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Experts agree that environmental tourism or ecotourism, which started in the 1980s, is an excellent way to encourage the preservation of the environment and to promote environmental sustainability, while seeking recreation and tourism through nature trips. It is a type of responsible tourism that treasures the environment, seeks to contribute to its conservation and improves the well-being of the local populations.

There are more and more companies and cooperatives that are partially or totally engaged in ecotourism. Many specialize in offering green travel to countries which have great natural wealth, spectacular habitats and phenomenal wildlife. This has resulted in ecotourism being the most dynamic touristic market worldwide. At present, the ecotourism sector is, indeed, one of the most profitable economic sectors and it is rapidly growing in a large number of developing countries, such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Kenya, Madagascar and Nepal. These nations offer a wide range of options for the so-called eco-tourists -travelers aware of the need for environmental preservation- who visit their national territories.

General Principles of Ecotourism

During the last decade, a total of seven general principles have been defined, which a traveler or enterprise must comply with in order to qualify as an eco-tourist or an ecotourism company, respectively: 1) minimize the negative effects of the activity on the environment and the community; 2) build respect and environmental and cultural awareness; 3) create positive experiences for both visitors and hosts; 4) provide direct financial benefits for conservation; 5) strengthen the participation of local communities in the decision-making process; 6) create awareness on the political, environmental and social climates of the host countries, and 7) support universal human rights and labor laws.

World Ecotourism Summit

At the start of the new millennium, the United Nations designated 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism. In May of that same year, the World Ecotourism Summit was held in Quebec City, Canada, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The topics covered within the framework of this important summit were: 1) ecotourism policies and planning at the local, national and international levels; 2) integration of these policies into sustainable development plans; 3) land use planning (zoning); 4) use of natural parks and protected areas; 5) balance between development and conservation; 6) financing of ecotourism; 7) development of human resources; 8) regulation of ecotourism; 9) product development, marketing and promotion, through the creation of sustainable products, cooperation of diverse agents, environmental education, and collaboration partnerships between the public and the private sectors; and 10) supervising of the costs and benefits of ecotourism for environmental conservation; their potential effects, the adoption of preventive measures, their integration into the monitoring and evaluation efforts, research needs and management systems.

The Quebec conference brought together more than 1,000 participants from 132 countries, from the public, private and non-governmental sectors. The discussions focused on supporting ecotourism from an environmental, sociocultural, and economic perspective, based on the participation and allocation of responsibilities to local communities, and the management and supervision of activities, with equitable distribution of the resulting benefits. The main outcome was the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism, which recognizes the need to apply the principles of sustainable development to tourism and the exemplary role of ecotourism in the generation of economic, social and environmental benefits.

Oslo Declaration

Later, in 2007, during the celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of the International Year of Ecotourism, the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) convened the World Ecotourism Conference. It was held in Oslo, Norway, and was attended by approximately 450 participants from over 70 countries. In order to outline the results and recommendations that emerged from the conference, TIES took to developing the Oslo Declaration on Ecotourism, the objective of which was to explain what took place during the conference and specify the commitments of the global ecotourism community in the improvement of sustainable practices. This is a tool for people involved in ecotourism, both from the public and the private sectors, which makes it possible to determine the current state of the global ecotourism community, evaluate its challenges and establish goals and benchmarks necessary for the future. According to TIES specialist Leticia Georges, this Conference was a considerable step forward in the efforts of the global ecotourism community, and helped to strengthen and integrate sustainability in all sectors of the tourism industry.

Indeed, the Oslo Declaration served as a summary of what was established during the Conference held in Norway in 2007. Since then, it has become a practical tool for those who want to improve their sustainable practices and those who wish to learn more about ecotourism and its challenges. The TIES Society has developed several recommendations in four main areas, based on the results of the meetings and discussion workshops that took place during the conference. These areas are: local sustainable development; conservation; education and communication; and, finally, the critical pillars of ecotourism.

Specifically, the main recommendations of the Conference held in Oslo were the following: 1) to recognize the vital role of ecotourism in local sustainable development; (2) to maximize the potential of well-managed ecotourism as an economic advantage for the protection of tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage; (3) to support the feasibility and performance of ecotourism businesses and their activities through effective policies for marketing, education and training; and (4) to address the critical pillars that ecotourism must face in order to strengthen its sustainability.

At present, there are several interesting cases of ecotourism which have been developed in Latin America and the Caribbean since the 1980s. Perhaps the most documented are those of the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Private Biological Reserve in Costa Rica.

