“I sat on a toilet watching the water run thinking what an odd thing tourism is. You fly off to a strange land, eagerly abandoning all the comforts of home and then expend vast quantities of time and money in a largely futile effort to recapture the comforts you wouldn’t have lost if you hadn’t left home in the first place.”
― Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe
Ecotourism…eco-friendly…permaculture…bio-diversity…sustainable tourism…green…words that have become so popular in the tourism industry, that I wonder if they have evolved into meaningless clichés for the sake of marketing, or if the concept of environmental conservation has evolved into a new trend.
While ecotourism has been around for quite some time, it’s a new concept in Nicaragua. Most local tour operators in Nicaragua understand ecotourism as traveling to a place that is natural, like Ometepe Island, a Biosphere Reserve, and keeping it natural. Yet, with the influx of savvy foreign marketers, the concepts of sustainable tourism and the slightly different ecotourism, have their pros and cons for an undeveloped and naïve country like Nicaragua.
Below are three examples of how sustainable tourism is marketed on Ometepe Island. Could a first time tourist to Ometepe Island, tell if any or all these places have developed responsible sustainable tourism programs? As a tourist, it is very difficult to tell from an advertisement.
Finally, the Tichana Project on Ometepe Island .
Broadly speaking, sustainable tourism entails responsible tourism with minimal ecological impact, as well as distribution of the industry’s benefits with the tour operators and the local communities. But, my BIG question is: How does one determine if the claims of sustainable tourism are true or just a marketing device? Do national and international guidelines and certification programs authenticate the claims or add to the problems?
The barriers to participating in certifications have increased in line with the growth of ethically minded shoppers and tourists. Compliance with volumes of regulations, and the costs of doing so, place certifications beyond the reach of most individual small producers, hotel, and tour operators.
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council developed criteria for destinations around the world, which reflect best practices from different cultural and geo-political contexts, and include practical and relevant ideas for sustainable tourism, hotels, and tour operators.
The criteria are detailed, practical, and specific. Yet, they are difficult to put into practice in Nicaragua, and especially on Ometepe Island. We are a fledgling tourism market. Most locals don’t have an understanding of what tourists want, and they are just beginning to understand the concepts of environmental protection and conservation.
Ecopolitics in Nicaragua play a huge role in establishing connections between politics and tourism projects, too. The billboards in the photo below show how President Ortega’s administration benefits by association with development and tourism projects. And don’t even get me started about the Nicaraguan canal project!
I don’t have any answers to the problems of developing sustainable tourism practices in Nicaragua. In researching this topic, I only have more questions. However, I do know that everything I have read indicates that we must always tread lightly in developing our tourism projects, respect the local culture and natural resources, support and improve our projects with a careful sense of balance between profits and environmental issues, share the bounty of our projects with the local communities, and most importantly, be truthful and honest in our marketing techniques.
Below are a few websites with more information about Sustainable Tourism.
The World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Program through UNESCO offers many resources for sustainable tourism programs throughout the world.
http://www.conoceometepe.com/en/tourism_en.html This website has a list of hotels and hostels on Ometepe Island, and some information on tourism in Nicaragua.