Panama Tourism to Empower Local and Indigenous Communities

Inequity in distribution of tourism income is a  major problem in much of Latin America, especially for indigenous communities. Now Panama is taking tangible steps to fix that, beginning with ten pilot projects and a focus on nature and tradition. Iván Eskildsen, the nation’s Minister of Tourism, explains.

Our National Plan Intends To Preserve and Regenerate Ecosystems and Ancestral Traditions

As Panama aspires to become a world-class sustainable tourism destination, local communities need to be considered at the very center of the tourism phenomenon, or sustainability will not be achieved. This philosophy is at the heart of Panama’s Sustainable Tourism Master Plan.

King of the Naso people, Reynaldo Alexis Santana, is said to be the last indigenous king in the Americas. [Photo courtesy of Panamá por Naturaleza]

Panama is a crossroads of extraordinary biological and cultural diversity, connecting the two American continents and two great oceans. Panama is also one of only three countries in the world that is “carbon negative,” absorbing more carbon than it emits. More than 30% of Panama’s land and marine territory is protected, and 7 indigenous, Afro-descendant and mestizo peoples protect the natural and cultural diversity of this international hub.

The Panama Sustainable Tourism Model has been launched by the Tourism Authority of Panama (ATP) to establish tourism as a powerful tool to empower local and indigenous communities, so they can preserve and regenerate Panama’s rich and diverse ecosystems, as well as Panama’s cultural heritage, including ancestral practices at risk of disappearing. Local communities need to be the true guardians of the earth, and of their ancestral traditions.

The Panamanian Foundation for Sustainable Tourism (APTSO) and the ATP, have established the Panama Alliance for Community Tourism (PACT) to work alongside local communities to implement this philosophy.

PACT: a Collaborative Effort

The PACT project is reaching the end of its first phase, working with 10 pilot communities that reflect the cultural diversity of Panama in its main expressions: Indigenous, Afro and mestizo (Spanish heritage): Mata Oscura, Achiote, Bonllik, Santa Fe, Jurutungo, Soloy, Rio Caña, Bastimentos (Bahía Honda), Isla Cañas, and La Pintada.

These communities were selected based on a series of objective criteria that recognized their tourism potential, as well as a sufficient level of preparation that would allow them to reach a “market ready” status in the shortest possible time. With these communities, a diagnosis of their current degree of development was carried out by the PACT team; they participated in training sessions and workshops, and a catalog was prepared with information on the most attractive tourist experiences offered by the 10 communities.

The Soloy Community, one of the 10 pilot communities, is the gateway to the mystical Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous region. [Photo courtesy of Panamá por Naturaleza]

The diagnosis identified both terrestrial and aquatic trails as well as activities that would highlight the communities’ nature and biodiversity. It also recommended improvements and investments needed for  trails to join the ‘1000 km of Trails’ project, a national network of trails developed by the ATP to integrate local communities to tourism development.

Also, the diagnosis identified investments needed for the communities’ attractions to be better prepared for visitors. Some of these investments have already been made to improve the visitor experience; other community needs in infrastructure will be submitted to the government’s Social Cabinet. This includes needs for improvements in water systems, community lodging, energy efficiency, among other proposed improvements. These infrastructure needs will also be presented to NGOs and international organizations that have available funds focused on biodiversity protection, and empowerment of local communities, to achieve the outlined roadmap for the pilot communities.

Marketing Community Tourism

In parallel to the preparation of these local communities, marketing strategies are being worked with these local communities, especially through the integration of the communities’ experiences in the tourism catalogs of national and international tour operators.

To accelerate this integration process, a Community Tourism Experiences Innovation Contest was launched together with the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), offering attractive prizes to the most innovative experiences in community tourism. As a part of the contest, we are facilitating alliances between community providers and tour operators, through different workshops and training sessions.

Panama Community leaders at ATTA’s AdventureNext Latin America 2022 Conference, hosted in Panama City. [Photo courtesy of Panamá por Naturaleza]

To position these community-based experiences in the international markets, Panama has been focusing in the adventure travel market. In February 2022, Panama hosted Adventure Next Latin America, with the theme: “Community-Climate-Connection”. In this event, the 10 representatives of the PACTO pilot communities held a leading role in promoting these community-based experiences directly to dozens of media representatives, international tour operators and businesses. Panama continues to engage with the Adventure Travel and Trade Association (ATTA), bidding to host other international events as a strategic priority to market these community-based experiences, targeting to attract the adventure travel market (valued at $683 billion in global spending per year according to the ATTA).

The Panama Sustainable Tourism Model as an Open-Source Template

In Latin America and many other parts of the world we share a common reality: we have incredible wealth when it comes to biodiversity and cultural diversity, but at the same time we have a terrible distribution of income. We see the Panama Sustainable Tourism Model as a great opportunity to improve the quality of life of rural communities, through the sustainable development of their natural and cultural resources.

Even though the work with local communities is just finalizing its first phase, we are starting to see positive results from the initiatives described above. Some national and  international tour operators are integrating these community-based experiences to their catalogs, and are beginning to bring tourists to these communities. We are optimistic that these results will mature in time, and as this happens, we will be committed to share this Sustainable Tourism Model as an open-source template, which can be replicated in other countries committed to the development of local communities and the regeneration of the planet’s ethnic and biological diversity.


Ataúro Island Revives a Conservation Tradition

Another winner from the Top 100 – Green Destinations organizes the annual Top 100 Destination Sustainability Stories competition, which invites submissions from around the world – a vetted collection of stories spotlighting local and regional destinations that are making progress toward sustainable management of tourism and its impacts. From the winners announced last year, we’ve selected this one from Timor-Leste, which showcases how restoring and expanding an indigenous conservation tradition is helping one island restore its unique reefs, supported by responsible tourism. Submitted by Mario Gomes, President. Asosiasaun Turizmu Koleku Mahanak Ataúro (ATKOMA), the DMO for Ataúro Island. Synopsis by Jacqueline Elizabeth Harper.

