INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY
Year 5-Issue 54, Nov. 2003
Ms Megan Epler Wood
Megan Epler Wood is the founder and former president of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). In January 2003, she launched an international consultancy EplerWood International that specialises in product development, market analysis and public relations for sustainable development. Her present clients are U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) projects in Sri Lanka and Ecuador, and the World Bank International Finance Corporation. She has launched a web-based Epler Wood Report at www.eplerwood.com with analysis, trends, and reviews of sustainable development projects and markets. Epler Wood has acted as spokesperson, lecturer¸ and instructor of training workshops for governments, NGOs, and the private sector in Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Belize, Australia, Canada, and Kenya. In 2002, her book Ecotourism: Principles, Practices, and Policies for Sustainability was published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and launched at UN headquarters in New York for the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE).
As a pioneer of Ecotourism, and someone who was pivotal in its globalisation, how has ecotourism changed since 1990 when you founded The Ecotourism Society (now The International Ecotourism Society - TIES)? Is Ecotourism more mainstream than 10 years ago? Has the tourism industry moved towards ecotourism or vice versa?
The ecotourism industry has remained a niche industry. The international tour operators that carry out ecotourism tours have multiplied since the early 1990s, but many of the same players still dominate the business. There has been more growth in ecolodges. More are being built each year, and the ecolodge industry shows great promise for the developing world.
I rarely see cases of mainstream industry becoming involved with ecotourism or vice versa. There was experimentation with this idea in the 1990s and some high powered business consulting firms, wealthy entrepreneurs, foundations and the World Bank all considered how mainstream tourism and ecotourism might interrelate and spawn major new hotel chains. These initiatives did not result in successful businesses. Certain mainstream players have opened hotels that are more ecological in design, but the core market for ecotourism has not expanded substantially, and therefore I am not convinced it will ever be a target for larger mass market tourism businesses.
There are some ecolodge chains, primarily in East and Southern Africa. Again, these businesses are not part of the larger mass tourism industry. They are independent, owner operator outfits that have expanded to owning ecolodges and camps in a variety of locations, some in numerous countries.
I am very conservative in my thoughts about if ecotourism has influenced the greater hotel industry. I believe that if the green market had become a powerful consumer force in the marketplace, then ecotourism would have become very influential as a market leader. Because, in reality, the green market (in the U.S. at least) declined in the 1990s (see current October 2003 EplerWood Report www.eplerwood.com ), the ecotourism business has remained small and medium in size. Ecotourism business owners are very mission-driven, and their influence can certainly be felt in the environmental community. But I am not sure that ecotourism has influenced the hotel industry at large, which is first and foremost interested in results in the marketplace.
What would you consider to be the greatest achievement of TIES under your directorship, and what would you like TIES do in the future?
TIES was founded in 1990, and at that time there was very little understanding of the definition of ecotourism and how it would be defined in the marketplace in terms of principles and practice. There were many diverse players around the world, who were involved with NGOs, parks, academia, and business - but virtually no communication between these players. What TIES achieved in the 1990s, was to bring these diverse communities together under one organizational umbrella and involve them in meetings, publications, newsletters, workshops, and a whole variety of communication mechanisms to create a more organized international community of thought about the field. There were important conferences in the 1990s. The two events on ecolodge planning and design resulted in entrepreneurs going out and building highly innovative ecolodges, such as Kapawi and the Canopy Tower in Panama. There were series of multidisciplinary stakeholder meetings that resulted in a useable definition for ecotourism, guidelines for tour operators, ecolodges and marine ecotourism. There were regional meetings in Ecuador, Kenya, and Malaysia that resulted in excellent discussion of how to implement genuine ecotourism at the local level and benefit local communities. There were annual workshops at George Washington University that brought participants from over a dozen countries every year. And a variety of useful publications brought together a whole body of thought about how ecotourism could be practically planned and managed in highly diverse settings worldwide. At one point, TIES publications were the most widely used textbooks in the field, and they can still be found in many libraries, with editions in other languages as well.
I believe that ecotourism might not have become the field of study and sustainability tool it is today if TIES had not brought together business, NGOs, academics, and park professionals at the critical time it did.
TIES future is difficult to predict. The multidisciplinary role it played in the early days is hard to maintain, because every interest group involved with TIES has its own very strong views on how the organization should proceed. I had a wise development consultant tell me about 5 years ago that the organization will not be able to maintain its role as both a private sector membership organization and an NGO that serves as a voice for sustainability. These two functions are very different, and the funds to maintain these roles come from different sources that may not always agree.
