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ECOCLUB Interviews are a true who is who of the ecotourism movement

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ISSN 1108-8931


 Year 8 - Issue 93 - Sep 07

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens (US), Maris Hotels Traditional Apartments (GR), Vythiri Resort (IN), Beyond Touring (BZ),
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COSTAS CHRIST: "Economic and social justice along with protecting nature are core values that should be found in all ecotourism practices."

ECOCLUB Interviews Costas Christ
Index of Interviews

Costas ChristAn internationally recognized expert on sustainable tourism, Costas Christ serves as the Judging Chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council - Tourism for Tomorrow Awards. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Geographic Adventure magazine and also the Chairman of the Adventures in Travel Expo Conferences in North America. He supports Big Five Tours and Expeditions as their “Ambassador at Large” for their Spirit of Big Five travel philanthropy program that supports the protection of cultural and natural heritage in tourism destinations around the world. His own travels and work have taken him to more than 100 countries across six continents including expeditions to some of the world’s most remote wilderness areas and archaeological sites.

He is a founding member and former Chairman of the Board of The International Ecotourism Society and served as Senior Director for Ecotourism at Conservation International in Washington DC, where he supervised ecotourism projects in 18 countries.

In addition to his monthly column in National Geographic Adventure, Costas' articles and essays on travel and tourism have appeared in numerous publications, including the International Herald Tribune, New York Times, and Sunday Times of London. He is the lead author of Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism Global Footprint and a contributing author in Wilderness: Earth's Last Wild Places and has appeared many times on television and radio, including CNN, BBC, National Public Radio, Voice of America, CBS, ABC, and PBS.

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: You are a true Ecotourism pioneer with a 360 degree knowledge of Ecotourism worldwide, as a founding Member of TIES, a senior officer in many ecotourism-related organisations, an accomplished ecotour guide in Africa and Central America, a travel journalist for major publications, with a career in public and private sectors. So what made such an able and ambitious person believe in the potential of Ecotourism and how has it lived up to your expectations? What would be the "Costas Christ" definition of Ecotourism?

Costas Christ: In 1990, I sat around a table at an old farmhouse outside of Washington DC with a handful of people from different countries who shared the same vision and we spent two days trying to come up with what would become the first definition of ecotourism - "Responsible travel to natural areas that protects nature and sustains the wellbeing of local peoples." It was the first Board of Director's meeting of The International Ecotourism Society and that definition we came up with is still the guiding definition for ecotourism all around the world. For me, that is how I continue to define ecotourism to this day. Of course, there are many other aspects that pertain to ecotourism, but in that definition you will find the two pillars upon which ecotourism stands - protecting nature and bringing benefits to local people - socially, culturally and economically. For me, the ideas for ecotourism began back in 1978 when I was living and working in Africa. I had originally gone to Kenya to participate in a wildlife research project in the remote Samburu Game Reserve. During my time there, I found myself in the middle of a growing conflict between local people, struggling to meet basic needs around the park and the park rangers who were tasked with protecting the wildlife. In the middle of this drama of conflict between local people and park managers over access to natural resources - grazing land, wood, water - was a thriving tourism safari industry generating millions of dollars for business owners in far away capital cities like Nairobi and London. Yet the local people who lived closest to what the tourists were coming to see were struggling to survive, facing poverty, while every day park rangers had to contend with poor equipment and little funds available to monitor and protect the wildlife that was at the center of the conflict.

It occurred to me sitting around a camp fire each night, and after learning the local language and getting to know the concerns of the local villagers first hand, that conservation of rare and endangered wildlife and protection of natural habitat would never succeed unless the people who lived closest to those places we want to protect, become partners and allies in the process. In the middle of all this was tourism generating huge profits. I thought that tourism - properly planned and managed - could be the economic engine to address poverty and generate the funding needed to effectively manage and protect wilderness areas. The local people would become partners and allies when they had a direct stake in the management and economic benefits of tourism and when protected areas got a bigger piece of the tourism economic pie. In the case of tourism itself, it seemed to me that the very foundation for business success in the long term was to protect the natural and cultural heritage of our planet. I started calling this idea "conservation sociology" in the 1970s. In the 1980's, I was referring to it as environmental tourism and by 1990, it had morphed into ecotourism. During this same time period, other people in Africa and elsewhere in the world were having similar ideas and eventually we would connect with each other and put in motion a global ecotourism movement. I still believe in it as passionately today as I did in the shadows of Mount Kenya when these thoughts first entered my mind 29 years ago. Along the way, there have been many challenges but we have learned from failures and built upon the successes.