Beneath the waves at Ataúro Island. Photos courtesy ATKOMA.

In Timor-Leste, Little Ataúro Island Makes Big Waves in Marine Conservation

At 25 square kilometres in area, what Ataúro Island lacks in size it makes up for in abundance of biodiversity. This micro island belonging to Timor-Leste lies in the Indonesian archipelago just north of the country’s capital, Dili, on the eastern portion of the island of Timor.

Ataúro is home to one of the most biodiverse reefs in the world and has the highest average of reef fish species on the planet. Controlling exploitation of these natural resources has been difficult. The majority of Ataúro inhabitants come from a long history of fishing livelihoods, but due to a limited number of police and forest guards, overfishing went largely unregulated. Cases of blast fishing have damaged several coral reefs around the island.

Ataúru Island, due north of Dili, capital of Timor-Leste. Credit: Google Maps.

Nevertheless, the abundant aquatic life has recently turned this island into a popular diving spot. Timor-Leste has had an 82 percent increase in international tourist arrivals since 2011. Yet tourism here is still in its relative infancy. The marine habitats have huge potential for responsible nature and adventure tourism, which can add economic value and offer economic diversification to the island. Ataúro Island is now focusing on nature protection and biodiversity conservation to foster growth in low-impact sustainable tourism.

A Traditional Code Revived

To protect natural assets and endangered areas, Ataúro has reemployed the traditional Timorese practice of tara bandu in recent years, pushing it into formal law. Tara bandu is being used as a code of behaviour and community ritual that uses local conservation knowledge and expands community cooperation. While the literal meaning of tara bandu is “prohibition by hanging,” today this traditional code for natural resources management is applied to any activity or behavior that may damage forests or marine resources and negatively impact the community. If a person is found guilty of violating tara bandu restrictions, they are not hanged, but fined money or by handing over assets to the community. Violators usually comply; to do otherwise would be essentially sacrilegious in local tradition.

Visit to an Ataúro reef.

Adoption of tara bandu has successfully established 13 Marine Managed Areas (MMAs) across the island. The community of Adara, located on the Western side of Ataúro, was the first to use tara bandu in 2016 with the purpose of creating a “no take” MMA to protect the reef habitat, to promote sustainable fisheries and food security, and to encourage marine ecotourism. Its success led to 12 more MMAs being established around the coastline between 2017 and 2018.

According to the Sustainable Management Plan for Ataúro Island, each of the MMA sites includes a core area that is ‘no take’ and it is surrounded by a buffer area. Activities permitted in these areas are governed by Suco regulation (pdf, p80), a written document explaining the rules pertaining to the area’s land and sea resources, ensuring future generations can access them (see poster below). In the no-take areas, all fishing and gleaning activities are forbidden, except in a few scenarios. In the buffer areas fishing is permitted only by using semi-traditional fishing techniques and during agreed-upon times. The regulations are the same for each site.

Tourism’s Contribution

To offset the loss of fishing income, there is now a $2 tourism fee paid to the local village council for every guest who swims, dives, or snorkels within the MMA. In 2018, the village of Beloi earned over $10,000 from this income stream. However, tourist visitation is not distributed equally across the island, so there are steps afoot to create a collective management system.

As Timor-Leste has only recently become independent, tara bandu is a way for locals to reclaim ownership of their natural resources and revive local traditions suppressed under the years of Indonesian occupation. Community support is important. Tara bandu will not work without complete support and buy-in from the local community. Through tara bandu and monitoring of the MMAs, biodiversity has improved in the no-take zones. Dr. Sylvia Earle, a famed ocean explorer, has recognized the people of Timor-Leste for their extraordinary commitment to ocean conservation.

Find the complete Good Practice Story from Ataúro Island, Timor-Leste here (pdf).

Indigenous Guyanese Tap Tourism to Save Their Huge Fish

? Destination Stewardship Report – Vol. 2, No. 4 – Spring 2022 ?

Another winner from the Top 100 – Every year, Green Destinations organizes the Top 100 Destination Sustainability Stories competition, which invites submissions from around the world – a vetted collection of stories spotlighting local and regional destinations that are making progress toward sustainable management of tourism and its impacts. From the winners announced last year, we’ve selected this one from Guyana, which showcases how indigenous traditions can help communities revive endangered natural habitats, supported by responsible tourism. Submitted by Carla James-Vantull, Director, Guyana Tourism Authority. Synopsis by Jacqueline Elizabeth Harper.

Traditional Reverence for Arapaima River Fish Powers Community-Led Tourism  in Rewa, Guyana

The giant, powerful arapaima fish of the Guyana rainforest, also known as the pirarucú, can grow up to 15 feet and 440 pounds. Its armor of tough, heavy scales earns it the moniker “swimming dinosaur”. South America’s largest river fish, it was once so revered by Guyana’s indigenous communities that taking one was taboo. But outsider harvesting beginning in the 1970s broke down the traditional ban. By the turn of the century, the  arapaima were endangered by overfishing. Villagers were becoming alarmed. Community-led tourism held promise for a solution, as the arapaima and its habitat suited both ecotouring and catch-and-release fly fishing.

A mid-size arapaima fish. Photo: Rewa Ecolodge

Around 250 small Indigenous communities dot the map of Guyana. In one of these communities, Rewa, lack of economic opportunity forced a mass exodus of nearly 80% of residents over the years, leaving behind neglected farmlands and families torn by absentee husbands and fathers. Compounding these social struggles, the decline of the culturally significant arapaima added ecological pressure.

