This month ECOCLUB has the honour of interviewing Ms. Pamela A. Wight, Principal, Pam Wight & Associates. Ms. Wight has played a leading role in the organisation and management of the United Nations International Year of Ecotourism and was also responsible for drafting the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism as a Rapporteur. Ms Wight is a consultant who works in the broad realm of sustainable tourism, but with particular experience in the area of ecotourism. Already a seasoned consultant, Ms Wight began to focus in sustainable tourism in the mid-1980s, when she volunteered to write a document on Sustainable Tourism for Alberta's Draft Conservation Strategy. Following that she was called to the Ministry of Tourism, where in 1989, she initiated ecotourism planning for Alberta. Ms Wight was involved in research related to provincial ecotourism product, evaluations of product-market potential, land use and capacity studies, educational activities with the hospitality industry to "green" their facilities, and managing the first major international ecotourism market study. In addition, she was very much involved in the development of the Canadian Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Sustainable Tourism - which are still one of the most comprehensive industry codes globally, as well as a 1990 national study of ecotourism. During this period in government, she continued to use her free time for research. For example, she developed a systematic examination of global codes of ethics in 1991, and incorporated this thinking into a 1992 paper on "Ecotourism: Ethics or Ecosell". Ms Wight also wrote to tourism ministries and hotel associations around the world to analyse their environmental activities, resulting in an examination of the environmental and economic benefit of "greening" of the hospitality industry. In 1993, Ms Wight was asked to develop a conceptual framework for the notion of ecotourism, which stimulated her thoughts towards building the concept of ecotourism, together with its principles, into the now well-known economic/environmental/socio-cultural Venn diagram, but overlain by an ethical component. Since Ms Wight returned to consulting, free time has become an unknown commodity! Many of her projects are for the private and public sector in Canada and internationally, and are related to ecotourism, community tourism, or other forms of sustainable tourism. Ms Wight is on The International Ecotourism Advisory Board, as well as many Boards in Canada. In addition she receives constant requests for articles and conferences around the globe, so it was in a WWF conference in Athens (our hometown) in June that ECOCLUB managed to catch up with her and provoke this interview that we believe you will savour:
ECOCLUB: You are one of the most experienced tourism consultants worldwide. What is ecotourism for you?
Pamela Wight: It is not a simple thing to answer what ecotourism is. If it were, we would not have the hundreds of definitions which seem to exist! And on that topic, it is not the definition used which is important to me, but rather seeing the principles of ecotourism applied in practice. It would be so much easier if ecotourism could be defined by activity, as so many other forms of tourism are. For example, adventure tourism encompasses a range of hard and soft specific physical activities. Although ecotourism always includes some nature-based components, it may include cultural or adventure activities. One distinguishing attribute of ecotourism is that it cannot be described by activity alone. There needs to be a strong learning or educational or interpretive element. This may take varying forms, but person-to-person interpretive opportunities are ideal.
In addition, a strong ethical component should permeate the ecotourism experience, particularly with respect to commercial operations. Certainly, actively contributing to conservation is critical (e.g., implementing the 3 Rs or protecting the natural environment). But in addition, paying attention to appropriate staff and visitor behaviour is also critical, as well as the places they visit, the time/season they visit, the group size, and so on. Another part of ecotourism should involve respect and benefits to local communities. This could involve hiring local staff, making purchases locally, providing visitors with opportunities to buy local products, or more importantly, involving local communities in planning and decisions, or having partnerships with them. There are many examples of operators who go well beyond these activities, and actively do research or clean-ups on land or water, or who enable visitors to participate in research projects as part of their vacation, or who build in community visits and benefits as an important part of the visitor experience. Many examples of ecotourism operator excellence are to be found on the Canadian Tourism Commission's web site, in the "Catalogue of Exemplary Practices in Adventure Travel and Ecotourism" and "Best Practices in Natural Heritage Collaborations: Parks and Outdoor Tourism Operators".
Often the independent ecotourist is forgotten. Ideally, visitors themselves should adopt and promote an ethical perspective, whether or not they are commercially guided. In fact, independent visitors may do a great deal (by their behaviour and example, their interactions with local people or their comments or feedback to the tourism industry) to sensitise the travel industry, locals, decision makers, or commercial operators, to the need for environmentally sensitive and culturally appropriate behaviours.
For me, ecotourism, if managed in a sustainable manner, can provide a valuable economic opportunity for local and indigenous populations, and for the conservation and sustainable use of the natural and cultural heritage, as well as a source of revenues for protected areas.
E: You were a Rapporteur at the World Ecotourism Summit (WES) in Quebec, entrusted with the difficult task of including as many - sometimes conflicting - points of view as possible and producing something sensible and feasible. Was the WES in your view successful and why?
