Community Ecotourism on the Frontiers of Global Development Part 1

Part 1 – Ecotourism 20 Years Ago

In the early 1990s, hundreds of small scale ecotourism companies were working in remote areas of the planet engaging communities and seeking practical and legitimate solutions to delivering community benefits. Many mistakes were made. But action was heavy. By 1996, private firms like the Conservation Corporation, based in South Africa, were scaling up with a $60 million operation and a goal of creating 60‐100 luxury lodges in East and Southern Africa, all to employ ecotourism principles. In Ecuador, the Kapawi Lodge was founded with a $2 million investment, formulated from inception to be a full partnership project with the Indigenous Organization of Ecuadorean Achuar nationalities (OINAEI).

Dozens of small scale ecotourism projects were financed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), with tens of millions of dollars invested to develop ecotourism enterprises in rural areas worldwide as a tool to help local communities and conserve biodiversity. Local governments across the planet followed suit, as did donors from Europe. A boom in investment in community‐based ecotourism was underway with 161 donor projects taking place in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as documented by The George Washington University in 2002.

The idea that responsible tourism can conserve the environment and benefit local people has always been part of the definition of ecotourism. But ecotourism pioneers were undoubtedly unclear how to perform this task properly in the early 1990s. The need for guidelines and forums soon had The Ecotourism Society fully engaged. While many skeptics pointed out that ecotourism was just another means to exploit local populations, this discounted the genuine possibility that ecotourism could help to reinvent tourism development practices for the better. Communities from the Serengeti to the Amazon, on the frontier of any type of global development, were more than interested in becoming a vital part of the tourism planning, development and implementation process.

By the mid‐90s, the small office of TIES was brimming over with information on tourism and community benefits from around the world. Our tiny staff, which at that time was 3 dedicated souls with one or two interns, based on the second floor of a house in Bennington, Vermont, collated the most well presented examples, and published information as quickly as it could be properly vetted, reviewed by peers, printed, and shipped. Between 1998‐1999, TIES published Volume 2 of the best selling text, Ecotourism, A Guide for Planners and Managers with three chapters on community benefits from ecotourism, Meeting the Global Challenge of Community Participation in Ecotourism, Case Studies and Lessons Learned from Ecuador with The Nature Conservancy, and an edition of Cultural Survival Quarterly on Protecting Indigenous Culture and Land through Ecotourism. These materials provide very good examples of how closely the question of ecotourism and community benefits was being investigated in this activist period.

Much more was transpiring on the ground. In Ecuador, the TIES sister organization, the Ecuadorean Ecotourism Association (EEA), launched a national review of community benefits and ecotourism. Workshops were held in both the Amazonian and coastal regions of Ecuador for local community input and participation, and a national forum was held with the goal of preparing guidelines. At this time, there was controversy regarding how community‐based tourism could obtain the legal status needed to operate, as some operations in the rain forest regions of Ecuador had even been shut down by the government. Guidelines created at this forum spelled out the requirement for special licensing for native guides at the national level and separate legal designations for communities to manage their own tourism businesses.

Epler Wood weaving with Huaorani women of Ecuador.

My own visits to Ecuador in the mid‐1990s were frequent, as I was investigating how community ecotourism was both flourishing and failing in this landmark country via a small grant given to TIES by The Nature Conservancy. While many local communities were rising to the challenge and finding whole new means to support themselves via ecotourism enterprises, others were failing badly. TIES worked closely with EEA and sought to support their efforts for better legislation to protect community ecotourism enterprises.

Just as the conference in Ecuador was concluding, TIES founding chairman, Dr. David Western, known to all his peers as Jonah, got in touch. He had been named Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and wanted to bring international expertise on ecotourism to Kenya to improve community ecotourism development methodologies. Jonah had a long‐term vision to foster small tourism enterprises outside Kenya’s parks that directly benefited local communities and thereby encouraged more direct local engagement in the sustainable development of the wildlife‐rich ecosystems of Kenya.

We decided that a national conference could galvanize interest from industry in more community involvement in development on community managed lands. This conference came to be known as Ecotourism at the Crossroads. It was funded by KWS and managed by KWS and TIES. I remember feeling a pretty weighty obligation, when I arrived in Kenya on a pre‐conference visit and found that KWS had made their bush aircraft available to us, to allow our small team immediate access to meetings with communities in pivotal regions of Kenya, from Laikipia, to Maasai Mara to Amboseli, to determine the best means of organizing meaningful workshops and develop the agenda for the national forum. In communities throughout Kenya we found that there was a hunger for more opportunity to become genuine partners in the ecotourism development process. The conference generated vital dialog between international experts, industry and local communities that helped empower communities to lay out their own terms on the partnerships they sought.

Epler Wood on a conference visit in Kenya.

By the end of 1998, TIES had galvanized national forums on community benefits from ecotourism in two landmark countries, Ecuador and Kenya. It had published far‐reaching documents and discussions on methods to improve practices of both private businesses and donors. Enterprises and programs that would make ecotourism culturally, socially and economically successful for local people were increasingly being financed and developed. Costas Christ wrote in Volume 2 of the TIES text, A Guide for Planners and Managers, “the days are gone when one wondered whether adopting the principles of
ecotourism could make tourism become a catalyst for nature conservation and community
development. There is, finally, ample evidence that this is true.”