All this began to change when community-led tourism developed in the region.

In 2018, the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) launched the Community Led and Owned Tourism (CLOT) framework and toolkit, an initiative that has been instrumental in creating a positive impact within the Indigenous communities. The CLOT framework centers around “any Indigenous tourism enterprise owned and operated by the host community.” Unlike traditional models, the Indigenous community is at the forefront of activities and engagement with travelers. What’s more, CLOT also focuses on creating livelihood opportunities for young people and women through tourism.

There are six activities or steps for creating a CLOT framework:

  1.   Readiness, Governance, & Action Planning: First, the community establishes a Tourism Committee, tasked with creating a tourism development action plan. It also includes raising community awareness, assessing community needs and visitor readiness, prioritizing Tourism Committee actions, and completing a market readiness diagnosis and market-product match.
  2.   Building Capacity through Centralized and Hands-On Training: In this stage, peer-to-peer and shadowing training focus on topics such as business accounting, management and marketing, reservations and bookings, food safety and catering, etc.
  3.   Developing Tourism Enterprises & Product: The community then determines what can and should be shared responsibly with visitors. From there, they develop and package tourism experiences that suit the local natural and tangible assets, as well as intangible cultural heritage angles.
  4.   Establishing Market Linkages: This stage establishes market linkages and integrates market-ready products into the tourism value chain. Emphasis is placed on developing peer-to-peer experiences – homestays, in-home dining, and insider cultural experiences for instance – and then securing market access through sharing economy platforms such as Airbnb, Airbnb Experiences, Viator, EatWith, and Travelling Spoon.
  5.   Marketing Community Tourism Offerings: After the community agrees on their products and offerings, this stage focuses on marketing strategic action plans and visitor-ready products, mainly through the Guyana Tourism Authority – posting on the GTA’s website and social media channels, planning fam trips, and so on.
  6.   Marketing & Communicating Outcomes: The goal of this last stage is to implement a system for measuring and reporting the outcomes on a regular basis. Establishing a marketing dashboard and monitoring system that tracks and reports tangible results ultimately helps to share transparency with the community.

Through this multi-step process, implementation of the CLOT framework and toolkit arms Guyana’s tourism sector with a way to help achieve national aspirations for becoming a green state, while simultaneously benefiting the local Rewa community and its future generations.

Rewa Ecolodge. Photo: Nicola Balram

Through the CLOT framework, the Rewa Eco Lodge was born. Even with the challenges of closed borders and travel restrictions for approximately 5 months due to the pandemic, the Rewa Eco Lodge managed to sustain their 45 staff. And across the community, many youth in the Rewa community have had the opportunity to attain higher education. It has also allowed for enough financial sustainability to work with the Indifly Foundation and international experts to conduct studies and create a management plan to save the arapaima, and today, the arapaima population has been restored to more than 4,000 within the area – a triumph for this community.

The proven success of this framework in the Rewa community has led GTA to scale CLOT to other indigenous communities throughout Guyana. What’s more, the CLOT model has the potential to benefit communities in destinations around the world. Find the complete Good Practice Story from Rewa, Guyana, here (pdf).

Spring 2021 Destination Stewardship Report Just Out

Longest Destination Stewardship Report Yet

On 14 April 2021 we were pleased to send out the Spring (2Q) edition of the Destination Stewardship Report, completing its first year of online publication as a joint project with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. You can subscribe for free hereStories in this issue:

  • The Nisga’a Offer an Indigenous Tourism Model – How to present an indigenous culture “written in the land” to tourists? Bert Mercer, economic development manager for Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, describes the process of tying together a culturally sensitive tourism experience for visitors to the Nisga’a First Nation in British Columbia, Canada.
  • Saving Cultural Heritage: The Singapore Hawkers Case – Drives for sustainability may sometimes overlook the endangered arts and traditions that make a place and a culture come to life. The World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage (WTACH) aims to rectify that. In Singapore, Chris Flynn, WTACH’s CEO, discusses a particularly delicious case – one recently recognized by UNESCO.
  • Doing It Better: Sedona, Arizona – Prompted by a restive citizenry and a responsive city council, the DMO for the city of Sedona, Arizona, USA, now acts in effect as a destination stewardship council. That’s unusual. For part of our ongoing project to profile places with effective, holistic management, Sarah-Jane Johnson takes a deep dive into Sedona’s story. This is the sixth in the Destination Stewardship Center’s profiles of exemplary places with collaborative destination management in the spirit of GSTC’s Destination Criterion A1.
  • Japan’s Journey Toward Sustainability –  It’s a tall order for a large country to change its national policy and commit to improving stewardship for hundreds of its tourism destinations, but Japan is taking tentative steps in that direction, spurred on by one young official and a lot of collaborators. GSTC’s Emi Kaiwa reports on how this tentative change of heart came about, what’s happened to date, and how far it has to go.
  • Once Overrun, Dubrovnik Plans for Sustainability – Dubrovnik, Croatia, a UNESCO World Heritage city, is known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic Sea’, its historic city center surrounded by original medieval stone walls – and until recently, thronged with cruise ship passengers. In 2017, that began to change.
  • Opinion: A Chance to Tame Cruise Tourism – Cruise critic Ross Klein argues that now is the time for port cities to gain control of cruise tourism crowds, explaining three ways to do that – and why it won’t be easy. But if not now, when?
  • Report: “Reset Tourism” Webinar Series – Destination Stewardship – Held on 25 March 2021, the first webinar of the Future of Tourism Coalition‘s four-part “Reset Tourism” series drew 500 registrants. These webinars are intended to help destinations emerge from the Covid crisis with new forms of governance and collaboration that will enable a more holistic and sustainable approach to tourism management and development.
  • Webinar Report: Measuring Destination Happiness – A massive webinar to mark last month’s “International Day of Happiness” yielded some serious pointers for destinations seeking a broader measure of successful tourism recovery than counting revenue and arrivals.“Covid has shown us we can’t be happy on an unhappy planet” was one message for destinations around the world, report DSC associates Marta Mills and Chi Lo – the point being that local contentment should be part of the tourism equation: “A good place to live is a good place to visit.”
  • New App to Assess Sustainability of Tourism Communities – Assessing the sustainability of destinations and acting on the findings can be a complex, expensive task. Dave Randle explains the workings of a new app that his Blue Community Consortium underwrote to assist with that process. Some university students gave the app’s first step, assessment, a revealing field test on seven Florida destinations. Here’s what the app does, and what the students found.

