Saturday, September 10, 2005


Ecotourism for Maine
Wednesday, September 07, 2005 - Bangor Daily News

Once there was a place that had a flourishing marine fishery, a strong agricultural economy and a vibrant timber industry, providing employment for rural families. This place was rich in cultural heritage and natural resources, with a spectacular coastline, beautiful mountains, abundant wildlife and pristine rivers that meandered through thick forests. But with time, the forest products industry began to decline and loss of agricultural subsidies led to decreased farm production. A smaller lobster catch led to tougher regulations, while fin fish stocks began to steadily go down.

This place is not Maine, but there is a valuable lesson in this tale for our State. In 1992, the tiny Central American country of Belize, smaller than Maine, was a relatively unknown tourism destination heavily dependent on a traditional economy of timber harvesting, fishing and agriculture. As these industries began to decline, Belize saw tourism's growth curve and turned to the things they had in abundance - wilderness, picturesque villages and a beautiful coast - to revitalize their economy. Within a single decade, Belize went from near obscurity to become one of the top 10 ecotourism destinations in the world, where it remains today. It is no exaggeration to say that nature drives the tourism economy of Belize - 40 percent of the country is designated as protected areas and tourism is the number one economic earner.

Maine faces similar challenges although, certainly, as "Vacationland" we have already been on tourism's map for a long time. But the tourist demographic is changing, and today's tourists want to connect to the natural environment, to be enriched by authentic cultural experiences and to enjoy a great tourism product, meaning excellent food, accommodations and service. In fact, in the past year, 55 million Americans took a nature or adventure vacation, and that is up 14 percent from previous years.

A 2003 study by the Travel Industry Association of America found that 58.5 million Americans would be willing to pay more for travel companies that strive to protect the environment. More than a third (39 percent) would choose a tourism company that protects the historical and cultural aspects of a destination, even if the cost were higher.

Nature and adventure travel have been driving tourism's expansion in the past decade and there is no sign that this will change any time soon. The World Tourism Organization forecasts that in the next 15 years, international tourism will increase to 1.5 billion visitors, twice today's total. Research conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme and Conservation International has indicated that much of that expansion will take place in and around natural areas.

It is this reality that has led to the emergence of ecotourism on the world stage. But many people confuse ecotourism and nature tourism. They are not the same thing. Ecotourism is about maximizing the positive benefits of tourism and minimizing its negative impacts. Specifically, ecotourism is based on a set of principles and practices including environmental sustainability, protection of nature and providing tangible economic benefits to local people. It is when nature-based tourism adopts these practices that it becomes ecotourism.

While Maine has traditionally promoted itself as a tourism destination based on outdoor recreation, it has lagged behind other states in pursuing the growing ecotourism market. For example, Hawaii established the Hawaii Ecotourism Association nearly a decade ago, West Virginia - another state rich in natural resources - has announced its goal to become the top ecotourism destination in America, and Vermont was awarded the prestigious World Legacy Award in 2003 for their efforts to promote destination stewardship - based on the principles of ecotourism. Yet Maine has a rich cultural and natural heritage that can stand up to the best travel destinations in America - indeed, even surpassing many of them - and is ideally positioned to become an ecotourism leader. In the process, we can and should tap ecotourism's full potential to revitalize our rural economy.

On Sept. 14-16, ecotourism leaders and practitioners from across North America will gather in Bar Harbor for the First National Conference on Ecotourism in the United States. Having this historic conference in Maine makes perfect sense. From the North Woods to the western mountains and all across the state to the rocky coast, Maine is sitting on a gold mine of economic opportunity that can be more fully realized with a tourism strategy based on responsible travel that protects nature, promotes cultural heritage and sustains the well-being of local communities - the very essence of ecotourism.

No one has ever said that a tourism destination was spoiled because the environment was still clean, the culture was still vibrant and the scenic towns and villages were still free from billboards and sprawl. Maine has a historic chance to learn from the mistakes of other tourism destinations and to ensure that those same mistakes are not made here.

By hosting the conference, Maine will be able to both showcase our potential and benefit from those with first-hand experience, and blaze our own trail forward.

Costas Christ is the executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce and writes a monthly travel column for National Geographic Adventure magazine. Staff
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