A light breeze rustles the leaves of the tall jungle trees as it breathes through the open bamboo structure. It’s quiet, devoid of the traffic of Panama City, a two-hour car ride away.
Instead, the only sounds are the light hum of insects and the pads of bare feet as people gather for a first introduction to their retreat itinerary. A small, tan dog happily follows too. He used to be a stray, but like many visitors from around the world, is drawn to the sanctuary-like lodgings in the middle of Mamoní Valley Preserve, a 12,900-acre area composed of thick rainforest.
“The idea here is to learn and be inspired by nature,” says Claus Kjaerby, the director of operations at Geoversity’s base lodge as he sits at a wooden picnic table. “We tailor the experience based on the needs of the visitors.”
Geoversity, a non-profit dedicated to nature conservation, offers an immersion platform that qualifies as a version of “ecotourism.” They call their fee-based programs “Life Changing Experiences,” encouraging visitors to enlighten themselves through camping, educational hiking excursions and manual labor such as planting crops, digging wells and constructing huts. Always, the emphasis is on education as a way to groom future environmental leaders and proselytize that conservation and sustainability are the only salvation for a changing and vulnerable earth.
When the idea of ecotourism was first conceived, it shared a similar vision, with an emphasis on both socially responsible education and environmental sustainability. Coinciding with a growing environmental awareness for biodiversity and conservation, the concept first got its footing in the 1990s. It has since grown, making up roughly 5% of the tourism industry (which accounted for about 3.3% of the world’s global GDP in 2019). Despite existing for over 30 years, there are still very few studies to account accurately for how many people will pay to experience their vacations like this.
In Panama, ecotourism has started to emerge as a global highlight with its rich marine life and thick jungles replete with some of the most robust and varied biodiversity in the world, including 992 bird species, 1,800 species of butterflies, the largest wild cat in the Americas (the jaguar), 2,300 tree species (more than twice the number of the U.S. and Canada) and over 1,700 marine life species. This allows visitors the rare opportunity to appreciate an expansive jungle hike one day, while visiting natural sandy beaches the next. It is this natural beauty that attracts people from around the world to visit. It also attracts scientific organizations and tourism companies looking to benefit from that rich bioculture.
“Travel is an area where you can make a lot of impact that you can see,” says O’Shannon Burns, founding member of National Geographic’s Sustainability Leadership Network, based in Washington. “(Ecotourism) is really dependent on natural resources in a way that a lot of other industries aren’t.”
However, while many institutions and organizations value sustainability and equity, not everyone in the ecotourism trade shares the same philosophy.
The roots of ecotourism
As a main pillar of its foundation, ecotourism was created as a way to offer indigenous people the chance to benefit from the natural beauty of their land, while also creating an incentive to protect a country’s natural ecosystem. Some communities have been able to maintain control over their own processes, while many others must battle the onslaught of commercialized entities looking to capitalize on travelers’ desire for their money to do some good.
“It’s especially troubling when these big companies are just more economically powerful,” says Glen Hvenegaard, an ecotourism expert and professor at the University of Alberta, in Alberta, Canada. “Local companies may, or may not, have the ability to resist new opportunities even though it might be compromising some local attraction.”
With the weight of financial power, larger companies have a greater capacity to build and carry out larger tourism endeavors, which often do not result in bettering the lives, or the environment, of the communities in which they’re staged.
This is also happening in Panama.
Panama in fact is home to some of the pioneers in successful ecotourism led by indigenous communities. In Guna Yala, a 364-island territory of the Guna people, one of the five main indigenous tribes in Panama, the beautiful white sandy beaches, and brilliantly blue water has the ability to draw tourists from all over the world. For decades, the Guna has successfully kept everything in-house, taking visitors by boat from the mainland to the islands, providing food and keeping up with the maintenance of the trash removal and restrooms. While hard work, this means that they are able to keep 100% of the revenue within their communities.
But they are largely the exception in this Central American country that serves as a seam between two continents. Many other communities in Panama do not have the same autotomy, or self governance, as the Guna, which means that they have less or no power in controlling their own lands. This allows for other businesses to come into their areas of jungle to conduct their own ecotourism. While partnerships must still be formed in some capacity, these larger agencies don’t always put an emphasis on a fair relationship.
Bennie Willson, 43-year-old birding tour-guide, has seen this firsthand. Willson has spent the last 25 years giving tours for a range of different companies. Now, he works for himself, using social media referrals to book clients. Most of them come from the United States and Canada, although in recent years, that is beginning to expand.
