Dr Campo Elias Bernal

"I believe social innovation is the most promising element in ecotourism and sustainable tourism management"

Dr Campo Elias Bernal has over 21 years of experience in the Colombian National Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (COLCIENCIAS), the last five years appointed as the National Director for Innovation. Dr Bernal is the Founder and Executive Director of the Colombian Federation for Ecotourism, Ecoparks and Adventure Tourism (FEDEC) while he has served as President for two terms at the National Tourism Education Board of the National Service of Learning (SENA). His expertise focuses on leadership in local communities development through nature and cultural tourism, particularly in San Agustin and Lengupá Province. He obtained his Doctorate from the Salamanca University in Spain in the context of which he researched knowledge and innovation management in Sustainable Tourism. He has worked as an international consultant in innovation and ecotourism development for over 10 years and he is currently leading the project “Network for Innovation and Science & Technology in Nature and Cultural Tourism”.

ECOCLUB.com: Based on your immense experience with the public administration in Colombia, please tell us, now that peace has finally arrived, in what ways can Tourism play an active role in healing, peace-building and job creation in affected communities?

Dr Campo Elias Bernal: The Colombian Government, to face challenges and strengthen the peace process, and with particular care to hot spots, has developed “The Strategy for Tourism and Peace”which is led by the Vice-minister of Tourism. In the recent “International Tourism Day Meeting”, the Tourism Vice-minister invited some local communities to share their experience in applying a “model for strategic management of tourism and peace”. It is worthy to mention that important advances in building peace with the participation of Government, local communities, reintegrated former combatants and young entrepreneurs took place in the following areas: Sierra de la Macarena, Caño Cristales, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Camino Teyuna, Putumayo, Mocoa y Valle del Sibundoy, Darién Chocó, Urabá Antioquia, Montes de María, Palenque, Puerto Nariño and others. Most of the sites mentioned are located in the middle of the jungle, where guerillas found shelter. Now, this tourism peace program represents a brilliant way to convert violent zones to an ecotourism paradise thanks to the beauty of the landscape and the unique, multicultural and biodiverse characteristics of this destination. Implementing the peace process involves careful study of beliefs, values and practices, focusing on sustainability and equity, and at the same time, preserving the individual freedom and way of thinking of Indians, peasants, raizal and mestizo communities.

In peace scenarios, Tourism can play an effective role in driving people to dialogue, recovering friendship, confidence and collaboration among them. I believe, that trust until now is a critical factor for sustainability. As the peace process progresses, it is expected that local communities will be able to design with the aid of the government a long-range strategy for sustainable tourism. Regarding the issue of flourishing entrepreneurs and employment in tourism destinations, we know of efforts carried out to establish local tourism operators and small business connected to cluster services; however, in my opinion, this could take longer than expected to create jobs and wealth because to set up competitive nature and culture companies is a hard work that demands research, training, new technology and strategies for sustainability. In the middle of paradise, the main problem is not the lack of tourism infrastructure as some think. Beyond inadequate tourism infrastructure, we should be aware of people suffering from poverty, ignorance and violence by the enemies of the emerging peace.

ECOCLUB.com: According to reports, since the truce of 2016, there is already a great problem with deforestation in regions previously controlled by the guerrillas. Do Ecotourism/Sustainable Tourism stakeholders in Colombia have the power to prevent new conflicts arising between local communities and powerful extractive industries (mining, forestry, shale oil)?

Dr Bernal: All I can say is that municipalities and local communities are struggling to heal life conditions and protect ecosystems against deforestation, water contamination, soil degradation and air pollution. In this sense, a new, green, democratic citizen force has emerged through municipal elections to prevent illegal mining. Already, five towns and villages (Ibagué, Cajamarca, Piedras, Pijao, Arbeláez) have expressed their opinion in the ballot box, saying “No” to mining projects that are a real threat to life and survival. Also, demonstrations have been an instrument against mining projects that could put people and environment at risk.

More difficult is the political and social action to prevent deforestation, taking into account that this is a historical and uncontrolled activity, financed by drug cartels, who need to plant narcotic species in deep forest areas. Some governors, mayors and local leaders have expressed their worries in mass media about the nasty effects of deforestation, but at the end, the situation has changed little.

Some Ecotourism/Sustainable Tourism stakeholders in Colombia are aware that indiscriminate mining and deforestation have terrible impacts on tourism destinations. Despite their green consciousness, they do not have the power to prevent conflicts and environmental destruction until a certain point, neither Government and politicians. Probably, contamination produced by oil coming from gas-pumping systems exploded by guerillas it is expected to be reduced once the peace process with ELN is adopted in the whole country.

ECOCLUB.com: How important was the recent Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) Meeting in Chile for showcasing and supporting your work? What initiatives would you like to see it launch, especially with reference to sustainable tourism certification in South America?

