involved in the project planning right from the
beginning or it won’t be sustainable.” That means
involving the community in project decisions and
using local contractors, consultants and labor
throughout the project.
Niyanta Spelman, executive director of Rainforest Partnership, Austin, Texas, USA, agrees. “It is
the number one lesson we’ve learned,” she says.
Since 2008 her organization has worked with forest
communities on alternative, sustainable development projects like ecotourism that allow them to
protect their forests while generating an income.
Projects include eco-hostels in the Peruvian forest
communities of San Antonio and Calabaza.
The projects are directed and managed by the
community, while Rainforest Partnership provides
training, guidance and some funding for infrastructure. However, “it’s moved slower than we
wanted,” Ms. Spelman says. There were project
delays caused by the need to secure funding from
donors and leverage funds from local governments,
and because the community makes all decisions.
That adds a lot of time and complexity, but it is
a critical part of the project delivery process, she
says. The local leaders have no experience building
a tourist destination, so they face unfamiliar challenges including figuring out how to sustainably
dispose of trash and what amenities need to be
added to meet the expectations of global tourists.
Despite delays, the hostel in San Antonio was
finally completed in 2014, and work continues on
the Calabaza hostel. Rainforest Partnership is also
delivering training to local community leaders on
overall management, eco-hostel management, food
handling, agriculture management and other issues
as tourists begin arriving.
Measuring the Benefits
Training local workers is a vital component of a
successful ecotourism project, Mr. Mehta says.
Without proper guidance, a project team could
spend years designing an ecofriendly lodge for
an environmentally sensitive area, and have it all
destroyed in a day by a single untrained contractor,
he says. “As the project manager, you have to be
on top of every step in the project and make sure
every contractor understands what you are trying
But after an ecotourism project is completed,
project sponsors face the complicated issue of
measuring benefits. Most developments set the
goal to do no harm, though some, like the new
resort on Mr. DiCaprio’s island, intend to restore
and improve a site. In either case, organizations
are tasked with rigorous monitoring to ensure
environmental standards and promises to the local
community are met.
Despite all the challenges, if project owners can
find the right environmental, social and financial
balance, they can reap big rewards from sustainable tourism projects, Mr. Mehta says. “Ecotourism
is one of the fastest-growing tourism trends, and
it will continue to influence the rest of tourism for
years to come.” —Sarah Fister Gale
you have to
be on top of
every step in
what you are
trying to do.”
—Hitesh Mehta, HM
Design, Fort Lauderdale,
Mr. DiCaprio plans to open “a restorative
island” off the coast of Belize in 2018.
Problems related to coastline erosion and
deforestation will be solved by replanting
native trees and mangroves.