PW: The World Ecotourism Summit was a great learning experience for me, as well as a huge amount of work! One of my regrets is that I was so involved in the rapporteuring, that I was unable to spend time with some of the wonderful participants at this important event. And I think that it was tremendously important. It was a sign that ecotourism as a part of sustainable tourism, has matured and become recognised to have great potential to benefit both environments and people. At the same time, the presentations and discussions revealed that there are many challenges in every global region, which are by no means simple to overcome, even by the most well-meaning governments, NGOs, operators, or others.
The Summit was successful in many ways: - the impressive number of registrants, as well as the seniority and experience of many of them, demonstrates the value that participants placed on this forum; the exchange of ideas and experiences; the freedom to express opinions in the time available; the concurrent break-out sessions which allowed participants to focus on topics of interest; and particularly the ability to network; fulfilled most expectations. As always in such gatherings, time was a scarce resource. A delicate balancing act was required to enable people with papers or comments to have adequate time to present their views, as well as the equal necessity of allowing others to discuss or debate these views. Fortunately, moderators had timing machines, which enabled participants to see the constant efforts to maintain impartiality to all. While I think most participants would have welcomed more time for debate, I'm sure they recognised from experience that time, alone, is not what is needed to resolve difficult issues.
From the rapporteurs' perspective, we too, were challenged. It should be remembered that the 18 Global Preparatory Conferences were also part of this Summit, with the last such conference ending in late April. In a very short time frame we reviewed and systematically organised all of these preparatory conference outputs. Major tasks for us were encapsulating: the core issues, recommendations, and points for further debate from these conferences; presenting them at the Summit; listening carefully to identify suggestions, solutions, or new issues; incorporating interventions; summarising these in the reports to the floor; and writing them up each evening (or even through the night!). Fortunately, the rapporteurs were all extremely experienced individuals, and although the volume of work was high, this experience enabled us to cut through to critical points, and to cooperate efficiently in the team activities and subsequent incorporation of perspectives into the Québec Declaration on Ecotourism.
The real point about the Summit, I believe, is that committed individual participants contributed their time, experiences and suggestions, as part of an ongoing effort to improve guidelines, standards and practice in ecotourism globally. And this task is continuing.
E: What can prevent the "Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism" from going down in history as a wish list? Do we for example need a binding Treaty and a (new) intergovernmental body to supervise it?
PW:I am not sure that a binding Treaty is the answer, based on past experience. We currently see that there are "violations" of well-known ecotourism guidelines and codes at a range of scales. For example, individual governments (or destination regions or operators) may still over-promote areas that actually require careful management and a better product-market match, to ensure their is no damage to the environment or to local communities. Another example is of operators who offer ecotourism experiences, but bring in groups that are far too large, or provide little interpretation, or contribute virtually no benefit to local communities or the environment.
I think that there are scarce resources, globally, and that another intergovernmental body is not necessarily the most effective way to solve problems or use resources. We need flexibility and a range of innovative solutions. In any case, it is not only governments who need to be "bound" to agreed principles, but all players in the industry have to improve. In addition, there would be problems in identifying appropriate binding specifics - one of the elements that makes ecotourism so challenging is that what may work in one ecosystem, or season, or jurisdiction, or community, or for one set of activities, may not work well in others. Supervision of a Treaty may be less than effective, although a Treaty may be part of a range of solutions.
A large problem is that because ecotourism is often experienced in remoter areas, there is little opportunity (and fewer resources) to monitor activities. Where there is no monitoring, enforcement of rules or standards is very difficult (although some innovative destinations are involving the ecotourists themselves to assist in this effort). A range of approaches is likely needed to tackle the issues in ecotourism at different scales. The range of approaches should likely include a combination of incentives, education, and disincentives (penalties). At the global level, there may be room for a treaty as one "tool" in this range of approaches to problems. But as always, there will be some advantaged and some disadvantaged countries, so some will be better positioned to implement a treaty than others. Whatever approach is taken, we should be aware that we should be trying to "bring along" all players in the ecotourism equation, so should ensure that assistance is provided for those less able than others to be "at the table".
Through the Québec Declaration on Ecotourism, WES participants identified roles for each category of "player". If each player now begins to implement even a few recommendations directed at them, the Summit will have been a success.
E: What is your view on the fringe "anti-ecotourism" groups that interrupted the World Ecotourism Summit (WES) and have been trying to cancel the International Year of Ecotourism all along?
PW: I have been disappointed in the activities of the fringe groups you mention. Let us just suppose that WES had been cancelled - or even that the International Year of Ecotourism had been cancelled. Do you think that their issues or complaints would have gone away? Of course not. Further, a number of groups that purport to represent a certain sector do not in fact represent that entire group - and noise alone does not create representation! Also, I could have wished that such groups had wished to listen to all perspectives as much as they wished to press their own perspectives or demands - again and again.
