"Our entry point to communities is through the hotels that employ them. There is enormous potential to educate through the hotel to local residents on conservation practices that can implement at home."
Interview: Seleni Matus, International Conservation
Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance
Center for Environmental Leadership in Business Conservation International is working with tour operators, hotel owners and cruise lines to integrate biodiversity conservation into their business practices and protect environmentally fragile places.
Seleni Matus discusses how the innovative initiative of the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism is working with local governments, owners of hotels and cruise lines to implement better environmental practices and policies to preserve sensitive areas in Mexico, Belize and Honduras.
Question: What are the main threats to the Mesoamerican Reef by tourism?
Matus: The biggest threats to the Mesoamerican Reef by tourism are the destruction of coastal and marine habitats resulting from two sources: in hotel development and infrastructure costs associated with tourism. The second biggest threat is water pollution that stems from the widespread use of non-sustainable business practices, such as the inadequate treatment of sewage and solid waste, and most importantly, the increase in coastal population associated to tourism growth, which often lack access to adequate public infrastructure. These threats were confirmed at the Meeting of Consultation with Decision-makers Tulum +8, held in Cancun in September 2005, which brought together 50 scientists from around the world investigating the Mesoamerican Reef. There was consensus that the ecosystem is in danger and that coastal development, mainly derived from tourism is the main threat.
Q: What is International Conservation doing to address these threats?
Matus: To counter the negative impacts of rapid hotel development along the coast and the extensive use of unsustainable tourism practices, CI launched the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism (MARTI, for short), in October 2004. This ambitious initiative, supported by the Summit Foundation, aims to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of the tourism industry and maximize their contributions to protecting and conserving the ecosystem of the Mesoamerican Reef. MARTI is tackling the main threats related to the Mesoamerican Reef ecosystem, which I described above, to engage the three major sectors of the tourism industry: hotels, tour operators and cruise lines, to improve their management practices and environmental management in Mexico, Belize and Honduras.
Last year we worked in collaboration with the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism and a group of local partners to implement a program to improve environmental performance for hotels called "Atmosphere Step by Step" (EWT by the acronym). EWT helped the 23 hotels and resorts in the Riviera Maya in Mexico and the coastal corridor Hopkins, Placencia in southern Belize, to identify and implement good business practices for conserving water and energy, reduce solid waste and managing chemicals. The 23 hotels and coastal resorts that participated in the 2600 EWT covered hotel rooms and employ about 3000 people. It is important to note that the EWT was implemented by local partners such as the Association of Hotels of the Riviera Maya in Mexico, Belize Hotel Association and the Institute of Tourism in this country and not by International Conservation. IC is equipped with our partners the tools, training and technical assistance necessary to develop a program of EWT in fee-for-service basis. For the next five years we plan to bring this program to a larger scale. In Mexico, for example, by 2010 we hope that the EWT reaches 60% of the membership of any association of leading hotels on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.
Q: Do hotels have you been receptive partners to EWT programs?
Matus: Very. In both countries, the Program "Environment Step by Step" for the hotel was received with much enthusiasm. Mainly, the program positively impacted approximately 10% of hotel rooms in the Riviera Maya and approximately 21% of all hotel rooms in the corridor-Hopkins Placencia in Belize, so with this small pilot project could show some good results. For next year we hope to increase from 14 to 50 the number of hotels in Mexico and continue to increase this number in subsequent years to expand the project to include other leading hotel associations.
Establish partnerships with associations of hotels for this type of work is critical, because these are the direct mandate of promoting the hospitality industry and seek ways to improve tourism products. These associations are better equipped to work directly with hotels.
Q: Does the project have a monitoring program to measure long-term conservation results in the reef?
Matus: Each project, as the EWT for hotels, under our tourism initiatives of the Mesoamerican Reef, is a component of monitoring and evaluation. For example, through the program EWT we collect baseline data on business practices of 23 coastal hotels. Additionally, each of the hotels developed "Green Teams" that are made by managers of hotels, as well as key personnel. These Green Teams are responsible for monitoring work and to reduce operating more negative practices. The data collected and analyzed by the Green Team on a continuing basis will help us to track and quantify changes in business practices as well as the impacts resulting from these changes that have occurred through the adoption of good operating practices.
Q: Who trains the Green Team?
Matus: Our program does so through the associations of hotels. Associations and hotels often have a mandate to assist capacity building in its member hotels. Both Belize and Mexico, our local partners worked with local government agencies to organize training sessions on key topics such as water conservation, both for the Green Team for the hotel staff to help with grants. However, the Green Team's efforts require continuous training sustainable, due to high turnover of employees in the hospitality industry. To counter this, we will continue working with the hotels participating in the program EWT and guided toward a second phase with the hope that in the course of a few years will see an increase in the number of hotels which provide or carry out actions conservation, which is really the key indicator of the hotels are improving their practices.
Q: Do you collect these results for monitoring programs?
Matus: We have developed a database containing information on environmental performance after the EWT programs were implemented. We hope to expand the database in time to help measure the impact that this program is having on each participating hotel through a few years.
Q: How does working with communities have developed around the main tourist areas?
Matus: Our point of entry to communities is through the hotels that employ them. There is enormous potential to educate through the hotel to local residents on conservation practices that can implement at home.
Q: What other tourist areas are considered in the project?
Matus: Through the Initiative of the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism, we're also working with the cruise industry and marine recreation providers. The boom in the cruise tourism industry which has been in the past five years in the Caribbean coast of Mexico, Belize and Honduras taking thousands of additional visitors to the marine and coastal sites. Cruise destinations often lack the physical infrastructure and management needed to ensure that this high number of visitors do not leave a negative imprint on marine and coastal ecosystems. To address this issue in the 2005 we wrote a publication on policy and practice improvement cruise to minimize the impacts of cruise passengers to destinations along the Mesoamerican Reef. This publication offers tips on key groups, cruise lines, governments, civil society and the operators on Earth can influence the impacts of cruise tourism in a destination. It includes more than 30 examples of practices and projects that are contributing to the sustainability of cruise destinations around the world. The publication will be released in March 2006.
This year we use the publication as a vehicle for engaging governments, civil societies and private sectors in key destinations cruise to develop and implement management plans to cruise passengers, which minimize the impacts on land (especially derived from marine recreation) of cruise passengers. We focus these efforts on the main cruise destinations in the region: Majahual and Cozumel in Mexico; Beelice City, Belize and the Bay Islands in Honduras. In each of these four major ports together to try to set the cruise line with government and other decision makers to discuss critical issues specific to each port, and develop strategies.
Q: How was that initial dialogue with state governments in Mexico and Belize?
Matus: Governments seem committed to working with IC, with cruise lines and other key players to adopt new approaches to help better manage the rapidly growing form of cruise tourism. They consider our initiative as a high priority, it deserves attention and are willing to invest time and resources next year to start the planning process.
While different decision makers have very different perspectives on what the real problems with the cruise industry has been inspiring to see that there is openness to consider new approaches. They have seen the damage that the cruise industry in the Caribbean has caused and are willing to consider options to minimize impacts in their own countries.
Source: www.eco- index.org