Green-friendly tourism now seen as a growing force


By shifting just 10% of its sun-and-beach tourism to active, environmentally friendly outdoor activities, Mexico could earn an additional US$10 billion a year. It could also ensure that most of that extra cash would contribute to the welfare of local residents in the often-impoverished destinations of the rural outback such as Oaxaca.

So says Antonio del Rosal, CEO of the Mexican consulting firm Experiencias Genuinas, who is working with Mexican tourism officials to bring about just such a shift. Del Rosal says that beyond airfare, nature tourists spend an average of US$3,050 per trip, or “roughly four times the amount of spending by sun-and-beach tourists who currently come to Mexico.” And nearly two-thirds of that nature-based money remains in the destination community, he says. “That is not the case for sun-and-beach and for cruise ships,” he notes. “Most of that is sent back out [to parent companies]. Adventure travel makes sense. It is strategic for economic development.”

And some believe that new, more immersive tourism models, if managed responsibly, also could provide important political impetus for wildlands protection. Says Pedro da Cunha e Menezes, general coordinator of public use at Brazil’s Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio): “If you don’t have visitors, you don’t have public support for conservation.” (See related Q&A—this issue.)

Reliable numbers for sustainable tourism are elusive, not least because there’s still a debate about what the term means. Some prefer to describe such travel as “responsible” or “eco” tourism. The labels “adventure” and “genuine” tourism also crop up. Then there are the inevitable arguments about metrics. What qualifies?

Tourism of all types generates one in 11 jobs worldwide, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, an international trade group. And the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reports that international tourism revenues have grown by more than 50% during the past decade in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In Costa Rica, a global leader in ecotourism, tourism represents nearly 5% of GDP, says a study by the Central American Institute of Business Administration (Incae), a highly regarded business school located in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, a study by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) says community involvement can “contribute to the development of the local economy and to poverty reduction,” noting that in Panama, “households capture 56% of total local tourism income.”

Del Rosal is the former executive director for Latin America of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), an international business group. ATTA defines an adventure traveler as “someone who seeks contact with the outdoors, cultural exchange and some level of physical activity,” says del Rosal. The sector consists primarily of “small businesses working in rural areas and wilderness environments,” states the ATTA website. Using that definition, del Rosal estimates that the global market is worth US$263 billion.

Despite such numbers, sustainable tourism generally flies under the radar of the business press. “Many leaders don’t know what sustainable tourism is,” says Jonathan Tourtellot, CEO of the Destination Stewardship Center and president of Focus on Places LLC. While heading the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations, Tourtellot coined the term “geotourism” to describe the emerging phenomenon of tourism that promotes engagement with back-country ecosystems and communities in benign, supportive ways.

“There are a couple of [tourism experts] at the World Bank,” Tourtellot adds. “Lonely guys. Most of the economists at the World Bank don’t understand tourism.”

This state of affairs might be changing, though. The United Nations declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. “That’s not for nothing,” says D’Arcy Dornan, Brazil country representative for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), an international trade group. “It speaks a lot about how countries around the world understand tourism as an economic development tool. And how the UN wants to nudge them up to the next level on the sustainability aspect.”

Sustainable tourism as an engine of economic development appeared high on the agenda of the recent annual conference of the Brazilian Association of Ecotourism and Adventure Tourism Companies (Abeta).

Starting with the venue: Três Coroas, a town of about 20,000 in the Serra Gaúcha, the foothills of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Três Coroas is home to a stretch of the Paranhana River featuring popular rapids. With a great river for training, the town has produced more than its share of world class canoeing champions. Local hero Gustavo Selbach represented Brazil in the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games.

Traveling abroad to compete in the 1990s, Selbach and his friends noticed rafting companies run by former athletes, especially in the United States. They spied “a solution for the local community in all sorts of ways, including economically,” according to Cristian Krummenauer, fellow canoeist and founder of Brasil Raft Park, one of five rafting operations in town.

When they started two decades ago, these athletes-cum-entrepreneurs seemed to have everything going against them. Lacking national manufacturers, they had to import all their equipment, including the boats. Nobody could afford to bankroll construction of a proper visitor center. The Três Coroas City Hall came to the rescue, offering a concession for the use of an area that had been set aside to host twice-annual canoeing events. The Parque Municipal das Laranjeiras remains home to three rafting firms. Two have established independent outposts nearby.

The Três Coroas rafting “industry” employs some 300 people directly. Add to that the indirect jobs in lodging, restaurants and other related activities. The value chain growth has been especially evident in the last three years, according to Krummenauer. None too soon for a local economy hit by a global downturn in its traditional industry, women’s footwear. Indeed, the footwear business association helped the rafters finance a promotional video. All five operators join forces to promote their destination. “We’re rowing together in different companies,” Krummenauer says.

Also present at the Abeta conference were representatives of the Caminhos do São Francisco project in northeastern Brazil.

The semi-arid region that surrounds the São Francisco River is plagued by drought and ranks low on the U.N. Human Development Index. The Sustainable Brazil Environmental Institute (IABS), a Brazilian nongovernmental group, joined forces with the IDB, the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (Aecid), Brazilian and foreign universities, local business groups, and others to work with poor communities to develop tourism. Rather than building physical infrastructure, the project concentrated on planning, capacity building, product development, marketing, environmental studies, supply-and-demand assessment and zoning. “It had all the ingredients,” says Luis Tadeu Assad, IABS director-president. “We didn’t take a consolidated community and develop tourism. We used tourism for regional development.”

Entrepreneurs along the 240-kilometer (150-mile) stretch of the river covered by the program were given the opportunity to visit other sections of the São Francisco River in an effort to create a unified identity.

