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The Continuing Evolution of Ecotourism: Conversation with Hector Ceballos-Lascurain
To celebrate the coining the word '
' Hector Ceballos-Lascurain and I began a slow conversation that began in 2008. - Ron Mader
Hector Ceballos-Lascurain is a Mexican architect, environmentalist and international ecotourism consultant. Hector has performed research and provided consultations in more than 70 countries worldwide on all aspects of ecotourism planning and development, including the architectural design and construction of ecolodges and other environmentally friendly facilities. He has co-authored more than 130 books, reports and articles and is credited with coining the term 'ecotourism' and its preliminary definition in July 1983.
Colibri Ecotourism Lifetime Achievement Award
Weaving the Web: Hector Ceballos-Lascurain
ECOCLUB Interview conducted by Antonis Petropoulos
: Kicking off the Q&A ... where does 'ecotourism' stand in 2008?
: I think 2008 is a particularly important year for ecotourism, since this year we will be celebrating its 25th anniversary, considering that I first coined the term 'ecotourism' back in July of 1983. From my international experience, I can safely say that in 2008 ecotourism is being developed in practically every country around the world, at different levels and with varying orientations. In some developed countries (including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S. and Japan) ecotourism has mainly been a private sector initiative (including both inbound and outbound operations), with somewhat limited participation of poor rural communities (and also limited benefits to them). In a number of Latin American, African and Asian countries there have been some noteworthy community-based experiences, in some cases solely developed by the rural inhabitants themselves. In some nations (including Mexico), ecotourism has been in recent times strongly promoted by government authorities, interested in improving the quality of life and economic level of poor rural communities (however, many of these experiences have failed, because of excessive paternalism of the public authorities and due to lack of interest and proper training of local groups).
Generally speaking, I think ecotourism is going strong around the world, and is providing important tangible benefits to local communities and to nature conservation in many places of our globe. One problem that I see happening in several countries (again including my own, Mexico) is that ecotourism is too often being confused with adventure tourism, i.e, the practice of physically exertive sporting activities in a natural setting (frequently with limited benefits to poor rural communities and little concern for the conservation of the natural environment). In this case, ecotourism is failing in two of the main goals which I set out back in 1983, namely benefiting local communities and Nature. Another drawback in Mexico is that (for some reason unknown to me) many of the 'ecotour' operators are mainly addressing the domestic market and hardly trying to attract international ecotourists, thus missing out on the possibility of attracting large amounts of foreign currency, something which is badly needed in our country.
We have to constantly remind ourselves that ecotourism is the type of tourism preferred by 'nature lovers', which belong to a great variety of categories: wildlife observers (including bird watchers as the single largest category worldwide), botany buffs, geology enthusiasts (including volcano devotees), trekkers, mountaineers, scuba divers, snorkelers and wilderness fans. These nature lovers are roaming the world looking for true and meaningful experiences in nature, so let's offer them the specific, high-quality ecotourism services they are demanding. In Mexico, one of the biggest challenges is to offer true ecotourism services (with high-level professional guides, proficient in the knowledge of the natural and cultural habitat), and not only high-running-adrenalin adventure tourism escapades.
Of course, this means giving much more value to the natural and cultural heritage of our copuntry, over the support attractions and gadgets (such as Tyrolese cable contraptions, canopy funiculars, cliff-climbing gear, etc.). It's the high quality of the natural environment and of the naturalist guides that attracts ecotourists to a place. As mentioned earlier, another huge challenge is for Mexican operators to attract more foreign ecotourists (and more foreign exchange, badly needed in our country). My recommendation to these ecotour operators: learn more about our natural and cultural heritage, and take intensive English lessons.
: Are you satisfied with the work of UNWTO and UNEP in developing ecotourism post 2002's International Year of Ecotourism?
: Frankly, I have not been that much in touch with both institutions lately, but I have the impression that UNWTO and UNEP have not carried out the follow-up activities that we all expected. Apparently UNWTO is giving more importance to other fields of tourism (including "sustainable tourism", which, of course is an umbrella concept that includes ecotourism) and UNEP seems to be more orientated towards other conservation activities (not necessarily ecotourism).
: How important is your web site for promoting your work and for obtaining contracts? Are you updating your web site?
: My website has undoubtedly been crucial for promoting my work (including my activity as an environmental architect and ecolodge designer), both at a national level here in Mexico and internationally. But it's not only my web site, but the internet in general which has benefited my professional activity, including a number of web sites like planeta.com which are fostering the sound development of ecotourism around the world. These last four or five years have been the busiest ones in my professional career and this is due, to a great extent, to the Web. The new version of my website is now online
: You're an ecotourism expert and you're living in one of the world's largest cities. What are your short term plans? Are you planning on staying in Mexico City?
