We are launching our new Interview column,
this month, in the most appropriate way: a rare interview
with Ron Mader, ecotourism activist, promoter, writer and founder of Planeta.com
. Ron Mader honours this publication with his insightful replies, sent to us in
Athens, Greece by email from Oaxaca, Mexico, itself a display of the importance
of the Internet for ecotourism, something that Ron has been proving with his
actions for almost a decade.
(The Interview follows:)
You are one
of the pioneers of ecotourism worldwide, and certainly a living legend of
on-line Ecotourism. How do you define Ecotourism?
Ron Mader: What flattery! I boil the term down to a special form of tourism that meets
three criteria: (a) it provides for conservation measures (b) it includes
meaningful community participation and (c) it is profitable and can sustain
itself. That said, I am most interested in the applications, rather than the
definitions of ecotourism. At ecotourism conferences around the globe, there is
often a loud groan when someone begins to define the concepts. What engages
audiences, readers, entrepreneurs and travellers alike are the applications. For
travellers, responsible travel is simply treating others with the same respect
you would ask for in your own community. While tourism officials have long
touted "Destinations" - in fact we are simply entering someone else's
Is Ecotourism a "market segment" or rather a "development
philosophy" or even a "political movement"?
RM: I believe it's a curious mix of fashion and ethics. And rarely are the
fashionable ethical or the ethical good dressers. Seriously, in the tourism
industry there are many terms that need to be explored and understood more
clearly. For example, ecotourism is often lumped in a larger category called
"alternative tourism." This niche is unnecessarily vague. Tourists
rarely describe themselves or their interests as "alternative." And
the services or destinations they choose are those that fit their interests -
such as adventure, agriculture, food, culture, education, gay and lesbian
events, sports, religion, etc. Travellers opt to do what they enjoy. The problem
with "alternative tourism" is that it defines itself by what it is not
- in this case, "traditional tourism." As travellers become more
demanding, expect a growth in new markets that deliver more than
"traditional" tourism. Why not be clear about our goals? If we are
seeking tourism experiences that offer a win-win-win situation for travellers,
community hosts and the environment, we are following the call to develop
"sustainable" tourism or even something more ambitious on the order of
"conscientious tourism" which encourages a deeper understanding of
people and place.
Is it more important for Ecotourism to be successful as a niche, or for
mainstream tourism to apply some of the same principles?
RM: This is a great question. Should we applaud the mainstreaming of
environmental values or should we be wary of greenwashing? The sector can
succeed if different organizations take on different strategies. But
nevertheless we need to be clear about what does and doesn't work. Those
operations that call themselves "ecotourism" need to be upfront about
their conservation work and their linkages to local communities.
"Ecotourism develops where the beach is lousy, or where there is no
beach". Please comment.
RM: This was true in Costa Rica in the 1980s. The country's tourism market could
not compete with the larger resorts popular in Mexico and the Caribbean so it
offered cloud forests and conservation efforts. But note that may have been
true in one place at one time, but the niche of ecotourism is always evolving
and is considered a development strategy in many places as never before.
Was the Ecotourism sector better sheltered from the effects of September the
11th, compared with mainstream tourism?
RM: Definitely. Almost all of the forms of active tourism that catered to
thinking travellers have weathered the effects of September 11th much better
than the traditional sun-and-beach vacation. The exceptions are those
initiatives that model themselves on package tours or those that have coasted
by with poor communications/promotion skills.
What can you do if an "ecotour" operator or "ecolodge"
discredits the notion of Ecotourism? Can you point it out without risking being
RM: We need public input. How this will develop is anyone's guess. When I have
found an operator with shady practices, I've reported it quietly to the
national tourism office or ecotourism association. I don't see a reason to put
unsubstantiated rumours online. That said, the Internet provides one of the best
means of fact-checking, particularly via online forums (green-travel, xtremers
and red-mexicana-anuncios) which are used more and more for compliments and
critiques of operations. Associations need to be at the forefront of policing
and educating their members. If not, overall confidence in these concepts will
What is your
view of Associations working in Ecotourism? Are these talking shops, vehicles
for personal ambition or do they really act?
RM: Associations are usually industry-led and they start with the most noble of
intentions. As associations age, some get sucked into outright fraud and
corruption. (Ironically, while committing egregious errors, some gain influence
and prestige!) That said, I'm not saying that all associations are corrupt or
that any one association is entirely corrupt. But all of these groups need to
be much more accountable to their constituents. If the associations truly
walked their own talk, they would 1) be much more transparent, 2) show results
of tangible benefits to their members and travellers and 3) move beyond
Will a worldwide Ecotourism Certification Body, if it ever appears, really have
teeth or will it be just another feast for competing certifiers, as in other
tourism and non-tourism sectors?