To read these stories plus information on announcements, upcoming events and webinars, and publications, go to the Spring (2Q) edition of the Destination Stewardship Report. And please comment!                       — Jonathan Tourtellot, Editor

The Nisga’a Offer an Indigenous Tourism Model

How to present an indigenous culture “written in the land” to tourists? Along with Laura Hope, communications manager at Coast FundsBert Mercer, economic development manager for Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, describes the process of tying together a culturally sensitive tourism experience for visitors to the Nisga’a First Nation in British Columbia, Canada.

Nisga’a chiefs, elders, matriarchs, youth, and guests celebrate the raising of a Pts’aan (totem pole) in Gitwinksihlkw. Photo by Gary Fiegehen, courtesy of Nisga’a Lisims Government.

Written on the Land—Weaving Together a Cultural Tourism Story

The Nisg̲a’a Highway, running through the heart of our Nation’s lands in Canada’s rugged northwest coast, was given the numeric designation 113. The number was not chosen arbitrarily; between 1887, when Nisg̲a’a chiefs travelled to Victoria to demand recognition of Title, and 2000, when the Nisg̲a’a Treaty was ratified and the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government passed its first law, exactly 113 years had passed. Over the next five years, our government extended and upgraded the highway, connecting the four Nisg̱a’a villages and inviting the world to visit.

The lands and waters of my First Nation, encompassing 200,000 hectares from the K’alii Aksim Lisims (the Nass River) to the Hazelton Mountains is astounding in its beauty. It is a place of aquamarine waters, soaring snow-capped mountains, and an enormous lava field. The story of our people is written on the land, so visitors to our lands are offered more than breathtaking scenery—they are offered the opportunity to experience Nisg̱a’a culture.

The plentiful resources of the Nass Valley have supported Nisg̱a’a citizens for millennia. Photo: Gary Fiegehen, courtesy of Nisga’a Lisims Government.

Bringing Cultural Tourism to the Nass Valley
Visitors to the Nass Valley are greeted by Txeemsim, a super-natural being who brought light to the Nass River in a time when Nisg̲a’a lived in semi-darkness. His image is the centrepiece of the Nisg̱a’a cultural marketing and tourism initiative. The initiative was expanded and enhanced to develop an auto-tour route along the Nisg̲a’a Highway, in addition to a brochure to guide visitors along the route and a website devoted solely to tourism in Nisg̲a’a lands. The project and the partnerships that developed as a result have boosted tourism in the Nass Valley, raised the profile of entrepreneurs in the four Nisg̲a’a villages, and reinforced the sovereignty and culture of the Nisg̲a’a Nation.

Nisg̱a’a lands have been dramatically shaped by the volcanic eruption of Tseax Cone. The eruption 263 years ago – Canada’s most recent – irrevocably moulded the surrounding landscape and lives of the Nisg̱a’a people. The lava traveled into the nearby Tseax River, damming it and forming Sii T’ax (Lava Lake). It traveled 11 kilometres north to the Nass River filling the valley floor for a further 10 kilometres. Two villages were destroyed, and 2000 people perished.

The land, with its storied and scenic landscape, is a perfect fit for a tourism initiative. And tourism, with its many cultural and economic benefits, is an ideal undertaking to pursue.

As economic development manager for the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, it has been my job to develop our tourism industry. According to a 2019 report, the Indigenous tourism sector is outpacing Canadian tourism activity overall. The direct economic benefits of the Indigenous tourism sector was valued at $1.7 billion in 2017, having grown 23% over the previous three years.

The whole idea of the cultural tourism initiative was to draw people into the Nass Valley. We had a number of tourism elements in place throughout the valley—a volcano tour, the Nisg̱a’a  Museum, our hot springs, and a unique and culturally rich landscape—we just had to package everything together.

The centrepiece of the initiative, an 18-stop auto-tour along 100 kilometres of the Nass Valley, takes visitors to culturally significant stops, all within an easy walk of the Nisg̱a’a Highway. The auto-tour signs create driver awareness by improving wayfinding, stimulating interest in our culture, and providing visitors with cultural, social, and geographic interpretations of our lands.

Bert Mercer, economic development manager for the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government stands in front of the newly opened Vetter Falls Lodge. Photo by Laura Hope.

By tying all the attractions together in this way, we can welcome visitors to stay longer. We can point them to local accommodations—like Vetter Falls Lodge—and local places of significance. We want visitors to get to know, and fall in love with, Nisg̱a’a lands.

The Nisg̱a’a tourism and marketing initiative exemplifies Indigenous cultural tourism, the symbiotic relationship between visitors who want to have an authentic cultural experience and First Nations like ours, who want to share and strengthen our culture.

Lessons Learned

 Government Dynamics: I’m proud of the work I’ve done for our government in developing the cultural tourism initiative to bring visitors into the Nass Valley, but the project has faced its share of challenges along the way.

One of the more challenging aspects was working to ensure that the initiative reflected the vision of each of the four Nisg̱a’a villages. Though I work for our central Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, early on I began working closely with the governments of the four villages to develop and approve the auto-tour and brochure.

