing on the part of the donor, just a great deal of kindness and a small amount of effort,” Puddu said. “This is the type of goodwill that nobody really thinks about, but makes a big difference.”

Initially, we identified 25 locations in popular tourist destinations in Africa, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The goal is to identify all appropriate locations on every continent and in every country where vacation travelers are already staying and can drop off needed supplies. To facilitate this, visitors to the Pack for a Purpose website can go to the contact page and submit an appropriate lodging for consideration.

As word spreads and more travelers participate, we have the potential to deliver several tons of needed supplies each year directly to the people who need them. Pack for a Purpose makes it easy for everyone – vacation travelers, honeymooners and business travelers – to contribute in a meaningful way.

TIES Business Members on Pack for a Purpose

Here are a few examples of TIES business members participating in Pack for a Purpose, and the items needed for the local community projects that the lodges support.

Arenas del Mar Beach & Nature Resort (Costa Rica): Printer paper, graphite and coloured pencils, construction paper, rulers, clay, scissors, glue, dictionaries, markers and white boards, pens, notebooks, crayons, erasers, uniforms, coloring books, accessories for motor skills development such as puzzles.
Lapa Rios Ecolodge (Costa Rica): Games (e.g. Shoots and Ladders, checkers, dominoes, playing cards), mathematical functions flash cards, soccer balls, uniforms and cleats, jump ropes, jacks, frisbees, clean, second hand children’s clothing (both boys and girls, ages 6-15 years).
Yachana Lodge (Ecuador): Laptop computers (new and used), white board markers, deflated soccer balls, books in Spanish, solar calculators, rulers, pens, pencils, large maps.
>> See full list of destinations & participating businesses

More about Pack for a Purpose
Pack-for-a-Purpose_logoRebecca Rothney, a former North Carolina school teacher turned entrepreneur, founded Pack for a Purpose along with her husband, Scott and several friends. For more information about Pack for a Purpose, travel locations, lists of needed supplies and other ways to get involved

Hands-on tourism education: Outdoor rural tourism study program in Nepal

By Bijaya Pradhan, Executive Chairman, Dream Nepal Travels & Tours

In June, Dream Nepal Travel & Tours organized a three-day outdoor rural tourism program in Nagarkot (33km north east of Kathmandu) for the students of Silver Mountain School of Hospitality Management (SMSHM). Working with tourism colleges, Dream Nepal organizes these trips across Nepal, encouraging education and capacity building through outdoor activities.

As part of the SMSHM program, the students prepared presentations on their skills and what they have learned about setting up tourism and hospitality enterprises. The outdoor activities on the rural tourism program allowed the students to go and see for themselves what they have learned about in the classroom. The close encounter with nature, culture and adventure will not only help them further develop their skills, but also grow their confidence as they prepare for their career in travel and tourism.

DreamNepal-PresentationsGenerating students’ interest in the places they visit, the local people and cultures, and the social, political, cultural and environmental issues facing these destinations, is just as important as providing courses and training opportunities. By offering hands-on learning experience, we are helping prepare today’s youth for the development of the tourism industry in Nepal. There are many students in Nepal studying tourism, but unless they are familiar with the on-the-ground realist of tourism, their learning.

These outdoor study trips also promote domestic tourism and support rural communities. The goal is to engage students to further help the destinations they visit by sharing their experience with others, and, in the future, contribute to promoting the destinations as tourism professionals.

DreamNepal-OutdoorThese students are the future successors of the tourism industry. That’s why it’s important to pass on the knowledge and experience of today and prepare them for tomorrow. Many tourism businesses believe that these types of programs targeting youth not only provide educational benefits for students and economic benefits for rural destinations, but also help build a sustainable future of the tourism industry in Nepal, with the potential to attract more domestic and international tourists. Caring for the Destination program Limited (WHL) is owned and operated by a team from Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, Switzerland, the USA and Vietnam, working with local partners who do all the things best done locally (e.g. working directly with the local accommodation providers and with travelers), and WHL does all the things best done centrally (e.g. technology, web marketing).

