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Ecotourism: The sky’s the limit

With the potential to become a world-class product, the island underutilizes its natural resources


February 10, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The Caves of Camuy, Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque), El Gran Cañón de San Cristóbal, the coral reefs of La Parguera, the beaches of Vieques and Culebra, wetlands and mangroves, tropical forests, and underground rivers. Wherever you turn in Puerto Rico, you find natural resources and riches.

Puerto Rico has the potential to compete very favorably with other destinations as a mecca for ecotourism: tourism in which ecology is one of the main attractions, and education in natural history and community involvement are important components. However, the island hasn’t even begun to tap into this potential avenue to diversify its tourism economy, even though ecotourism now accounts for the largest growth in the global tourism trade.

In 1998, the Puerto Rican Legislature passed Law No. 320 to establish a public policy of promoting ecotourism. Though the law created an Ecotourism Board to coordinate development of the ecotourism sector, the board has never met in the six interceding years. The criteria for determining what projects qualify as ecotourism projects haven’t been established.

The Ecotourism Board is to be comprised of the Department of Natural & Environmental Resources (DNER) secretary, the executive director of the Tourism Co., the president of the Economic Development Bank of Puerto Rico (EDB), and the director of the Land Authority. The board’s purpose is to advise the DNER secretary on environmental policy, establish the criteria for ecotourism projects, and recommend and certify those projects that meet the criteria.

In 2002, the Ecotourism law was amended with Law 265 requiring the drafting of guidelines to be used to certify companies or attractions that qualify for the ecotourism label, which would be granted by the Ecotourism Board. Since then, little progress has been made in the certification process.

Tourism Co. to lead

Javier Rúa, an adviser to DNER secretary Javier Vélez, to whom ecotourism has been delegated, said the Ecotourism Board has never met because, when Law 320 was passed in 1998, the heads of the agencies involved agreed the lead agency in developing ecotourism public policy should be the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. and not the DNER.

"It was expected the law would be changed to make the Tourism Co. the lead agency," he said. But as time dragged, the law was never changed, and the DNER never recommended people for the board, which never fully was constituted. The net result: ecotourism has languished as an unfulfilled promise. Rúa said the new Legislature unanimously agrees–one of the few things on which the two battling main political parties have been able to agree–the law should be amended to give the Tourism Co. the lead because its expertise is tourism, and it has the resources to market ecotourism.

The DNER agrees, but insists on having a strong say in what would be defined as ecotourism, Rúa said. The DNER official expects to meet soon with his Tourism Co. counterparts to hammer out the proposed amendment to Law 320 naming the Tourism Co. lead agency. As for constituting the board, Rúa said it makes no sense for the DNER to do anything further given the expected change in the law.

DNER & Tourism Co. efforts

DNER Secretary Vélez told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS he is interested in increasing the use of Puerto Rico’s natural reserves and wildlife refuges and will make it a department priority. "Promoting ecotourism would be an important element of that effort," he said. Vélez already is preparing to launch what will be ecotourism projects in all but name. The new secretary particularly is interested in developing the recreational potential of Puerto Rico’s 12 forests. To that end, Vélez said he has directed the Park Service to work with local communities in selecting community members to be trained as park guides. He said the Puerto Rico National Park Trust has offered do the training.

Angie Comas, the Tourism Co.’s ecotourism manager, said the agency has been working in four areas to promote ecotourism. It is carrying out worldwide research into what governments are doing to create incentives for ecotourism. The Legislature held hearings in late January on possible legislation to create incentives. The company is also working on an ecotourism project that would use as its centerpiece the Humacao Nature Reserve. The project consists of building interpretation facilities that conform to recently established design guidelines and creating local businesses in the community to serve tourists who come to the area to see the reserve.

The Tourism Co. also is working with the Utuado municipal government on a strategic plan to assist the municipality as a whole in ecotourism activities. The agency also is collaborating on a project to create a fund to grant small loans to ecotourism entrepreneurs. The scale of local ecotourism businesses is, generally speaking, so small that banks probably wouldn’t loan money for such endeavors, so a special fund will be created for the purpose, according to Comas.

Comas conceded the agency has done little to promote the island’s nature attractions beyond using images of nature on promotional materials. In all fairness, until the Ecotourism Board is functional, the criteria for designating what constitutes ecotourism established, and attractions up and running, the Tourism Co. has nothing to market. "We don’t have a product yet," she said.

Hiram Sánchez, of Viajes Educativos Attabiera, which offers educational nature tours mostly to local schools, agrees with Comas. "They [at the Tourism Co.] don’t promote it because tourists aren’t going to find the service they should," Sánchez said.

