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During winter break a dozen MBA students embarked on an ecotourism study tour to Ecuador. They were joined by Carolyn Champ, associate director of the SEP, and Professor Natalie Mizik of the Marketing Division.
Pictured right: Gwen Shufro ’06
Ecotourism, which blends tourism with conservation and economic development, has become a buzzword in the international tourism industry. Ecuador is a tiny country with a vast array of wildlife and ecosystems, leading ecologists to name it one of the world’s “megadiversity hotspots.”
Over the course of the 10-day trip the group visited the lush tropical rainforest, communed with llamas and backpackers in the Andes and took in the colorful colonial architecture of the country’s capital, Quito.
The journey began with a motorized canoe trip down the Río Napa to Yachana Lodge, a small ecotourism resort deep in the Amazon rainforest. Yachana was founded in 1994 by Douglas McMeekin, a native of Kentucky and an entrepreneur who is deeply committed to preserving the Amazonian environment and to creating opportunities for people in the surrounding communities.
In addition to building Yachana Lodge, McMeekin established a foundation, Funedesin, to support community projects providing education, health and work opportunities. Funedesin operates almost like an NGO and receives funding from USAID and other organizations for many of its projects. It also relies on contributions from guests who are impressed by its efforts and who want to help the community.
McMeekin led a tour of some of the projects in and around the tiny village of Mondaña, which include a high school, a water purification system, a health clinic and Yachana Gourmet, a company that produces high-quality chocolate.
McMeekin talked about the prevalence of the term ecotourism, which he says is too often used as a marketing tool for destinations that have little or nothing to do with conservation or development. He also stressed the importance of involving the local people in the business. All of Yachana’s guides and staff are from nearby communities. Despite the lack of formal education opportunities, they possess the highest levels of expertise about the rainforest and about balancing the needs of the community with conservation efforts.
The second leg of the trip took the group to the Black Sheep Inn, high in the Andes near the small town of Chugchilán and surrounded by breathtaking scenery. The inn is owned by two Americans who discovered the location during a hiking trip in the early 1990s and who decided to start a business there.
The Black Sheep Inn offers a different model of ecotourism. While the owners contribute money and equipment to the community and the locals derive economic benefits from tourism, the main focus is conservation. The Black Sheep Inn operates as a living laboratory for permaculture design, a practice that aims for sustainability by applying patterns found in nature to the design and construction of human and natural environments.
Everything at the Black Sheep Inn has a function, and the objective is zero waste. The composting toilets fertilize the gardens, which supply food for the guests. Leftover food gets composted and put back into the gardens. Empty glass bottles are used in the construction of walls, and most of the paper waste is used to fuel the wood stoves in the lodge and in the guest rooms.
The trip ended in Quito, with a tour of the Old City. The group also met with representatives from Conservation International and the Ecuadorian Ecotourism Society (ASEC), who provided more insight into the industry.
Although quickly growing in popularity, Ecuador is still not a big ecotourism destination. Government corruption and a weak ministry of tourism were cited as reasons. While tourism brings in hard currency, oil production and agriculture take precedence, and there is a lack of serious government policy to protect the environment. Hopefully, this trend will be reversed with the help of ASEC and other groups—and by spreading the word that Ecuador is a great place to witness the beauty of nature.
Special thanks to trip organizer Laura Haverland ’06 (pictured right with Lucia Darino ’06).