Tourism is a tricky business, especially in developing communities like La Plata. On one hand, more visitors means more job opportunities and less dependence on NGO or government funds for infrastructure and other improvements. Tourism can be a sustainable alternative to the traditional extractive industries of Bahía Málaga (fishing, logging, hunting, etc.). On the other hand, traditional tourism (think sandals, beach, sun and parties) can be destructive, negatively affecting the environment, society and culture of this institutionally fragile community.
Santiago, the leader of Ecomanglar has a constant reminder of this trade-off in Juanchaco, the community through which you must pass to get to either La Plata or the tourist Mecca of Ladrilleros. The beach is littered with trash and the community center is mostly taken up by nightclubs and hotels. Traditional ways of life have been compromised by a tourism-based economy and the environment has suffered from overuse.
In a conversation about marketing strategy, specifically attracting tourists from Ladrilleros and Juanchaco to Bahía Málaga, Santiago made clear that he has no interest in entertaining the kind of tourists that frequent these communities, clarifying that “no queremos turismo de sol y playa en La Plata (we don’t want the kind of tourism that is focused on beach and sun in La Plata).” In short, responsible ethno and eco tourism is Santiago’s goal.
Ecomanglar’s mission reflects this goal: “we seek to contribute to the wellbeing of the inhabitants of La Plata-Bahía Málaga through the conservation of biological and cultural diversity.” They seek to accomplish this social mission by offering tourists the opportunity to experience the traditional activities of Bahía Málaga focusing in eco and ethno tourism.
This mission is not far from becoming a reality. Ecomanglar has completed construction on a cabin (with capacity for 21 tourists), a restaurant, and within the last year the government of Colombia constructed an Internet kiosk (without which my presence here would have been much less useful). Ecomanglar now faces two main challenges: attracting tourists and earning profit.
This year Ecomanglar has the goal of hosting 100 tourists, but until recently it has limited its marketing efforts, thinking rightly that they should concentrate on improving basic infrastructure and human capital. One of the main barriers to attracting tourists is La Plata’s relative remoteness. While La Plata is not all that rural as the crow flys (it is only about 10 kilometers if you draw a straight line from Buenaventura), one must make the trip from Buenaventura by boat. This trip can take more than two hours. Much of my work has focused on expanding marketing efforts (working with the government tourism office, and creating a fancy new website and various other marketing materials).
Their other main challenge is also related to transportation. Gasoline is by far Ecomanglar’s largest cost. The trip to and from Juanchaco and transportation to the various attractions inside the bay cut into Ecomanglar’s profits and make it hard to compete with large tourism operators. Yoon, my colleague from Columbia, has worked hard to analyze the potential profits for each tourism product offered by Ecomanglar. In order to design tourist products that are both competitive and generate profit, she found, Ecomanglar should work to attract larger groups and find ways to reduce transportation costs.
So, the question is: how do you attract large groups of tourists and cut costs all while making sure that the people who visit do not have a destructive impact on the local culture and environment (maybe I should have done an MBA instead of a MPA in development practice)? And, more to the point, how do you ensure that the expansion of tourism contributes to the wellbeing and development of the community as a whole (more on this in my next post)?