Generally, we seek out experienced local tour operators as our local partners, although occasionally we also work with local industry associations or NGOs. In every case they are people with an intimate knowledge of tourism in their destination and people we are proud to be working with. We offer you, the traveler, access to these erstwhile little heard-of hotels, guesthouses and hostels plus local tours and activities via one e-marketplace network.

For example, in the Solomon Islands many of the properties listed on the WHL member site are on the outer islands and have no Internet access or even telephone access. Instead, our local partner contacts them via HF radio to pass on bookings, update allotment etc. To the traveler, it looks like seamless online booking such as you would make on any other travel site, but in fact there is much different process at play with us – what we call our digital to bicycle interface.

WHL Caring for the Destination Program

In doing the work of collecting and posting online information about small accommodation providers, WHL identified many small SMEs that are actively engaged in projects which, in their own way, are positive steps towards improving sustainable outcomes for the destination. None of the initiatives are “certifiable” to existing standards, but they address specific local needs, and are meaningful to the businesses involved.

WHL then started to write up some of these initiatives and highlighting them for travelers as “brand differentiators” for the respective accommodation providers. These initiatives were grouped under a “Caring for the Destination” banner, helping encourage the local businesses to deliver and sell unique experiences.

Initially, we thought the logic of what we were doing was compelling and that both our local partners and their suppliers would be happy to get on board – it was free after all and intended to help their businesses. Sadly, however, this wasn’t the case, which led us to re-evaluating the role of each of the key stakeholders: the local partners, the accommodation providers and the travelers, in order to work out what we needed to do better.

Part of the problem was that we didn’t recruit well enough in the beginning. We also underestimated the difficulty many of our local partners would have getting small accommodation providers to open up about what they were doing. It was a little bit of the blind leading the blind – one party not being too sure what they were looking for and the other party not knowing if they had it. The information they did collect in many cases was dry and uninteresting, and in other cases of very doubtful value.

To address this problem, the first thing we did was to improve our recruiting and induction of all new partners in the network. We now spend a lot of time screening new applicants and also training them in both why sustainable tourism is important for their business as well as how to source the information needed from suppliers. We have also worked with Dr Xavier Font and his colleagues at ICRT (Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK) to try and turn the information we do collect from accommodation providers into a story which sells the benefits for the traveler.

As Xavier has often told out network partners, “this hotel is saving water by not washing sheets and towels daily,” for example, is not necessarily a good story for the traveler. Initiatives like this are better translated into benefits the traveler can relate to: things that will make their stay more enjoyable in some way or help them save money. It may simply be a guilt alleviation benefit that is being offered, but even then a story about the impact of the particular water saving initiatives may provide a stronger message.

The next big challenge is engaging travelers. They need to drive the signals to the accommodation and tour suppliers that doing good is good business, i.e. accommodation providers doing positive work in sustainability need to be getting more bookings so that their compatriots in the destination will start to follow their lead.

We have had two problems here. First is that being a relatively new player and a small player on the global stage, travelers don’t know us for the most part and the volumes of bookings we generate are still small by comparison with the big online booking platforms like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, etc. In other words, even if we drive proportionately more bookings to those suppliers that are ‘caring for the destination,’ the volumes we generate is still small – too small to be significant. Solving this is not easy, but we are trying to reach out to other online booking companies, in the hopes that if many others joined this effort, the impact could start to be felt.

The second challenge has been a bit of a brand conflict within We started life with a mission to help extend the benefits of tourism to the little guys in the developing world. In other words, we were more about pro-poor tourism than sustainable tourism. The business model of having local partners in each destination was implemented to connect product from the developing world to the global market. Our brand, therefore, does not speak explicitly to sustainable travel, and those booking on the sites will see listings without the “caring for the destination” rating, as well as those with the “caring” scores.

This means travelers with a real interest in sustainable travel may overlook and opt for sites that mainly focus on responsible/sustainable tourism. To address this problem, we are also working on a new portal to be launched later this year, which will sell only “caring for the destination” product, alongside other travel product supplied from outside the network.