Dr Bernal: The GSTC Meeting in Chile was an impressive meeting for showcasing and improving knowledge that helps us to plan sustainable tourism in an integral way. The conference on GSTC´s criteria, certification and methodology, will foster FEDEC in developing activities and apply sustainability models in Colombia in a short time. In addition, the successful case studies presented by experts encouraged us to explore a sound path to sustainable tourism.

In particular, I would like to stress the importance of knowledge interaction in the meeting sessions, the speeches of the GSTC Chairman and of panellists around the following issues: value and benefits of Sustainability Certification, Indigenous Tourism, Ecotourism and Community-based Tourism and the application of the Chilean instrument for certification. GSTC teams networking is an pivotal factor for joining forces in South America.

ECOCLUB.com: Do you consider that it is more practical to have one national ecotourism certification system (in Colombia and other South American countries), or rather many competing ecolabels? Do you feel that the current system whereby grants are offered to tourism businesses to become green-certified under the national label is working well?

Dr Bernal: I believe the great advance in creating a certification sustainable tourism system in South American countries should be supported by GSTC, criteria, training and licensing. The GSTC role assures high-quality certification and the use of recognised sustainable standards. In the future, it does not matter if we have a national certification system or many competing ecolabels. What is important is that the whole system must be regulated according to international GSTC criteria and standards. With the agreement signed between Tourism Vice-minister and GSTC, Colombia moves ahead in sustainable tourism in peaceful times.

San Agustin´s National Arqueological ParkSan Agustin´s National Arqueological Park
San Agustin´s National Archaeological Park

ECOCLUB.com: What are Colombia’s unique attractions regarding culture and nature? How realistic is it to cooperate with neighbouring countries, in jointly promoting your region and lowering binational tensions through ecotourism, rather than just competing for the attention of the same major tour operators?

Dr Bernal: Colombia is a megadiverse nation, bathed by two oceans and the Andean mountain´s three branches, that engraves an extraordinary country landscape, forming snow picks, paramo ecosystems, deep canyons, crystalline lakes and rushing rivers across the country. Unique attractions in terms of culture and nature are located in 43 National Natural Parks, 10 Sanctuaries of Flora and Fauna and other natural protected reserves. Colombia is so rich in biodiversity that the country is globally ranked first in birds and orchids, second place in amphibians and water flies and third in reptiles. The current peace process in Colombia hails an era of unprecedented growth of sustainable tourism, which represents the second sector in generating foreign incomes and employment. Cooperation in Ecotourism with neighbouring countries is a reality, in particular in Amazon Trapezoid, the bigger forestry, water and oxygen reserve. An international alliance is crucial for fighting against deforestation and drug traffic. Of course, Ecotourism is a seed for peace that helps to reduce multinational tensions, but we should realise that the joint efforts done in that direction among nations are still at an early stage. It appears to be a very good idea to have regional sustainable tourism routes. The Colombian government and interested actors have promoted the Inca multinational route from Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. In the future, transnational routes with Venezuela and Caribbean will allow Colombia to connect its sustainable tourism to that of other regions.

ECOCLUB.com: FEDEC aims to become a pioneer in terms of creating a knowledge-based organisational model for Sustainable Tourism. What are the key characteristics of such a model?

FEDEC was created as a knowledge organization model under my leadership in 2002. We received support from the Vice-Minister of Tourism, Bancóldex (a state-owned commercial bank) and international assistance from Ecuador and Costa Rica. In addition, the Minister of Foreign Affairs invited us to participate in the “1st Pacific Economic Cooperation Council Forum on Ecotourism” held in Quito (Ecuador) in November 2002. Also, FEDEC has received support from the Colombian National Parks Ecotourism Division and SENA, the National Training Service. A milestone was a training travel mission to Costa Rica in 1998 that gathered Colombian entrepreneurs, scientists and government officials so that they could learn from international experiences with ecotourism. In this framework, to be an innovator in the tourism sector means to have creativity, knowledge and commitment; not only to introduce new technology into the value chain, or to be involved in an internet information network, but also to have a community vision so as to transform a territory, embracing education, research and diffusion. At the same time, one has to introduce a knowledge approach into the business model as well as sharing progress with local communities. In the end, innovation is a collective concept related to looking for transforming people´s mind, their way of thinking and decision making.