One of the interesting aspects you may find in analysing any group's perspective, is the degree to which they only present complaints, versus the degree to which they suggest a range of constructive and practical alternatives, solutions, or the like. It is obviously much easier to complain about the activities of others, rather than to contribute to constructive actions or even to constructive dialogue, which is a more mature approach.
On the other hand, often such venting reveals a lack of empowerment. What I do understand is that these groups are sincere in their motivation, and that it is probable that extreme frustration has driven them to their courses of action or comments. We all have a responsibility, therefore, whatever our view of such groups, to ensure in our individual and collective ecotourism activities, that we consciously consider their perspectives.
E: Is genuine Ecotourism compatible with soft loans from international banks and grants from charity funds, or is self-financing the whole point?
PW: One of the goals of ecotourism is that the project contributes economic benefit. From the private sector perspective, obviously financial self-sufficiency is a desired outcome, whether it happens within the short or longer term. It may take bank loans, grants, or innovative financing to get to the stage of self-sufficiency - a perfectly acceptable course of action. I see no problem, then, with communities or destinations also obtaining seed, or initial funding, whatever the source. However, in many destinations, one is not only taking a business-based approach to a project (in fact, developing needed business skills may be a critical project outcome). Where there many pressing project objectives, it may be harder to realise a return on the loan/grant/ or investment. But although this may mean that self-sufficiency takes much longer to achieve in some locations, it should still be an eventual goal of all stand-alone projects.
E: "Luxury Ecolodge" - contradiction or necessity?
PW: Luxury usually means "beyond basic or comfortable"; also providing services which are not needed, but are "nice to have". It also usually means expensive! I don't think that luxury is a necessity, and certainly not in the context of ecolodges. In fact, market research shows that ecotourists are looking mainly for the mid-range or even basic types of accommodation. In addition, there is a strong relationship between ecotourists' activities and the nature of accommodation. So, for example, canoeists might be most interested in staying in tents, hikers might stay in tents or cabins, nature tourists in cabins or lodges, culture tourists in B&Bs, and general-interest visitors might stay in inns, hotels or similar. Luxury accommodation often involves high and conspicuous consumption throughout many aspects of the facilities - whether of energy, water, materials, and other resources. This is actually contrary to the spirit of ecotourism.
Where ecolodge operators wish to position themselves for high-end clients, they might do so by: providing comfortable facilities appropriate to the local culture and environment, with an emphasis on very high design and service standards, high staff-to-visitor ratios, and particularly offering quality cultural contact and interaction opportunities, with superb interpretation. This is not only more appropriate for ecotourism, but provides much more meaningful benefits to local communities, and provides a desired outcome - the opportunity for visitors to have meaningful and mutually beneficial interactions with local peoples.
E: What is your view on Ecotourism Certification? Is it the way forward or is it a greenwashing medium for the less sustainable and more affluent?
PW: Ecotourism Certification is a difficult topic, because the situation is quite confused at the moment. It is also confused in the mind of the visitor that is seeking a certified product, since there are so many labels or standards in existence. However, what is key at the moment is that most consumers are not even looking for certified products, and those who are interested in standards don't know where to look, or even the questions to ask. Certainly, it is the most developed countries and destinations who have seized on this approach. And while there are many genuine efforts to incorporate the principles of sustainability into certification standards, there is no doubt that the potential for marketing advantage is high on the rationale behind these programs.
I work in many developing areas in the world. In these places, often the local peoples, communities, and operators do not even understand how they are placed in comparison with other destinations. They do not understand the potential benefits to themselves for participating in many industry programs, far less certification. In addition, in many developing areas, the number of visitors is such that their ability to finance participation in such a certification scheme is dubious, at best. And in any case, in the remote regions, it is difficult to see how one could cost-effectively monitor the participants in a certification scheme. Are such operators and destinations expected to pay for inspections? I have just been working in the remotest of Arctic communities, with only a few hundred residents in each community, and only a handful of vacation visitors. Air transport is the only mode of access to all communities, and the cost of getting there is thousands of dollars. Their government is itself a "developing" government, and is not self-sufficient. Who should pay for certification?
My great fear is that certification efforts will increase the gap - will increase the benefits to the most sophisticated and advantaged operators and destinations, and will leave the disadvantaged where they are, or worse, will leave them behind altogether.
E: "Ecotourism consultants know they had really succeeded in a project when their services were never again needed for it". Please comment.
