ISSN 1108-8931


Year 7 - Issue 85 - Oct 06

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens, Jorth Consult Limited, Pacuare Lodge,
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Hector Ceballos LascurainHéctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: "I am quite surprised and satisfied with the evolution of Ecotourism since I coined the term back in 1983. However, I am also concerned that the term has been variously abused and misused in many places."

The ECOCLUB Interview with
the 'Architect of Ecotourism'
Index of Interviews

Ahead of his time, in 1983 Mexican Architect Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin coined the term "ecotourism" and its preliminary definition, while his modified version of the term was officially adopted by IUCN (The World Conservation Union) in 1996. Today, as a famous environmentalist, architect, and of course an Ecotourism expert, he is the Director General of the Programme of International Consultancy on Ecotourism (PICE), a Special Advisor on Ecotourism to IUCN (The World Conservation Union), as well as Advisor to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin is an expert in the planning and development of sustainable tourism, ecotourism, park management, and environmentally-friendly architectural design, with worldwide experience in this field. He has carried out consultancy and research work in 72 countries, including physical planning and low-impact architectural projects for ecotourism, sustainable tourism facilities, and housing developments, collaborating with governments, NGOs and private firms in those countries, as well as international institutions such as UNDP, UNEP, FAO, World Bank, OAS, World Tourism Organization, IUCN, WWF, US-AID, IDB, TIES, PATA, NAFTA, Conservation International, National Geographic Society, German Technical Cooperation Agency, etc. He has spoken in conferences and symposia in over 35 countries, and developed the National Ecotourism Strategies of Mexico, Malaysia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Dominica, and Yemen.

Previously he was Director General of Standards and Technology of the Mexican Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE) and Protected Areas Program Coordinator of IUCN (World Conservation Union), the latter with headquarters in Switzerland. For IUCN he coordinated the IV World Parks Congress, held in Caracas, Venezuela, in February 1992, an event attended by 1,800 persons from 130 countries. In 1981, he was the founding president of the Mexican Association for the Conservation of Nature (PRONATURA), currently the largest and most influential Mexican NGO in the field of conservation. In 1984 he founded the first Mexican ecotourism agency: ECOTOURS.

He is particularly interested in the interrelationship between ecology, tourism, regional development, local communities, conservation, and environmentally-responsible architecture, subjects on which he is the author or co-author of over 120 titles. His 315-page book on "Tourism, Ecotourism, and Protected Areas" was published in 1996 by IUCN. At present, there are over 20,000 references to his work in the Internet. In 2004 he was awarded the first Colibri Ecotourism Lifetime Achievement Award by and Canyon Travel. He is also keenly interested in ornithology, bird watching and bird conservation, and has identified to date 3,671 bird species in their natural habitat around the world! (ranked number 158 in the world list of the American Birding Association – ABA)

More details about Arq. Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin’s current projects can be found at

(The Interview follows:) You are both a very active and near-mythical figure within the Ecotourism movement, as the person who first coined the term 'Ecotourism' in the early 1980s. Was it an accident? Did the fact that you were an architect play a role?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: No, it wasn’t an accident. Ever since I was a child, I was keenly interested in the natural and cultural environment around me. In the family trips with my parents and my sister around Mexico, I fell in love with nature (especially birds) and history and culture (especially the archaeology of the pre-Hispanic cultures of my country: the Mayas, Aztecs, and Toltecs), and as a young man I realized that trips to relatively undisturbed natural areas could provide strong socio-economic benefits to the host communities. Soon after that, I coined the term of ecotourism and its preliminary definition. I believe that architects, by nature, should be more concerned about the environment than most other professionals, so maybe my profession did influence my pioneering role in ecotourism. How did you define Ecotourism in the 1980s, how would you define it today, and how satisfied are you with the evolution of Ecotourism, this past quarter-century?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: My definition in 1983 was: “Ecotourism is that tourism that involves travelling to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects (both past and present) found in these areas. Ecotourism implies a scientific, aesthetic or philosophical approach, although the ‘ecotourist’ is not required to be a professional scientist, artist or philosopher. The main point is that the person who practices ecotourism has the opportunity of immersing him or herself in nature in a way that most people cannot enjoy in their routine, urban existences. This person will eventually acquire an awareness and knowledge of the natural environment, together with its cultural aspects, that will convert him into somebody keenly involved in conservation issues” .