Ecotourism in Latin America: Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands are located more than a thousand kilometers off the coast of Ecuador in South America. They are made up of 13 major islands, 6 small islands and about 107 islets. They form an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean of magnificent natural attributes, which surprise and delight every visitor that comes to these lands. The current Marine Reserve includes approximately 110,000 km2 of natural habitat, home to a myriad of breathtaking animals, such as whales, dolphins, sea lions, giant turtles, lava lizards, crabs, Darwin's finches, sea gulls, albatrosses, frigate birds, blue-footed and red-footed boobies, the flightless cormorant and the only penguin species that lives in tropical waters. With such a rich, endemic and spectacular fauna, these oceanic islands offer eco-tourists a unique opportunity to enjoy wildlife in its natural state.

According to population censuses, the Galápagos Islands are currently inhabited by some 16,000 people, approximately one-third of whom are native and the rest are migrants, mainly from the mainland. The islands are visited annually by approximately 60,000 travelers. According to a recent study conducted by the INCAE Business School in Latin America, with headquarters in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the growing human occupation and visits bring with it a series of economic, social and environmental problems that merit our special attention. First, is the import of goods and provisions, as local agriculture satisfies only about 30% of the dietary needs of the local population and the islands' visitors. At the same time, fishing practices face overexploitation issues, which threaten its future sustainability, given its importance as a source of employment for almost a quarter of resident families. This same study indicates that immigration problems also persist, which increase pressure on basic services such as health, education, drinking water, and energy. At the same time, there are growing problems of drug use and trafficking.

With regards to the environmental problems of the Galápagos Islands, the presence of threats to biodiversity has been acknowledged, including the aforementioned overfishing problem, the pollution of aquifers, the invasion of non-native species (such as rats), the unsustainable use of soil, the inappropriate management of waste and garbage, and the improper handling of hydrocarbons for transport and generation of electricity. For this reason, it is essential to develop integrated plans to abate all of these threats caused by a non-sustainable ecotourism, and enables a form of tourism that is truly green and blue, which respects the limited carrying capacity in an environment as fragile as that of the Galápagos Islands.

Ecotourism in Latin America: Costa Rica

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Private Biological Reserve in Costa Rica is another case of tropical ecotourism. It is a private reserve owned by the Tropical Science Center, a non-governmental scientific organization founded in 1962. It contains a mystical cloud forest, dramatically sculpted by the wind on exposed hills. Thanks to its varied diversity, it is one of the most visited tourist sites in the Central American country. There are hummingbirds, quetzals, monkeys, sloths, squirrels and plants such as orchids, bromeliads, ferns and mosses. There are also several species of frogs, some of which are in danger of extinction or have already been declared extinct, as is the case of the golden toad. This amphibian disappeared at the end of the 1980s, apparently as a result of a skin disease caused by fungus. It is believed that the increasing abundance of this fungus is related to climate change.

The Monteverde region is renowned worldwide for its great conservation efforts. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the local community has worked hard to control and manage tourism in the area, striving to make it a more environmentally sustainable tourism. One of its main strategic programs is the Certification for Sustainable Tourism Program, which grants certifications to hotels in the area. Another program works on the service and management of visitors, and aims to: 1) provide visitors with physical spaces for the development of recreation activities and tourism, that are consistent with the Reserve's conservation objectives; 2) encourage the visitor to acquire knowledge about the resources protected at the Reserve; and 3) strengthen the areas of public use as a means of achieving the objectives that lead to the creation of the Reserve.

Ecotourism in the Dominican Republic

According to several experts, as is the case in Ecuador and Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic also has a great potential for ecotourism. Several beautiful places lend themselves to the development of truly sustainable ecotourism initiatives: 1) the Lago Enriquillo area, the largest hyper saline lake of the Antilles; 2) the western pine forest on calcareous soils in the Sierra de Bahoruco; 3) Valle Nuevo, the highest plateau in the West Indies, located at 2,200 meters above the sea and the only area where there is high-montane type vegetation; 4) Aguas Blancas de Constanza, the highest free-fall water fall of the Caribbean, which has two waterfalls that are more than 80 meters high; 5) the many caves of the island, including the José María cave in the Parque Nacional del Este, which contains the largest number of pictographs in the Caribbean region; and 6) the highest intermontane valley in the Antilles, the Bao, located at approximately 1,800 meters of altitude.

An interesting example of the current Dominican ecotourism is located in the Samaná Bay area, where touristic activities consist mainly of visits to Los Haitises National Park and El Limón Waterfall, and the observation of humpback whales. The majestic spectacle offered by these whales when seeking the warm waters of the sanctuary in the Samaná Bay during the mating season is very popular with eco-tourists.

It is expected that the design of sustainable schemes for Dominican ecotourism, based on the principles of the declarations of Quebec and Oslo, and their subsequent successful implementation with the active participation of the local population, will contribute to making ecotourism in areas such as Samaná fully sustainable, while promoting both human wellbeing and the conservation of biodiversity in The Hispaniola.