Tourists outside of Bonnie Stanley’s U See Food U Eat it restaurant in Gingolx. The restaurant is gaining international recognition; visitors are starting to return each summer from Europe. Photo: Laura Hope

One of the keys to success has been developing a steering committee consisting of representatives from Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government and each of the four villages. We developed a terms of reference for the committee that clearly outlined its scope, what kind of recommendations it can provide to leadership, and what types of projects it can become involved in.

If I were starting this project over again, I’d put my steering committee in place right from the very beginning, even before planning with a consultant. They are the stakeholders and can help overcome the siloed nature of government structures.

Importance of Branding: In order to establish Nisg̱a’a Tourism as an international-quality product, I worked closely to follow the established brand guidelines of our government. The government designer, Jim Skipp, always reinforced that following brand guidelines is of the utmost importance and can really lend strength to a tourism initiative.

Cultural Sensitivities: I also worked closely with our elders to ensure the Nisg̱a’a  language was responsibly incorporated. Though the process took time, it was so important to include the language and cultural interpretations into the auto-tour. Providing wider access to culturally significant sites like the hot springs, and the lava bed memorial park  required careful thought and planning.

The hot springs are increasingly becoming a destination for outside visitors and we have to manage that impact with a desire to protect our cultural sites.

Allowing Room for Growth: The auto-tour and brochure were purposefully designed to allow for growth of tourism in the region. We knew we’d be opening Vetter Falls Lodge—owned and operated by the Nisg̱a’a  Lisims Government—and wanted to make sure we could add that to the printing of the auto-tour brochure.

The COVID-19 pandemic has paused tourism across the world. Here in the Nass Valley we are using this time to thoughtfully prepare for local tourism in the coming year when our Nation is ready again for visitors. We look forward to a time in the near future when we can once again welcome the world to our home.

Learn more about the Nisg̱a’a Cultural Tourism Initiative at

The Maya Riviera’s Queen of Green

Mexican activist Beatriz Barreal has worked for years to steer the booming Riviera Maya toward sustainability. Purdue’s Dr. Jonathon Day recently interviewed this local one-woman force for improving stewardship to find out what lessons she has learned in the process.

All photos courtesy of Beatriz Barreal Danel.

Meet Beatriz Barreal

For more than a decade, Beatriz Barreal Danel has worked to make sure that the Riviera Maya, the Caribbean coastal region of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, embraces sustainable tourism practices as it continues to grow. Destination sustainability is a long-term commitment, and Beatriz and her collaborators have had to overcome many challenges.

The Riviera Maya is one of Mexico’s most popular and fastest growing destinations, with numerous all-inclusive resorts and luxury hotels. It stretches along 120 km of coastline on the Caribbean Sea south of Cancun and includes the towns of Tulum, Solidaridad, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Puerto Aventuras. As the destination continues to grow, Beatriz has been a vocal advocate for sustainable tourism and good destination stewardship.

Beatriz is the Founder and CEO of Sustainable Riviera Maya, an NGO. She is currently serving her third term on the board of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Since 2009 Beatriz has dedicated her time to making sustainable tourism the primary driver for development in Mexico, at both national and regional levels. An early adopter of the GSTC destination criteria, Sustainable Riviera Maya is now working toward certifying the municipality of Playa del Carmen as a sustainable destination through GSTC-accredited certification bodies.

Through the years, Beatriz has gained valuable insights into effective ways to implement sustainable tourism. She recently shared these three key lessons from her sustainability journey with the Destination Stewardship Report.

1. Measuring the right things.
Focusing on sustainability indicators that are meaningful for the local community has been an important step in implementing sustainable tourism in the destination.

Beatriz works on a family needs assessment in a village near Tulum.

While the team at Playa del Carmen recognized that sustainable tourism certification requires measuring a wide range of indicators, the importance of giving particular attention to their specific circumstances became an important lesson. Beatriz says, “In our community, focusing on healthy water management, waste management, bio-conservation, and the quality of life of the residents are the key indicators of success for our sustainability programs.” Those four priorities gave rise to the second lesson:

2. Getting the right people to the table.
Early in the process of adopting sustainable tourism in the Riviera Maya, Beatriz gathered a group of interested tourism industry partners, including hoteliers and tour attraction managers. Over time it became clear that, while these people were important stakeholders, destination sustainability also requires input from people beyond tourism.

Working carefully through those four priority criteria and identifying partners that can give meaningful information on indicators for them has been a gamechanger for the destination. Today, in addition to hospitality partners, Sustainable Riviera Maya works with a range of specialists from outside the tourism industry. To ensure effective water management, for example, the local government water department and the water management company, Aguacan, are both at the table and contributing to the plan. Perhaps more important, a benefit of working closely with these new partners is that they have greater understanding of the nuances of how to measure those key indicators.

3. Engaging the Community.
Perhaps the greatest insight from Playa Del Carmen is the importance of engaging the community, of including other organizations with shared values in the sustainability process. A new website, originally designed to provide information to stakeholders, has now taken on the important role of engaging partners in sustainability projects. It’s currently in beta testing with organizations in the destination. By creating a platform where projects can be shared with the community, new partners have aligned their activities with the sustainable destination goals.

Helping  with a tree planting project in the Maya village of Muyil, supported by the Banyan Tree Mayakoba hotel.

In one example, the Mexican Association of Aboriculture, committed to planting trees in the city and creating a living museum. In another project, a caving group, Circulo Espeleologico del Mayab has joined with local authorities to preserve cenotes, the region’s signature limestone pools. The project helps create unique experiences for visitors and improve water quality for the community. In yet another project, an NGO called Guardians of the Caribbean, have committed to an education and awareness campaign highlighting ways to protect water resources for the people of the region.

