Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Coastal EcoVentures combines field work and funding for conservation

There was a method to our madness when we decided to initially focus our business, Coastal EcoVentures, on coastal tourism in Mexico. As both environmental scientists and avid travelers (and surfers), we were concerned about the rapid development taking place along Mexico's coastline and the negative impacts it was having on the environment and local communities. One need to only look at Cancun to get a sense of the ills of over-development.

Assuming that development will continue in fragile coastal regions, the question was whether we could promote responsible development that potentially mitigates negative impacts. For example, those that restore wetlands rather than eliminate them; that promote waste reduction instead of increase pollution; that hire community members rather than displacing the locals; these are the kinds of projects that should be supported.

Fortunately, such projects exist. To learn more about this niche industry, we focused our initial research on Playa Viva, a resort in the early stages of development near Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Playa Viva is promoting an innovative approach to development that goes a step beyond sustainable and incorporates regenerative development goals. In other words, they are restoring distressed land, in this case a palm plantation, back to its native landscape. The plan is to create a low-impact resort and residential community that can finance restoration and conservation.

Last July we had the chance to visit Playa Viva. While we were there we met the onsite management team to see how well the project actually matched its proposed responsible development goals. We met with Playa Viva’s green architect Michel Lewis, to look over development plans and site renderings. He showed us casita test structures and restoration activities of one of the coastal lagoons. We also met with Odin Ruiz, Playa Viva’s permaculturalist. He is actively re-vegetating the palm plantation with native species, and is reintroducing ancestral Mayan terracing for sustainable agriculture. We also had the opportunity to participate in a sea turtle release at the community-run turtle sanctuary.

During our visit, we thought about how we would go about evaluating Playa Viva’s development plans and what environmental and social criteria could be measured, particularly at such an early stage in development. The project became the case study upon which we built our methodology for evaluating responsible tourism developments. The field trip and sunset surf sessions provided a nice break from our laptops and Excel, and reaffirmed our hunch that we were working in the right industry.

A recently released article, "Good Preachers: Students' eco-tourism firm to fund guilt-free travel", highlights some of the additional work Coastal EcoVentures and Playa Viva are doing to support investment in and travel to sustainable tourism developments.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Domestic tourism in Mexico

Our personal accounts of ecotourism are usually in the first person; that is, we talk about our own experiences of traveling to Mexico and other beautiful, far-flung tropical locales from another country. Not surprising to be coming from a group of Americans.

But international tourists are only part of the story. Just as the majority of tourists to be found at most attractions in the U.S. are, in fact, Americans, the tourism industries of Mexico and other Latin American countries also are dominated by domestic visitors.

In Mexico, 80 percent of total tourism expenditures (and 60 percent of the spending on lodging) come from Mexican residents, according to a 2001 OECD study. (In some places, of course, international visitors dominate.)

Why should we care? Well, in our minds ecotourism can only be sustainable if tourist activities maintain the integrity of the ecosystems where eco-resorts are found. And local residents are almost always the best stewards of that. Community-scale stewardship is the most critical, but all domestic visitors have a stake in stewarding the natural landscapes within their country's borders.

Since domestic tourists are, on average, probably less affluent than visitors from America and other (richer) countries, it's also important to have tourism options at all price points, not just the luxury experiences that often exclude the average middle-class tourist. On a related point, we should be sensitive to the potential for a lagging level of appreciation of environmental values among domestic tourists, stemming from simple things like education and even access to the internet.

Domestic tourism is in some ways a measure of the interest in and appreciation of a nation's environmental assets, and we're glad to see it's alive and well in Mexico. Strong domestic tourist flows will, we hope, provide the capital to maintain and restore ecologically important lands. We'll be watching for studies to confirm that domestic tourists are just as interested in eco-friendly travel as Americans are becoming.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Financing ecotourism #1: The role of government

This blog serves partly as a forum to talk about the next big ideas in ecotourism and sustainable development. But too often these well-intentioned policy innovations are never successfully implemented, and the intended conservation outcomes never happen.

And often it is financing that's the missing piece. Environmentally friendly projects, such as investments in energy efficiency, typically generate positive returns but are passed over in favor of even more lucrative projects. (Energy efficiency investments often take many years to pay for themselves.) The tight credit markets don't help, but this problem is not unique to recessionary periods.

So we'll start using this blog to discuss new financing mechanisms that increase access to capital and thereby expand the use of responsible development practices in ecotourism. And the first topic is the role of government-led financing.

