Chelenko Opts for All-In Sustainability

Some beautiful destinations are recognized as such with special governmental designations. That may provide an opportunity for a holistic approach to destination management. Fernando Ojeda and Natalia Naranjo describe how the Chelenko Lake area of the Chilean Patagonia has done just that.

Chile’s Chelenko Adopts a Structure for Stewardship

Chelenko is a scenic, nature-based destination in the Aysén region in the Chilean Patagonia. The Chilean government designated it a Touristic Interest Zone (Zona de Interés Turístico – ZOIT) in 2000, due to rising tourism and an increasing need to protect the lake.

The Leones River, stemming from its namesake glacier, pours into the Chelenko Lake (a.k.a. General Carrera Lake). [Photo courtesy of Sernatur Aysén]

In 2017, an update of the Chilean tourism law created an opportunity to formulate a participatory work plan at a local level that would establish sustainability guidelines in the ZOIT. That process resulted in identifying this vision for Chelenko:

“In 2030 it will be a consolidated touristic destination, responsible and inclusive with the communities, that protects and values its natural resources, its identity and traditions, and assures sustainable development for the local communities. Generosity and kindness of its inhabitants are an important part to generate a high level of satisfaction for visitors.”


Chelenko was the first place to receive the ZOIT designation from the Chilean government. This was an opportunity to strengthen participatory planning skills; contribute to the conservation of touristic resources, and also promote public and private investments in this area.

The Chelenko ZOIT is an area defined within the General Carrera Province, encompassing the General Carrera Lake – better known as Chelenko Lake – as well as Bertrand Lake and the surrounding area. There are more than 10 towns distributed between the two municipalities of Chile Chico and Río Ibáñez.

Kayaking is a popular tourist activity in Chelenko, especially alongside the breathtaking Marble Chapels, a series of islands sitting atop glacial waters. [Photo courtesy of Sernatur Aysén]

Chelenko in the Tehuelche aboriginal language means “Lake of Storms.” Shared with Argentina, it is the biggest lake in Chile and the second largest in South America – 200 km long and 590 meters maximum depth, at 350 meters above sea level. Chelenko Lake is linked to the Bertrand Lake and nurtures the most abundant river in Chile: The Baker River.

The main economic activities of the region are agriculture, cattle, mining, and nature-based tourism, which includes hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife watching. Numerous rivers and lakes provide opportunities for sports and adventure activities like recreational fishing, sailing, rafting, and kayaking.

Management Strategy

The main strategy for managing tourism is to establish a collaborative (public and private directorate) and participatory structure to plan and implement actions for the destination –  Directorio Público Privado ZOIT Chelenko (Pubic-Private Directorate for the Chelenko ZOIT). Its main characteristic has been to integrate private stakeholders so that they can have greater participation in the governance of the lake. Their continued efforts and commitment have been key to advancing a sustainable agenda, with participation happening at different levels (within the ZOIT plan, outside the ZOIT plan, or at the local level led by the civil society).

Even so, stakeholders’ active involvement can be a challenge; there is an active participation at a local level from both public and private stakeholders regarding their concerns towards sustainability. Being a small community, local leaders are involved in different initiatives beside the tourism activity; they are also involved in other coordination entities like water, electrification, neighborhood committees, etc.

An aerial view of the Marble Caves (Capillas de Mármol) Nature Sanctuary, on the shores of General Carrera Lake in the Aysén region. [Photo courtesy of Sernatur Aysén]

The Action Plan

The participatory action plan identified these strategic pillars: promotion, sustainability, infrastructure, human resources, product development, and governance. Here are the key aspects identified for sustainable management of Chelenko and lessons learned since implementing the participatory structure and plan:

  • Private plus public governance – a must.
  • Government commitment to the process at national, regional, and local levels.
  • Governmental support in technical knowledge, data, information, logistics, and facilitation in meetings to strengthen participation from all local stakeholders.
  • Involvement and empowerment for enterprises and community.
  • A public, concise, long term, and participatory plan based on a diagnosis.
  • Measurable goals and regular meetings for follow-up.
  • Continuous motivation and team building, especially for community and NGO leaders.
  • A private stakeholder corporation that supports the long-term vision regardless of changes in government and public administration. It also allows leveraging resources.