Still, even if, strictly speaking, ecotourism has yet to be defined by policymakers and developed according to the book, Puerto Rico’s diverse natural riches remain unknown to a huge potential market of nature lovers. Nothing, except the apparent foot-dragging, is stopping the government from letting the world know about the island’s natural treasures.

Defining ecotourism

Alain Tiphaine, president of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, said taking better care of the island’s natural resources in a general sense is a necessary element when developing an ecotourism sector. "There are a whole series of infrastructure issues that need to be addressed for us to be able to offer the island as an ecotourism destination; tourism in general requires the protection of natural resources," Tiphaine said. Protection ranges from recycling to solving Puerto Rico’s solid waste disposal problem and addressing the shortages and contamination of drinking water. "We are all in favor of developing properties and taking advantage of the natural beauty of the island, but we can’t develop our tourism if we threaten the natural resources tourists come to enjoy," he added.

Comas pointed out not every attraction that involves nature qualifies as ecotourism. "We [at the agency] distinguish between nature tourism, adventure tourism, and ecotourism."

While often exploited as a marketing ploy, the true definition of ecotourism actually has been refined by such organizations as The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), representing a worldwide network of scholars, consultants, conservation professionals, governments, architects, tour operators, lodge owners, managers, and travelers interested in making tourism a feasible tool for conservation and sustainable development.

TIES defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." The organization has a code of conduct, and it authorizes businesses or institutions participating in ecotourism activities and following the code to use the organization’s logo on promotional materials. The code consists of the following principles of ecotourism: minimize impact; build environmental and cultural awareness and respect; provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts (regions and countries of the ecotourism); provide direct financial benefits for conservation; provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people (in the area of the ecotourism); raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate; and support international human rights and labor agreements.

Many stand to benefit

Though ecotourism itself may not be capital-intensive, in the sense of requiring the construction of large hotels and restaurants, the benefits, especially in as small a confined area as Puerto Rico, will accrue for a broad sector of the economy. A strong ecotourism sector would attract tourists interested in nature and ecotourism, besides the fun-and-sun vacationers who currently make up the majority of tourists in Puerto Rico. While looking for nature experiences, "nature" tourists still would stay at least part of their time on the island in hotels or paradors and eat at local restaurants. They would spend money in local stores or in microbusinesses built near ecotourist destinations, creating a multiplying effect in job creation and economic growth.

Ecotourism is thought to be the fastest-growing sector of the tourism market, which accounts for 11.4% of consumer spending worldwide. Still, according to TIES representatives, there is no global initiative for gathering ecotourism data. "Ecotourism should be considered a specialty segment of the larger nature tourism market," indicates a TIES fact sheet.

The World Resources Institute found that while tourism overall has been growing at an annual rate of 4%, nature travel has been increasing at a yearly rate between 10% and 30%. Nature tourism generates 7% of all international travel expenditures. TIES estimates more than 300 million travelers are nature tourists.

Ecotourism guidelines

Comas said Puerto Rico’s Ecotourism Board, once it is convened, likely would use the language of international organizations to establish its own definition of what qualifies as ecotourism on the island since parameters established by Law 340 closely follow the same language. Under those standards, a project will have to meet four different criteria. First, the project must involve the local community in the decision-making process. The project also must, in some way, contribute to the conservation of the environment. What’s more, it must contribute to the economic development of the community. The project also must contain an educational component that teaches people about the natural history of that area. "Many countries use ecotourism as a marketing tool when, in fact, it doesn’t include any public education, so, it isn’t really ecotourism," said Comas.

While TIES has a strict definition for ecotourism–and local government has yet to define its own–a number of small businesses in Puerto Rico, which may or may not fit the description, already market themselves as ecotourism providers. They range from kayaking companies in Guánica to whale-watching tour operations on the west coast. For instance, Encantos Ecotours offers tours of natural areas throughout the island that range from kayaking to the bioluminescent bay in La Parguera on the west coast, to road tours of the islands of Vieques and Culebra off the island’s east coast. The educational element is an important part of the tours and the majority of the company’s guides are biologists, said Maritza de la Vega, Ecotours representative.

Comas said, to her knowledge, only two projects currently would qualify as ecotourism: one in Adjuntas developed by a community organization called Casa del Pueblo, and another in Cabo Rojo developed by the community group Cabo Rojo Committee for Health & the Environment. In Adjuntas, Casa del Pueblo manages the 800 cuerdas (a cuerda is 0.97 acre) Bosque del Pueblo (People’s Forest), a wet tropical forest that contains 34 species of birds and some 500 species of trees and plants. A community leader who led a battle that began 25 years ago against mining in the area, Alexis Massol, turned the activism into a natural history and ecotourism forest project.

