Guatemala Feature

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Ecotourism in Guatemala

Nearby Costa Rica kicked off the eco-tourism trend in the early 1990s, and it arguably remains the Western Hemisphere's leader in the field. Guatemala's tourism has historically focused on indigenous culture, Mayan ruins, and colonial architecture, but with abundant swaths of nature in its territory, it now looks to a nascent ecotourism industry to round out offerings to its 1.7 million annual visitors.

Planning Your Trip

The "eco" trend is new to Guatemala, and the number of businesses practicing internationally recognized environmental standards remains small. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions about what your hotel or tour operator does to protect the environment and to benefit its local community.

You'll likely not get immediately satisfying answers to questions posed to your hotel about recycling, water conservation, and alternative-energy sources. Be realistic: Don't take too firm a stand. In today's Guatemala, you won't be left with many choices if you insist on only staying at hotels that recycle, for example. We're firm believers that if enough of us ask about such matters, we can help raise standards.

You will, however, be pleased to see that almost every accommodation in the country is well integrated into its local community. The almost total absence of chain hotels outside the capital means that nearly every lodging here is a smaller, locally owned enterprise that employs local people and pours its earnings back into the community. By visiting Guatemala, you are supporting those local communities, too.

Beyond Ecotourism to Sustainability

Ecotourism refers to travel in nature, to observe and learn about plant- and wildlife. It minimizes impact on the environment, and improves the lives of local people by strengthening conservation.

The buzz term these days is "sustainable tourism." This umbrella term takes in all that is good about ecotourism, but looks beyond the environment at long-term impacts on communities. Does tourism benefit or harm local people, their culture, and their economies, and, yes, their environment? In other words, is the enterprise "sustainable" long-term?

In this regard, Guatemala seems to do itself proud. Tourism is the second-largest contributor to the country's economy, and employs one in 15 members of the workforce here, a figure that is expected to increase over the next decade.

No doubt tourism has an impact on culture, and the jury is still out on its long-term effects on Guatemala's distinctive indigenous societies. A culture that survived colonial conquest and a long civil war and is still going gangbusters will likely survive tourism, too. Remember: Guatemala's unique Mayan styles and traditions have never existed for the benefit of us tourists. The country is still one of those wondrous places left that asks us to accept it on its terms, and not the other way around.

The Green Deal

No government entity in Guatemala is presently in the business of certifying ecotourism standards for hotels or tour operators. The decade-old, non-profit Asociación Alianza Verde (Green Alliance Association; (www.alianzaverde.org) works in conjunction with the Rainforest Alliance to promote environmentally conscious, low-impact, sustainable tourism in Guatemala. Since 2004 the association has evaluated tourism-related businesses. Those that meet environmental standards are awarded "Green Deal" certificates of sustainable tourism (www.greendeal.org). As evidenced by the Spanish-language Web site, numbers are still tiny: just 28 businesses have earned certificates. A perusal of the list turns up some interesting results, however. It is entirely predictable that Río Dulce's Hacienda Tijax, and the Verapaces' Ram Tzul, whose bread and butter are ecotourism, would gain certification. But awards have also gone to in-town Posada de Don José in the center of Retalhuleu in the Pacific lowlands for its efforts to recycle, as well as the restored, recently re-opened Hotel Ajau, smack-dab in the center of Guatemala City's burgeoning Zona 1, for its historic preservation efforts.

What You Can Do

Don't litter. Sadly, garbage is a common sight in Guatemala. Dispose of your trash properly. You can also pay a little extra for biodegradable glass water bottles. If you plan to travel regularly in the developing world, consider buying a hand-pump water purifier, available at many sporting goods stores for around $25. You can make your own clean water wherever you go instead of generating a trail of disposable water bottles. Guatemala still lives in the era of returnable glass beverage bottles, too.

Don't disturb animal and plant life. When you're hiking, be as unobtrusive as possible. Don't remove plants for souvenirs, and don't feed animals, even if your guide says it's OK.

Volunteer if the spirit moves you. Guatemala is one of the Western Hemisphere's premier destinations for "voluntourism." Two large organizations serve as clearinghouses for a variety of volunteer organizations, and can work with you to find a nice fit. In Quetzaltenango, Entre Mundos (www.entremundos.org) works with about 150 such organizations, most of which are based in the highlands. Proyecto Mosaïco Guatemala (www.alianzaverde.org), based in Antigua, works with around 80 entities, many based in the capital. One volunteer organization here specifically deals in ecological concerns: ProPetén (www.propeten.org) recruits assistants with a good command of Spanish to work with biologists on research projects in the Petén.

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