Taking tourism to World Heritage sites

Posted: 3 October 2002

The International Year of Ecotourism (2002) is being marked by an ambitious experiment in conservation and tourism at six World Heritage sites across the globe: two in Mexico, two in Indonesia, and one each in Guatemala and Honduras.

The RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, a US-based nonprofit group, has teamed up with UNEP, UNESCO, and the United Nations Foundation, and a team of collaborators at each site to try to ensure that tourism will benefit both the people living outside each park and the biodiversity within.

UNESCO is the organization that designates World Heritage Sites, on the basis of their "outstanding universal value." There are 721 sites in 124 countries.

The four-year project aims to increase revenue generated from tourism at each site; build park managers' skills so they can use tourism to support conservation; increase local awareness; help local managers develop tourism marketing strategies; and provide local economic incentives for conservation.

The project, called the World Heritage Partnership, has a total of $2.5 million from the UN Foundation, the UN Fund for International Partnerships, and the Aveda Corporation, and it is following a very deliberate, often challenging process called "adaptive management."

Maureen Cunningham, who directs the World Heritage Partnership project, explains that the first steps in adaptive management involve as many of the key players in each site as possible, including government officials in capital cities, plus parks managers, local conservation groups, and community leaders. These key players are then invited to participate in a "vision workshop," where they together identify the main threats to the protected area and discuss what might be done to diminish each threat. From this meeting, RARE Center drafts a preliminary project model of the threats and the social and economic factors that contribute to them. This entire hypothesis is then tested in the field.

Students collecting garbage on a beach at Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Sian Kaan Conservation Foundation/Steve HageClaudia Virgen, RARE Center's national director in Mexico, recently finished field-testing a project model for the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, 1.3 million acres of forests, lagoons, wetlands and mangroves in Quintana Roo state, just south of Cancún. She talked to many people involved in the management of the reserve, whose lives and livelihoods are affected by it, to see if the threats and response strategies outlined during the vision workshop were really on target and practical. Now she's busy incorporating everyone's comments into a final plan of action to effectively link tourism, conservation, and community benefits in Sian Ka'an.

Virgen thinks that the complicated and lengthy process will pay off. "What's important about this project," she explains, "is that we give everyone an opportunity to understand each other's viewpoints and specific interests, which may seem very different at first. But after discussing them, you realize that they are actually quite similar. Now people don't see the partnership as just another project that asks for people's suggestions but never takes them into account, but rather that we really want to learn from them and understand what has worked and what hasn't."

The partnership is using the adaptive management approach at five other World Heritage Sites: El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, Komodo and Ujung Kulon National Parks in Indonesia, the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, and Tikal National Park in Guatemala.

In each case the partnership staff has identified specific ways they will be able to monitor the impact of the project. These evaluations are tied to the pre-determined threats to biodiversity at each site.

As an example, Cunningham points to two threats identified in Tikal National Park, in northern Guatemala: illegal poaching of plants and wildlife. One way to discourage this drain on the park's natural resources is to give the poachers an alternative source of income by training them to participate in ecotourism as nature guides or tourism entrepreneurs.

"One of the indicators of our project," Cunningham says, "will be to find out if, after training, they return to the park to hunt and gather plants."

Few conservation projects invest in this kind of follow-up evaluation, but it's vital to the adaptive management process advocated by Foundations of Success (FOS), a nonprofit group founded and managed by Richard Margoluis and Nick Salafsky. FOS, which is working closely with the Partnership team.

Margoluis stresses:"We, as a field, have not been as good at defining and measuring conservation success, identifying concrete principles for project management, and determining the basic knowledge and skills required to make conservation happen. We believe that these are the three 'foundations of success' in conservation."