Some countries in Latin America have been implementing the creation of new protected areas as a strategy to safeguard ecosystems and their biodiversity. Costa Rica and Panama, for instance, count more than 30% of their territory under the administration of the National Systems of Protected Areas, demonstrating, at least on paper, the importance of biodiversity for national development strategies.
An ecosystem’s declaration of protection is but the beginning of a road leading toward sustainability; Much harder is getting our weak economies and distracted finance ministers to allocate the necessary financial resources for its effective management. And this is happening neither in our region, nor at global scale.
A report from EUROPARC – Spain states that, despite the European Union’s commitment to stop loss of biodiversity in 2010, its member states have neither adopted the necessary measures, nor been capable of convincing society and politicians of the need to increase public support for the conservation of biodiversity. In this scenario, financial auto-sustainability becomes a key element for protected areas managers’ strategies.
In many countries in Latin America, most of tourist attractions can be found in protected areas, and nature-based tourism is an economic activity which utilizes natural resources but, unlike other productive processes, “consumes” them at their place of origin, without there being, in principle, any drainage, rather keeping such resources as market goods.
Ecotourism’s viability not only depends directly of environment and ecosystems but of their conservation, in order to add “value” to the “tourist attraction”.
In order for nature-based tourism to be sustainable throughout time and make a contribution towards the conservation of protected areas, it must distribute its benefits among the local communities, which have traditionally gained their livelihoods from the extraction of natural resources. An artisan fisher or a rural farmer may earn more money taking care of sea turtles’ nesting areas than selling their eggs; thus the importance of incorporating local communities to the value chain generated by the practice of ecotourism.
A report informed of a society of fishers in the Gulf of Montijo, in Panama, who prior to 2011 practiced artisanal fishing and transitioned into operating boats used for whale-sighting at Coiba National Park; their monthly profits increased from US$494 in 2011 to US$875 in 2015.
Local micro-entrepreneurs, women groups, indigenous, black and rural communities are the ones providing local transportation services for tourists, offering accommodation and food services, making crafts, and are the ones who best know those protected areas. Generally, tax incentive laws promoting investing in tourism fail, nonetheless, to benefit this small and micro-entrepreneurs. According to the report Análisis Diagnóstico General del Turismo en Panamá, the Law for Tax Incentives developed from 1994 onwards did not foster the development of tourism throughout most of the country; said report concludes that the absence of funding facilitation in order to promote creation of lodging and food service small and micro-projects, has been an obstacle for its development.
Valorization of one or various tourist attractions at a certain place requires financial support to help enhance public goods, and also support the development of those tourism services, which will turn the attraction into a prime tourism product. Innovative projects such as the Iniciativa para el Desarrollo del Ecoturismo en las Áreas Protegidas de Panamá, executed with funds from the IDB and GEF and incorporated into sustainable development, are contributing examples towards conservation self-financing.
Furthermore, it is essential to establish financial funds aimed at rewarding ecotourism initiatives that enhance the value of nature-based attractions, in order to achieve sustainable development of this activity. Cases such as the competitive funds supporting the Iniciativas Asociativas de Desarrollo Territorial, offered by the National Tourism Service in Chile, promoting collective benefits available for both the direct beneficiaries of the project and their environment, are an example of applicable instruments for the region. There are success stories, like the sustainable tourism model at Puñihuil islets, in Southern Chile, where a group of four micro-entrepreneurs partnered with the municipality and authorities from Chiloé National Park, and presented a joint plan for the development of a promotion platform for said destination and acquisition of infrastructure for marine wildlife sighting; It all has helped their positioning as one of the most sustainable destinations in Southern Chile.
Competitive funds targeted specifically at women, supportive of tourism entrepreneurs or market development initiatives for small and micro-entrepreneurs, are also examples of instruments that may support creation of projects within protected areas.
Nature-based tourism, developed in conjunction with local communities, may provide direct financial benefits to their populations and contribute towards financial sustainability of protected areas and towards a better distribution of the recreational benefits generated by these ecosystems.
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