In addition to hosting between 400 and 500 tourists on a typical weekend, Bosque del Pueblo is the site of forest management and natural history workshops. It contains a ceremonial indigenous park, a recreation area for children, an open-air theater, and an area monitored by scientists studying the recovery of a deforested area. Casa del Pueblo also maintains a visitors’ center with a library, exhibition hall, meeting hall, and butterfly garden. According to Massol’s wife, Tinti Deya Díaz, Casa del Pueblo doesn’t charge admission; it sustains itself by selling its own brand of coffee, "Madre Isla," which it purchases from local farmers and roasts and packages itself.

Though Casa del Pueblo isn’t very profitable, the Adjuntas community benefits from the tourists that visit Bosque del Pueblo. "It’s very, very beneficial to the community because people eat at the restaurants, shop at the stores, and stay at the local hotel and bed & breakfast," Deya Díaz said. In 1997, Massol won the "Goldman Prize," one of the world’s most prestigious ecological awards. Created by San Francisco philanthropist Richard Goldman and his late wife, Rhoda, it honors grassroots environmental "heroes" from six geographic areas on the planet. Each receives a $125,000 award.

In Cabo Rojo, the Committee for Health & the Environment has built a visitors’ center near the Salt Flats, the oldest salt mines in the Americas, where about 1,000 people a month come to learn about the natural history of the area. It is also home to the Cabo Rojo Wildlife Refuge, maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, an area where six distinct ecosystems come together: mangroves, dry forests containing endangered cacti, marine and fresh water lagoons, coral reefs, and grasslands.

According to the visitors’ center director, Joel Colón, in addition to educating the public about the natural history of the region, the center also offers education on recycling and other environment-friendly subjects. Located in the old house once belonging to the salt mine’s foreman, it is itself an example of environment-friendly values. The house is powered by solar panels and uses accumulated rainwater for washing hands and watering plants. The center also has environment-friendly compost toilets.

At the Cabo Rojo Wildlife Refuge, visitors can find trained tour guides, free of charge, who will lead them through the 1,800-cuerda refuge and describe the flora and fauna, which include some 118 species of birds, both migratory and resident. The visitors’ center also houses a small store, which carries such items as sun block, books, and disposable cameras. Colón said the surrounding area benefits economically from the refuge because its visitors eat in local restaurants and visit the area’s conventional tourist attractions, such as the local lighthouse.

Design guidelines

It appears someone took a small step forward recently. Design guidelines for qualifying the construction of structures in ecotourism projects, as established by Law 265, authored by Fernando Abruña of the University of Puerto Rico School of Architecture, were completed in mid-January, scarcely a month ago. The law also requires the government to create a strategic plan to integrate local communities into the development of the island’s ecotourism potential. The plan must provide for the education and developing the skills of people who will be involved in the industry. The law also provides for training mayors and agency officials on ecotourism.

According to Abruña, the local architectural guidelines for ecotourism projects require buildings and other structures be integrated within the context of the surroundings and the communities where the ecotourism project is to be located. "The architect [of the ecotourism project] has to be ‘humble’ and not want to make a bold architectural statement, but rather design the buildings according to the landscape," Abruña explained. "It’s a lot like the type of work done when restoring old buildings."

Based on the architectural design guidelines, ecotourism projects would earn one of three ratings: "satisfactory," "good," or "exemplary," Abruña said. The ratings would help a business or an attraction promote itself as ecofriendly to the increasing number of tourists looking for experiences in nature that are kind to the environment. The design guidelines recently were submitted for comment to professional groups such as the Chamber of Tourism, Engineers Association of Puerto Rico, and the Architects & Surveyors Association of Puerto Rico.

Communities ahead of government

Several communities, such as Piñones and Vieques, are looking to ecotourism as an economic alternative to the usual mass tourism. The recently completed Master Plan for the Sustainable Development of Vieques & Culebra recommended the islands create projects for ecotourism, nature tourism, and cultural tourism. "Culebra and Vieques can and must aspire to become a world-class ecodestination," the report indicates. The report also offers a profile of nature and ecotourists from North America.

According to the Master Plan, the average age of an ecotourist is between 35 and 54 years; 82% are college graduates. The average stay of ecotourists is from 8 to 14 days, and they spend between $1,001 and $1,500 per trip. The report noted large hotels aren’t appropriate for the scale of Vieques and Culebra, indicating bed & breakfast-type lodging should be promoted.

The report also indicates projects proposed by residents of Vieques and Culebra should be given preference. "Priority will be given to projects presented by viequenses and culebrenses, without closing the door on investments people from the Big Island [Puerto Rico] or outside [U.S. mainland or other countries] may make in good faith, as long as they comply with the established development parameters," it declares.

