Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing segments of tourism and if carried out well, can be a great tool for conservation. But conservation organisations and managers of tourist destinations such as national parks need to become more business savvy.
That’s where experts like Maria Ana Borges from IUCN’s Business and Biodiversity Programme (BBP) come in. Whether it’s an ecotourism lodge in the rainforests of Asia, a diving company in the Caribbean, or a tented camp in Africa, she helps the conservation community see the venture not just from a conservation perspective but also use a smart business approach.
Maria Ana recently travelled to Lao PDR to help train staff from local conservation organisations, protected area managers and government officials from Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. She worked alongside instructors from Kuoni, who provide practical advice on different areas of business development such as understanding your market and product; business and financial planning; human resources; health and safety; sales and marketing, and customer service.
Maria Ana has been with IUCN since 2008. She studied ecology and then worked in tourism in her native Portugal and in the Dominican Republic. Having seen the negative impact that tourism can have on the environment and local communities, she then decided to do a masters degree in ecotourism and enter the conservation world.
The Laos training involved a field trip to Vang Vieng and discussions with three ecotourism or sustainable tourism businesses: Silver Naga, a luxury hotel, the Kang Nyui Waterfall (developed as a tourism site by the Na Duang village) and the Vang Vieng organic farm. The three businesses offer very different products and services and cater to different target markets.
Whilst the Silver Naga caters for international tourists wishing to enjoy the beauty of Vang Vieng with comfort, the Na Duang village offers basic accommodation close to nature and allows tourists to experience Lao culture. The organic farm, owned by a former IUCN staff member, offers both day visits and longer stays for volunteers and researchers looking for more active holidays.
“What we focused on was providing basic skills for tourism such as how to gain an overview of a site’s potential, how to be aware of its assets – its unique selling points,” explains Maria Ana. “Then come the practical aspects of how to make sure a business is socially and environmentally sustainable as well as economically viable.”
“People at these training sessions really appreciate being able to share lessons-learned and exchange experiences with their peers, and having a regional perspective really enriches the discussions,” she says.
“If well-developed, ecotourism can bring many benefits: It is not only a great way to conserve our natural areas, it also provides employment for local people and alternative sources of income to those that can harm the natural environment,” says Maria Ana.
A one-day conservation campus on ‘building ecotourism business skills for conservation’ is one of the many business-related events taking place at the IUCN Congress. See the programme.