Developing countries routinely receive funding from the world's richest economies - through the big development (e.g., massive lines of credit) and from the private sector - to support economic development and environmental protection. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), for example, sends money directly to national governments, which then have discretion over how the money is used. More and more, the World Bank and related institutions are giving these governments leeway over how they use the money and, more generally, how they set and enforce environmental regulations.

Many developing countries also enjoy a robust tourism sector, which often dominates local economies. And it's becoming increasingly evident that consumers want more responsible tourism experiences.

So there is money available from two sources (development banks and tourists) that demand environmental protection. And some investments in environmentally friendly development (like energy efficiency) often don't get made because scarce capital is employed in more readily available projects with shorter payback periods.

What if a national government administered a revolving loan fund to support tourism development that simultaneously meets national goals for economic development and environmental protection? Good projects would get the capital they need, while less environmentally friendly forms of development would be discouraged implicitly (though not outlawed entirely).

The mechanism would invest in projects that meet high standards of environmental performance, recognizing that such environmental performance often requires significant capital investment above and beyond that required for a viable development. The revolving fund could even specifically target investments that normally don't get funded, like investments with a payback period of seven years or more.

The method for evaluating the environmental performance of tourism developments must include a quantitative, outcome-oriented analysis of whether (and how) each stands up to a set of environmental standards, like in our EcoValuator scorecard.

A revolving fund would return capital to the national government, with a small return to pay for costs of administration and to ensure the financial sustainability of the program over time.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cheap buses, fast Spanish, and ecotourism: Lessons from the Lakes District

I was finally on my own, traveling through the land of lagos y volcanes that Che experienced, after a conservation finance conference in nearby Valdivia. Chile is a wonderful place to visit, combining the beauty of South America with the charm of Europe. And it's cheap: a decent hostel bed is around $10, and a six-hour bus ride cost me $4. Photos from the adventure are here.

After a rest day in Puerto Varas and a climb of Volcan Osorno - a stunningly symmetrical cone overlooking a massive glaciated lake - I headed to the tourist center of the Lakes District: the town of Pucon.

I went there to visit El Cani, a forest reserve that's home to the endangered araucaria tree, which has a limited range that is pushed to its limits by the expanding development frontier. El Cani was saved from land conversion by a local ecotourism proprietor. Revenues from a nearby ecoresort were used to finance the purchase of the reserve, which has since become a tourist destination in its own right. The araucarias are still safely perched on an isolated ridge within El Cani, this tree's last remaining outpost in the region.

Pucon is overrun by touristm, but don't blame the tourists. Countless recreational activities populate the region, including an active but accessible volcano that's practically inside the city limits.

From an environmental perspective, such masses of tourists may be cause for concern. And there are undoubtedly impacts on water quality in Lago Llanquihue (though fortunately the lake is huge), and certainly local pollution from the frequent traffic jams and innumerable autobuses ferrying tourists to their daily outdoor excursions.

But clustering of tourist activities is a good thing in many contexts. Even mega-destinations, like Cancun in Mexico, could be good for conservation: although they leave a staggering imprint on local ecosystems, they provide millions of tourists with the tropical vacation experiences they demand without disturbing large tracts of intact wilderness elsewhere in the tropics. Imagine how those landscapes would hold up if all those people chose more remote destinations located closer to important tropical ecosystems.

So there are trade-offs. We think part of the solution is to promote limited tourism development that provides economic development opportunities that encourage stewardship of critical habitat for biodiversity while avoiding the environmental costs of intensive development practices. The answers won't come easily, but we're working on ways to assess these alternatives, both at the project level and at a regional scale. We see great promise in some forms of "limited development" ecotourism, and we hope to identify and promote the most responsible forms of development.

As for fast Spanish: I have a long way to go on my Spanish skills, but every visitor to Chile agrees: Chileans talk really, really, ridiculously fast.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ecotourism vacations are short: Stay awake for them!

We traveled to Panama recently to see how communities are addressing the pressures brought on by increased tourism demand. One of the best things about ecotourism is the opportunity to witness (and support) non-tourism industries and livelihoods. And we discovered a thriving coffee industry that is alive and well in the mountains of western Panama.

An hour inland from the Pacific Coast, Boquete sits at around 1,500 meters above sea level and is surrounded by coffee plantations. There are plenty of Americans here - Boquete was featured by AARP a few years ago - but the coffee industry remains the dominant force in the local economy. A full day of walking through the surrounding hillsides opened our eyes to the vibrant and varied coffee-growing activities, all well-insulated from the growing stream of tourist traffic.

