Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance
“Our entry point into the communities is through the hotels that employ them. There is enormous potential to educate the local residents through the hotels about conservation practices they can implement at home.”
Conservation International’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business works with tour operators, hotel owners, and cruise lines to integrate biodiversity conservation into their operating practices and protect environmentally fragile destinations.
Seleni Matus discusses how the innovative Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative is working with local governments, hotel owners, and cruise lines to implement best practices and environmental policies to conserve sensitive areas in Mexico, Belize, and Honduras.
Question: What are the main threats to the Mesoamerican Reef from tourism?
Matus: The major threats to the Mesoamerican Reef from tourism are the destruction of coastal and marine habitats resulting from two sources: hotel development on the coasts and tourism-related infrastructure. The second major threat is water pollution. This stems from the widespread use of non-sustainable business practices, such as inadequate treatment of wastewater and solid waste, and more importantly, increases in the coastal population associated to the growth of tourism that often do not have access to adequate public infrastructure. These threats were confirmed at the Tulum+8 Stakeholder Consultation Meeting held in Cancun in September of 2005, which brought together 50 scientists from around the world who have researched the Mesoamerican Reef. There was consensus that the ecosystem is endangered and that coastal development, primarily from tourism, is the major threat.
Q: What is Conservation International doing to address these threats?
Matus: To counteract the negative environmental impacts of rampant hotel development along the coast and widespread use of unsustainable tourism practices, CI launched the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) in October 2004. This ambitious initiative, which is supported by The Summit Foundation, seeks to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of the tourism industry and maximize its contributions to the protection and conservation of the Mesoamerican Reef ecosystem. MARTI is addressing the top two tourism related threats to the Mesoamerican Reef Ecosystem, which I described earlier, by systematically engaging the three main sectors of the tourism industry — hoteliers, tour operators, and cruise lines — in improving management practices and environmental stewardship in Mexico, Belize, and Honduras.
Last year, we worked in collaboration with the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism and a host of local partners to implement an environmental performance improvement program for hotels called the “Environmental Walk Through” (EWT) program. The EWT helped twenty-three hotels and resorts in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, and Hopkins-Placencia coastal corridor in southern Belize to identify and implement good business practices for conserving water and energy, reducing solid waste, and managing chemicals. The 23 coastal hotels and resorts that participated in the EWT encompassed 2,600 hotel rooms and employed about 3,000 employees. It is important to note that the EWT was implemented by local partners, such as the Asociación de Hoteles de la Riviera Maya in Mexico, and the Belize Tourism Board and Belize Hotels Association, and not Conservation International. CI equipped our local partners with the tools, training, and technical assistance needed to roll out the EWT program on a fee-for-service basis. Over the next five years we plan to scale-up this program. In Mexico, for instance, by 2010 we aim to have the EWT program reach 60 percent of the membership of all leading hotel associations in Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Q: Have the hotels been receptive to the EWT programs?
Matus: Very much so. In both countries the Environmental Walk-Through program for hotels was met with a lot of enthusiasm. Overall, the program positively impacted about 10 percent of hotel rooms in the Maya Riviera, and about 21 percent of total hotel rooms in Belize’s Hopkins-Placencia coastal corridor. So with this very small, pilot project, we were able to show some good results. Next year, we hope to increase the number in Mexico from 14 hotels to about 50 and continue to increase that number in subsequent years by expanding the project to include other leading hotel associations.
Partnering with hotel associations to do this type of work is critical, as they have a direct mandate to promote the hotel sector and to look for ways to improve tourism products. These associations are the best poised to work directly with the hotels.
Q: Does this project include a long-term monitoring program to measure conservation results in the Reef?
Matus: Each project, such as the EWT for hotels, under our Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative, does have a monitoring and evaluation component. For instance, through the EWT program we collected baseline data on business practices of 23 coastal hotels. Additionally, each of the hotels developed “Green Teams” that are comprised of hotel managers, as well as key staff. These green teams are charged with monitoring and working to reduce their most negative operating practices. The data collected and analyzed by the green team on an on-going basis will help us to track and quantify changes in business practices, as well as the resulting impacts of those changes that have occurred from the adoption of good operating practices.
Q: Who trains the Green Teams?
Matus: Our program does, through the hotel associations. The hotel associations often already have a mandate to provide capacity-building to their member hotels. In both Belize and Mexico, our local partners collaborated with local-level government agencies to organize training sessions on key topics, such as water conservation, for the Green Teams as well as hotel personnel that we helped to subsidize. However, the Green Team effort requires sustained ongoing training, because of the high level of employee turnover in the hotel industry. To counter this, we will continue to work with the hotels that participated in the EWT program and guide them into a second phase with the hope that over the course of a few years, we will see an increase in the number of hotels that establish or implement conservation measures, which is really the key indicator of the hotels improving their practices.
Q: Are you gathering results from these monitoring programs?
Matus: We have a developed a database that contains environmental performance data before and after the EWT programs were implemented. We hope to expand the database in time to help measure the effect this program is having in each of the participating hotels over the course of a few years.
Q: How are you working with the communities that have developed around these major tourism areas?
Matus: Our entry point into the communities is through the hotels that employ them. There is enormous potential to educate the local residents through the hotels about conservation practices they can implement at home.
Q: What other tourism sectors are involved in this project?
Matus: Through the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative, we are also working with the cruise ship industry and marine recreation providers. The boom in cruise ship tourism that has occurred over the past five years in Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Belize, and Honduras brings thousands of additional visitors to coastal and marine sites. Cruise destinations often lack the physical and management infrastructure needed to ensure that these high numbers of visitors do not leave a negative footprint on coastal and marine ecosystems. To address this issue, in 2005 we researched and wrote a publication on improving cruise ship policies and practices for minimizing the impact of cruise passengers in destinations throughout the Mesoamerican Reef. This publication offers suggestions for how key groups, cruise lines, governments, civil society, and shore operators can influence the impacts of cruise tourism at a destination. It includes over 30 examples of practices and projects that are contributing to the sustainability of cruise destinations around the world. The publication will be in print in March 2006.
This year, we will use that publication as a vehicle to engage governments, civil societies, and the private sector in key cruise destinations to develop and implement cruise passenger management plans that minimize the shore-based impacts, especially from marine recreation, of cruise passengers. We will be focusing these efforts in the major cruise ship destinations in the region; Cozumel and Majahual in Mexico, Belize City in Belize, and the Bay Islands in Honduras. In each of these four main ports, we aim to bring together the cruise lines with governments and other stakeholders to examine the critical issues specific to each port, and develop strategies.
Q: How has this initial dialogue been with the governments in Belize and Mexico?
Matus: The governments appear quite committed to working with CI, the cruise lines and other key stakeholders to adopt new approaches that will help to better manage the accelerated growth of cruise tourism. The consider our proposed initiative a high priority, deserving of attention, and are willing to invest time and resources next year to get the planning process off the ground.
While the different stakeholders have very different perspectives as to what the real problems are with cruise tourism, it has been inspiring to see openness on their part to consider new approaches. They have seen the damage that cruise tourism has caused in the eastern Caribbean, and they are willing to consider options to minimize the impacts in their own countries.