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ISSN 1108-8931


 Year 2 - Issue 32 - Feb 02

RON MADER: "The Internet is profitable... and so is ecotourism. It's just that we are talking about smaller profits than traditional business. That's fine!"

ECOCLUB Interviews Ron Mader
Index of Interviews

Ron MaderWe are launching our new Interview column, this month, in the most appropriate way: a rare interview with Ron Mader, ecotourism activist, promoter, writer and founder of Planeta.com . Ron Mader honours this publication with his insightful replies, sent to us in Athens, Greece by email from Oaxaca, Mexico, itself a display of the importance of the Internet for ecotourism, something that Ron has been proving with his actions for almost a decade.

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: You are one of the pioneers of ecotourism worldwide, and certainly a living legend of on-line Ecotourism. How do you define Ecotourism?

Ron Mader: What flattery! I boil the term down to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria: (a) it provides for conservation measures (b) it includes meaningful community participation and (c) it is profitable and can sustain itself. That said, I am most interested in the applications, rather than the definitions of ecotourism. At ecotourism conferences around the globe, there is often a loud groan when someone begins to define the concepts. What engages audiences, readers, entrepreneurs and travellers alike are the applications. For travellers, responsible travel is simply treating others with the same respect you would ask for in your own community. While tourism officials have long touted "Destinations" - in fact we are simply entering someone else's home.

ECOCLUB.com: Is Ecotourism a "market segment" or rather a "development philosophy" or even a "political movement"?

RM: I believe it's a curious mix of fashion and ethics. And rarely are the fashionable ethical or the ethical good dressers. Seriously, in the tourism industry there are many terms that need to be explored and understood more clearly. For example, ecotourism is often lumped in a larger category called "alternative tourism." This niche is unnecessarily vague. Tourists rarely describe themselves or their interests as "alternative." And the services or destinations they choose are those that fit their interests - such as adventure, agriculture, food, culture, education, gay and lesbian events, sports, religion, etc. Travellers opt to do what they enjoy. The problem with "alternative tourism" is that it defines itself by what it is not - in this case, "traditional tourism." As travellers become more demanding, expect a growth in new markets that deliver more than "traditional" tourism. Why not be clear about our goals? If we are seeking tourism experiences that offer a win-win-win situation for travellers, community hosts and the environment, we are following the call to develop "sustainable" tourism or even something more ambitious on the order of "conscientious tourism" which encourages a deeper understanding of people and place.

ECOCLUB.com: Is it more important for Ecotourism to be successful as a niche, or for mainstream tourism to apply some of the same principles?

RM: This is a great question. Should we applaud the mainstreaming of environmental values or should we be wary of greenwashing? The sector can succeed if different organizations take on different strategies. But nevertheless we need to be clear about what does and doesn't work. Those operations that call themselves "ecotourism" need to be upfront about their conservation work and their linkages to local communities.

ECOCLUB.com: "Ecotourism develops where the beach is lousy, or where there is no beach". Please comment.

RM: This was true in Costa Rica in the 1980s. The country's tourism market could not compete with the larger resorts popular in Mexico and the Caribbean so it offered cloud forests and conservation efforts. But note that may have been true in one place at one time, but the niche of ecotourism is always evolving and is considered a development strategy in many places as never before.

ECOCLUB.com: Was the Ecotourism sector better sheltered from the effects of September the 11th, compared with mainstream tourism?

RM: Definitely. Almost all of the forms of active tourism that catered to thinking travellers have weathered the effects of September 11th much better than the traditional sun-and-beach vacation. The exceptions are those initiatives that model themselves on package tours or those that have coasted by with poor communications/promotion skills.

ECOCLUB.com: What can you do if an "ecotour" operator or "ecolodge" discredits the notion of Ecotourism? Can you point it out without risking being sued?

RM: We need public input. How this will develop is anyone's guess. When I have found an operator with shady practices, I've reported it quietly to the national tourism office or ecotourism association. I don't see a reason to put unsubstantiated rumours online. That said, the Internet provides one of the best means of fact-checking, particularly via online forums (green-travel, xtremers and red-mexicana-anuncios) which are used more and more for compliments and critiques of operations. Associations need to be at the forefront of policing and educating their members. If not, overall confidence in these concepts will collapse.

ECOCLUB.com: What is your view of Associations working in Ecotourism? Are these talking shops, vehicles for personal ambition or do they really act? 

RM: Associations are usually industry-led and they start with the most noble of intentions. As associations age, some get sucked into outright fraud and corruption. (Ironically, while committing egregious errors, some gain influence and prestige!) That said, I'm not saying that all associations are corrupt or that any one association is entirely corrupt. But all of these groups need to be much more accountable to their constituents. If the associations truly walked their own talk, they would 1) be much more transparent, 2) show results of tangible benefits to their members and travellers and 3) move beyond cheerleading.

ECOCLUB.com: Will a worldwide Ecotourism Certification Body, if it ever appears, really have teeth or will it be just another feast for competing certifiers, as in other tourism and non-tourism sectors?

