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The Business of Ecotourism

A Conversation with Carol Patterson

Carol Patterson is the author of The Business of Ecotourism (Trafford Publishing, 2007, 232 p.p.) now in its third edition. This book has always been one of our favorites. It’s a recommended how-to business handbook that addresses practical strategies for ecolodge and service developers.

Ron Mader: What are the major changes in the third edition of The Business of Ecotourism? What are the current challenges of ecotourism businesses and what are your recommendations?

Carol Patterson: Although ecotourism’s star seems to rise and fall, I believe that there is a growing interest among the general public in “greening” their lifestyle, and this includes recreation and travel choices. This trend will create more demand for ecotourism accommodation and experiences, and I want to up the odds that organizations trying to meet this need are successful. People have told me that The Business of Ecotourism has been very helpful to them in starting or expanding their business because of its practical approach. I felt it was important that an updated version of the book be available for people just discovering sustainable business concepts and wanting to learn more about ecotourism.

The third edition includes the same great information on how to identify business opportunities, create a marketing plan, develop proper safety and customer service practices, attract investors, and work with the travel trade. I was disappointed to find that there has been little new research into ecotourism markets in the last five years to add to the book, but people will still be able to develop viable products with the market information available.

In my discussions with tourism operators and destination marketing organizations (DMOs), it appears ecotourism businesses can take advantage of the increasing consumer interest in sustainable travel if they can convey to travelers the benefits of choosing an ecotourism vacation. If you want to grow your ecotourism business, start by showcasing the experiences you offer. Or add some new experiences each year. If you can provide people with the chance to do an interpretative snorkel with salmon or walk in the forest with a traditional healer, make sure that information is easy to find on your website or in your brochures. Show pictures of your guest rooms and include some testimonials (audio, if possible) from satisfied customers. A lot of people are still a bit leery of ecotourism and you need to show them they can be comfortable and have fun, and still be green.

R.M.: Any suggestions for those looking for employment in this field?

C.P.: In response to the numerous questions I get from people when I speak at conferences on how to get started in the tourism field, I added a new section on how to find a job or create a career in nature-based tourism. I’ve shared the secrets that have helped me and that I’ve observed other industry leaders using in their lives. I am hoping that this section will help people clarify their goals and aspirations and make their dreams come true by allowing them to make money in the world of ecotourism.

If you are looking for work in ecotourism, I think it is critical that you learn to do informational interviews and start gathering information on what opportunities exist in your region and area of interest. You might be a whiz at finding information on the Internet or in books, but this cannot compensate for actually talking to people in the field. It’s intimidating to call up a stranger and ask for a few minutes of their time, but when you realize that the information you gain from these calls may save you from spending years of your time and/or thousands of dollars on work that you don’t like or that isn’t viable, you can develop a lot of courage in a hurry!

R.M.: During my recent trip to New Zealand I had a terrific series of conversations with Tom Walter, a photojournalist whose West Coast exhibition offered a visual sense of place for participants and connected environmental education, ecotourism, sustainability, and photojournalism. In terms of nature photography, I’ve had a blast developing collaborative galleries documenting city parks around the world and trees here in the state of Oaxaca. This is just the start of many productive Web 2.0 alliances. How do you see the development of nature photography? Are you seeing good examples from ecotourism business owners and regional tourism organizations? What are you recommendations and what would you like to see?

C.P: Like you, I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures while I travel, but I’m just realizing how important photography can be as a source of revenue for ecotourism organizations. I’ve talked to several tourism operators who are seeing real benefits from marketing to photographers.

Doug Adams of Northland Paradise Lodge in Ontario, Canada, is a great example. Paradise Lodge used to focus on hunting and fishing, but Doug realized his bottom line would look a lot better if he focused on photography. Now he has carved out a niche showing people several rare species of orchids. His customers like “value-added” services and will return several times if the chance to photograph something new is well marketed. A quick check of the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters Association website shows over 60 outfitters who are offering photography experiences, further proof that this market offers a chance to snag business from nature-loving tourists.

Miles Philips of Texas Cooperative Extension recognized this potential early on and developed a Digital Photo Safari Scavenger Hunt Program to add income to tourism businesses. Miles has surveyed members of the North American Nature Photography Association on their willingness to pay for photo tours on private land.

I’d heard several tourism experts lament the difficulty in capturing revenue from non-consumptive nature tourists especially the fully independent traveler. I think nature photography tours and events is one way to tap into the income potential of these green travelers.

R.M.: Planeta.com recently announced that Ecotourism Laos won the Ecotourism Spotlight Award, created as a way of showcasing government websites that promote responsible travel and ecotourism. Have you seen government portals that not only provide theory but also do a good job of showing people where to go, who to visit, and how to travel in country? Do you have any recommendations of what you would like to see on government portals?

C.P.: It’s been my experience that most government websites have very little information on responsible travel choices. Until recently it was hard to find even basic information on nature based tourism such as low impact activities like bird watching, but fortunately this is changing quickly.

Governments, however, are slow in helping travelers make responsible travel choices. Some environmentalists are arguing that travel itself is an irresponsible choice and that people should stay home. I think with that type of debate becoming more common, it behooves governments to become much more active in greening travel.

I was heartened recently to see that in my home province, Travel Alberta is looking at ways it can adopt green travel practices, but there have been no significant developments. I think many destinations are at the same point. Sad, but there are a few bright lights.

I like the example set by Greenbox in Northern Ireland. This region is branding itself as an ecotourism destination and the whole website seems to revolve around several sustainable principles, including involving community members and promoting no-motorized transport. I would like to see more governments adopt a similar model for their marketing and business development.