: I have lived most of these last 39 years of my life in Mexico City, fortunately in the southern suburbs of the city, where there are still many trees and the air quality is still good. My wife and I have been living for the last 25 years in the ecological home that I designed and built in the picturesque little town of Tepepan (adjoining a forest reserve in southern Mexico City). I have lived and worked very happily in this home but now, for family reasons, my wife and I must move to the coast, in the very near future. For this reason, I am offering for sale our home, which has a built surface of 450 square meters, on a lot of 1557 sq meters. This home, built with environmental design criteria, has obtained a number of architectural awards. If anybody participating in this forum is interested (or knows somebody that could be interested) in buying this singular home,
: You mentioned that Mexico's Squirrel Cuckoo may be different than Central America's due to advances with genetics. Do we have another endemic? Are there any other changes to Mexico's list of birds? What is the count of endemic species now?
: Hola, Emilio! Great to have news from you. The Squirrel Cuckoos in Mexico have not yet been officially split from the Central and South American forms (but it might soon happen). To my knowledge, the latest count on total Mexican species is 1,104, of which 108 are endemic. I recommend you check out the following websites:
: It is always with great honour that I pose a question to the Father of Ecotourism, someone who we all respect not so much for coining a term (that others may have also coined at different places and times) but the very person who saw that Ecotourism would be recognised and endorsed by the prestigious IUCN, and who single-handedly undertook to implement and document it as an architect and scholar in its early steps. This celebration is most timely, at a time that various other "tourisms" engage in acts of me-too-ism trying to dethrone Ecotourism from the minds of ecotravellers.
In a recent editorial, I proposed that the time is fast approaching for an
, a political version of Ecotourism, one in synch with the world ecological movement and green parties. I would therefore like to hear Mr Ceballos-Lascurain's view - should Ecotourism become political, at least in some countries where environmental and social problems are acute?
: Hi, Antonis. Thanks for participating in our forum and thank you for your very kind comments. I believe ecotourism has already attained or is attaining a political dimension in many countries. A number of governments (especially in developing countries) are recognizing its usefulness for improving the livelihood of poor rural communities and also for helping conserve nature, so it is definitely seen as an important political instrument. This political profile is also starting to attain multi-national status. Just a few minutes ago, I have received the following news from the NAFTA CEC (Commission for Environmental Cooperation): "The Joint Public Advisory Committee (JPAC) of the CEC in late December made recommendations to the CEC Council — composed of the federal environment ministers from the three North American countries — calling for greater involvement of indigenous communities in the work of the Commission. In its Advice to Council, JPAC proposes actions ranging from new capacity building efforts for reducing the dietary risks of lindane and its isomers in Mexico to helping communities develop alternative energy and ecotourism projects."
I also think that ecotourism is already in synch with the world ecological movement and, in some cases, with green parties. The important thing is that ecotourism should not be seen as a fad or a green fashion, politically and socially ornamental, but as a top priority sustainable and conservation activity... By the way, I am taking advantage of this post to inform you and all our friends in the forum that my web site www.ceballos-lascurain.com has just been updated - starting from today!"
: Since my arrival several years ago to Mexico I have been very aware of your excellent ecotourism work. My first year in Mexico I lived in Celestún, Yucatan as English teacher and nature guide trainer and was very interested to hear at the time that this village played a role in your creating the term and definition of ecotourism as mentioned in your
earlier conversation with Ron
My first question is - if you still had contact with Celestun in recent years - what is your opinion on the state of ecotourism in Celestún?
: Unfortunately, I have not visited Celestún in over 15 years, so any comment of mine would not be updated or first hand. I hear that the number of tourist visitors has risen considerably and that the state of conservation of the flamingos and the estuary is good. I would certainly like to return in the near future and visit Celestún, the 'cradle of ecotourism.'
: I think we agree that ecotourism without “eco-“ is not ecotourism, but I would like your opinion on ecotourism without “tourism” (ie. without visitors): I refer to simplistic government attempts – you make reference to failed attempts in poor rural communities in a previous reply - to build cabañas in any rural community with a bit of forest or a waterfall, yet often lacking local organization and possibly having only limited interest beyond the potential economic income. So my 2nd question: Apart from your previous advice to Mexican operators re. foreign ecotourists, what would you advise to a pleasant rural community with some natural attractions (yet nothing as spectacular or unique as the huge Celestun flamingo presence) and with a mostly empty (government-financed) cabaña and increasing disillusioned ecotourism group members who were expecting many fast pesos or dollars?
