Ecotourism in Ecuador In Focus, Autumn 1996 Will the communities survive? Things have changed a lot since Oswaldo Munoz, now President of the Ecuadorean Ecotourism Association, started guiding tourists around Ecuador in 1968. Untrodden Pacific beaches, towering 21,000 ft. snow-capped summits, mysterious tropical rainforests and a living laboratory of evolution isolated from the country's continent, were facts soon to be discovered by the occasional traveller. In this article he describes some of the conflicts that communities face as a result of the growth in tourism in Ecuador. Communities are finding that taking control of tourism may be an ideal for them but raises harsh reactions from commercial tour operators and the state. The Otavalos in the northern Andean sierras and the Colorados on the western Pacific lowlands were about the only indigenous groups highlighted in the first travel brochure on Ecuador. The fact that Quichua was just one of ten native languages spoken in a country only the size of Germany, or that this was the birthplace of ceramics in the Western hemisphere, was not as important as poking cameras in people's faces or bargaining for embryonic 'handicrafts' that were actually used by the locals in their everyday living. Ecuador's popularity slowly but increasingly began to grow under the shadow of the more publicised tour destinations such as Acapulco, Machu Picchu, Rio, Manaus, Jamaica, Buenos Aires, Puerto Rico or Iquitos, where countries and sites formed an obscure geographical picture of a 'country' called 'South America' that even included Central America and the Caribbean. Notwithstanding, Ecuador's popularity grew. Why? Surely enough, it was a matter of biological and ethnic diversity that expanded from the domains of sophisticated research groups to the curiosity of those that wanted more than just a 'tour'. But more importantly, it was the people, especially in the rural areas, that attested to the fact that smiles were a major means of communicating. Close encounters In the early 1970s, the Galapagos Islands marked a milestone in sustainable tourism development: the Ecuadorean National Park System, the Charles Darwin Research Station and local cruise operators joined forces to promote conservation through responsible travel. At the same time, the archipelago served as a magnet to draw tourists 600 miles back to mainland Ecuador, where the intricacies of 'close encounters of the natural kind' revolved around cultures that had evolved over thousands of years. Ten years after Galapagos' debut, local in-bound tour operators on the mainland had increased by 300 per cent. Almost half the country's rainforests had disappeared, environmental non-governmental organisation (NGOs), both local and foreign, flocked to places where endangered species (included indigenous communities) lived. And politicians started to include conservation and human rights issues in their speeches. (This was, of course, every four years during the election campaign). Tourism was not totally exempt from fault when it came to the exploitation of Ecuadorean native cultures. Some entrepreneurs, attracted more by the prospect of showing plants and animals to their guests than highlighting the natives that just happened to be there first, set up lodges and tour programmes in or adjacent to national parks and reserves. Other companies made honest efforts to seek ways of incorporating the locals without changing the essence of their lifestyles, sensitive to the fact that nature and culture were symbiotic - a concept that was later termed 'ecotourism'. Ecotourism: a good deal? Since native Ecuadoreans had been conquered several times - first by the Incas, then by the Spaniards and later by the industrialised world (which included tourism businesses), it was no wonder that celebrating Columbus Day in 1992 on the five hundredth anniversary of his arrival in South America, was considered almost obscene by the indigenous people. This is what triggered community-based ecotourism programmes, mushrooming under the auspices of conservation groups. All of a sudden, ecotourism sounded like a good deal for both NGOs and indigenous groups that struggled to survive under the socio-economic pressures of modern society. The plan was to do it alone. Tour operators, they argued, were not only dispensable, but part of the whole threatening imperialistic scheme that had invaded their lands. Little did they know that having a spectacular native-run tourist attraction was no guarantee that visitors would immediately dash to marvel at their initiative. Nor did they realise the enormous marketing costs, logistical complexities and time involved in producing and placing a tourist in their territory. By the early '90s, ecotourism had reached a non-profit, purely altruistic connotation - the perfect formula for environmental organisations to make money, or rather, to finance their well-intended projects without paying government taxes nor park permits. On the other hand, legally established, city-based tour companies felt they were losing out, coping with what they termed 'pirate tour operators dressed in NGOs clothing'. Local communities were again caught in the middle of this legal conflict, receiving economic handouts from organisations that refused to admit their ignorance regarding professional ecotourism entrepreneurship. As an operator in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest, home of the Siona Indians, at times I felt like and introduced species that was promoting cultural ethnocide through community participation in tourist projects. I started to look more like the natives and the natives more like the tourists. I tried to do everything in the book: solar energy panels, water-treatment plants, bio-digestors, environmental monitoring and mitigation programmes, plus the donation of four outboard motors to the locals to get them started as logistical providers and local guides. One problem, though. I had a bank loan to pay, plus 18 taxes between tourism and national park permits. Turning into an instant Siona Indian and permanently moving to Cuyabeno, I thought, could mean I was exempt from paying government taxes or, more precisely, the tax collector would never find or recognise me. Moreover, I could even become eligible for a NGO donation! Local action plan In the last months, our organisation, the Ecuadorean Ecotourism Association (EEA), has taken action to ameliorate the situation: the Green Evaluations Pilot Program has consumers (tourists) assessing ecotourism operations; in-the-field-ecotourism workshops for guides, tour operators, lodge owners and conservationists are seeking to define and improve the roles of all those involved or affected by ecotourism; and most importantly, the ethical and technical drafting for the new Ecuadorean Tourism Law will consider the EEA's recommendations for a legal instrument to incorporate local communities in tourism activities. This will definitely set the basis for mutual collaborative programmes to bring together all the players involved in ecotourism and conservation under fair conditions for everyone. Like in any business, not all tourism ventures guarantee an economic profit and locals seem to believe someone foreign to their culture is making a lot of money at their expense. This arises form conflicting values of what is considered beneficial or profitable, in a modern society that falsely believes something to be profitable if it generates money and anti-economical if it fails to do so. As an environmentalist, I feel a need for integrating the needs and interests of all the actors involved in ecotourism, where the indigenous local communities will be recognised and respected for being our hosts. Perhaps, it is they that can give the outside world more than what the outside world can give them. If the mutual trade-off is subtle, then it will surely be good, both for humans and their ecosystems. That's what the future is all about.