Tourism is growing at a rapid pace, up to 10 percent in some countries. That’s why it’s so important to develop tourism in a way that supports local economies and conserves the natural areas that make these countries travel destinations in the first place.
Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard’s Center for Heath and the Global Environment, joined Rachel’s Network members for a discussion on how to manage tourism for the the protection of natural areas and communities worldwide.
What is the biggest challenge in the ecotourism sector?
With upwards of two billion international travelers in the next 15 years, there will be tremendous pressure on a limited number of high demand locations. Every vendor selling Peru must sell Machu Picchu as part of the package. Every vendor that sells Ecuador usually includes the Galapagos. These are gateway sites for the industry that also have enormously important natural and cultural heritage. I sincerely hope that there can be a greater global consensus on how to protect these sites which are essential for the future of the travel industry, local people, and the economic well-being of nations.
If you could remove one obstacle that prevents us from implementing solutions to this challenge, what would it be?
Heritage sites and valuable ecosystems are part and parcel of global supply chains. It’s time to build them into the equation. With proper accounting, based on environmental economics, companies could help to pay for the preservation of global environmental and social heritage not in the form of philanthropy, but through a global set of international transactions that could be managed digitally. Some may argue this would be too complicated and the demand for supply chains to cover the cost of ecosystem protection and local wellbeing too high or perhaps too difficult to account for. My work at Harvard indicates that this is not the case.
How has your focus changed since you started your work as director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative?
Since I began teaching at Harvard, I’ve been collaborating with environmental economists, experts in sustainable forestry, fisheries and agriculture, and individuals who are helping developing economies leapfrog over older models of economic and social development. I’ve also been working with experts in geodesign, who are enabling communities to anticipate how proposed tourism projects will affect their environment and wellbeing.
Our work is truly data-driven. We can show the economic case for preservation of ecosystems and cultures on the ground, and demonstrate why using more advanced technologies to guide the development of our urban and rural areas is valuable to local people.
What are you most proud of in your work?
I began working on the crisis of biodiversity loss and found that ecotourism could be a powerful tool to fight that loss. I’ve continually involved industry and researchers in helping the tourism industry, now at 9% of global GDP, to more effectively to protect ecosystems. But I didn’t rest there. Because without enterprises that local people can manage, our efforts to protect ecosystems could be wasted. Women and the bottom billion can gain from tourism enterprises even in areas plagued by poverty, but there needs to be an effective system to help them become part of global supply chains.
What woman environmentalist inspires you? Why?
I am a fan of both Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall. They have used science to advance humankind and helped protect our great biosphere and the most defenseless beings on our planet.
Megan Epler Wood is director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard’s Center for Heath and the Global Environment. She has been involved in ecotourism since the development of the industry in the early 1990s.