I think it is accurate to say today that ecotourism was the catalyst for transforming the way we travel. There are now hundreds of successful ecotourism projects and businesses around the world. Sustainable tourism, agro-tourism, geotourism, green travel - all of these different offshoots of responsible travel practices grew out of the early days of ecotourism.

ECOCLUB.com: Is there a real need for Ecotourism certification? Is it feasible?

Costas Christ: I think that certification will eventually come whether we think it should or not. Travellers continue to ask for an easier way for well-meaning tourists who want to take a nature or adventure trip to have some kind of label or certification that they can rely on to know what companies are doing the real work to make tourism an opportunity for our planet and not a threat to it.

We do not yet have a globally accepted standard for ecotourism certification nor an easy way to fund such a global certification scheme but Eco-Australia's certification program, Rainforest Alliance's "Smart Voyager" certification and the CST program in Costa Rica are examples of the evolution of working certification programs that seem to be having a good impact.

ECOCLUB.com: In relation to your experience in Africa, does tourism make a real difference? Can it really bring peace and prosperity or are these prerequisites? Do luxury safaris and exclusive lodges adequately benefit local communities overall, apart from a handful of community-owned luxury lodges? Is luxury and exclusivity morally acceptable in this continent, or should tourists rather patronise more modest outfits?

Costas Christ: Africa should cast its net wide and have all forms of tourism from low cost safaris to high end luxury. Of course, what type of tourism you have varies from destination to destination, but certainly there are excellent luxury camps like Campi Ya Kanzi in Kenya or Phinda Private Reserve in South Africa that have had major positive impacts on the lives of local people and protection of nature. Tourism done well according to the principles of sustainability, can make a significant contribution to the economic well being of rural peoples and the protection of wildlife in Africa. And a prerequisite for tourism's economic and social benefits is peace and stability. At the same time, tourism can also lead to more peace and stability between countries. The East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are continuing to look at how they can once again (post cold-war era) create a working East African Community of nations to promote economic and political cooperation through the movement of tourists across their borders. In Mozambique, the Peace Park that straddles Mozambique and South Africa came together as a way to facilitate tourism economic development in the region as well as promote conservation and peace.

So tourism can play an important role in building bridges of cooperation and understanding between the governments and peoples of different countries. Also, when it comes to international tourists, having more Americans and Europeans travelling to Africa in a responsible way allows them to get to know Africans first hand. It helps to dispel the myths and stereotypes about Africa and Africans and allows Westerners an opportunity to understand that Africa is not just a place of tragedy but one of hope, incredible natural history and about the strength and dignity of her peoples.

ECOCLUB.com: As an ecotour operator and activist do you voice your concerns about human rights and social injustices or do you prefer to "leave only footprints" as the mantra goes?

Costas Christ: My entire involvement with ecotourism from the very beginning has been about addressing fundamental human needs - the right to education, health care, clean water, food, and social justice - just as much as it has been about protecting the environment and saving wildlife.

In the late 1980's, I was declared persona non grata and ordered out of Kenya by the Moi regime because of my stinging political criticisms published in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune about the government's human rights abuses, rampant corruption and escalating wildlife poaching in and around national parks. A close friend of mine - an old Kenya park ranger who was like a mentor to me - was killed by poachers in 1989 who drove on the main road right into Meru National Park in day light and drove out with no problem whatsoever. To me that is as much a human rights abuse as it is a crisis for protecting wildlife. Kenya is much better off today than it was then with leaders like Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Mathai, serving in the government which is why it has also had a resurgence in tourism in recent years. But economic and social justice along with protecting nature are core values that should be found in all ecotourism practices.

ECOCLUB.com: Recently when you were presenting the prestigious 2007 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, in Portugal, you stated: "the winners represent a major turning point in the global tourism industry. Gone are the days when there were only a handful of ecolodges or a few small tour operators who were doing sustainable tourism successfully. Today's best practice models also represent major tourism destinations and global tourism companies that are helping to protect cultural and natural heritage and support the well being of local peoples." So, are global tourism giants really doing enough? Some believe that they only offer a pittance as a share of profits to social & environmental projects and that the rest is motivated by CSR considerations for their annual reports. Is there a real cause for celebration?