RM: Certification - formal documentation attesting compliance - requires
infrastructure, coordination and financial resources that are lacking not only
in the developing world, but also globally. One criticism of the certification
process is that any "certifiers" of ecotourism lack certification
themselves. Ecotourism is a relatively new niche and it has multiple
definitions. Its success or failure depends on the eye of the beholder.
Conservationists will measure the merits of a project by its contributions to
local environmental protection. Travel agencies will focus on the bottom line -
are they making a sufficient profit? And travellers each come to an ecotourism
destination with their own personal experiences and expectations. For
ecotourism to succeed, we must be aware of our own value systems. If we insist
on high environmental standards and minimal impacts, the costs skyrocket. This
places the services and destinations into a "luxury" class tourism -
sometimes without amenities those who pay high-end prices are accustomed. What
is the best example of ecotourism - a rustic, community lodge or a
foreign-owned, eco-friendly green hotel? Too often architects and consultants
promote high technical standards and luxurious eco-lodges because they have a
personal stake to certify those businesses that can pay them well. At risk are
rural and/or indigenous guides who do not have the financial resources to take
part in established guide training programs - not offered in the field, but
usually in the capital city. Those who might benefit from ecotourism, namely
farmers and residents of rural areas that lie next to or even coincide with
protected areas are never the focal point of evaluation or promotion. Instead
of embracing certification, we should be focusing our attention on practical
training and marketing.
In most industries certification is corrupt, as money is involved and this is
received by the certifier. How can this be avoided in the case of Ecotourism?
RM: I don't know if the corruption can be avoided by any other means than
delaying certification measures until we can practice what we preach. What's
the alternative? My petition is that we focus efforts not on certification but
on evaluation, training and above all, communication.
Is the IYE 2002 a positive, negative or neutral development? Are you happy that
the Quebec Summit will be attended by the real actors on the ground, as opposed
to by consultants and large mainstream companies?
RM: Critics ask whether the IYE be scrapped or even boycotted? My opinion -
no. But I think we must make greater demands of the official organizers. The
vast majority of preparatory conferences have been a disappointment. They are
hard to attend, and the summaries - when posted - are all rah rah. There are
no failures in development circles or government agencies. Problems are swept
under the rug. In many cases, to discuss them at all means being blacklisted.
So far, I see no room in the official IYE process for submission of individual
projects or collaborative work that it based outside of government or NGOs.
Examples include Planeta.com's own regional initiative and the work that I am
doing with groups and individuals in Mexico, Ecuador or Honduras. Last November
I sent a post to IYE2002
forum that has not been answered. I repeat: "All official preparatory
events share a joint methodology, discuss the same themes, and are planned in
coordination. All will take their conclusions to Day 1 of the World
Summit." My question: For those of us who are unable to attend an official
IYE preparatory event, do we have any means of making statements or conclusions
available to the World Summit? What's missing, it seems, is effective real-time
communication. There must be alternatives and Planeta.com has been at the
forefront of exploring the niche of online conferencing. What I am most pleased
with is how the most recent online events - Ecotourism
Certification Workshop and the Media,
and Tourism Conference are beginning to fuse into events in the natural
world. Likewise, ongoing forums such as IYE2002
and Marine Tourism
play an important role in global networking.
The Internet is currently not profitable.
Ecotourism is largely not for profit. Can an Internet Ecotourism Business be
profitable? Does it matter if it is?
RM: The Internet is profitable... and so is ecotourism. It's just that we
are talking about smaller profits than traditional business. That's fine! The
question is can we learn how to develop both niches (and I argue there are some
great synergies with marketing small ecotourism operations on the Web) in a
responsible manner. I have placed online two guides: Mastering
the Web Resource Guide and Marketing
Ecotourism on the Web
And finally, is there anything else you want to say?
RM: We need to be creative. Part of this depends on opening up the dialogue and
communications across various sectors. This is where I think I've been most
successful - in showing how we can move forward. Communication is not helped
when foundations encourage closed-door dialogues or banking institutions invite
a privileged few to see how "ecotourism" monies will be doled out. We
also need to be honest. We need to conduct an independent review of how well or
poorly institutions, development agencies, academics, etc. have developed
ecotourism over the past 10 years. Rumours suggest that 90% of international
development programs fail. They don't deliver results and they often harm the
communities. It's no surprise that ecotourism initiatives would be chief among
these failures since the niche depends on sectors that ordinarily are not
sympathetic to one another. That said, we don't know. Finally, we need to call
attention and fund the prime movers of ecotourism - rarely NGOs, rarely
governments, rarely conservation groups or associations. The prime actors in
this niche are individuals who have responded with innovative ideas and the
means of sharing their insights in collaborative initiatives.
Thank you very much!
Planeta.com, with the co-sponsorship of ECOCLUB, is
organising an on-line conference on the topic of Community Tourism, in March
click here for details.
complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here