Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Economic development historically has meant access to favorable agricultural production conditions such as good land and climate, or resources such as valuable minerals, fish, or wood. With industrialization, having cheap energy and access to a good a port were valuable to the manufacture and distribution of goods.

Today in many advanced countries such as the U.S., having a highly educated workforce that continually innovates is the ticket to prosperity.

There is another source of economic wealth that has become important in recent years, and it is one that some less developed nations such as Ecuador are trying to capture.

Countries that have historically significant monuments and shrines, or beaches and ski runs attract millions of tourists each year. Indeed, depending on how it is measured, tourism is the largest global industry. It supports hotels, restaurants, airlines, cruise ships and t-shirt manufacture and it is labor-intensive. Tourism supplies many jobs even for the less educated.

Ecuador does not have anything to equal the Parthenon or the Pyramids, but it does have the Andes, the Amazon, and is one of the most bio-diverse lands on the planet. Its indigenous Indian peoples hold interest to those from developed nations. Moreover, the isolated Galapagos Islands six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador were the place that Charles Darwin developed his ideas about natural selection and evolution. Anyone who watches the Discovery Channel knows about the blue-footed booby and the giant sea tortoises which lay their eggs on the beach.

The natural bounty of Ecuador brings adventurous travelers and their dollars – Ecuador like Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency. Throughout our visit to Ecuador we saw the impact of tourism on the economy. In Quito we visited a shirt factory that was making hats and t-shirts for Galapagos tourists more than a thousand miles away.

The two NGOs we visited, Kallari Chocolate Cooperative and Fundacion Maquicupuna, were trying to attract students and tourists to their remote settings in order to bring in cash as well as to educate people from the developed world about the special beauty of the highlands and the impact of modern lifestyles on places such as Ecuador.

Some of us with full-time jobs returned to the U.S. after visiting Guayaquil, but nine of us went on to the Galapagos Islands for three days. I don’t know what “normal” tourism is on the islands, but we were surprised by how few visitors we saw. Perhaps the relatively simple accommodations available on the islands are not attractive to well-off tourists who can cruise the islands in ships and off-load for nature visits. Perhaps it is the worsening global economy.

The Galapagos are amazing scientifically and naturally. The iguanas, penguins, land and sea tortoises, the sea lions and tropical birds are everywhere and easy to see. Ecuador maintains strict control over entry and exit from the Galapagos province and the paperwork and inspections are similar to entry into another country.

The authorities are right to be protective because so much has already been damaged by earlier visitors who brought to extinction a number of species. The “Lonesome George Foundation” sells t-shirts with an image of “George”, the last remaining tortoise of his sub-species. Proceeds go to conservation efforts. I bought two shirts.

The benefits of tourism are there to see, too. The Galapago natives are very proud of their islands and have benefited from the education and jobs that have come. Our local assistant, “Jimmy” spoke English because he went to a church school started by missionaries. He was studying to become a naturalist and guide visitors. His life is much larger because of the efforts and interest of visitors to the Galapagos.

Eco-tourism is a balancing act of generating currency and education, with managing the impact of populations on fragile ecosystems (the Galapagos imports most of its water and energy from the continent). I am glad that we got to see so naturally wonderful a place as Ecuador. But I think that much of the learning will come in the months ahead as the students, Wil Agatstein and I return home to our resource-intense lives.
How much do we really need?

1 comment:

Zuri said...

You're right, Ecuador is a very diverse country. The weather, the colonial cities and the people are just fantastic. Nothing compares to the landscapes of the Highlands, the lush of the Amazon Jungle Forest, the exotic Beaches of the Coast and the mystery of the Galapagos Islands.