I revised this preliminary definition in 1993 to: “Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy, study and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features - both past and present), that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations". This definition was officially adopted by IUCN - The World Conservation Union – in 1996. According to this definition, ecotourism denotes nature tourism with a normative element. Also, ecotourism should be seen as a component of sustainable tourism (which should now embrace all types of tourism, including city and beach tourism). In general, I may say that I am quite surprised and satisfied with the evolution of Ecotourism since I coined the term back in 1983. However, I am also concerned that the term has been variously abused and misused in many places. In my own country, Mexico, and in many others, I am sad to see that “ecotourism” is seen mainly as adventure tourism and carrying out extreme sports in a more or less natural environment, with little concern for conservation or sustainable development issues. Ecological architecture is becoming more common, however what are the major practical problems that need to be resolved if it is to become mainstream in the tourism sector?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: My definition of Ecodesign is "any form of design that, being integrated to the surrounding ecosystem, minimizes its negative environmental impacts". Ecodesign and “ecological architecture” imply a more harmonious relationship between the building and its environment. New energy sources have to be employed (solar, wind, biomass, etc.) in a wise way. Excessive waste of resources must be avoided but, unfortunately, many people are still not willing to renounce to air conditioning for example, although in most cases a good ecodesign can enhance natural cross-ventilation, complemented by a ceiling fan. Government agencies in each country should demand a more environmentally-friendly approach to design and construction in general. What are the dominant trends in eco-architecture today? Are there different schools and different materials, and which one do you espouse?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: An “eco-architect” should be more humble when designing a building and not just trying to impose his “ego” on the environment. Saving energy, minimizing waste and avoiding toxic materials are the dominating trends today. I am particularly interested in liberating architectural forms from conventional cubes and rectangles. Most of my designs are “organic” in shape, with free-flowing lines which harmonize more easily with nature and generally provide more amiable spaces for human beings. There are two different schools as regards building materials: one advocates using exclusively (or mainly) locally available “natural” materials, such as wood, stone, bamboo, thatch, unburnt clay (‘adobe’), etc.; the other supports industrialized building materials, which will favour not continuing to deplete the use of rare, local materials, and which are easier to transport and assemble on-site. I believe a combination of both approaches is the most appropriate. Each specific case must be carefully studied. Recipes are not possible. What makes an Ecolodge, an Ecolodge, from the architects' point of view?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: An Ecolodge should blend in with the natural environment. It should not be imposed on nature, and should not overwhelm it. I am always stressing that “the most important thing about an ecolodge is that the ecolodge is not the most important thing" (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1997), i.e., it is the quality of the surrounding environment that most counts: the nearby natural and cultural attractions - and the way ecotourism circuits are set up, operated and marketed, also the way in which local populations are actively involved in the process.

The main reason for a tourist coming to an ecolodge is that it provides the opportunity of being in close contact with nature (in some cases, supplemented by interesting cultural elements).