At a public level, key aspects of local engagement towards sustainability have included communication and articulation: training, awareness, access to information, promotion of local identity, tourism awareness campaigns, and development of new touristic products and cultural events. You can see more details here.

On the private side, entrepreneurs have established a network: “Chelenko Redponsable” (“responsible network”). This network is a cooperative of enterprises where all members implement and promote sustainable practices: socio-cultural (local products purchasing, exhibition of regional handcrafts), management (local workers), and environmental aspects (energy efficiency, waste management), working to develop community-based tourism. Many of these leaders are part of the directorate. One of the main topics addressed last year was water quality.  Water treatment plant malfunctions, mine tailings, sewage, etc. have generated concerns about water quality and its management, especially for the lake. Chelenko Lake should have one of the purest waters on the world, and the community wants to preserve it for future generations.

Participation of public and private organizations within the destination has succeeded in developing wide commitment toward sustainability in the territory, in large part because local communities love and care about their territory; they love their history and identity. These are of course the main assets for sustainability, providing the destination with a unique sense of place. The community’s sense of co-responsibility within the destination provides a unique tourism experience.

Fernando Ojeda, Tourism Professional, passionate to support sustainable tourism destinations. Today in charge of Touristic Interest Zones in Aysén´s Regional Tourism Office.

Natalia Naranjo Ramos, Development and tourism expert advisor. Country Representative in Colombia for the Canadian Organization for Technical Cooperation –CESO-SACO.

Human Encounters

Lessons from the pandemic have revealed how stronger rural communities can make for stronger cross-cultural touring, say Ann Becker and Jorge Moller Rivas. They propose a framework for doing so.

Ready for visitors: A Mapuche woman prepares a meal over a wood fire. [Photo by Maikel Sanchez]

Pandemic Insights Suggest a Course for the Future

As long-time travel leaders, we joined forces in 2019 to create and lead a US/Swiss women’s small group cross-cultural exchange trip predominantly in the Araucania region of Chile, home to the majority of the native Mapuche.

Our group experienced homestays in traditional rukas, stayed in locally owned lodges, and visited with many small business owners and community leaders, mainly women. Local guides led us on hiking adventures that showcased the extraordinary beauty of Araucania’s forests and lakes. They shared as well the interwoven history and culture of the communities for whom this area is home.

Experiences like this one illustrate what we call “human encounters”: Connecting visitors with local hosts in deep, meaningful ways—sharing and learning with one another; eating local specialties; building cultural bridges; and contributing to more sustainable communities and a healthier planet by integrating more sustainable practices.

Within less than a year of our return, the Covid-19 pandemic exploded globally. A new reality confronted many rural communities – how to keep the pandemic at bay and minimize human casualties while addressing income loss due to job and business disruptions.  Hosting visitors was out of the question.







Located in central Chile, Araucania is one of the most diverse regions in the country, with rich culture, history, and environmental beauty. Scenic attractions such as rainforests, volcanoes, lakes, and the Andes combine with an indigenous culture to provide visitors with a special interactive experience.

Traditional Ways Help Cope with Covid

In some cases, the pandemic has been a catalyst to draw on traditional practices for safety and survival. For instance, in the Mapuche community that we had visited, Llaguepulli, the families have returned completely to farming and bartering different crops with one another to sustain themselves. Traditional practices have revived elsewhere as well.

The island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a special territory of Chile, is home to more than 7,000 people. Recognizing the island’s fragile heath care infrastructure and its many elderly residents, the Mayor responded quickly to the first signs of Covid in March 2020. He called the community to TAPU, the ancestral concept of self-care based on sustainability and respect. The community reacted by responding diligently to lockdown protocols which have led to successful virus containment.