Based in Panama City, Willson takes tours all over Panama, including areas of the Darien Gap, a thick expanse of jungle covering the border between Panama and Columbia. These trips, requiring more labor than the day trips near the city, cost $200 per person. This helps Wilson, who has five stars on TripAdvisor, cater to the specific needs of his customers as he not only provides the leadership required, but personalized snacks that people can request.
On these trips, and any tourist trips here, relationships with the local communities are key in order to secure housing, food and other amenities for clients. However, not all of these relationships are true partnerships. Visiting tour companies have different philosophies, and not all of them are fair. In some cases, as little as 1.6% of the revenue goes back to the local communities, Willson says.
“(These companies) need them to stay poor so that they can keep visiting. It’s the tourism of poverty,” says Willson, as he sips coffee at his favorite farm-to-table restaurant in Panama City. “Trust me, I’ve been there in that monster. I would never work for them again.”
One of the reasons behind the disparity is a question of capacity. Already living in poverty, many of these communities in the Darien do not have the resources to provide adequate food or housing. This means it is up to the tour providers to secure the sometimes-luxury accommodations paying customers expect. In scenarios such as these, 15% to 20% of the revenue reaching the locals is considered a victory. Even so, the companies profiting from this dynamic are often reluctant for change.
“Some people think that vacations are a human right. No. They are something you earn,” says Willson. “It does not give you the right to exploit the local community.”
Sometimes, the inequalities that present themselves in ecotourism are not monetary, but in cultural misunderstandings. When traveling to Guna Yala, tourists enter a different culture composed of people of a lower economic status. There, the islands, rich in beauty and tradition, do not have some of the comforts newcomers might expect, which can include air conditioning, cocktails or charging outlets. This can be a culture shock for some.
“I’m quite surprised with how run-down it is,” says Sara Spencer from New Zealand who received the trip as a gift from her son. On a beautiful March morning, she stands uncomfortably in a small, open shack on the island, nursing a relatively cold beer. “It wasn’t what I was expecting.”
More than 30 minutes by boat from the mainland, the islands present a logistical challenge for transporting both supplies and people back and forth. Everything here is done by the Guna people, who only have small skiffs or canoes to make trips to the mainland. This is not ideal when dealing with the trash visitors create. While a “take in, take out policy” is encouraged, up to 50 bags of trash have to be taken back to the mainland every day with one or two workers to do the job. To keep the trash out of the way of tourists, bags are placed on a specific section of the island until they can be removed. Visitors occasionally misunderstand. This can lead to negative interpretations.
“They are just dirty people, lazy people,” says Dervick Abbott, Spencer’s husband, as they stand next to locals who work on the island. “There’s trash everywhere, but that’s just how they are. It was the same in Fiji.”
Not understanding the logistics of the islands, or the cultures of the people who rely on tourism, can limit the appreciation and enjoyment of some visitors. Many other travelers however, have a different reaction to the islands.
“I was looking for pure peace. Here, you have it in waves,” says Caroline Poussart, who lives in Bogotá, Columbia. Traveling on vacation with her husband, Poussart used the opportunity on the islands to connect with other visitors from around the world as she embraced her cultural experience.
In the name of science
On Barro Colorado Island, located in the man-made Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) uses its ecotourism-driven nature tours as a way to promote its main focus: science. The tour guides are scientists, volunteering to give tours in their free time. Walking through the jungle on the island, visitors are offered the rare opportunity to see wildlife in a natural environment and can spot everything from howler monkeys to bullet ants.
“Our mission is to increase and diffuse knowledge about present, past and future tropical biodiversity,” says Oris Sanjur, the associate director of science administration for STRI. Sanjur explains that much of their diffusion efforts includes the education and outreach that happens on Barro Colorado. It is her belief that in order to value the research of the natural world, people must first understand it.
On a recent tour, for example, paying tourists heard Louisa Dück, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Institute since 2017, talk about bat behavior, how lighting strikes account for 40% of annual tree demise and how 10 tons of Azteca ant dung produced every day creates a powerful fertilizer of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus that feeds all the plants on the island.
Dück points to the grayish cylindrical ant nests that hang off uncountable numbers of trees in the forest. She notes that sometimes, the beautiful black-throated trogon will nest in them, as will other birds. She also names the scientist who is studying these ants and their dung, and the research project that has enabled the entire community to fully understand and appreciate the lifeblood Azteca ants serve on Barro Colorado.