With the benefit of hindsight, what is the legacy of the United Nations International Year of Ecotourism? Should there be a repeat?
The International Year of Ecotourism brought to a close the early years of compatible cooperation between diverse stakeholders committed to conservation and sustainable development. It politicised the stakeholder process and drew the fire of the community that works within United Nations forums to ensure the disenfranchised have their say in UN guidelines for industry and development.
TIES together with UNEP organised valuable stakeholder meetings, which had high community representation, excellent local coordination, and impressive local leadership elected to go to the World Summit from six regions of the world. The results of these meetings were very valuable, but there have been few concrete outcomes. Some good publications did result from this yearlong effort and of course, there were many who had a chance to meet and interact in forums around the world. It gave a limited voice to the disenfranchised, but they were also left with a feeling that their concerns did not result in action. At the World Summit, the stakeholder process essentially became too unwieldy to be productive for any of the parties. It was certainly a worthy experiment, but I am not sure any of the actors would want to hold another one.
A few months ago, you decided to move back to the consultancy sector and handed over the helm of TIES, do you see this as an opportunity for you to tackle the same important problems but from a more micro, more intensive angle?
In my consulting business, my number one concern is to help the developing world develop more prosperous and sustainable businesses with viable markets. I undertake market and business planning and research in this role, and I also will be handling clients that need sophisticated public relations campaigns in niche U.S. and European markets. Most people do not realise that I was a communications professional for many years who worked with outfits such as World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and National Audubon on developing media outlets and disseminating conservation news and information. I consider the potential for developing strong news and information campaigns for ecotourism destinations in developing countries to be almost entirely untapped, and I intend to help countries and major projects of significance make this connection.
I am a strong advocate of community planning to ensure that community ecotourism businesses have the opportunity to design their own projects based on their own needs and that business and market planning are fully incorporated into the process. My firm recently released the publication Rural Ecotourism Assessment Program (REAP), which outlines the approaches we recommend based on years of research. This publication was recently released and can be found on my website.
I think ecotourism still has never received the enlightened donor support it should. Donors have sought to foster ecotourism through NGOs and other non-profit arenas. In fact, ecotourism is small business development - plain and simple, and it must be fostered as such.
Ecotourism Certification, is it a crucial instrument or just a useful tool, or neither?
Certification has been a very hot topic among NGOs, academics, and donors. Certain governments, such as Costa Rica and Australia have also sought to support the effort to certify ecotourism and sustainable tourism. The problem is there has been very little consumer demand for certification. Unlike organic agriculture, fair trade or even certified wood products; sustainable tourism has been unable to find a consumer audience for certification according to every study I have seen.
My concern with certification is that we are talking about small business development in the developing world. There is already a history of donor support of ecotourism projects that were not viable. My own publications on this, such as the 1998 TNC Report, Meeting the Global Challenge of Community Participation in Ecotourism, have been quoted around the world as helpful information on how to improve support to community based commerce. There needs to be very strong, business-like thinking about how to give small businesses in the developing world a leg up. The question is "what are the priorities for small business development that will genuinely assist local economies"?
If one were to prioritise investment in ecotourism, I would strongly advise assisting with small business development, targeting this sector with specialists that can perform business analysis and help to develop viable business and market plans.
In a current study that my firm is undertaking for a development agency, my firm's team is finding that green loan funds, that fund only triple bottom line projects, receive dozens of ecotourism business proposals that are not viable because of a lack of understanding of business development and the market place. These green funds look at hundreds of proposals from a variety of industries and find the ecotourism industry in particular is churning out a large number of business proposals that cannot be considered at all for loans due to poor business planning.
If we are looking for mechanisms that can assist small ecotourism businesses to develop an audience for their goods, it is hard to justify starting with certification or certification training, as there is almost no market for certified products. To train in sustainability as the primary focus, when business is shaky or has a very limited market, has already led to vulnerable businesses and communities in developing countries making many false business assumptions and failing. Of course, these small local communities will gladly accept this or any other assistance. But training that does not stress business planning and markets is likely to be misleading, particularly in this period when the market is very weak, due to 9/11 and there is little room for experimentation or error in the travel business in general.
The question is how can donors genuinely assist and deliver economic benefits. Triple bottom line goals must be met, but they can be built into every project and must be made part of an initiative to make sure certain viable businesses are planned and managed.
Based on current trends, how interested will travellers be in Ecotourism in 2020?