: My advise: plunge into the internet world, create or improve your web site (in English and Spanish), comprising relevant information on the natural environment, including an exhaustive list of your birds (not only photos and characteristics of your cabañas). Also, give top priority to the training aspects of your community members, including nature guiding (bird guides have to have an excellency level). Let's try to bring a few of those 60 million rich U.S. birders to our different rural communities which are teeming with beautiful birds!
: This month Ashoka and National Geographic are hosting the
. I have a strong respect for Ashoka and National Geographic, but frankly I have been a bit confused about the word '
' and hope this competition will show the principles in action. Is there a disconnect with how geotourism is used by National Geographic and by Ross Dowling in Australia?
: The term 'geotourism', as defined by National Geographic, is "tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents." NatGeo furthermore states: "Geotourism incorporates the concept of sustainable tourism—that destinations should remain unspoiled for future generations—while allowing for enhancement that protects the character of the locale. Geotourism also adopts a principle from its cousin, ecotourism—that tourism revenue can promote conservation—and extends that principle beyond nature travel to encompass culture and history as well: all distinctive assets of a place." Frankly, I am a little confused, because the scope of this definition and comments practically coincides with my definition of ecotourism (which was adopted by IUCN in 1996), which refers both to the natural and cultural environment of a place (in my opinion this equates with the "geographical character of a place". In other words, bringing in yet another term ending in "...tourism" in this case doesn't really add anything substantial to the concept of ecotourism and just creates more conceptual confusion (as if we didn't have enough already). Further confusion is created by the way my friend Ross Dowling uses the same term 'geotourism'. For him 'geo' refers here to geology, geomorphology, landforms, i.e. the 'geological' attractions of a given place or region.
So now, we have one term meaning two different things!! In the latter case 'geotourism' would simply imply a subset of ecotourism, since geological features are simply a part of the natural environment. But in my opinion this way of thinking only compartmentalizes things, which detracts from the more holistic and comprehensive approach of ecotourism (which I believe is more edifying and enlightening, since it teaches us more about the whole environment and interactions therein).
What does the term 'geotourism' mean to you?
: This new moniker doesn't really add anything substantially new, so for me it doesn't have any meaning. If we continue in this path, we will soon have "entotourism" (tourism for insect lovers), "barotourism" (tourism for Baroque architecture buffs) and "tradotourism" (tourism for people interested in traditional cultures).... this could never end!
: Do we have a regional 'brand' or 'consciousness' about what constitutes ecotourism in
: I'm afraid we don't. In many parts of the U.S. (and some parts in Canada) even the term 'ecotourism' is not yet a well known term. Most 'ecotourism' activities in these places are mostly a private sector initiative, mainly adventure-tourism oriented, and with little or no participation of the less well-to-do rural communities. On the other hand, in Mexico, ecotourism has definitely become a household word. In the last three or four years ecotourism has been strongly promoted by different government authorities (federal, state and municipal), interested in improving the quality of life and economic level of impoverished rural communities (especially indigenous groups). However, as I have mentioned before, many of these experiences have unfortunately failed, because of excessive paternalism of the public authorities and, frequently, due to lack of interest and proper training of local groups. There is also a notable lack of continuity in many public programs and projects, a high number of them left unfinished, which leads to added frustration among the rural inhabitants. There is also a noteworthy lack of coordination among different public offices.
: What are your views on the history of the NAFTA CEC (Commission for Environmental Cooperation) and its meetings on regional ecotourism? That program started and stopped suddenly. Is the CEC ready to give regional ecotourism a go again?
: During 1998-99 I carried out a consultancy for NAFTA CEC, participating (as representative of Mexico) in the development of a background report on the state of tourism in natural areas in North America". There was also an important meeting in Quintana Roo to discuss the findings of this report, in which I participated. Also, in 2001 NAFTA CEC organized a tri-lateral meeting in la Paz, Baja California Sur, for discussing whale-watching ecotourism in north america (a meeting in which both you and I participated). However, nothing happened after that and it's been almost seven years now that NAFTA CEC unfortunately doesn't carry out any important activities in the field of ecotourism, which of course should be a high point in their agenda.
: Next week we celebrate World Environment Day (June 5). The focus of this year's UN event is on climate change and fostering low carbon economies. Immediately, my mind spins towards seeing the tourism angle. I highly recommend the book Final Call by Leo Hickman and encourage you and other readers to check out our ongoing conversation, also in the
. Question - In your view, how should ecotourism factor in the impacts of long-haul air travel?
