Two different kinds of ecotourism in two different countries





I had a chance to visit Panama and Costa Rica in Latin America at the end of September.
A keyword commonly used to describe developmental strategies in the two countries is "ecotourism". However, the actual substance of their strategies is remarkably different.


Panama: re-using an old train track and fulfilling resort facilities
Panama is a country world famous for its cannel. As the cannel will revert from the United States to Panama in December this year, the U.S. military base will also be returned to Panama. Taking this opportunity, Panama launched various projects to re-use the vast base site covered with a primeval forest.

One of these is the "ecotourism project".

There remains an abandoned single train track along the cannel. The project is to revive the track and make use of it as transportation for tourists of "ecotourism", to destinations about an hour from the capital of Panama.

The aerial view of the project site I witnessed from a helicopter was a marvelous scene composed of virgin forests, water and vessels waiting for their turn to pass through the cannel. But there were sights that bothered me, as well. Those were golf courses and pension-style resort facilities being built here and there.

Later, I talked with the person in charge of these projects, Secretary Varleta of the Inter-oceanic Region Authority of Panama (ARI), and learned that their aim was to invite in foreign investment and to create resort facilities within the maximum environmental regulations.

When meeting with the new President of Panama, Mireya Moscoso, I expressed my opinion that "the ecotourism concept utilizing an environmentally-friendly train is a great idea, and if the project sites could include a wetland designated on the List of Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar List), the project would be upgraded."


Costa Rica: diverse resources of species
Another country that I visited, Costa Rica, is abundant with diverse species of both fauna and flora. Their concept of "ecotourism" is based on the diverse resource of species.

The "Rain Forest Aerial Tram" that I visited is a tram with a capacity for seven people that goes over the branches and leaves of the rain forest. The tram, carrying tourists on "ecotours", stops every 100 meters for a guide to explain the ecosystem of the forest. The point is to look at the rain forest as it is seen by a flying bird.

At the time of construction of the tram, for fear of destroying the ecosystem, they minimized the transportation of construction materials on the ground and relied on transportation by helicopter for the rest.

As the tram moves on silently, if you are lucky, you might encounter some rare birds or other insects and animals, though it is not guaranteed.

That is exactly the controversial point of ecotourism. While it could be a disappointment for those who expect birds and animals to appear when tourists pass by as they do in Disney Land, accidental nature can be such a thrill for those who have certain interest in or knowledge of ecosystems. For the latter, even if nothing shows up on the first visit, the fact that they failed to see anything itself could be a strong trigger to becoming repeaters.

However there are movements in this country as well which are worrisome for ecosystem, such as hydroelectric power plant projects.

When I later met Chairperson Valgas of the Costa Rica parliament, I was allowed to explain the current situation of dam construction and environmental issues in Japan and give the advise that they should be prudent regarding this point when trying to invite foreign investment and aid.


A row on the Internet
The difference of directions between the two types of ecotourism in the two countries mentioned above suggest several things.

There is a row on the Internet over the "Rain Forest Tram" in Costa Rica among three Japanese, Mr. Arai, a Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper columnist whose pen name is "hiko" and Nakano-san who have participated in the ecotourism. Their argument, which is over whether one should or should not be disappointed when birds and butterflies do not appear during the trip by tram, are interesting to read and suggest the kind of ecotourism that Japanese are seeking.

Mr. Arai, who visited the place twice but hardly ever encountered any animals, birds or butterflies during his sweat-soaked trip uses his experience to make the following proposals:
First, it is better take tourists to bird parks and zoos located at the capital for orientation on diverse fauna and flora beforehand, instead of bringing them into jungles right after their arrival.

Secondly, they should abandon the idea to leave the road accessing the site unpaved in order to prevent a deluge of visitors and pave the road.

As opposed to this, the columnist's argument can be summarized that the purpose of joining ecotourism is naturally different from that of going to a zoo and it is wrong to expect the constant appearance of animals, birds and butterflies.

Nakano-san writes that she can understand both claims and offers the following
proposals to make ecotourism fun:
First, a guide's ingenious skill and profound explanation are needed in order for tourists to enjoy a serenity absent of animals.

Secondly, if one of the causes of dissatisfaction among tourists who paid the costly fare is the limitation of chances to encounter animals, birds and butterflies, the tourists need to acknowledge the fact that the price system is set to pay for the protection of the precious ecosystem with a limited number of tourists.

Various issues raised
The following issues can be raised from these arguments:

First, the emergence of environmentally-friendly tourism including ecotourism.
Ecotourism used to be referred to as a type of tourism aimed at preserving the ecosystem and enjoying nature within the general concept of tourism, which is to visit places of scenic beauty and historic interest. However in recent years, a dominant idea worldwide is that tourism itself should be ecotourism as it largely depends on nature and environment.

For that, the idea of tourism should be shifted to that which puts importance on biological
diversity.

Also, endeavoring to discover how tourism can be in harmony with the environment will in turn guarantee the sustainable development of tourism.

Challenges we will face in terms of shifting conventional tourism to environmentally-friendly tourism are to position ecotourism firmly in the national strategy for biological diversity and to find ways to turn conventional mainstream tourism (mass tourism) into ecotourism.