Costas Christ: Fifteen years ago, people said that ecotourism would never work because the companies would never really offer more than lip service to the principles of protecting nature and sustaining the well being of local people. They were right in the sense that some companies did nothing more than a pittance, as you say, to the real principles of ecotourism. But many more companies went much further and the result today is that ecotourism is no longer an experiment. It is a reality with successful ecotourism companies operating across the world and making a positive difference in the lives of local people and protecting nature.

Around the year 2000, seeing considerable success with ecotourism, I became worried that most of that success was confined to what I would call "mom and pop" small businesses. I began to think that we might look back 20 years from now at the legacy of ecotourism and see that we were just able to change 5 percent or less of the global tourism industry - not enough to make tourism a real opportunity for safeguarding cultural and natural heritage around the planet and addressing poverty alleviation. So I shifted tactics and began to focus my attention on the mainstream tourism industry, embracing sustainable tourism which basically takes the principles first associated with ecotourism and applies them to urban hotels as well as large tourism resorts, airlines, cruise ships, etc. In other words, bringing the principles of environmentally-friendly operations, giving back to support cultural heritage preservation and contributing to nature protection right into the heart of the entire global tourism industry. It is a huge challenge but I am convinced that the issue before us is not "does sustainable tourism work" but rather just how far can we take sustainable tourism to transform global tourism into a catalyst for helping to protect our planet, address climate change and make peoples lives better. We are off to an encouraging start as more larger companies adopt these practices. In many respects, given the staggering growth rate of the travel and tourism industry, nothing less than the future of our planet is at stake. There is so much to gain if we get it right with sustainable tourism and so much to lose if we do not.

ECOCLUB.com: And talking about Awards, from your experience, how satisfied are you about the relevance of Awards for encouraging real change in Tourism? Who is entitled to vote in these Awards - and what about conflict of interests? (panel member one year, award winner the other).

Costas Christ: I think that well conceived sustainable tourism award programs with a transparent methodology and real teeth in verification of winners claims, are very important for recognizing the best practices that are out there as models for others to see and learn from as well as for giving credit to the companies that have worked hard to make sustainable tourism a reality.

In the case of WTTC's Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, of which I have been the Chairman of Judges for the last 3 years, it has been extremely important for these Awards to set the standard for the industry recognition of best practices. We have over a dozen international judges from all over the world representing different areas of expertise - government, private sector, non-profit, academic, etc - along with other experts who make on site inspection visits of all Award finalists to make sure that what they are saying they are doing in sustainable practices is really being done on the ground. I know of no other global tourism award program that does on site inspection visits and evaluation reports in addition to collecting voluntary information presented by the companies in their Award applications. So it is a very rigorous process and methodology in selecting finalists and winners. While we do invite some former winners to become judges (given their demonstrated expertise in sustainable practices) we have never had nor would we permit someone to serve as a judge one year and then apply for the Award the next as you mentioned. Each year we continue to look for ways that we can improve the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and in the process, the award winners and finalists serve as models showing that sustainable tourism "can be done". This is a particularly important message for the big companies out there and they are starting to listen more as evidenced by this year's winners.

ECOCLUB.com: Do you feel that Tourism progresses rapidly enough, in terms of working conditions and environmental impact? (If not, what in your view needs to be done to speed up social & environmental progress in Tourism?)

Costas Christ: I wish it was proceeding more rapidly in terms of better working conditions and environmental impacts but we cannot give up in our efforts to make that happen. Since so much of tourism depends on the integrity of cultural and natural heritage attractions in destinations around the world along with an excellent tourism product, ultimately sustainable tourism is as much about good business planning as it is about altruism. We cannot and should not give up in our ongoing work with the public and private sectors to make tourism the opportunity it can be for our planet and its peoples - particularly in developing nations that may be rich in natural habitat and cultural diversity but poor in economic resources. We need to remain steadfast and learn from our mistakes to help tourism reach its highest potential to make a better contribution to the world. This has been my guiding philosophy for nearly 30 years now in trying to transform this industry in positive ways.