Since the beginning, FEDEC posessed an institutional policy for innovation based on knowledge and creativity. The organizational knowledge model under experimentation includes several stages linked to the value chain: focus, vision, awareness, joint R&D group, challenges, books of interpretation, generation of knowledge for authentic experiential tourism, multicultural routes, network business model, an ecosystem for innovation and a platform for S&T services. The pillars of this formidable task are the following:

  • Knowledge generation, education and research on history, culture, nature and society are the cornerstone to build up a new sustainable tourism.
  • Social innovation that allows a local community to re-invent mentality and to communicate spirit and values to visitors is a key issue for respecting and preserving tradition.
  • Innovation networks that enhance employ and quality of life are a key instrument to share progress.
  • Young entrepreneurship applying new green technologies are the seeds for a truly sustainable development.
  • Competitiveness of the unrepeatable is a sound strategy that combines cultural and environmental approaches.
  • Best technology solutions are a sound blending knowledge of new technology, community know-how, university R&D and transfer of technology.
  • Territorial innovation ecosystems are the right trans-disciplinary approach to reach peace, equity and local integration for a sustainable human development.
  • Global, sustainable certification is needed because tourism is a worldwide industry.

ECOCLUB.com: Based on your experience working in and with the public sector, has the Colombian political class understood that Sustainable Tourism is not about quantitative goals, growth, tourism arrivals and revenue, but rather a wholly different way of doing things in tourism and the environment? Would politicians, for example, even consider including the term and concept of ‘Degrowth’ in their program, understanding Ecotourism as a form of Degrowth (or of avoiding Growth)?

Dr Bernal: Colombia is a country with a very advanced environmental legislation. People know that the law expects them to take care of mountain, paramo, river and wildlife ecosystems. However, the Economic Policy and the State Organization for Productivity is an independent body that has a twofold role in decision-making: employment and investment are goals of high priority, thus an official decision of any Minister and government institution on these issues could bypass environment regulations and what communities and environmental groups claim. At this time, few politicians include the term and concept of “Degrowth” in their program. For instance, it has been very controversial as a measure to avoid building high-rise hotels in national parks territory. In the end, despite efforts made by Minister of Environment, many national nature parks are suffering from industrial and mining activities and contamination.

Scientifical mission to San Agustin lead by Dr. Jorge Reynolds PomboScientifical mission to San Agustin lead by Dr. Jorge Reynolds Pombo
Scientific mission to San Agustin lead by Dr. Jorge Reynolds Pombo

ECOCLUB.com: As the National Director for Innovation, having researched innovation in Sustainable Tourism for your PhD, and currently leading a project on the topic, which is the most promising, innovative element in ecotourism / sustainable tourism management that you have observed so far?

Dr Bernal: I believe social innovation is the most promising element in ecotourism/sustainable tourism management. Social innovation in the case of sustainable tourism means not only responsible tourism or new social practices introduced in communities with an intention to deliver ecotourism services, but also the strategic decision made by a community to build up a better future based on collective intelligence. Then, communities embrace commitment and efforts to take care of the environment, education, quality of life, entrepreneurship and peace. At this point, sustainable tourism certification is the instrument to accept sustainability standards for community life.

ECOCLUB.com: How satisfied are you with the quality and content of National Tourism Education in Colombia, and what needs to change?

Dr Bernal: Tourism Education has been evolving to a high-level system characterised by an increasing number of universities and technical schools that provide good education to young tourism students. Most of these educational and training programs are focused on hotel and gastronomy management, following tourism sector demand. However, nature and culture tourism have been envisaged as the future clusters that will attract international responsible tourists to Colombia and other Latin America countries. Despite the high opportunities to develop nature and culture tourism the educative offer in this field is even weak both in quality and in the number of educative institutions. We do not have enough teachers with the necessary experience and theoretical formation to deal with high-quality education in nature and culture tourism.

A survey done by Iván Fernando Amaya, using data from the Ministry of Education (SNIES), shows that around 30 universities, 29 graduate institutes and nine schools, offer tourism studies in Colombia. The majority of these programs are in the field of management of tourism and hotels. There are few in the areas of nature, culture and sustainable tourism.

There are some key unanswered questions: as part of the peace process, how to reintegrate guerrillas and local peasants named “vaquianos”, who live in ecotourism destinations and amazing routes, to transform them into “a certified touristic guide”. Present regulations state that to be a “a certified touristic guide”, one needs to have at least a high school degree and then undergo an intensive training program at SENA (National Training Service). This is a legal requirement so as to obtain a job as a tourism guide. Most of the reintegrated former combatants have attended secondary school for a few years. According to a SENA report (2016) 14,341 students received graduate tourism training, while 15,000 students in vulnerable communities attended short tourism courses.

The Colombian government is currently fostering a big change in tourism guide education, introducing a new category of specialised tourism. Now, a professional with at least an undergraduate title in Biology, Anthropology, Archaeology or similar, can apply to the tourism certification call opened by the Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism. This year, there were 500 people seeking a place as a specialised touristic guide but only around 50 were admitted. These should follow an additional training course at SENA and then take a final examination to obtain “a professional touristic guide card”.

In any case, Colombia lacks “nature tourist guides”, a specialisation that countries such as Spain have found useful to attract sophisticated ecotourism travellers. An approximation in Colombia is the education in “mountain tourism” and “adventure tourism”.

