Interview with Ronald Sanabria, vice president of sustainable tourism for Rainforest Alliance

By Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance

“The managers of parks and protected areas are more aware that these areas are the main magnet for tourism in many countries; however, in many cases tourism has flourished in private hands without the areas themselves benefiting from tourist dollars.

Lake Sadoval, Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

Lake Sadoval, Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

Tourism remains one of the world’s strongest economic activities, especially in countries with great natural and cultural wealth. Despite geopolitical challenges and the ongoing recovery of the global economy, the World Tourism Organization reports that in the first eight months of 2014, tourist arrivals worldwide grew by a robust 5%.

National parks and protected areas are key tourism attractions that help keep the sector alive; however, they are not the first to benefit from the tourism economy and they face challenges in keeping rising demand from negatively impacting their fragile ecosystems.

We spoke with Ronald Sanabria, vice president of sustainable tourism for the Rainforest Alliance, about the organization’s work with environmental ministries, protected area systems, and national parks in Latin America, to help develop appropriate tourism in protected areas and manage sustainable tourism activities beyond their borders.

Question: Is there a boom in protected areas and national parks managers interested in tourism?

Ronald Sanabria, Rainforest Alliance.

Ronald Sanabria, Rainforest Alliance.

Sanabria: Absolutely.  I think it’s driven by the evolution of the concept of nature preservation based on isolating ecosystems in order to protect them, to a model that is much more participatory and reinforces the public use of these areas through tourism. Moreover, parks and protected areas managers are more aware that these areas are the main magnet for tourism in many countries.  However, in many cases, tourism near protected areas has flourished in private hands, without the areas themselves benefiting from tourist dollars. In other cases, tourism has not been developed in a planned, regulated, and sustainable way, causing a negative impact on protected areas and parks. The combination of these factors has led more environmental ministries and national park and protected area managers to participate more actively in the supply or regulation of tourism services to generate economic resources. They are also engaging in responsible tourism management with entrepreneurs and neighboring communities as a way to minimize the impact of the activity on ecosystems they protect.

Q: How does the Rainforest Alliance support protected areas and parks in tourism development?

Sanabria: In some of the countries where we have the honor to work, staff in charge of national parks and protected areas want to build capacity to develop tourism activities and help manage tourism activities beyond the parks’ borders. In nearly all of the countries, tourism ministries and the national parks are managed in completely separate entities – it isn’t very likely that one would find a national park institution with a tourism unit, or vice versa. The Rainforest Alliance, which has more than 25 years of experience in forest conservation and 14 years working with tourism businesses, is helping many institutions fill these gaps by helping them plan and implement responsible tourism in protected areas, and by working with entrepreneurs and neighboring communities on developing tourism activities.

Q: What countries are you working in?

Sanabria: We are working in Costa Rica with the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and the Central American Association for the Economy, Health and the Environment (ACEPESA) on two key areas to support the sustainability of the country’s protected areas through tourism: capacity building at the institutional level on sustainable tourism and customer service, and access to knowledge about sustainable tourism practices for the communities that neighbor national parks. In Mexico, thanks to support from the Mitsubishi Foundation, we are training staff from the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), the Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR), and the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI), who will then train rural communities in the ejidos (community-owned lands) of Sierra Norte, La Costa, and La Chinantla in Oaxaca – the ejido-dwellers are in charge of the forests, reserves, and protected areas – so they can create sustainable and profitable tourism projects and attract tourists to these areas. In Peru and Ecuador, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon (ICAA), we are working with local authorities to promote tourism development in conservation areas and parks in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon as part of a well-planned, sustainable, and inclusive strategy. In addition to providing training and technical assistance in both countries, we also collaborate on the creation of strategies, standards, and policies for sustainable tourism.

La Chinantla, Mexico

La Chinantla, Mexico

Q: What are the main challenges to protected areas and parks participating in tourism development?

Sanabria: Common challenges in the region include the need to build capacity and expertise in the institutions that manage the protected areas and develop sustainable tourism activities within parks, and the lack of adequate infrastructure and resources to create them. Many parks face severe staff shortages that keep them from assigning employees to tourism activities and management; they also don’t have the budget to hire more people or offer services such as guides. In many cases, there are challenges regulating visitation within the parks; in some places there are no regulations regarding park capacity or safety or conduct measures, or they exist but they are too strict or too flexible and therefore are not enforced due to staff shortages. Finally, I would add the lack of adequate marketing. Parks and protected areas should have attractive websites available in several languages, as well as promotional campaigns for tourists to find out that they exist, learn how to get to them, and how to practice responsible tourism in and around the protected areas.

Q: How are you helping to address these gaps?


Working with tourism business in Lake Sandoval, Peru

Sanabria: With SINAC and ACEPESA, we are doing assessments and public consultations to identify staff needs in 10 protected areas and in the communities that will participate in tourism activities. Based on this, we determine the most appropriate topics for their training workshops, such as accounting, finance, business plan development, accessibility in protected areas, how to achieve public concessions, and implementation of best practices in sustainable tourism within and outside the parks. In Mexico, after providing training for the government institutions, we will visit the ejido-dwelling communities to provide technical assistance in the field.

Together with the authorities in charge of the Tambopata Reserve in Peru, and the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Yasuni National Park, and the Limoncocha Biological Reserve in Ecuador, we are working on codes of conduct for tourists, visitor management plans, and risk and security management within protected areas, and we help communities create business plans and improve their tourism products so they can be more competitive and generate more sustainable revenue. For example, we conducted the study “Acceptable Limits of Change for Lake Sandoval”, which is one of the main tourist attractions in the Tambopata National Reserve. In this same region, we identified more than 120 popular tourist areas and more than 100 of which were included in a tourist attractions guide for Madre de Dios in order to diversify and reduce pressure on the very busiest sites.  We’re also helping the local Palma Real community to identify potential tourism attractions, build their capacity to provide quality tourism services, and involve them in tourism packages in partnership with the private sector.

Q: Conservation projects near protected areas that include ecotourism activities as a way to generate income have been on the rise. How can they succeed?

Sanabria: First, one should not believe that tourism is the solution to all financial problems. In many communities near tourist attractions we see the “cabin fever” phenomenon, or a proliferation of lodging that in the end does not achieve the desired visitation due to a lack of planning. Conservationists and communities that want to incorporate sustainable tourism into their projects should think in terms of the tourism destination with an entrepreneurial vision. They should ask themselves what the community offers besides the protected area, and from there they can offer a chain of tourist services that includes lodging, meals, guides, and other sustainable entertainment activities outside the parks while ensuring quality and safety for tourists. This should always be done in coordination with the parks and protected areas management.



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