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Three questions on ecotourism with Robyn Nixon

Sustainable travel is worth the time and effort – for everyone

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As environmental responsibility increasingly pervades lifestyle habits – from fashion to farmers markets – and a new generation of travelers seeks personalized experiences over all-inclusive resorts, ecotourism is quickly outgrowing its niche market–status to become a major constituent of the USD 7.6 trillion tourism industry. From architecture and design using sustainably sourced materials to teaching locals English, there are innumerable ways to align the elements of good travel with sustainable development.

At the 2018 Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit, we spoke with Robyn Nixon, Manager of Sustainability for the world’s largest adventure travel company Intrepid Travel, on how she’s seen ecotourism better the lives of communities, ecosystems and travelers in tandem – and how this was achieved.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How can responsible tourism help communities?

I think the most important thing for tourism is that it enables communities to think of a different way of providing income, and it provides a secondary income. This enables communities to invest in infrastructure that they might not otherwise have had. Often, it could be solar energy, so bringing power into communities, or improving water supply, sanitation, infrastructure such as roads. And often you find when communities become involved in tourism, the local municipal government helps them with those investments in infrastructure.

It also helps communities – particularly the women in communities – to have a voice. Very often, it’s the women who are supporting the homestays or accommodation for the travelers. And through interaction with our travelers, it enables women to really feel empowered. So we see a real transition that occurs in communities through tourism as women become more active.

The other thing that happens with tourism and communities is there are a lot of secondary benefits. For example, the women in Myanmar in a community tourism project we have there: Initially we, as a business, helped the women to understand about food preparation and hygiene needs. And we don’t, as travelers, like to have MSG in our food. So the women started to also take up some of those practices in the way that they prepared their food with hygiene and taking MSG out in their homes as well. That started to have a health benefit for them. And so it’s really interesting that you see these secondary benefits.

Similarly, in a lot of the community-based tourism projects we have, whilst not everyone in the community can be employed directly in supporting tourism, we create a community fund, and the whole community is able to decide how to use that fund. Again in this project in Myanmar, three of the communities decided to save the money over a two-year period, and it meant that they eventually had enough funds to match what was required by the government to bring electricity into their villages. So the three villages now have electricity. And the good thing about that is that now our travelers have hot water as well, whereas previously they just had a mandi (bucket) style shower, and water would be boiled.

Similarly, it might be that it enables them to bring in investment into things like biogas, for example, which also helps conserve the environment, because it takes away either the use of kerosene or wood fires.

What are some of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – for ecotourism?

Building the accommodation or the infrastructure can be fast. But actually building the capacity of the community to become an enterprise can take a long time. Building community-based tourism can take up to two or three years before a community is actually self-sufficient and running their own business.

How does ecotourism fit into the 2018 Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit theme, “Protecting people and forests, supporting economic growth?”

Community tourism isn’t a new thing. Companies like ourselves have been staying in communities for a really long time. In Africa, there are some amazing companies such as Wilderness Safaris, which has built lodges, and the community has been employed in those lodges. In some cases, over time the community has taken up full ownership of those lodges. There are all sorts of different models of community-based tourism.

I think the challenge now is how do we take a sustainable model and implement that in more places in the world. Because I think both the government and authorities, particularly in areas where you’ve got amazing natural resources, recognize that it’s a great way of conserving the environment by providing an income for local communities that goes hand-in-hand with protecting that environment. But actually implementing it and building infrastructure in different parts of the world where we need to do this is not a fast job.

It really requires a lot of partnership. Often it requires the partnership of an NGO that’s been working in a community for a while, because it’s really important that the community is well consulted and involved in the project from the beginning. It often requires funding from outside, and it often requires expertise in tourism, from consultants and businesses like ourselves. And more than anything else, it has to be interesting enough for tourists to want to go there. So getting all those things in harmony to really create a well-run, viable and sustainable over the long-term ecotourism project takes a lot of partnership work, and so it takes a lot of planning.

I think there’s huge opportunity through ecotourism to also educate travelers and the world about the importance of preserving the world’s great heritage and national parks and forests. But we need to be careful about how we go about. It’s not necessarily the kind of thing that you can do where you have large numbers of people coming into communities. Because potentially that can be very damaging to local culture as well. It’s a delicate balance.

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