Furthermore, to increase competitiveness, tourism guides should be specialised according to different types of tourism. Again in Spain, for example, there is a “nature guidance” while in Colombia tourism guides are prepared to service a more general tourism activity. An extraordinary hope for improving research and education is the commitment of several universities and research institutes (like Institute Sinchi, Alexander von Humboldt, ICANH) to cultural and natural heritage, botanic gardens and others.

ECOCLUB.com: You have developed a ‘methodology guide on community leadership and knowledge for sustainable tourism’. Why is such a guide relevant and who should read it?

Dr Bernal: This methodology guide teaches that sustainable tourism is a knowledge-based activity for innovation. The community should lead the process of social innovation by themselves through the development of a new vision and awareness. The challenge to face is to transform territory improving life, equity and sustainability. So this transformation goal is by itself of high concern for a sustainable tourism strategy. The guide comprises three books that focus on the main actors of the sustainable tourism value chain: a Book for Communities (Heritage), one for Tourism (Experience in Intercultural Tourism Routes) and a book for Entrepreneurship (Network Business Model). These books are trying to interpret sustainable tourism, and are somewhere between a scientific paper and a commercial approach that represents the travel guides. The books are designed under the guidelines of “Visual anthropology” (Gaspar de Alba) that allows knowledge appropriation, “wealth and diversity of human natural and cultural heritage”.

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, can you please offer us your favourite best practice example of Community-Based Tourism in Colombia? What role has ecotourism-related innovation and entrepreneurship played for the success of this project, compared, say, to local traditions and good, equitable, intra-community relations?

Dr Bernal: The Lengupa, Indian Teguas, Territory is an extraordinary region, limited by the East Andean mountain range and the “Piedmont Llanero”, a geological connection between high mountains and the vast Eastern Plain. What is outstanding of this Boyacá province is the story of the Teguas Indians, a precolumbian civilisation, very famous for their natural medicine. They live in a jungle rich in biodiversity that attracts them to learn the secrets of natural medicine resulting in the creation of a traditional knowledge civilisation. They learnt some elementary biotechnology techniques to adapt plants coming from different ecosystems and altitude such as yopo and frailejón. It is amazing that the National University of Colombia researchers reported that Teguas were able to have experimental gardens for their studies and also to have community gardens for people needs. Furthermore, the most advanced tribes in Orinoquia region exchange knowledge having set up a kind of “Knowledge Indian Network”, giving a special value to rites, ceremonies and natural medicine practices.

Campohermoso, village of Teguas Campohermoso, village of Teguas
Campohermoso, village of Teguas

We were doing a research project in Teguas´ territory jointly with local leaders for nearly two years, with the support of the Boyaca´’s Academy of History, Regional Productivity and Innovation Center (CREPIB) and Lengupá’s Provincial Tourism Council. For the success of this project, a key factor was to rediscover local history and cultural heritage in a book entitled “Lengupa: Territorio de los Teguas”, that was delivered to producers associations, schools and citizens. A conception of an innovation ecosystem in Lengupá comprises 27 short and long range projects. We realise that Ecotourism is not an isolated activity but a systemic networking node that has strong linkages with agriculture, food-processing industry and raw materials for pharmaceutical and cosmetology. Knowing that champa and pitaya are tropical fruits produced in Lengupá and they appear promising with agrotourism, we invited an innovating firm, Lab Esko, to develop new products and to support the transfer of technology to an association of producers, most of them engaged in agrotourism practices. This strategic innovation alliance among peasant producers, innovative firms, universities, tourism entrepreneurs and regional tourism council has evolved into a social innovation scheme that is rendering social and economic wealth.

Recently, Boyaca´’s departmental government promoted “Lengupá: Teguas Territory” and organised a festival held in the capital, Tunja. I then realized that when a community appropriates knowledge and gains self-reliance, developing their capabilities and resources, it starts moving and transforming a territory for its sake. In that case, policy making for sustainability should not need to be a central command to people. Nowadays an authentic self-awareness is emerging, born in the heart of a local community that accepted the challenge to appropriate its future. As a result of the joint research project with the local community, we were able to create a “new nature and culture destination”, a true social innovation.

To conclude, the lessons we have learned are: knowledge is a true value for innovation; local communities are ready to participate in science and technology networks and, in the end, knowledge is absolutely needed to guarantee Sustainable Tourism and progress. We consider the GSTC global network as a revolution in science, technology and innovation applied to Sustainable Tourism.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much for enlightening us about the progress of ecotourism and sustainable tourism in Colombia in which you have played a pivotal part over the past decades, and a process which clearly influences and is influenced by the peace process. We hope both processes are fully and speedily implemented for the sake of the Colombian people.