This article is published as part of a year-long series Ecotourism Then and Now, commemorating the 20th anniversary of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) through a joint effort by TIES and Megan Epler Wood, author of this article and founder of TIES.
Part 1 – Ecotourism 20 Years Ago
In 1989, hundreds of thousands of acres were being added to park systems to conserve ecosystems around the world. International conservation was going into high gear, driven by the rude fact that development was accelerating in the most vulnerable and biodiverse regions of the planet. Conservationists were talking more about preserving the Amazonian rain forest, and less about “saving the panda.”
As conservation objectives were being ramped up, parks had jumped from being places for family recreation to becoming a global tool to preserve the last “great” endangered places. Costa Rica was winning awards for conserving the highest percentage of park land in the world. But, the large majority of new protected areas worldwide were simply lines delineated on maps. These under protected areas and fledgling parks became known as paper parks.
While conservationists were thinking big, there was, unfortunately, little funding on the ground. There was vision, and conservationists were quick to start raising funds to make these fledgling parks real. But national budgets were short and economic resources within park agencies exceedingly tight. Economic activity in these biodiverse zones was usually ranching, forestry and mining, or subsistence agriculture; none of which were park friendly.
But despite these economic and social realities at the time, parks were already attracting substantial economic activity and foreign exchange in developing countries, because of tourism. The idea of using tourism as a means to finance parks began take off in the mid-1980s.
The nature tourism market was vibrant and growing rapidly. Latin American countries in the tropics are home to about 1000 species of birds, most of which cannot be observed in North America. Word spread from scientific stations to expatriate families, to friends in Europe and North America, to global tourism markets. The story was exciting. Rainforests are teeming with birds and wildlife, and visitors could experience some of the last great preserved sanctuaries on earth. They were no longer just uncomfortable, mosquito-ridden “jungles.”
In Africa, tourists were starting to swarm into wildlife parks. For many years, the preserves there had been the refuge only of the wealthy who could afford the luxury of a private safari. But by the 1980s, safaris had gone mass market. Thousands of tourists were visiting Kenya and paying relatively little for the opportunity. Tour buses were filling Amboseli National Park and Masai Mara Reserve , and lions and cheetah were being surrounded routinely.
The Founding of TIES
In 1989, I was working as an independent filmmaker with my own company, Ecoventures, specializing in environmental documentaries. I convinced the National Audubon Society to produce an hour-long documentary on ecotourism for television. The funding covered production in Kenya, Belize and Montana.
With a serious budget, I researched every aspect of how tourism was providing income to parks and quickly discovered the most articulate advocate for using tourism to finance parks was Dr. David Western. Known as Jonah by all his friends and colleagues, Western was the head of the Wildlife Conservation Center program of the New York Zoological Society (NYZS) in East Africa.
The son of a game warden, he was field seasoned from birth, had a wickedly smart ability to sum up key points, and had long been a strong advocate community-based conservation. This led him to be one of the earliest advocates for ecotourism. We met twice, once for an audio tape interview at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and once in Amboseli National Park with a whole film crew. After the shoot, I asked if I could make a private visit to discuss an idea with him, and he invited me to his home.
The idea I presented was the founding of The Ecotourism Society (later to become The International Ecotourism Society). Sitting in front of an African water hole, having tea at Western’s house overlooking Nairobi National Park, I made my pitch. I would be the point person, and he would be my chairman. He agreed and TIES was born.
Back in Washington, books were being written about the potential for tourism to fund parks. Elizabeth Boo of WWF-US wrote, Ecotourism: Potentials and Pitfalls, which caught the eye of conservationists around the world. Karen Ziffer, a Stanford MBA who was snatched up by Conservation International, wrote the second work Ecotourism, The Uneasy Alliance; laying out the challenge for ecotourism to both fund local conservation and fuel economic development.
During the production of the Audubon film, I held meetings on the potential of an international organization dedicated to ecotourism. Boo, Ziffer and I were the core working group. World Resources Institute economist Kreg Lindberg soon joined us, and Ecoventures’ marketing director Frances Gatz worked on outreach. When Western joined forces with us, funds were raised and in 1990 the new organization was founded.
The idea of an international organization dedicated to making ecotourism a tool for conservation and sustainable development was new. It was the first organization in the world to dedicate all of its resources to tourism as a sustainable development mechanism.
Funding to launch came with two grants (which Western and I raised together) from the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation and the Merck Family Fund. The organization’s goals were set out by its first board of directors in its first meeting in May of 1990. And the first definition for the concept of ecotourism that incorporated sustainable development ideas was coined: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and sustain the well being of local people.”
With a definition in hand we went to work. But ecotourism had few organizing principles and could not be called a professional discipline. It was merely a very interesting, and ever controversial idea. With every year, we brought more expertise together, attracted thousands of members in countries across the planet, and slowly but surely laid out a set of professional methodologies and guidelines. Lessons have been learned, and the market for ecotourism has grown. But its role as a financing engine for parks remains nascent.
This article was first published 4th of March 2010 at Your Travel Choice Blog .
Your Travel Choice Blog is an interactive online communication platform established by TIES, as part of their mission to promote ecotourism, which is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people” (TIES, 1990) by:
• Creating an international network of individuals, institutions and the tourism industry;
• Educating tourists and tourism professionals; and
• Influencing the tourism industry, public institutions and donors to integrate the principles of ecotourism into their operations and policies.
The article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.