Tough battle for True Ecotourism in Canada

Posted: 11 December 2001

Author: Tom Lucier

Author Info: Tom Lucier is a writer and photographer from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He interviewed his brother, Todd, as an expert in ecotourism after seven years of running an ecotourism resort.

Quebec will be host in May 2002 to the World Ecotourism Convention. But, according to this special report for the People & the Planet website, genuine ecotourism is not easy to find in Canada.

Canada loves tourists. Whether they visit for an 'all terrain vehicle' hunting trip or for guided yoga classes on the beach, Canada gladly welcomes the money. According to the Ministry of Tourism, Ontario alone saw just under $14 billion in 2000.resortNorthern Edge Algonquin Retreat and Awareness CentreThe "tourism at any cost" mentality is something that Todd Lucier, part owner of Northern Edge Algonquin Retreat and Awareness Centre, disagrees with. He feels it will ultimately hurt the industry in Ontario and throughout Canada.

Lucier and his wife Martha have developed what they regard as a "true eco-tourism" destination in South River, Ontario, on the northwestern edge of Algonquin Park."There are not a lot of true eco-tourism destinations," Lucier says, brandishing an 8.5 by 11 sheet of best practices. "Other places in Canada fall short, only implementing one or two of the criteria."

Looking at the sheet, there are a number of headings ranging from "Renewable Energy" to "Social Responsibility" as well as "Ecological Lifestyles and Recycled Products". These "true ecotourism" standards are ones that the Luciers try to put into practice. For example, the Edge serves up organic foods everyday, including local free-range eggs. Some of it is straight from their garden. gardenThe Northern Edge garden provides fresh vegetables for their guests.All of the energy for the centre is provided by a score of batteries charged by 22 solar panels. The centre's gift-shop carries local and fair trade goods. They also have educational events for schools, discounts for locals and programmes that encourage healthy lifestyles. Staff at the Edge takes time to welcome each guest with a thorough tour of the centre, suggesting ways in which they can help it operate sustainably.

National standards

"There are not enough true ecotourism destinations in Canada to have people become aware about these practices," Lucier says. Guests even need to be coached about simple lifestyle choices, like turning out lights when leaving a room. In addition, guests at the Edge also get a grounding in conserving water, composting, recycling, and how to care for the remote composting toilet.Lucier admits that he has had to scavenge the Internet and make long distance phone calls, to learn about international guidelines for running a true eco-tourist destination. There are no national standards in Canada. Using standards from the International Ecotourism Society, Australian Ecotourism Society, and the World Tourism Organization's web sites, the Luciers have derived a set of operation procedures to run their business. They focus both on bringing in tourists while at the same time enriching the local environment and sustaining a healthy balance within the surrounding ecosystem.

The Audubon Society lists a set of ecotourism ethics on their website which encourages travellers to ask a set of questions before considering a stay at businesses that claim to be eco-tourist places:

  • "How do you dispose of your sewage and other waste?"

  • "Do you respect local cultures and traditions?"

  • "What are you doing to conserve the surrounding natural resources?"

    Being able to ask these questions and expect answers would be a welcome change to the current availability of ecotourism information, in Canada.

    Certification 'needed'

Finding eco-tourism based businesses in Ontario is not easy. A caller who wants a true ecotourism experience would have to talk to at least a half dozen people to actually find places that stake these claims. One might talk to Ontario Tourism, which would transfer them to the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership or the Ministry of Natural Resources, which would forward them to the Canadian Tourism Commission, Bruce County Tourism, Muskoka Tourism, or a half dozen other similar associations. Many of these will simply recommend outdoor adventure or "soft adventure" businesses that place the word "ecotourism" in their brochures.

Al MacPherson, ecotourism co-ordinator at another resort, says "we are ready for a certification system for Ontario because we need to provide the consumer with a choice." He notes that there will still be plenty of dollars for tourism outside of ecotourism. "Ontario traditional tourism will still remain the main provider of economic growth but this niche market has just begun to be tapped and the growth will be significant if done right. Thus the need for certification."One of the greener ecotourist destinations, is Ducks Unlimited Nature Centre. It is located north of Manitoba and receives 200,000 visitors per year and also has annual environmental monitoring. The Centre promotes local culture through its First Nations programme, eschews air conditioning (it uses well water for cooling), and it doesn't have a deep fryer "because we cannot handle the grease."

Aerial view of nature centreTodd Lucier feels that there should be some sort of a certification/accreditation or reward system based on accepted ecotourism standards in Ontario and the rest of Canada. He says the level of high-end ecotourism in Australia far exceeds Canada's. He also says it is because of their government's promotion of the practices to the rest of the travelling world.

Government role

Lucier believes that the Canadian government should take a more active role in encouraging ecotourism. "[The Government] is focused on the economics. So we tend to promote what already sells. It'll take a shift in policy to develop and promote true ecotourism. It's is a relatively small piece of the tourism pie, so its overlooked.

"What's really needed is education and funds for adaptation from existing ecotourism operators, to make them true. But that will cost money," Lucier shrugs. "The government is interested in marketing adventure, but there is little attention on maintaining the resource. The Canadian Tourism Commission should also advertise successful ecotourist resorts properly in places like Europe, where true ecotourism is an important thing."Lucier pauses and speaks with disdain; "Forestry has much more impact on the economy than ecotourism today, but with government support, that could change."

Lucier and MacPherson are not the only ones who see change on the horizon. Lisa Renney, Assistant to the Corporate Secretary of the Board of Directors at the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership, says, "There's going to have to be changes." This comes in response to the World Ecotourism convention being held in Quebec in May 2002, which is expected to highlight the potential for genuine ecotourism in Canada if it is properly promoted.

Another advocate of certification is Preston Squire, Call Centre Manager for Ontario Tourism. "For people who are interested, certification would really help them," says Squire. "Europeans call more often for ecotourism. They're coming here for it because they don't have it."

Like 'nailing jelly'

Gary Forma, Ontario Parks Tourism Marketing Partnerships Co-ordinator, doesn't know how helpful a national accreditation initiative would be. He feels that ecotourism is too complex a term to define. "It's like nailing Jello," says Forma. "Where do you start? Try to get all 10 provinces to agree on a new system in Parks alone...."

If not a national certification programme, what about a provincial one, asks Janet Gates, Senior Development Consultant in Investment and Development at the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, is a fount of information on the subject.

"The Ontario government doesn't have a working definition of ecotourism that's been adopted across the province." She likes the one used by the Australian Commission on Ecotourism Strategy. This defines ecotourism as "nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable."

"This captures three key elements: nature-based, educational, and sustainable, which certainly, in Canada, we recognize as intrinsic to ecotourism," said Gates. "By not having an accreditation system, it frustrates international ecotourist consumers," she adds.

Lucier warns that accreditation will requires a continuous supply of money, whether it is for certification or audit-type check-ups. "Perhaps what is needed is a national reward or award system that recognizes best practices in ecotourism. This would give the best operators a leg up in marketing, a well-deserved boost to such private top performers. Such a system would get media attention that I'm sure it would appeal to corporate sponsors interested in greening up their image."

He believes the search for Canada's best, would lead to a natural affiliation of top eco-destinations and to the greening up of existing service providers looking for the benefits that such recognition would bring. These products would then enjoy a niche, and underscore Canada's tourism tag line: "Discover out true nature."