“We’re on the same river, with practically the same product and destination; but before, we didn’t speak to each other,” says Robério Ramos Góes, president of the Caminhos do São Francisco Business Network and the owner of a small tour operation called Farol da Foz Ecoturismo in Piaçabuçu, Alagoas. “Of course, there`s competition, but [it is] more respectful. Because we know each other.”

The entrepreneurs visited Catalonia and high-profile Brazilian destinations such as Brotas, the rafting center of São Paulo state. “I have a military background, so I like to be in the ocean, in the water, in the air,” says Ramos Góes, a Brazilian Navy veteran. “I did this for me at first. Seeing what’s going on in other destinations and with other business people made me understand that I need to do it for the client.”

Since the project launched in 2011, the number of “pousadas” (small bed-and-breakfast inns) in Piranhas, a city of 25,000, has grown from about five to nearly 40, according to Assad. Operating tours for two decades, Ramos Góes can measure the difference in his bottom line. “By August, we already knew that 2016 was the best year in the history of Farol da Foz,” he says. The project won the federal government’s Celso Furtado Award for Regional Development—an award given for development of any kind, not just tourism.

Caminhos do São Francisco has ridden the wave of what Assad calls “conscientious tourism.” Increasingly, visitors want to connect with the local culture. That can lead to a disconnect. “Locals often lack pride in their traditional customs, gastronomy, agricultural practices, etc.,” Assad says. “Many people are embarrassed about how they live. You need to instill pride. That is important to attract tourists. When the community takes pride, tourists like it better.”

That partly describes the work of Jorge Moller Rivas, director of Regenera, a Chilean nonprofit. Moller works as a consultant, primarily with indigenous communities, to help them develop the capacity to receive outside visitors.

“Sometimes there is no need for money,” Moller says. “The first thing they need is recognition. You can see it in their eyes when you go in and say that they have incredible things to offer.”

Often the only required physical infrastructure consists of well-marked “trails, restrooms and signage,” as del Rosal put it. Tourtellot describes the approach this way: “Build skills, not infrastructure.”

Such thinking has pulled leading philanthropists in entrepreneurial directions. Based in Canada, G Adventures bills itself as the world’s largest independent adventure travel company. Its nonprofit foundation, Planeterra, has overhauled its way of doing good. Instead of, say, building schools, it provides people with “an opportunity to make a living,” says Xavier Font, professor of Sustainability Marketing at the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management of the University of Surrey, England.

Planeterra came to the conclusion that it could do the most good by allowing communities to “use the money for their own development,” says Kelly Galaski, Americas and Europe program and operations manager for the Planeterra Foundation and G Adventures. “And to become business owners and suppliers.”

Over the next five years, the foundation hopes to raise 5 million Canadian dollars to integrate 50 new social-enterprise projects into its portfolio by 2020. Early examples in Latin America include the overhaul of a lodge built years ago in the salt flats region of Santiago de Agencha, Bolivia, and since abandoned; support for a restaurant at the foot of the Incan Trail in Peru; and establishment of a visitor center for trekkers on the Lost City trail in Colombia.

“In some places the initiatives are already happening,” Galaski says. “They just need customers. We look for places where we can help with our volume.” When the money starts coming in, locals “use all the profits for whatever they want,” according to Galaski.

Following similar logic, the Beyond Chacay Foundation, a U.S.-based charitable organization that works mainly in Ecuador, hopes to use crowd-funded financing to advance “a TripAdvisor of the people, by the people, and for the people,” says cofounder and president David Lansdale. Chacay is working with local developers on the project, which follows in the footsteps of Venezuela’s and Brazil’s Garupa has raised funds for 11 community-tourism projects around the country.

“We try to help people to make their projects more sustainable,” says Paula Arantes, a veteran sustainable-tourism professional who works with Garupa.

In the for-profit sector, meanwhile, the international hotel reservation service recently launched a call for applications for an accelerator program for sustainable-tourism startups. Its program offers nascent companies the opportunity to pitch proposals for grants of up to $500,000 euros.

Advocates of sustainable tourism point to the longstanding business adage: “doing good by doing well.” Dornan cites the example of the Campo dos Sonhos, an emblematic endeavor for tourism designed to be accessible to people with disabilities. “It is super profitable, and has inspired others.”

In Dornan’s estimation, that is the bottom line. “The more sustainable you are,” he says, “the more money your business is going to make.”

- Bill Hinchberger

Antonio del Rosal
Experiencias Genuinas
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 155) 3999-9358
D’Arcy Dornan
Brazil country representative, Global Sustainable Tourism Council and Founder & Chief Strategist of Global Leadership Training and Development
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 972 852308
Xavier Font
Professor of Sustainability Marketing
School of Hospitality and Tourism Management
University of Surrey
Tel: +(44 113) 268-3244
Kelly Galaski
Americas and Europe Program and Operations Manager
Planeterra Foundation and G Adventures Base Camp
Toronto, Canada
Tel: (416) 260-0999
Cristian Krummenauer
Brasil Raft Park
Três Coroas, Brazil
Tel: +(55 51) 3546-1066
Jorge Moller Rivas
Regenera NGO
Puerto Varas, Chile
Tel: +(569) 9884-6555
Robério Ramos Góes
Caminhos do São Francisco Business Network
Piaçabuçu, Alagoas, Brazil
Tel: +(55 82) 35521298
Luis Tadeu Assad
Sustainable Brazil Environmental Institute (IABS)
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 8407-8786
Jonathan Tourtellot
CEO of Destination Stewardship Center and President of Focus on Places LLC
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (202) 237-2867