At a purist level an Ecolodge will offer a tourist an educational and participatory experience, be developed and managed in an environmentally sensitive manner and protect its operating environment. An ecolodge is different from mainstream lodges, like fishing and ski lodges and luxury retreats. It is the philosophy of ecological sensitivity that must underlie, and ultimately define, each operation. It is this philosophy that the client is seeking both from the lodge operator and from government in their support of resource conservation. To the dismay of many, there are many luxury lodges that promote themselves as 'Ecolodges'. As an architect do you believe that luxury and ecology are compatible in terms of Lodge features?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: A new concept of “luxury” must be incorporated into the ecolodge field. Having the privilege of being surrounded by a primeval rain forest or having the opportunity of watching birds from your breakfast table, or being able to see a Maya temple or and Indian pagoda from your lodge room, or staying at a lodge which is one hundred per cent energy self-sufficient is considered by ecotourists more of a “luxury” than staying at a hotel with marble floors, state-of-the-art discotheques or air-conditioning. Mexico has a long and quite successful history of organised planning for Tourism, the development of the Yucatan peninsula, where you have worked, as a vast resort being a prime example. What in your view and experience have been the major errors and lessons learned at a policy level from Yucatan, and have these been adequately incorporated in state policy?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: Unfortunately, the so-called official project of the “Mundo Maya”, promoted by the Mexican and other Central American governments, has failed as an instrument for local sustainable development and for conservation of the natural environment. This is due to the fact that the “Mundo Maya”, since its inception in the early 90s, was seen only as a marketing gimmick and an exceptional opportunity for making good business for transnational companies (or rich hotel groups from Mexico City), and there was never a serious sociological or ecological framework underlying the scheme. Because of this, the project is slowly fading away, and the unique opportunities for a true ecotourism project have not yet been grasped. Also in Mexico, protesting teachers in Oaxaca have recently blamed among other things 'Yankee Ecotourism'. Is there something that needs to be done perhaps, to reconnect Ecotourism with the public interest and public perception in Mexico?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: Yes, the tourism authorities and the ecotour operators themselves must try to involve the Mexican public in more true ecotourism activities (and not only promoting high-adrenalin activities such as jumping off cliffs with parachutes, cliff climbing and rappel, and hang gliding). If we are going to conserve our rich natural and cultural heritage for the coming generations we must embrace tourism as a tool for conservation, for ensuring sustainable development and for enhancing environmental awareness and ecological education. Also, Ecotourism must not be seen as only something for the rich foreigners. In many countries, certain circles are touting the need and benefits from villa developments for affluent foreign owners, complete with golf courses and marinas, and argue that these can be made sustainable, environmentally-friendly and beneficial for the local economy. Do you agree?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: If this development is truly going to be sustainable, respecting the natural and cultural environment and improving the livelihood of local inhabitants, I agree. However, most “exclusive villas”, golf courses and marinas are still carried out in an environmentally-unfriendly way and they generally foster an “enclave” approach, which usually means putting a wall between the tourism or real estate facility and the surrounding environment and communities. The inhabitant of these “pleasure domes” will normally not have the opportunity of truly relating to the environment of a specific country or region and the surrounding poor people will in all likelihood remain poor, marginalized from this process. You have worked as an architect and consultant in virtually all parts of the planet, learning and teaching. However some purists / nationalists even, would argue that it is not so 'eco' for developers to use foreign architects, but to rely on local 'wisdom' , 'talent' and 'tradition' when creating tourism facilities. What would you say to them?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: Since Ecotourism is a new, complex and inter-disciplinary phenomenon (with a “globalization” component), in most developing countries it is usually not enough to rely on local wisdom, talent and tradition, at least in the present time. The insight of an international consultant or architect , with much grass-roots experience in many diverse countries around the world, should continue contributing tangible benefits to local ecotourism and ecolodge projects, as long as the consultant respects the local environment (both natural and cultural) and is willing to work within a team of local professionals and other stakeholders. Perhaps in the future, once ecotourism is clearly understood around the world, the need for foreign architects and consultants will not be further required. You have probably already achieved all your architectural ambitions, still, if a government or development was to give you a blank cheque to build anything you like, anywhere you like, what & where would it be?

Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin: At this stage of my professional development, I am mainly turning my attention to my country, Mexico, where there is still much to be done in the field of true Ecotourism and environmental architecture development. Fortunately, I have recently been engaged by two important urban developers who are planning two megaprojects in different parts of Mexico in suburban areas of two big cities (both involving more than 50,000 houses each – they are really being conceived as new cities). In both projects, the developers have decided that over 20 per cent of the total land will be left as a natural reserve, in which only ecotourism and other environmentally-friendly activities will be allowed to be carried out. My involvement in these two megaprojects is both as an architectural designer and as an ecotourism consultant, an I will be developing the master plan of the natural areas, including ecolodges, nature trails, interpretative centres, experimental ecological farms, display areas for alternative technologies, wellness retreats and a number of exclusive upmarket “ecological residences” (placed on the buffer zone of the protected natural areas). God willing, these two projects (in which I hope to be involved over the next 5 or more years) could well be my dream projects and my “blank cheques”. Thank you very much

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here



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