(By the way, nice to see that the local enterprises are capturing a majority of the coffee value chain: all the way from growing and harvesting the raw beans to processing, roasting and packaging.)

Although not a new concept, we think there is an under-utilized opportunity for growing tourism to be integrated with and even to benefit local coffee growers. Coffee-loving tourists, after all, love to see the plantations, a lesson the wine industry knows well.

And ecotourists, drawn to the beauty and "intactness" of the natural landscape, will no doubt demand a responsibly grown product, complete with polyculture and safeguards for biodiversity. Thus, coffee tourism can serve to protect biodiversity by ensuring responsible cultivation practices are used. In conjunction with coffee certification schemes - including fair trade, shade-grown, and the like - the coffee-drinking public will be educated about the impacts of their consumption decisions, thereby (we hope) reinforcing price premiums in the market.

In a place like Boquete, which borders a massive national park reaching across the nearby border with Costa Rica, coffee tourism could also expose visitors to the intact landscapes beyond the agricultural frontier.

Working in a fast-paced, nascent start-up, we can certainly appreciate the caffeinated pleasures of a good cup of coffee (at any hour of the day or night). To be sure, we'll be using this invaluable resource as do field research and other tasks this summer and beyond. As our work progresses, we'll be looking for opportunities to responsibly integrate important local industries with ecotourism. In the coming months, we'll be checking out coffee tourism taking place in Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Turtles and ecotourism

We watched, somewhat bemused, as National Geographic's Great Turtle Race came to a thrilling conclusion last week. The race map, along with the Olympic-caliber commentary, is entertaining.

The race, involving 11 leatherback turtles on their annual migration from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean, was a nice encore to the 2007 race from Costa Rica to the Galapagos, in which Stephen Colbert's namesake narrowly lost.

Turtles have come up a few times in our research on coastal ecotourism. After all, turtles, perhaps more than any other species, rely exclusively upon beach habitat for nesting. In southern Mexico last summer, we helped "launch" some newborn leatherback (the largest turtle species) and golfina turtles from a turtle nursery.

The nursery, called La Tortuga Feliz ("The Happy Turtle"), is notable because of the direct involvement of tourists and the local community in turtle stewardship. Also notable: about 100,000 turtles hatch at this site every year.

Sounds pretty touchy-feely, but in fact several turtle species are endangered and attract plenty of regulation from local governments - which often enact laws to protect the endangered turtles - along with conservation groups. Historically, turtle eggs have been a food source for local beach communities.

Ecotourism projects can do their part by establishing links between local environmental assets (like turtle nesting grounds) and increased tourism demand, an important industry in many coastal Mexican communities. Located within a new ecotourism resort, La Tortuga Feliz offers a chance for tourists to volunteer in the nursery, a valuable learning opportunity, not to mention an attractive selling point for the resort.

Hard to believe the newborn turtles will survive the currents, fishing nets and predators of the open ocean between Mexico and the Galapagos. But witnessing their lives on the edge made us appreciate the importance of protecting their beaches even more.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tourism in a recession

Talk of the recession, frozen credit, and home foreclosures seems to dominate the airwaves these days. So it's natural to think that tourism, one of modern life's great indulgences, might be jettisoned quickly by consumers worried about the long-term health of the global economy, not to mention their own finances. After all, staycations can be enticing when money is tight.

Yet many economists and decision-makers, including tourism experts at the United Nations, herald tourism as an essential part of the economic recovery. Tourism is the world's largest industry in terms of jobs, especially for young people, women and other new entrants into the job market.

And many experts are arguing for increased support of tourism, an important source of international trade, in the various stimulus packages being developed around the world. Tourism even got some consideration at the recent G20 meetings in London.

One of the biggest headlines from G20 was the rich nations' decision to provide $1.1 trillion (via the IMF) in loans and financial guarantees. This credit is intended primarily for developing countries, citing the developing world as the key to the global recovery. Since tourism is a pillar of so many Latin American countries, tourism reasonably will figure into the economic recovery.

Tourism is also linked to climate change, so the best investments in tourism must effectively deal with the potential downsides of future development. For our team, that means smart siting, design and construction decisions in resort and infrastructure development, as well as a keen eye toward the negative impacts of land use change, which is especially important in tropical countries. Not to mention that the aesthetic beauty and other natural assets are what draw tourists in the first place.