Sustainability is a team effort requiring many stakeholders who are involved and engaged, including the local people. Beatriz describes the team “like a diamond and its facets, that will only be completed when all the facets come together and shine at the same time.” Beyond just engagement, Sustainable Riviera Maya is committed to ensuring that the benefits of tourism are broadly distributed across the community. Their tagline sums it up: “Paradise is forever, only if it is for everyone.”

Committed to the long term
Sustainability is an ongoing process and there is always something more to be done. Beatriz is committed to “kaizen”, the Japanese term for “continuous improvement.” That allegiance to long-term performance management is central to the story of sustainability in the region. While there is still much to be done, there is now a team in the Riviera Maya committed to ensuring that the growth of tourism places like Playa del Carmen will be built on principles of sustainable tourism.

Website:  Follow Riviera Maya Sostenible on Facebook

Author: Dr Jonathon Day leads the Sustainable Tourism and Responsible Travel Lab at Purdue University:

About the new list of 2016 Top 100 Sustainable Destinations

[Above: An alpine landscape evokes “Slovenia Green,” the country’s national program for destination management, recognized as one of the Top 100. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

The winners of the 2016 Sustainable Destinations Top 100 contest were announced in Ljubljana, Slovenia on 27-28 September. You can see the complete list below. A word of explanation on what this list is, and what it is not:

The Top 100 is a competition, not a systematic survey of all the world’s destinations to see which are the most sustainable. As a contest, it requires entries—either applications filed by the destinations themselves, or nominations filed by anyone else. The Top 100 are the best of those entries, reviewed, evaluated, and screened by an international panel of experts.

We at the DSC were pleased to co-direct the competition, headed by Albert Salman of Netherlands-based Green Destinations. As previously noted, we consider it the closest thing so far to the National Geographic’s surveys of destination quality conducted 2004-2010. There are differences. The Nat Geo surveys polled experts on a pre-assembled list of destinations, who rated them from excellent to poor based on six criteria. Top 100 winners, on the other hand, derive from voluntary entries subsequently subjected to expert evaluation. The Top 100 competiton does resemble the Nat Geo stewardship surveys in a key way: It measured destinations against an entire range of 15 criteria, shown below, that define the broad spectrum of destination excellence—environmental performance, of course, but also such elements as historic preservation, scenic appeal, cultural integrity, and so on.

Here, then, are this year’s Top 100:top100listYou can see these destinations mapped and illustrated at the Top 100 website.

Below are the Top 100 criteria. Winning destinations did not have to meet all 15, but did have to measure above a minimum acceptable standard. Destinations that came close will receive recommendations on how to improve.

15criteriaEach of the winning destinations has a story to tell. We will incorporate the better-known places into our Destination Monitor list. Over the next few weeks we will look at a selection of them and report on what they are doing right.  For starters, here’s Valere Tjolle’s report on County Down, Northern Ireland, a Top 100 listee. And here is my own commentary about Slovenia Green in Nat Geo Voices.

Perhaps other destinations will find some of the Top 100 achievements inspirational. The value of a competition such as this is to show what can be done, provided people care enough to do it.


Authenticity versus Expectations: The Bushmen of Namibia

[ All photos by Tamara Olton.]

Little by little, the sounds of laughter grow louder and shouting echoes through the dusty hills – the Bushmen have heard our van and are announcing our arrival. This part of Namibia is not where tourists go to see wildlife. They come here for one reason: To meet and interact with a group of people whose culture is thousands of years old.

Some visitors are surprised by what they find.

Here at the Destination Stewardship Center we speak quite a bit on the concept of “preservation,” whether for charming villages or pristine environments. But what happens when the main attraction is a living culture?

The people colloquially known as Bushmen have resided in parts of southern Africa for several millennia. Famous both for their languages, spoken with clicking sounds, and for a way of life that retains customs and traditions from thousands of years ago, these tribes attract many visitors eager to encounter authentic Bushmen culture.

The drive northwest of Windhoek for several hours has taken us tourists through small villages spread farther and farther apart, and for several more hours down a long dusty road off the main tar highway, through desert landscapes interspersed with cattle farms.  At the end of an easy-to-miss two-track road, extending up a hill into seemingly nothing, we reach the Bushman village.

Bushmen Nhoma

The entrance to our destination.

The specific tribe we are visiting calls themselves the Ju/’hoansi, but our guide assured us that the term “Bushmen” is fine.  While there is some debate about whether referring to these groups as Bushmen or, sometimes more commonly, the San, is offensive, this particular group prefer the term Bushmen.

At first glance it may seem that Bushman culture has indeed been preserved.  The men within these villages still hunt with poisoned arrows and set traps in the sand for smaller birds and animals.  Women still collect water and prepare the food.  Their languages are unlike anything heard anywhere else.  Ceremonies are still conducted around large fires, participants dancing and chanting late into the evening.

Bushmen 2a

Bushmen hunters in traditional garb during the heat of the day.

Observe long enough, however, and you will see the subtle ways in which their culture has evolved.  Men and women both don modern clothing on chilly mornings and evenings; often, this clothing includes T-shirts with western sayings and brands.  Afrikaans can be heard alongside native languages.  Every once in a while, a cell phone may make an appearance.

In the morning the Bushmen invite us to join a bush walk, following two hunters on their journey and chores.  The men speak Afrikaans to our guide, who translates into English for us.  Two barefoot men lead our group, holding long sticks for locating porcupines, bow and arrows slung on their backs. Only one detail detracts from what might be a scene from thousands of years ago: American-style T-shirts.

Bushmen 1

Bushmen hunters in their warmer morning clothing.