Based on current trends, the ecotourism business should be peaking in 2020. Why? Because the baby boomers in Europe and North America will be averaging an age between 65-75 years old. This will be prime time travel years for this generation, as they will be healthier than their parents, their children will be out of college, and family finances will be more debt free and clear than throughout their working lives. All of my study in this field indicates that there is tremendous growth potential for ecotourism among this age group. It is the largest, most well educated generation in history, and it is very interested in the environment and social issues. The percentage that will travel overseas, however, is a key issue. In Europe, most tourists stay on the continent, and in the U.S. about 23% of the population over 16 hold passports, while 13% took a trip overseas in the year 2000. With the international crises caused by 9/11, we have seen some significant declines in overseas travel. I put together this chart on the American market based on U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, Monthly Tourism Statistics, 2001, 2002. (see below)
So clearly, the one issue no one can predict is if the security environment will be better or worse in 2020. But if it is better, then I would predict an ecotourism market that is double the size it is now.
If you were to issue 10 commandments to a community thinking of entering ecotourism, what would they be?
These commandments are fairly well established. I would recommend the new Training Manual for Community-based Tourism by Nicole Hausler and Wolfgang Stradas, published in Germany by InWent. www.inwent.org. Communities need to come together in a series of planning sessions to understand what their capabilities are to host tourism, if this is their goal. A full list of resources and infrastructure needs to be outlined. The community needs to decide who will be involved in the management of the business and who prefers to remain apart. A business structure must then be fairly and transparently designed. Outside partnerships available to communities need to be carefully considered. Socially responsible private sector partners are proving to be the most effective at generating economic benefits for local communities. The financing of the project must be carefully considered. Most experienced community ecotourism specialists say that community investment in the project is a must, as part of the project financing process. The community must do a business plan and a triple bottom line plan, that is totally participatory and inclusive of those who want to participate. It must do a market plan and have an excellent strategy for marketing over the long term. There must be plans for offering consistent service to every client. And there must be plans for how to manage funds in a fair and equitable manner.
Financing Ecotourism: does it matter who does it, or do the ends justify the means? And from your vast experience, how easy is to raise funds for ecotourism?
The finance for ecotourism has most frequently come from the pockets of the owners over the last 10 years. It is not easy to raise finance for ecotourism. Donors have supported projects, with a very high rate of business failure. One study of French GEF showed that some 90% of projects that received funds did not succeed. This is a tragedy. I think that with the right understanding of the tourism business, donors could much more successfully support ecotourism business.
There are some important problems however. Ecotourism businesses usually do not have securable assets (thatched huts and property in remote wilderness are not a bank's idea of security), they operate in wildland areas where there are many extra operational challenges, and they are highly vulnerable to market downturns caused by local, regional and global security issues. This is not your standard business investment! But, there is reason to believe that donor investment could do much more to foster successful ecotourism businesses, and this is why I have put a lot of my current energy into this issue.
So far with my new business, I have helped to raise about $1.2 million for local projects in developing countries in 9 months, and I think I can do more. I have a lead on another $250,000 for a project I am working on right now! It is often a question of finding the right strategic alliances, not tapping private finance. To me, viable locally owned businesses that will succeed in the marketplace, that are well designed and managed, with fully developed triple bottom line goals, are projects so worth supporting. Each one will have an important legacy in their regions and for conservation. So I am really focused on generating more projects of this nature or helping those who are in the "zone" to expand.
What has been your favourite project as an ecotourism consultant and what would be the ideal project for the future?
My favourite project has been the Sri Lanka Model Ecolodge project. I am working with a "cluster" of Sri Lankan experts to develop the project, which should be officially announced very soon. I originally came to improve their triple bottom line design, and ensure the project had a good market plan. I used all my skills, and my project partners were absolutely efficient and on target in their efforts. I made a very significant report, and they took a lot of my comments and made quite a few important changes. I look forward to fully announcing the details of the launch of this important new lodge project soon on ECOCLUB !
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I look forward to many more years in this field, and think that if the right kind of funding and finance can be developed, and the right kinds of community initiatives are supported; it will have an economic, social and environmental impact that will be highly beneficial to many people and nations around the world. My new article, "Community Conservation and Commerce", has just been released on my website, www.eplerwood.com, as the October 2003 EplerWood Report. I invite all to read it, it is free, and to sign up on line for the reports.
Thank you very much.
Copyright © 1999-2003 ECOCLUB S.A. All Rights Reserved.