Megan Epler-Wood is a pioneer in the ecotourism world who continues to think big. 22 years ago, she founded the world’s first organization dedicated to making tourism a tool for sustainable development when she made the link between conservation, tourism and the well being of the local people.
(Epler-Wood) We set out a national agenda for using tourism as a way of bringing in foreign exchange while at the same time managing resources. Then, we get into the question of generating employment and how exactly and who will benefit.
(Stoddard) Eco tourism, recently noted by the United Nations as a key strategy to alleviate poverty and conserve resources, comprises about five percent of a trillion dollar industry. Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world boasting a record 1 billion international travelers last year… but it has its downside.
(Epler-Wood) The more travelers there are, the more challenges there are to manage them in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible. The problem is nine times out of ten, governments do not absorb the cost of environmentally managing tourism – they just want the revenue.
(Stoddard) Ironically, poor management puts at risk the very sites tourists come to see. A defining moment came for Megan in 1998 at Machu Picchu.
(Epler-Wood) People came running down from the trail and told me that a porter had died from carrying too much weight. So, that was a terrible story. About two to three years later the government passed regulations on the number of people who could go at any one time and how much the porters could carry. That was important.
(Stoddard) A more recent initiative in Peru brought a Vermont idea to bear for indigenous people who live close to the tourist path, but were never involved in tourism.
(Epler-Wood) We want to see indigenous people respect their traditions but also have the opportunity to build a livelihood that can bring better education and health to their families. It is not that difficult to achieve with tourism... we are going to start a community owned farm to table restaurant. And this is so exciting because first of all we know that they will get business... we have the financing and we just hired a chef who is a specialist in farm to table work in Peru and he is associated with a national organization which is sort of like our Vermont Fresh Network and they are dedicated to bringing local produce to restaurants and making those connections.
(Stoddard) The greatest barrier to using eco-tourism as a tool for strengthening local communities is leaders who focus only on growth. To widen the scope of the 35 countries she’s worked in, Epler-Wood sees education as a way of preparing future world leaders. Through Harvard Extension Distance Learning, she’s working with up and coming young professionals.
(Epler-Wood)I feel like I’m reaching just the right segment of society around the world that could change the world.
(Stoddard) You can learn more about being an ecotraveler at ecotourism.org. For VPR, this is Fran Stoddard.