Secondly, ecotourism is not the magic bullet for conservation of biological diversity.
No matter how excellent the guide is or how small the group is, the damage to the ecosystem brought about by ecotourism does not differ so much from that brought about by large groups with ignorant guides. We first need to acknowledge the reality that ecotourism does not stop the damage to the ecosystem, and then, recognize the good reasons why ecotourism is sought now.

The good reasons I would like to point out are:
  1. The site of ecotourism itself will become a buffer zone preventing people from stepping any further into the wild, which could lead to help minimize the impact on the ecosystem. For this, quasi-wild symbiotic zones can be considered as good ecotourism sites.
  2. It costs a tremendous amount of money to protect biological diversity and constantly monitor the real condition. Moreover, the rare ecosystems are dispersed in economically challenged regions. Therefore, a money-collecting mechanism to compensate these costs is needed.
Although ecotourism is supposed to function as a money-collecting mechanism, it is not the case in many countries.
Most of the money that tourists of ecotourism spend is absorbed by travel agencies, airlines and hotels at capitals or main cities. Even guides' income is said not to remain locally because excellent guides are not from the local areas.

To tackle this problem, the whole industry of tourism must stop freeloading on nature and the environment, conduct mecene or philanthropy for conservation of the ecosystem and create a system to make a reasonable financial contribution.

Furthermore, the industry should be prepared for systems with which tourism as a whole can be involved, such as an adoption system (to help conserve an ecosystem by individuals becoming foster parents of certain animals) and a user pay system.

Also, in the future, the introduction of tax systems, such as a bed-tax at accommodations at capital cities, airport taxes and tax incentives for investors in the conservation of ecosystems, will be required.

Preparing various money collecting mechanisms would help regions which are blessed with nature but are economically challenged to develop the regional economy endogenously without sacrificing the ecosystem for development, and this could be the best motivator for ecotourism.

Thirdly, ecotourism, different from mass tourism, cannot help but be costly because tourists can only go a little way into the wild so they do not disturb biological diversity. It aims to reduce the impact on an ecosystem by dispersion of tourists, so to speak. Accessing the spot by small vehicles raises the cost per tourist. Also, the life of ecotourism depends on securing excellent guides who know the local ecosystem thoroughly and have the skill to explain it to tourists. And good guides cost more.

The contradiction that locals cannot enjoy the value of their social asset occurs because fewer local tourists or low-income people visit the local ecosystem due to the comparative expensiveness.

How to conquer these demerits of comparative expensiveness and how to secure profitability are crucial points.

Furthermore, the profitability largely depends on the improvement of infrastructure for accessing the spot, such as roads. If the access is smoother, low-price ecotourism will be possible while more damage to the ecosystem will be apparent. If the access remains inconvenient, damage to the ecosystem might be prevented, while dissatisfaction of tourists in terms of cost and uncomfortableness in driving unpaved rough roads will increase. To solve these problems, it is first necessary to measure and set up a maximum number of visitors which does not damage the ecosystem, and then design the ecotourism comprehensively, including infrastructure, based on the number.

Fourthly, as Mr. Arai suggests, facilities which provide guidance or orientation should be created in peripheral areas. I myself also visited the bird park after Rain Forest Aerial Tram and strongly felt the necessity to improve guidance functions of such facilities, as well as guides' explanations. Besides these facilities, other types of sub-systems to supplement ecotourism are needed.

Fifthly, investment in ecotourism must be capped.
The world's tourism seems to be more resort facility-oriented, such as the case in Panama. This raises quite a concern in terms of its impact on the conservation of ecosystems and rare species in the future.

The larger the scale of investment becomes, the more tourists they must bring in. This increases the fear of damaging the ecosystem and the species therein.

The scale of investment should be minimum to yield maximum effects in order to integrate both purposes of tourism and conservation of biological diversity.

Also operating costs need to be reduced to shrink the total cost. To do that, various kinds of institutes and laboratories should be invited to the local areas as a measure for lowering cost for guides. There should be ways to cut costs including having researchers work as guides as well and utilizing human resources of NGOs.

Now, in Japan, ecotourism has just begun.

Yakushima Island is the typical ecotourism site in Japan. Other than that, preparation for ecotourism is beginning in Iriomote Island, Yanbaru region and Amami-Oshima Island.

However, there are few places with access to rare species, such as those examples in foreign countries, and the concepts and purposes of ecotourism are still varied; there is no fixed direction yet. Some are linked with local revitalization movements, some are developed from so-called green tourism, some call simple trekking ecotourism, some call visiting cultural scenic sites that have been artificially created ecotourism, and so forth.

Meanwhile, one example of the worsening of environmental destruction is Shirakami-sanchi Mountain Range. The number of people visiting this World Heritage site is rapidly growing and that has resulted in environmental destruction.

The national strategy for biological diversity in Japan does not yet position ecotourism as a measure to protect biological diversity. However, what is sought now is to prepare measures to obtain real experience of not textbook-like but true symbiosis, that is for human beings to confront primeval species, as soon as possible by utilizing ecotourism as a tool, which prevents the local region from excessive development and help rebuilds the local economy.


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