RM: Certification - formal documentation attesting compliance - requires infrastructure, coordination and financial resources that are lacking not only in the developing world, but also globally. One criticism of the certification process is that any "certifiers" of ecotourism lack certification themselves. Ecotourism is a relatively new niche and it has multiple definitions. Its success or failure depends on the eye of the beholder. Conservationists will measure the merits of a project by its contributions to local environmental protection. Travel agencies will focus on the bottom line - are they making a sufficient profit? And travellers each come to an ecotourism destination with their own personal experiences and expectations. For ecotourism to succeed, we must be aware of our own value systems. If we insist on high environmental standards and minimal impacts, the costs skyrocket. This places the services and destinations into a "luxury" class tourism - sometimes without amenities those who pay high-end prices are accustomed. What is the best example of ecotourism - a rustic, community lodge or a foreign-owned, eco-friendly green hotel? Too often architects and consultants promote high technical standards and luxurious eco-lodges because they have a personal stake to certify those businesses that can pay them well. At risk are rural and/or indigenous guides who do not have the financial resources to take part in established guide training programs - not offered in the field, but usually in the capital city. Those who might benefit from ecotourism, namely farmers and residents of rural areas that lie next to or even coincide with protected areas are never the focal point of evaluation or promotion. Instead of embracing certification, we should be focusing our attention on practical training and marketing.

ECOCLUB.com: In most industries certification is corrupt, as money is involved and this is received by the certifier. How can this be avoided in the case of Ecotourism?

RM: I don't know if the corruption can be avoided by any other means than delaying certification measures until we can practice what we preach. What's the alternative? My petition is that we focus efforts not on certification but on evaluation, training and above all, communication.

ECOCLUB.com: Is the IYE 2002 a positive, negative or neutral development? Are you happy that the Quebec Summit will be attended by the real actors on the ground, as opposed to by consultants and large mainstream companies?

RM: Critics ask whether the IYE be scrapped or even boycotted? My opinion - no. But I think we must make greater demands of the official organizers. The vast majority of preparatory conferences have been a disappointment. They are hard to attend, and the summaries - when posted - are all rah rah. There are no failures in development circles or government agencies. Problems are swept under the rug. In many cases, to discuss them at all means being blacklisted. So far, I see no room in the official IYE process for submission of individual projects or collaborative work that it based outside of government or NGOs. Examples include Planeta.com's own regional initiative and the work that I am doing with groups and individuals in Mexico, Ecuador or Honduras. Last November I sent a post to IYE2002 forum that has not been answered. I repeat: "All official preparatory events share a joint methodology, discuss the same themes, and are planned in coordination. All will take their conclusions to Day 1 of the World Summit." My question: For those of us who are unable to attend an official IYE preparatory event, do we have any means of making statements or conclusions available to the World Summit? What's missing, it seems, is effective real-time communication. There must be alternatives and Planeta.com has been at the forefront of exploring the niche of online conferencing. What I am most pleased with is how the most recent online events - Ecotourism Certification Workshop and the Media, Environment and Tourism Conference are beginning to fuse into events in the natural world. Likewise, ongoing forums such as IYE2002  and Marine Tourism play an important role in global networking.

ECOCLUB.com: The Internet is currently not profitable. Ecotourism is largely not for profit. Can an Internet Ecotourism Business be profitable? Does it matter if it is?

RM: The Internet is profitable... and so is ecotourism. It's just that we are talking about smaller profits than traditional business. That's fine! The question is can we learn how to develop both niches (and I argue there are some great synergies with marketing small ecotourism operations on the Web) in a responsible manner. I have placed online two guides: Mastering the Web Resource Guide and Marketing Ecotourism on the Web

ECOCLUB.com: And finally, is there anything else you want to say?

RM: We need to be creative. Part of this depends on opening up the dialogue and communications across various sectors. This is where I think I've been most successful - in showing how we can move forward. Communication is not helped when foundations encourage closed-door dialogues or banking institutions invite a privileged few to see how "ecotourism" monies will be doled out. We also need to be honest. We need to conduct an independent review of how well or poorly institutions, development agencies, academics, etc. have developed ecotourism over the past 10 years. Rumours suggest that 90% of international development programs fail. They don't deliver results and they often harm the communities. It's no surprise that ecotourism initiatives would be chief among these failures since the niche depends on sectors that ordinarily are not sympathetic to one another. That said, we don't know. Finally, we need to call attention and fund the prime movers of ecotourism - rarely NGOs, rarely governments, rarely conservation groups or associations. The prime actors in this niche are individuals who have responded with innovative ideas and the means of sharing their insights in collaborative initiatives.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

Planeta.com, with the co-sponsorship of ECOCLUB, is organising an on-line conference on the topic of Community Tourism, in March 2002
Please click here for details.

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here

Disclaimer:  Any views expressed in this magazine belong to their respective authors and are not necessarily those of ECOCLUB S.A. Although we try to check all facts, we accept no liability for inaccuracies - which means you should not take any travel or other decisions based only on what you read here... Use of this magazine is covered by the Terms & Conditions of the ECOCLUB.com Website and by your uncommon sense and good humour.


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