In July 2020, the Mayor revived another ancestral principle, Umanga: teamwork among neighbors to help support one another and their communities. Many indigenous Rapa Nui inhabitants are now working together to cultivate the land and manage family gardens.

Crisis as Opportunity

The new Covid reality also offered new opportunities. In the community of Drake Bay on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, the Covid disruption provided time for local leaders of the Drake Bay Nature Guides Association (AGUINADRA), to engage with residents, national park rangers, and other nearby communities in collaborative problem-solving and actions to address issues such as emergency food distribution, spikes in wildlife poaching, and area infrastructure improvements. Efforts such as these have helped to strengthen community connection, capacity, and resilience that will help mitigate the negative consequences of future pandemics or natural disasters.

An Aguinadra guide leads a client in crossing the Rio Claro in Corcovado, Costa Rica. [Photo by Maikel Sanchez]

Covid has thus revealed new everyday heroes, including local producers and suppliers, guides, and small business owners. With increased community recognition and appreciation, these local heroes now have greater pride in their efforts and identity.


Living life in lockdown has also affected the vision and emotions of many travelers. Perhaps it took the pandemic to realize fully the importance of connections and spontaneity with others. While technology has afforded virtual connections for many, it is no replacement for physical proximity and time together. As the months dragged on, we have yearned for connection even more.

Other realizations have come into play as well. These include the freedom and joy of being outdoors for one’s physical and mental well-being and a deeper appreciation of nature’s gifts.

The group celebrates a successful hiking adventure amongst the scenic mountains and volcanoes of Araucania. [Photo by Maikel Sanchez]

Life in lockdown has also contributed to a growing awareness and appreciation of local businesses and their importance in home communities. The pandemic put a spotlight on area farmers and local business owners who were able to sell food and essential wares while major supply chains stumbled. These are the people who helped sustain their neighborhoods; in turn, their communities often stepped up to help support them when they faltered due to ongoing Covid restrictions and illnesses. Neighbors began to understand that they were doing more than buying food from a restaurant; they were supporting mothers, fathers, and families whose lives were intrinsically intertwined with the well-being and vitality of the community.

In addition to Covid, the year since George Floyd’s death has begun finally to illuminate for many that connecting with people and communities different from our own teaches us, pushes us, and sometimes forces us to confront our normal way of thinking and operating. These learning muscles are absolutely vital in the ongoing fight for racial justice in destinations anywhere.

Human Encounters Framework

The pandemic put human needs and connections front and center. As we think about the future of tourism, we propose taking what we are learning about ourselves and one another to encourage more “human encounters” such as those of our Chilean cross-cultural exchange two years ago, as well as earlier individual efforts that we have made in Central and South America.

We envision a Human Encounters Framework that includes the following dimensions:

  • Greater appreciation, respect and economic support for host communities;
  • Deep cross-cultural engagement and increased pride in purposeful travel;
  • Diversification of offerings, suppliers, and sustainable value chains for the travel industry;
  • Contributions to repair and regeneration of the destination and the planet.

The Human Encounters Framework can be an important change factor in the development of rural communities and destinations post-pandemic. A focus on the autonomy of local communities and stronger bonds among the different actors in the value chain is a good foundation on which to build powerful cross-cultural experiences with visitors.

Trips centered on human encounters must be designed with sustainability in mind. They should, prioritize care for local identity, traditions, and values, as well as for the natural surroundings, minimizing detrimental impacts and respecting limits of acceptable change. We hope this can lead to more co-development of visitation protocols that are in the best interests of travelers, local communities, and destination ecosystems,

In Drake Bay, Costa Rica, there are signs that this is already happening. As the nature guides have resumed carefully leading small numbers of visitors into Corcovado National Park and contiguous reserves, these local stewards are proud to share stories of how they helped combat poaching and improve and diversify trails in the protected areas.

Over time such travelers will become change agents themselves and build greater awareness of the importance of rural communities – their identities, their interactions with natural surroundings, and value of their work.

Ann Becker is at

Jorge Moller Rivas is at