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On Ecotourism in Colombia with Megan Epler Wood

This is the  first post in the Colombia Blog Series by Colombia Photo Expeditions, in which Kike Calvo profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on Colombia related to journalism, ecotourism, science, exploration and photography.

Megan Epler Wood is an academic, consultant, and CEO who sees sustainable tourism as a way to grow economies while fostering a healthy environment. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia in 1986-7 and in 1990, she founded The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), the first NGO in the world dedicated to economic development through sustainable tourism.

Nuevo Tolima petroglyphs. Photo © Megan Epler Wood

Since then, she’s soared through the ranks of the industry, founding the international consulting practice EplerWood International. The organization supports sustainable tourism development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, working with partners including the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank group, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Planeterra Foundation. She also directs the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she teaches in a global digital classroom. Along with her work with MBA students at Cornell’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the SC Johnson School of Business, you might wonder how she finds time to participate in the travel she spends so much time advocating for!

I learned about Epler Wood after she had visited Colombia with the intent of exploring the country’s ecological and social climate. She attended the 16th World Summit of Nobel Laureates in Bogota for the Tourism and Peace session. Afterwards, the group traveled with international press representatives to explore the post-conflict San Jose de Gaviare area. She was able to see Chribiquete Park from the air, soaring over it in a private plane.

Interview of Megan Epler Wood by Kike Calvo
Aerial View of Chiribiquete National Park © Megan Epler Wood

As so much of my work has centered around conservation and ecotourism in Colombia, I was overjoyed to hear her experiences visiting this area. Chiribiquete Park is the largest park in Colombia, and it represents one of the most important reserves in South America for biodiversity. Its large island mountains, called tepuis, tower above the still unexplored expanses.  Called the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon, Chiribiquete boasts hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs left behind by the Karijona people, who once occupied a large region of Colombia and now are reduced to a very small population. However, some of them may remain: there are dozens of small bands of uncontacted indigenous people living within the park. Therefore, the park is not open to tourists, and some parts of it remain shrouded in mystery.

“I have not heard any discussion of Chiribiquete National Park being opened to tourists,” Epler Wood explained to me.  “In other parts of the Amazon, where there are uncontacted peoples, they do not open the regions to tourists.  For one, tourists could introduce diseases that the uncontacted peoples have never been exposed to and even one accidental transmission could wipe out the people in the park. This would be a great loss.

It must carry a great power to fly over such a place. “I was overwhelmed with emotion when I flew over Chiribiquete,” she described. She has witnessed heartwrenching disappointments over the years: indigenous territories destroyed and opened up to oil drilling, and ecotourism projects shut down. “By contrast, I found it inspiring that President Santos doubled the size of Chiribiquete National Park, It meant a lot to me to return to the region and see an area so pristine, incredibly vast, and with permanent protection.”

“I am a biologist and tourism planner. So for me Colombia is fascinating because it is unexplored and it is has some of the most complex and diverse ecosystems on earth.” Epler Wood explained her philosophy on tourism, something she sees as a way of life rather than an act of consumption.  “I try not to look at what cannot be missed, she said. “The more we think about what we cannot miss, the more likely we are to miss what is right in front of us. I see tourism as a way of experiencing the world, which allows us to open our minds, not try to be in the ‘right place.” For this reason, I try to get a feeling for the place, the history, the people, and of course the landscape and its immense animal and plant diversity.  All those things are unforgettable in Colombia.”

Interview of Megan Epler Wood by Kike Calvo
Nuevo Tolima near San Jose Guaviare. Photo © Megan Epler Wood

Epler Wood found her journey to Colombia to be even easier than she expected. She was surprised by the amount of people who speak English. For aspiring travelers, she has a few recommendations: Avoid traveler enclaves, and find a local guide who can truly help you understand the fascinating things about the country.

She loved the Casa Kolacho in Medellin. “This amazing youth hip hop cooperative which comes from the war torn Comuna 13 toured us through their neighborhood and gave me a lot of inspiration about how young people can use music and art to create a whole new environment for local people to enjoy.  I thought their story of being young people in an environment where they really could not even go out into their neighborhood due to the violence was touching beyond belief, and how that made them realize that the best thing they can do is create art and through that art express their experience of both violence and love, love for their home and their country. I recommend it to all who wonder how Medellin has emerged so well from the years of war.” And while you’re there, she adds, try the arepa de choclo!

For ecotourism agencies hoping to join the blossoming cultural scene in Colombia, she has a word of advice as well: “Ecotourism is a business.  It is not just a social enterprise where you donate your time.  The trick is to have terrific local partners, guides, and bring this all together with the right pricing.  If you can deliver low volume, high net return tourism for Colombia this will have so much more meaning for the country, your partners and your business.  If you undervalue your local partners, the costs to conserve the destinations, or try to do your business on the cheap it won’t be beneficial.  So be sure you are putting the right value on your own time, your services, partners, employees, and local environment you seek to conserve.”

Interview of Megan Epler Wood by Kike Calvo
Guayabero River. Photo © Megan Epler Wood

The situation in Colombia is a delicate one; after years of war and in a precarious environmental situation, it’s important to begin tourism the right way. Of course, areas impacted by war are eager to bring in money. However, this revenue needs to be created in a considered manner. Epler Wood recommends something called geodesign, which creates layered maps that allow for more detailed planning. As an expert in tourism as an economic development tool, she stresses the importance of an intelligent balance: “There must be a process which involves all parties and brings about a vision of what tourism can bring by way of revenue, well-being, long term conservation, and diverse economies with local ownership, Epler Wood said. “This cannot happen with just pumping in foreign exchange via attracting more foreign investment.”

The most important factor, Epler Wood said, is bringing in high quality local guides. There is an immense difference between people exploring areas without guidance and explanation and people learning about the culture from its people, especially in an environment that is still politically sensitive.

“Interpretative planning and special thinking about guide training, with a review of how to create real inspirational exchange is the key to good ecotourism!” Epler Wood has dedicated her life to studying effective cultural interchange and the way it can help developing economies. She recently released a book compiling her work: Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet. The book helps all involved in international tourism to consider effective practices and protect natural resources from constantly escalating numbers of travelers. Tourism is more than a leisure activity; it’s a marker of a new cultural wave: “Technology and the growing global middle class are driving a travel revolution which requires a new paradigm in managing tourism destinations.”

 

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