It is winter in Namibia, and temperatures can dip down to freezing at night.  The Bushmen, our guide informs us, are happy to utilize such clothing to protect themselves from the cold.  Later, in the village, we meet children wearing traditional leather clothing below and small sweatshirts on top.  The women of the village wear long skirts made with fabrics from discarded articles of clothing left by tourists.

To some tourists, this modernization may, at best, come as a surprise; at worst, it angers visitors who were expecting a more “authentic” experience. Their misconception is that a so-called “primitive” culture remains frozen in time.

In contrast, our own Western lifestyle and culture is expected to constantly modernize and improve.  It’s an absolute given that our future generations will live in a world with different lifestyles and technologies. Why should people like the Bushmen not be allowed the same opportunities?

The Bushmen are much more integrated into modern society than might be assumed at first glance.  Many of the men have served in the military; most of the children go to public schools.  Many of the young adults have at one time left the village to live in places like Windhoek, deciding later to return to their village and live a more traditional life.  When they return, though, they bring back with them outside clothing, ideas, and technology and integrate them into their lives here at the village.

Bushmen sisters

Sisters wearing a variety of clothing styles.

In a way, this adaption of some modern amenities is what allows the Bushmen to keep their culture at all. Traditional life is difficult. The younger generation understands this and yearns for an easier life. Denying them the benefits of modern culture would only influence them to abandon their villages completely to move permanently to larger cities. Adopting certain aspects of modern culture strikes a balance that encourages traditional lifestyles to continue.

But still, it seems tourists sometimes prefer to view these cultures through a lens in which time does not tick forward.  At what point does the tourist gaze supersede authenticity?

In some places the Bushmen live completely modern lives but will be bussed to tourist facilities to put on traditional clothes and perform traditional dances.  While the resulting photos may appear more like the images tourists have in mind before arriving, this experience is not necessarily authentic. The Bushmen are putting on a literal performance, showcasing only the oldest, most traditional, and – perhaps for outsiders – the most interesting forms of their culture.

While these shows may represent how these people conduct certain ceremonies and dances, there is an expectation that they look and act in a very stereotypical manner. Clothing styles other than traditional garb are not worn, even on the chilliest of evenings. Certain songs and dances are chosen by how interesting and entertaining they may be, not on whether they would be performed if tourists were not watching. These so-called traditional experiences are a representation of parts of the Bushmen culture, but are polished and timed to correspond with tourist needs and wants.

I argue it is better to see the Bushmen in their donated Nike-shirts and baseball caps, as this is, even if counterintuitive, an authentic experience. The Bushmen choose to wear this clothing – it is not forced on them.

bushmen mother daughter

Traditional jewelry, western clothing.

Preservation cannot be the appropriate concept when the subjects are living cultures.  Cultures naturally grow and change, and this is a good thing. We need a shift in perspective. Tourists must learn to focus on the authenticity of the culture as it is today, learning how traditions of the past have been incorporated into modern lifestyles.  The Bushmen still hunt with methods passed down for thousands of years. If they do so while wearing a branded T-shirt, that should not take away from the experience as a whole.

As our camp manager explained while on our bush walk, the purpose of coming to interact with the Bushmen isn’t to see how their ancestors lived thousands of years ago, but to see how they live today.  And if that means T-shirts and cell phones, so be it.

It Takes Two To Tango: Hands Across The Med

Above: Artisans at the Cyprus-Egypt exposition. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARED

Geotourism theme unites St. Catherine, Egypt and Troodos, Cyprus    

The St. Catherine region of Egypt’s Sinai and the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus are attractive Mediterranean destinations with a lot in common: UNESCO World Heritage recognition, substantial tourism potential, wealth of creative, nonpolluting community industries, and distinctive local agriculture. Both offer unique, self-contained, and unspoiled destination experiences ready for responsible and engaging tourists to visit and actively help develop. Both destinations struggle to keep growing their unique natural products in the face of commercial modernization pressures that affect land and society.

Photo: Tarek El-Baz

Troodos. Photo: Tarek El-Baz

To initiate a new economic collaboration between the two locales, more than 80 geo-travellers from St. Catherine visited Plattres/Troodos, the “Green Heart of Cyprus,” on September 12-15, 2013 to participate in a geotourism-themed dual-nation conference and exhibition entitled “From Bio-diversity to Geo-Diversity.”

This Cypriot-Egyptian event was the product of a new initiative called Connect to Grow (C2G), which uses the innovative concept of geotourism to help poor or vulnerable communities adopt a joint operating platform for marketing the local agro-food and creative industries essential to these rural communities. C2G is intended to assist any such rural communities that have unique business ideas and entrepreneurial vision.

Troodos is a protected area according to the EU Network; its churches are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage. The expo launched an initiative that builds on a history of cultural and economic links between Egypt and Cyprus. Egyptians, including the former King Farouk, have long favoured the Troodos Mountains as a resort destination. Both share a British colonial past as well. Supporting the visit were Egypt’s MAWARED foundation for Sustainable Development in collaboration with Cyprus’s Local Council of Platres and YPM Consulting,

The Egyptian party included three segments— civil society, responsible government officials, and responsible business entrepreneurs from the agro-food and creative industries, along with the St. Catherine’s Medicinal Plants Association (SCMPA), including Bedouin farmers and artisans.  Welcoming them were the Troodos Network (the leading local NGO) with the strong support by the local council of Plattres/Troodos and the governments of both Cyprus and Egypt.

 Mutual exploration

Activities during the Egyptian visit included seeing and sampling items unique to each of the natural reserves, such as herbs and spices, as well as exploring the forests and natural environment of Troodos and discovering the creative work of both destinations. This was the first time that a community NGO, representing St. Catherine, has had the opportunity to introduce its products abroad directly and not through a mediator.