ECOCLUB.com: Both of your parents are from Greece, you grew up in the States while you have travelled and worked all around the world. This self-globalisation is increasingly expected from world leaders, especially in the Tourism sector. You have kept in touch with your roots, and groundroots through your work, however, from your experience, do most of your high-flying peers have time to relate to local / national sensitivities, prejudices, worries? Is that a problem when devising international tourism policy?

Costas Christ: About ten years ago, I told a journalist that one of my fears was that ecotourism would do more for the jet set conference industry than it would for local people and the environment. While I do not think that has happened, I do feel that it is incumbent on anyone who truly wants to be involved with these issues in constructive ways to keep themselves with one foot fully grounded into the lives and aspirations of local people and the natural environment that we are all ultimately connected to. The other foot needs to be in the world of policy makers and private sector CEO's etc that are making big decisions to affect the lives and environment for people the world over. I left Washington DC and moved to a farm in Maine six years ago so I could live closer to the family farmers and small communities in North America that are trying to survive in the face of globalization. In that sense, it is kind of a reverse of the slogan " Think Global, Act Local." In my case, it is more, "Think Local, Act Global".

ECOCLUB.com: You have written numerous articles for some of the leading English language newspapers and television channels, so you know both sides of Ecotourism media coverage. How fair are the media in their coverage of Ecotourism? Recently a major news agency invited to Oslo for the GEC could only cynically report that 'Ecotourism is equally harmful' ignoring all that was discussed and presented. Why do media always give the benefit of the doubt to other forms of tourism, such as Responsible, Ethical and so on, but are so eager to bash Ecotourism? Are they jealous or a victim of orchestrated misinformation?

Costas Christ: Some media in their pursuit for "news" like to build things up and then bash it down. We saw this happen with ecotourism. Media has jumped on the bandwagon of reporting on efforts to save the environment and then on the bandwagon, in their minds, of why those efforts are failing or false, or whatever. I cannot tell you how many reporters I know who are asked to write about ecotourism and still think it means a bird watching trip, missing the underlying principles that can change a nature vacation into ecotourism. Just going on safari does not mean ecotourism. Yet many reporters miss that important fact. When I saw the article you mentioned that came out of the recent Global Ecotourism Conference in Olso state that ecotourism experts now say ecotourism is damaging the world, I thought to myself how misinformed that was and how misleading it is to the general public. The truth is that if travel were to stop today from going to the far flung corners of our planet to see nature we would experience an environmental nightmare. With no economic incentive to protect the Serengeti through tourism, the vast plains that hold the last great land migration of wild animals on our planet will become grazing land for domestic cattle. The Pantanal in Brazil, largely protected because of its ecotourism potential would be lost to other development and cattle ranches. South East Asia's coral reefs and marine national parks would have little incentive for protection through the economic benefits of marine tourism. We would see species vanish like the Scarlet Macaw in Belize if there was no economic reason through ecotourism to protect them for visitors willing to pay money to see and photograph them. The list goes on. Before anyone says that we need to stop travelling to save the earth, they should think very carefully about what that would do to protected areas around the planet and to the peoples whose economic livelihood is from tourism in places like El Nido in the Philippines, where tourism income can mean the difference between poverty and feeding your family. The issue is not to limit or stop travelling as a way to deal with global warming, etc. Travel is part of our very human nature and has been with us for a long time. The very definition of a human being in ancient Tibetan - the word groba - means one who goes on migrations. Rather, in modern times, we need to work on how travel can be more sustainable. That is the goal.

ECOCLUB.com: You have already accomplished many things for Ecotourism. What next?

Costas Christ: My efforts are focused on greening the mainstream tourism industry now. How we bring the principles of sustainability into the full spectrum of travel and tourism worldwide. My goal is nothing less than to transform global tourism into a force for helping to save our planet. Together, I honestly believe we can make this happen. There has been tremendous progress in recent years and truly, I never imagined we would even be this far along today in terms of the many examples of sustainable tourism success that are out there now. But we still have a way to go to get to our destination. As the great Greek writer and philosopher, Nikos Kazantzakis said, "It is by aligning ourselves with the cause of our times that our life bears fruit". Protecting nature and supporting the well being of local people around the world is a worthy cause. It is the road I have chosen to travel.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here

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