One project proposed for Vieques, billing itself as an ecotourism project, is the $150 million La Casa Francesa, proposed by architect Robert Brambilla. The project would include a hospitality center, a marina, and golf course, incorporating as ecotourism holistic health, organic farming, and performing arts. The project supposedly would create 500 jobs. Brambilla has complained about the many obstacles he has run into to get the project off the ground, not least of which are the rigors of local politics and community groups–still feeling victorious after getting the Navy out of Vieques–who oppose the project.

"For the record, our project isn’t a megaresort and doesn’t intend to privatize any public beach," Brambilla said. "A simple cost-benefit analysis would prove our project is the best opportunity Vieques has ever had to stabilize its economy, promote ecotourism, and market this island as one of the best nature and health destinations in the Caribbean." Yet, some Vieques residents find dubious the claim the project is a form of ecotourism. "I don’t know on what he bases the ecotourism claim. It is a big chunk of property; how can he not call it a megaresort and where is the involvement with the community, which doesn’t know anything about what he is doing?" said Stacie Notine, a Vieques environmentalist.

In Piñones, a sector of Carolina popular with locals and tourists alike for its surfing beaches during the day and evening party atmosphere in its cluster of fritters, seafood, and beer mom & pop kiosks and casual dining restaurants, the community group Corporación Piñones Integra has put together a plan to structure the communities’ development around ecotourism. Under the plan, local residents would build small hostelries on their properties. They also would open ecotour businesses for kayaking in the area’s stunning lagoons and rivers, boating along the coast, or walking along its beaches. The community’s Afro-Caribbean culture also would provide an attraction with its Bomba rhythm dances, other native music forms, food, and folklore, said Maricruz Rivera, the corporation’s executive director.

"The culture is definitely the tip of the lance of the tourism efforts," Rivera said. Key to getting the project off the ground is obtaining from the government an old restaurant building that once served the patrons of government-run tour boats. The building would be converted into a cultural and activities coordination center for other ecotourism activities.

Corporación Piñones Integra has been haggling with the government over the building for years and also fighting off a recurring proposal to turn the area into a jet-dock. The community has also been combating efforts to build large hotels in the Piñones area. "This uses up a lot of the energy the community could be using to get the ecotourism project off the ground," said Sarah Peisch, who has been involved with the community as director of the Center for Environmental Action. Peisch said Piñones has been praised as a prime ecotourism destination. "A Brazilian ecotourism expert, who visited us during the international year of ecotourism [in 2002], said to us ‘you have a world-class product here. ’We’ve always known it. Now, it’s time for the rest of the world to know."

Nature & adventure tourism: Puerto Rico’s untapped potential

By the strict standards applied internationally to ecotourism, few attractions in Puerto Rico qualify. But the number of mostly small nature and adventure tour companies is beginning to grow on the island as word of Puerto Rico’s overabundance of natural attractions begins to seep out to the growing number of international tourists seeking more than just "sun and fun."

Companies that outfit tourists for mountain biking, hiking, spelunking (cave exploration), mountaineering, and windsurfing are growing throughout the island, joining the more traditional tourism activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, and horseback riding.

The areas of growth in nature and adventure tourism are occurring in the western, southwestern, and southeastern regions of Puerto Rico, according to Lou Caraballo, who operates P.R. West Vacation Services, which brokers services for smaller tourism companies.

Caraballo said the number of tourists looking for nature and adventure is on the rise, but that the island hasn’t begun to tap the potential. Puerto Rico, he said, hasn’t learned how to project an image as a nature and adventure destination. "The reason is that Puerto Ricans simply aren’t geared in that direction," he said, adding "Puerto Ricans didn’t always see nature as a resource to enjoy, but that mentality is turning around."

Rossano Boscarino, owner of Aventuras Tierra Adentro tours, said the industry suffers from poor marketing. "When you get off the airplane in San Juan, you don’t even see pictures of anyone kayaking or having any kind of adventure," he said. "When you visit places like New Zealand, Costa Rica, or even Colorado, when you get off the plane you see pictures of people in outdoor activities, so visitors get the idea that those activities are available." The problem is further complicated because companies that operate tours don’t have the budget for advertising. "Most of these companies are small and don’t have money to advertise," Boscarino said.

Aventuras Tierra Adentro, which specializes in cave adventures using rappelling and rock-climbing techniques, has benefited in the past from publicity obtained from international magazines and TV coverage. "Once in a while, we get free marketing," said Boscarino. "But that exposure isn’t enough." Boscarino said the primary way the company gets business from offisland visitors is through its website from tourists who are looking to make adventure part of their vacation. He is planning to purchase advertising space in specialized magazines to get the word out.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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