PW: I am not sure that I agree with this speculation. I would agree that ecotourism consultants have done a really good job if they work themselves out of a job, which is not the same thing. I'd say that signs of doing a good job include: getting unsolicited communications from satisfied clients or third parties, and particularly when ecotourism operators make such contact. This has happened when I have finished projects, and people who had nothing to do with the project (e.g., government representatives or tourism organisations) called me with congratulations, or ecotourism operators (who are really busy people) phoned or emailed simply to say that they keep a copy of a certain report in the front office to show their clients, or they use it continually as an information resource. When independent third parties make such positive comments, simply to give me this feedback, I know I am doing a good job. Also, I think a sign of success is when the same client comes back to me with a new project, because they know they will get a quality product, and I find this happens with many clients such as national agencies, the WTO or UNEP.
E: If you were to choose one of your many eco-projects as the ideal showcase for ecotourism, which one would it be and why.
PW: To be honest, I would not choose one of the projects that I had done as the ideal showcase for ecotourism, for a number of reasons: many of the ecotourism projects in which I am involved may be guidance, or best practices, or "how-to", rather than the development of "an ecotourism operation"; many of my on-the-ground projects may be relatively new and so are going through developmental phases with the attendant financial constraints on development; and in any case, I rarely have a say from "beginning to end" of a project, and this particularly excludes the staff, who are critical.
Although I'd love to profile some of my own projects, I'd really rather tell you about a wonderful project where, although I have provided advice for management, I have by no means been responsible for any the product, the oldest naturalist lodge in Canada. It is Bathurst Inlet Lodge, which is located in what some may consider a very difficult environment for visitors and management alike - a remote inlet just north of the Arctic Circle. This operation is only open 5 weeks per year, there are only about 20 guests there at any one time; and access is provided by chartered plane from the jumping-off point - Yellowknife. The lodge facilities are essentially the historic buildings of a Hudson's Bay Company trading post. It is located at Bathurst Inlet, a tiny Inuit community, and the Inuit are co-owners of the lodge with the Warner family, and any major decisions are made jointly. Much of the success of the lodge experience, apart from exposing visitors to spectacular landscapes and ancient cultural remains which are thousands of years old, revolve around the superb interpretation. The program director is incredibly knowledgeable about almost any subject related to the area (and like the visitors, she is clearly a life-long learner). Also, the opportunity to interact with the Inuit guides on their terms, with their knowledge, and in their terrain, is a great plus. One of the outstandingly successful features of the week's visit is the last evening's cultural program. Not only do virtually all Inuit in the hamlet play a role (whether a 3-year old child models traditional clothing, or a grandfather demonstrates how hunting tools were used) but the guests are invited to reciprocate - by telling a story, a poem, dancing, or performing magic tricks, etc. What a wonderful forum for cross-cultural sharing and enjoyment, and what a treasury of memories! The people and the interpretation absolutely made that ecotourism experience - for me and for other guests.
E: Thank you very much for your time. Is there anything else you would like to say?
PW: Thank you for asking me for this interview. I enjoyed meeting you at the recent Carrying Capacity Conference in Greece, and being hosted to better see and understand your lovely country. Although I spend considerable time preparing presentations for various projects, there are also such rewards, as well as many intellectual challenges. An example of a recent challenge was in Hawaii, where the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii asked me to deliver the Ambassador Lane Lecture in Sustainable Tourism, a kick-off to the BEST Think Tank. This led my thinking to the need for better understanding of sustainable foundations for tourism - based on sustaining natural capital in all its forms, and the need for us to work towards an industry where development is not viewed as mere growth and consumption, but is based more on the notion of self-sufficiency and "sufficeness".
This has been an extremely interesting year. For example, I was asked by UNEP and the WTO to rewrite a book on "Sustainable Tourism in Parks and Protected Areas: Guidelines for Planning and Management", which was launched at WES. Although such projects bring enormous challenges, they also bring a sense of accomplishment. I have worked in extreme conditions - from developing Inuit Tourism Strategies for aboriginal communities across the High Arctic (in temperatures which went down to -57°C), to my current project developing social tourism and awareness strategies to benefit women and families in Saudi Arabia, where the Kingdom's law and religion combine to completely separate men and women outside the home, which is an enormous challenge for tourism development to say the least (and where temperatures currently hover around +48°C!). In addition, I am delighted that some of my projects have an opportunity to benefit many players in the industry - for example, I am looking forward to the publication of work I did for the Canadian Tourism Commission, which focuses on best practices in tourism strategic alliances. This gives concrete examples of how to conceive, plan, develop, implement, finance, administer, communicate, market and monitor tourism partnerships. I have commitments to work in Brazil, in their contribution to the International Year of Ecotourism, and after this year of hectic travels and projects, I hope to be able to spend some personal time relaxing and reflecting.
If you wish to contact Ms Pamela Wight please write to: