Indigenous Ecotourism and Sustainable Development:
The Case of Río Blanco, Ecuador

David T. Schaller
Department of Geography
University of Minnesota


Section 2: Ecotourism in theory and practice

z'Quichua In the space of a few decades, tourism has become one of the major cultural and economic forces in the world today. This chapter introduces tourism, specifically a recent but widely hailed tourism alternative known as ecotourism, as a potential instrument for rural economic development and environmental conservation. After a review of the interdisciplinary body of liturature concerning ecotourism, the topic will turn to the growth of ecotourism in Napo Province, and particularly to recent Quichua efforts in ecotourism development which set the stage for Río Blanco's ecotourism project.

As recently as 1950, international tourist arrivals numbered only 25 million. They rose to 183 million in 1970 and 400 million by 1988 (Place 1995:161). By 1990 tourism comprised seven percent of the world trade in goods and services; by the year 2000 it is expected to be the world's largest industry (Whelan 1991:4). It accounts for over 30 percent of trade in goods and services for low-income countries (ibid.). And it continues to grow--international arrivals are projected to nearly double in eighteen years, rising from 476 million in 1992 to 937 million in 2010 (Erkkila 1994). Not only is tourism clearly a growth industry, it can help diversify an economy and is virtually immune to economic protectionism (Pearce 1981). Little wonder, then, that since the 1960s tourism has often been seen as a dynamic engine for economic development in both high- and low-income countries.

Definitions of both tourism and tourist are subject to debate, since a simple definition of tourism such as "traveling for pleasure" merely invites a second wave of questions. How far must one travel to be a tourist? How long must the trip last? What constitutes pleasure, since many people take pleasure from their work? Many researchers agree that it is a person's subjective motive that makes her a tourist or not (Van den Berghe 1993:5). Using this guideline, a tourist may be defined as someone who takes a leap out of ordinary life (Jafari 1987) to visit another community, either in space or in culture (Van den Berghe 1993:4). What constitutes "ordinary life" and "another community" is up to the tourist herself. While such a definition is difficult to operationalize, academic interest in tourism has not been slowed by lack of an official, accepted definition. Like pornography, tourism is hard to define but easy to recognize.

After several decades of rapid growth, mass (resort-based) tourism began attracting the attention of geographers, anthropologists and sociologists in the 1970s. They challenged the view that hailed mass tourism as a development tool. These scholars argued that tourism maintains an unequal relationship rooted in Western imperialism. Extensive leisure time, a product of urban metropolitan societies, fosters tourism as a pervasive social phenomenon, and thus metropolitan production centers dominate the creation and control of tourist areas, which are often in the periphery (Lea 1988, Nash 1989).

In recent years, researchers have begun to examine how local populations can direct tourism activities and benefit from them. In the 1980s, alternative forms of tourism began attracting the interest of governments, communities and scholars alike. These were given a raft of names--nature tourism, soft tourism, responsible tourism, green tourism, ecotourism--but all were seen as alternatives to mass tourism. Among these various labels, the term "ecotourism" has become prominent, though again a consistent definition is by no means found, even among scholars. Most definitions do, however, incorporate concepts associated with sustainable development. For example, in Sustainable Development: Exploring the contradictions, Redclift (1987) attempted to integrate economic development with ecological sustainability, and his work has served as a conceptual basis for ecotourism researchers such as Zurick (1992). Others such as Dearden (1991) and Hunter and Green (1995) use the definition espoused by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987): "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Many scholars now agree that ecotourism should require a two-way link between itself and environmental conservation (Valentine 1993, Cater 1994). As our understanding increases of the close relationships between environmental conservation and resident peoples, researchers are calling on ecotourism to incorporate economic development as a fundamental element of conservation (West and Brechin 1991:392). These concerns highlight a critical difference between nature tourism and ecotourism, at least as the latter term will be defined here. Nature tourism is "based directly on the use of natural resources in a relatively undeveloped state, including scenery, topography, water features, vegetation and wildlife" (Healy 1988:1). To qualify as nature tourism, one need consider only the motivation of the tourist and the activity itself, not the cultural, economic and environmental impacts. Ecotourism, on the other hand, has an idealistic agenda: it can be defined as progressive, educational travel which conserves the environment and benefits local communities (Drumm 1991:54). Because it is both succinct and sufficiently ambitious, this definition shall be used here.

As ecotourism's goals become more ambitious and it is "widely promoted as...a win-win development strategy for underdeveloped rural areas" (Place 1995:162), it has also come under strong criticism. Some wonder whether it isn't a "Trojan horse" which in fact "penetrate[s] further into the personal space of residents,...and may cause political change in terms of control over development" to a greater degree than does mass tourism (Butler 1990:41). Others ask whether the tourist traffic which ecotourism brings to fragile wilderness areas damages the environment more than it helps conserve it (V. Smith 1992, Zurick 1992). For every researcher who suggests that revenues from ecotourism can promote and maintain protected areas (Boo 1990), or who notes that nature lodge owners have a vested interest in environmental conservation due to their large capital investment in ecotourism (Wesche 1993), there are others who critique the ideology of ecotourism (De Kadt 1992). Daltabuit and Pi-Sunyer (1990:10) argue that the rhetoric of environmentalism (and of much of ecotourism) is identical to that of nationalism: ideology legitimizes interventionist policies. "It is a short step," they note, "from external direction [by foreign experts]...to a process of appropriation, by which the physical environment, and within it human societies and historical remains, become subtly redefined as global patrimony--universal property."

According to many scholars, the answer to such concerns is local control. Tourism projects in low-income countries have typically been enclave resorts such as Cancún, but by scaling down production processes and returning power to local units of governance, ecotourism can potentially avoid economic leakages, minimize negative impacts and concentrate the benefits locally (de Kadt 1992). Attaining local control, however, is a task fraught with difficulties. Place (1991) found that Costa Ricans living adjacent to a popular national park were unable to maintain control over tourism in their town. Rapid investment by outside developers denied the townspeople the necessary time to accumulate enough capital of their own to start tourist-oriented businesses. The Kuna Indians of Panama tried to attract tourists to a wildlife preserve within their territory, but their efforts were foiled by bad roads, a poor infrastructure, a lack of connections with travel agencies in Panama City and North America, and an unstable government with a poor image abroad (Chapin 1990). Governments may unwittingly hinder local tourism development projects if regulations and procedures are based on national rather than local or indigenous culture (Sofield 1993). Too often, local people have neither the political power nor the business connections to compete at an international level with metropolitan tour agencies.

With or without local control, some scholars believe that ecotourism inherently has negative impacts. While some studies suggest that ecotourism and its kin may inspire locals to preserve or even revive traditional arts and customs (Dearden 1991, Healy and Zorn 1983, Weil 1995), many researchers question whether such cultural conservation is for the good. Zurick (1992:618), echoing a number of researchers concerned about commodification of culture (Richter 1989, Silver 1993, Pleumaron 1994), notes that ecotourism may preserve the artifacts of culture "while destroying the spirit that created them." Additional cultural change may result from contact between tourists and locals, which is usually closer and more prolonged than in mass tourism. Many researchers (Wesche 1993, Cohen 1989) see problems arising when indigenous villagers adopt city or Western ways. Dearden (1991) describes a four-stage evolution for village ecotourism projects in which the key factor in the tourist-host encounter changes from traditional hospitality to cash transactions to acculturation. In the fourth stage, locals may begin "manufacturing" culture solely for tourists' consumption, and the environment may suffer degradation due to the increasing numbers of tourists.

Such a process of cultural and environmental change may affect the "authenticity" of a tourist attraction, and thus its appeal to tourists. Tourism researchers define authenticity as that which tourists perceive to be pristine, primitive, and untouched by modernity (Cohen 1988). For many tourists it is best found in geographically remote and culturally unique places and peoples; if they perceive the acculturated locals and altered environment as less authentic and less interesting, they may seek out more isolated or remote communities instead (Dearden 1991, Zurick 1992). The result may be a hollow frontier which leaves in its wake pollution, disappointed locals, and an economic vacuum (V. Smith 1992). Butler (1992), however, argues that by driving a wedge of development into undeveloped regions, ecotourism may pave the way for more conventional forms of mass tourism development. In either case, expansion threatens ecotourism's sustainability.

While the debate continues, ecotourism has become popular among tourists as an alternative to conventional tours and with many governments and communities as a development tool. The growing appeal of this type of tourism is evident in attempts by mass tourism packagers to appropriate the ecotourism label. Economic data documenting this growth remain scarce and dated, however. In 1989, ecotourism and the broader category of adventure travel had captured almost 10 percent of the tourist market and was growing at a rate of 30 percent a year (Whelan 1991:4). Another indicator of ecotourism's growth can be found in data for individual countries. In Belize, for example, where virtually all tourism is nature-oriented if not strictly ecotourism, tourism receipts increased from $8 million in 1981 to $91 million in 1990, when it accounted for 25 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (Cater 1995:70). In the face of such a swell of tourist income, little wonder that many people and communities in the destination countries are eager to catch the wave and surf it as long as they can.

Tourism in Napo province
Ecuador has long been a major destination for nature tourists, mainly due to its possession of the Galapagos Islands. Increasingly, however, tour operators are including in their itineraries other destinations within Ecuador such as highland market towns and Amazonian forests (Wilderness Travel 1994). Such tours, along with independent travel by tourists, have made tourism Ecuador's fifth-largest source of foreign earnings (CETUR 1994).

Currently, tourism in Napo province is split into two distinct forms: luxury and budget. Luxury jungle lodges, costing over $100 per night, are located in eastern, or lower, Napo, where bird and animal life is still relatively abundant. While these lodges hire local guides and staff, most are foreign-owned and controlled (Wesche 1995). Budget jungle tours, costing $30-$40 per night, are more likely to use Misahuallí as an embarkation site and to concentrate on the rivers and forests themselves, along with indigenous communities, as the attractions. These operations are usually mestizo-owned, though some employ indigenous guides (Wesche 1993). While beneficial in some ways, neither type of tourism fully embodies the goals and spirit of ecotourism.

A Model for Indigenous Ecotourism Development
Napo's lowland Quichua have often seen tourism in the same threatening light as they view oil companies and agricultural colonists (Wesche 1993). Many budget tour operators based in Misahuallí include as part of their tours a visit to an indigenous community--a relationship increasingly seen by indigenous peoples as exploitative (ibid.). Throughout the 1980s the most common position taken by the Quichua and other indigenous people in the Oriente was hostility toward tourism development. In the past few years, however, many have recognized the inevitability of tourism and are beginning to investigate how to ensure that they benefit rather than suffer from it (Tapuy and Andi 1995).

In 1989 a Quichua community called Capirona, south of Misahuallí, began considering the idea of developing a communal ecotourism project (Figure 3.1). Many members were skeptical, but a recent drop in the price of maize along with the threat of oil development and the continuing influx of uninvited mestizo guides and their tourist groups eventually persuaded the community to try ecotourism (Colvin 1994). According to Tarquino Tapuy, a member of Capirona and former vice-president of FOIN, the provincial indigenous federation, "We decided that tourism is bad, but it's only bad when it's not managed for ourselves--when the benefits go to the outside guides" (Tapuy 1995).

With small loans from FOIN and Fundación Jatun Sacha, a nearby biological field station, Capirona built several tourist cabins in the traditional bamboo and thatch style and furnished them with mattresses, sheets and mosquito netting. They designed a program of intercultural education and exchange, in which tourists take guided walks through the forest, eat traditional meals, learn about the blowgun and trap-making, and participate in a cultural program. As part of this last event, tourists themselves must present a song or dance from their culture after the Quichua present their traditional music and dances.

The members of Capirona designed their program as a true ecotourism project. Tourist income, which came directly from visitors rather than through intermediaries, was invested in a community fund. Members decided communally how to spend the money; typically it went for health emergencies, no-interest loans to members, agricultural and transportation improvements such as motors for canoes, and education and artisanal instruction (Tapuy and Andi 1995). Wages were paid only for certain types of work such as cooking and cleaning.

After several years of operation, 300 tourists were visiting Capirona annually (Colvin 1994). By 1995 the number was up to 700 and some observers thought that the community's enthusiasm for ecotourism was beginning to flag.1 Other changes worried Capirona's leaders. Some tourists introduced to the community new kinds of jewelry such as earrings, previously unknown to the Quichua. Others brought drugs or liquor to the community. Some women tourists met Quichua men late at night for sexual encounters (Tapuy 1995).

Nevertheless, the project was considered a success by tourists, foreign researchers and the people of the community. Capirona encouraged other Quichua communities in the area to develop ecotourism projects of their own, both to take advantage of this new economic opportunity and to divert some tourist traffic from itself. In 1994, FOIN established the Red Indígena de Comunidades del Alto Napo para la Convivencia Intercultural y el Ecoturismo (Indigenous Network of Communities of the Upper Napo for Intercultural Co-living and Ecotourism, commonly referred to as RINCANCIE) to foster the development of indigenous ecotourism initiatives. Twenty communities, controlling a total of 15,000 hectares of primary forest, joined RINCANCIE (Tapuy and Andi 1995). Of these twenty, fourteen communities had built an infrastructure for tourism by late 1995, and seven of those had already begun receiving tourists. One of these was Río Blanco.


1 My own requests to visit Capirona were refused, since the community was tired of non-tourist visitors. Therefore all information presented here about recent changes in Capirona's ecotourism program is hearsay from Jatun Sacha staff and others who have a professional affiliation with the community. Nevertheless, they were quite consistent in their evaluations.


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