But this kind of information exchange is not done without forethought to the environment itself. In order to preserve the ecosystem, showcasing it must have strict guidelines. This means limiting the number of tours to three per week and no more than 12 people per tour guide.
“You minimize the impact to the island,” says Dück, who is currently researching fig species as her main job.
Restricting the number of visitors not only ensures the safety of the environment on the island, but also offers guests the opportunity to engage with scientists on a deeper level. This can include joining them for lunch in the family-style mess hall to discuss more of the science they just witnessed in the field. This is a rare opportunity for tourists to talk to visiting and local scientists, helping to foster an appreciation for sustainable tourism that can last a lifetime.
Growing, or not
While some experts think that this world-wide growth in ecotourism has continued, others believe that it has stalled.
“It definitely plateaued because there were so many arguments about what it really is,” says Megan Epler Wood, founder of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).
Launched in 1989 as the first nonprofit dedicated to ecotourism, TIES worked to come up with the first official definition of ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the wellbeing of local people.” Having led that meeting, Wood believes that this definition has held up well. To pair with the definition, TIES worked to develop guidelines for its practice. This could include nature tours, birdwatching and luxury camping trips.
Other entities, including the United Nations, NGOs and social justice groups, started to get involved in the discussion in 2002. With the intention of ensuring the fair involvement of indigenous people in the areas of ecotourism, there was a lack of a business perspective, which could have helped lead to the plateau of the industry.
However, with an evolving perspective of travel, there might be another growth spurt looming.
Difficult to measure numerically, tricky to regulate and dependent on ever-changing natural environments, ecotourism poses many challenges to those who want to enter the industry. But it also presents a different kind of problem for the tourists wishing to embark on a sustainable adventure: knowing which vendors are authentic.
One tried solution has been to certify the programs. TIES, in collaboration with other NGOs, has worked on a certification process for companies to prove their legitimacy to consumers. While the efforts are ongoing, the endeavor hasn’t been fruitful.
“There’s been a lack of a market uptake on the certification because it ironically doesn’t help (businesses) in the marketplace, despite the value propositions,” says Wood, who is also the founder and president of EplerWood International, a company that provides market-based approaches to sustainable tourism development.
The incentive for companies hasn’t been the only issue with certification. The ways that the companies are judged has also been vague. In other certification practices, like with the organic wood industry, implanted trackers can follow the movement of the product to make sure it’s true to its claims. This is impossible with tourism as it incorporates a multitude of variables that can make it hard to monitor. Instead of following the course of a straight line, it is more like a spider-web of options, each one leading to more possibilities.
“There is no company, I don’t care who you are, that can guarantee that an entire tourism experience is sustainable,” says Wood, who has written books about sustainable tourism.
It also defeats much of the purpose of certifying the ecotourism vendor at all as consumers won’t be able to cross reference among different companies.
“Part of the goal of certification is comparability,” says O’Shannon, who came back from Fiji after she consulted on another ecotourism endeavor. “Tourism is so complicated that there really isn’t that comparably. Whenever I book something, I go straight to Tripadvisor. Travelers will demand this kind of information going forward.”
Making more information available could help ecotourism grow once again as it can share successful models with other companies and organizations. This can allow operations that are currently limited with capacity to expand and share their methods with their local partners, consumers and the public.
This could not only help organizations like Geoversity – which offers programs in the Chagres Ejua So Embera region, the Gunayala semi-autonomous indigenous territory, the Bayano region, Pearl Islands, Cebaco Island and the Colón Caribbean coast – but could also encourage a new generation of travelers. As part of its mission of training and inspiring new environmental leaders, the nonprofit has also worked to become guardians of this area of the jungle. The preserve surrounding Geoversity used to be cattle pasture before it was purchased by the nonprofit in 2001. Now, most of the lush vegetation and towering trees has grown back, giving the organization endless projects to work on and trails to lead nature-lovers along. It is the hope that not only will they be able to maintain this level of stewardship but help inspire young individuals to do the same.
“The idea here was to create a youth leadership training facility in a natural environment,” says Kjaerby, who used to lead tourist operations through the Amazon Jungle.
This same effort in engaging the younger generation could also help bring about a surge of growth in the world of sustainable nature travel.
“It’s only now that we are seeing a promising renaissance,” says Wood, as she explains that the market for ecotourism is evolving. “We are seeing an uptick in demand for sustainability in the millenials, and the generations past baby boomers.”