: As we know ecotourism still accounts for a small proportion of total air travel. Due to this, if ecotourists took the decision to avoid long-haul travel the impact would indeed be practically negligible. However, the ethical component implies that all ecotoursists should effectively try to cut down as much as possible on their air travels. For example, if I'm visiting a big country for the first time, it would be easier on the environment if I try to avoid crisscrossing that country by air, and concentrate on a specific region, preferring land or water travel. Another good option is combining long-haul business trips with an ecotourism complement.
At last year's Ecotourism NZ Conference the question was raised as to how to make transportation in-country more sustainable. Travelers eager to visit all of the ecotourism hot spots become less and less of eco travelers. That said, the point you raise about business travel is spot on and yet poorly recognized. Tourism departments and promotion campaigns differentiate their target markets and often fail to see how they can be integrated. The business traveler who adds a few days to a trip becomes an ecotourist visiting the nearby parks and protected areas ... yet we don't hear that much about these options.
Do you see examples of business tourism promotion that connect to the natural world or examples of ecotourism campaigns that connect to business travel? Or is this ad-hoc and left to the individual traveler?
Frankly, I don't know of examples of business trip promotion in coordination with ecotour promotion. I think it would be a great idea for both parties involved.
As an avid birdwatcher, Hector, you have seen more than a few interesting species. When we met earlier this year you mentioned some YouTube videos showing some amazing bird behavior. What were those birds?
Yes, Ron, the birds with unbelievable display which I told you about are the birds of paradise, whcih I had the enormous fortune of watching in true life in my trip to
Papua New Guinea
last year. You and other forum participants are invited to watch several fabulous videos, including:
: Updating our conversation, can you paint a portrait of tourism in
: In mid 2010, we are recovering from the influenza crisis of 2009, but still are in the midst of an economic crisis. In Mexico, government funding for ecotourism projects seems to have dipped. Hopefully next year things will be better.
Elsewhere in the world, I've had first hand experiences this year in four countries:
In China I was pleasantly surprised by the surge in birding. I visited three important ecotourism sites in China (Emei Shan in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Beidaihe) and in all 3 sites I encountered foreign birders: in Emei Shan a couple of independent birders from Spain and another couple from Germany; in Shaanxi, a group of 5 US birders with a local birding guide based in Beijing; and in Beidaihe a group of about 40 (!!) UK birders attending a Birding Marathon (organized by a consortium of UK and Chinese birders and held annually in Beidaihe, a resort town on the coast, famous for its migratory birds).
In Korea I participated as the keynote speaker at the 2nd FEALAC International Ecotourism Conference in Seoul (held in May). FEALAC means Forum for East Asia -Latin America Cooperation and they are very interested in spotlighting ecotourism as an important area for international cooperation. There were participants from five Latin American countries (Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and Paraguay) and five eastern Asian countries (Korea, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia). Check out their website:
During a field trip which I carried out to several Korean protected areas I encountered massive numbers of Korean tourists visiting these beautiful parks, but not really engaged in ecotourism activities - more like big groups of friends and families socializing (in a very noisy way) in a beautiful natural setting. I also discovered that there are a number of upmarket hotels (not quite 'ecolodges') near these protected areas (including Jeju island), which are being visited mainly by Koreans (but I also saw a considerable number of foreign tourists, not quite 'ecotourists'). It seemed obvious to me that the ecotourism culture is still not a part of the cultural traits of the typical Korean citizen. The government seems to be making a big effort in raising awareness towards nature conservatuion, so I am sure promoting true ecotourism would be a very useful thing. In one protected area (Gwangneung Forest, 70 kilometers northeast of Seoul) I encountered a group of about twelve very serious Korean bird watchers busily engaged in taking photos (with their extremely high-tech cameras) of an active nest of a pair of Black Woodpeckers, a truly flagship species.
In Peru, I was invited by the Cuzco tourism authorities to be the keynote speaker at the Encuentro Internacional de Turismo in Cuzco, and I also carried out a brief consultancy consisting of an 8-day field trip to identify and evaluate alternative ecotourism destinations (combining natural and cultural - especially archeological - attractions). The objective of this is to try to give other options to the many thousands of visitors (including a good proportion of ecotourists) who are swarming to only three or four destinations (the city of Cuzco and surroundings, Machu Picchu, Pisac and Ollantaytambo) and already causing serious problems of overvisitation. I was also asked to visit three optional sites for a proposed Interpretative Cenetr of Inca Culture and Peruvian Ecology, and also to provide an architectural design for this center. Peru has arguably already become the most celebrated ecotourism destination in South America (combining fabulous cultural and natural attractions, and many different ecosystems). Birdwatching is steadily on the rise and is becoming an important source of income in many rural communities.
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