Bedouin expo participant. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARED

Bedouin expo participant. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARED

Cypriot and Egyptian participants learned from each other.  Some discoveries were practical: Bedouin artisans learned a way to improve their traditional soaps; Cypriot artisans learned a new weaving technique. The two agricultural communities also gained new perspectives from each other on their respective climatic limitations—St. Catherine as a desert and Troodos as a winter-freeze zone.

Most significantly, each community learned that their own culture and way of life is of interest to others.

Geotourism as catalyst

Geotourism trips like this one can serve as a catalyst for helping targeted women and young entrepreneurs penetrate markets, access finance, and market their products—especially to geotourists who go beyond practicing eco-friendly tourism to sustaining and supporting community stewardship and human livelihood.

For these two destinations, developing food-related products is primarily an act of passion, of caring to keep local culinary traditions and artisanry alive. So by embracing the simple human quest of experiencing basics of a destination—traditional food, culture, nature, and knowledge—the geotourism approach becomes an engine for adding value, triggering collaboration between the two destinations in the form of:

  1. Growth in market demand for both places;
  2. Citizen participation, especially among women and young people;
  3. Increased “destination pride” (as emphasized by the “godfather of geotourism,” Jonathan Tourtellot)—in essence, the pride that people take in celebrating our diversity and special natural and cultural identity.

 Wide applicability

This geotourism-led solution can apply to vulnerable communities in various Euro-Mediterranean countries, such as Cyprus, Lebanon (Arz El-Choouf Biosphere), Tunisia, and of course to Natural and Biosphere reserves in Egypt. Along with the governorate of South Sinai (St. Catherine), Egyptian communities in the governorate of New Valley (villages of Bashandi & Mounira) and of Aswan (Nubia and Wadi Allaqi) all face similar challenges.

Such communities have the opportunity to sell their their creative artwork as well as traditional agricultural foods and herbs within their communities when geotourists travel to Egypt. St. Catherine’s has 472 species of rare medicinal plants, of which 19 are endemic. Poorly informed farming and tourism practices now put some species at risk. Raising their perceived value is critical. Responsible tourism that appreciates culture and nature can create market demand for such products, which these communities urgently need.

 Growth in knowledge

That has been a reason for communities to upgrade their products to be in compliance with tastes and technical requirements of EU markets.  C2G takes these vulnerable communities beyond production standards and compliance (which does not by itself guarantee access to market demand) to include learning about obtaining access to local and regional markets; l attaining sustainable value-chain integration, ownership and governance; and acquire business development skills and the ability to form microenterprises or SMEs.

During their visit, St. Catherine participants, for instance, were able to improve commercial exchange skills by learning about quality-control practices and business expertise from the Cypriot Plattres Council and YPM Business Consulting.

CREATE team artisan. Photo: Inji Amr

CREATE artisan. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARAD

Keys to success

The success of the C2G model can be attributed to heartfelt desire by the vulnerable community to improve and get better. But dynamic knowledge and practice of commercial activities needs more than better information. Ownership of lessons learned requires generating and institutionalizing Hubs of Knowledge among participating countries.

This will materialize when responsible government members engage with responsible business people with a sufficiently long-term perspective. In the case of the Troodos visit, unparalleled representation ranged from Bedouins of St. Catherine, who had never before left Egypt, to high government officials of both Cyprus and Egypt. Representing Cyprus were H.E. Commissioner of Environment and Commissioner of Volunteering and NGOs; representing Egypt were the current and former H.E. Ministers of Environment, demonstrating continuity of effort.

The collaborative approach adds dimensions to the existing intrinsic value of both destinations:

  1. By sharing effort and resources, the two destinations can drive down the costs of exhibiting indigenous knowledge of medicinal and aromatic herbs from both destinations. Over 150 visitors at the Expo had an opportunity to buy traditional artwork from St. Catherine as well as indigenous Cypriot herbs and honey.
  2. Product enhancement: A local young group of designers called “CREATE Team” help generate knowledge that does not disrupt indigenous practices. Trained in Cyprus and working with local community producers and processors (majority of whom are women), the youth team helps develop products and add innovative techniques and designs to already distinctive cultural products.
  3. A joint twinning agreement between the Platres Community Council (PCC) and the St Catherine’s Medicinal Plants Association (SCMPA) formalized the steps by creating a network of NGOs in Egypt and Cyprus to materialize and foster what was learned, namely:
    • Capacity building: How to maintain market-driven products while keeping their authentic local nature.
    • Business acumen: How to make viable business deals and design systems for quality control.
    • Cultural awareness: Learning and building shared respect for differences in destination cultures.
    • Public relations: Teaming up to support advocacy programs for both destinations.

This process is replicable. It can generate and institutionalize Hubs of Knowledge among participating countries.

The “Connect to Grow” solution thus adds value to both host and visiting communities. This is how Two Destinations Can Tango.

For more information:


Editor’s note: The Connect-to-Grow approach was selected for one of the presentations this past February at the UNDP-affiliated First Arab States Regional South-South Development Expo in Doha. Of all presenting teams, only C2G’s included members of the target communities. An excellent innovation, we think.

To Compete in Tourism, Cooperate

Dancers from the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh perform at an arts & crafts show, New Mexico. Photo: Seth Roffman

Dancers from the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh perform at an arts & crafts show, New Mexico. By cooperating, Pueblo communities attract more tourism. Photo: Seth Roffman

Visitors rarely travel to see one business; rather, they visit an interesting region.

Regionalism sets the context for effective tourism. Since visitors tend to spend several days and look for a variety of engaging activities and amenities, a connecting perspective is essential. Providing information—before arriving, during the visit, and after leaving—on how local resources are linked for the vacation experience, contributes to the comfort level of the visitor. Continue reading