Planning for Community-Based Ecotourism in Panama

With the abundance of natural attractions, it may come as a surprise that most of the 2.3 million annual visitors to the country rarely venture outside Panama City. However, until recently, Panama had not actively developed or promoted tourism in its parks, protected areas, and more rural areas. Sustainable Travel International partnered with the Republic of Panama Government to use this opportunity for tourism development as a means to increase conservation and create benefits for local communities.

Benefits of Ecotourism

Rural and Indigenous Communities

In Panama and elsewhere, responsibly developed ecotourism holds the potential to stimulate local economies, benefit indigenous communities, and combat rural poverty. By creating alternative livelihoods for communities in and around protected areas, ecotourism presents an opportunity for indigenous people support themselves and their families as tour guides, food service providers, or handicraft vendors.

Biodiversity and Conservation

Because tourism often flourishes in biodiversity hotspots, ecotourism also has the unique ability to contribute to the protection of some of the earth’s most valuable natural areas and ecosystems. The revenues from park entrance fees and tourism concessions provide added funding that can be channeled into conservation activities and park maintenance. In addition, the income generated by ecotourism provides an economic incentive for local people to protect the natural environment so that it remains a valuable tourism asset. By educating travelers on the ecosystems they visit and their role in environmental stewardship, ecotourism can also increase traveler activism and support of conservation.

Our Role

In 2015 and 2016, our team worked with local stakeholders to analyze regional opportunities and challenges and map out a country-wide action plan for developing ecotourism in Panama’s protected areas. The resulting plan includes specific strategies for developing ecotourism in a manner that will enhance protection of Panama’s sensitive habitats and wildlife, promote inclusion of rural and indigenous communities and local culture, and foster capacity building and skills development. In March 2016, the Government of Panama and private sector officially adopted the plan and implementation is already underway.


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Destination: Panama

Region: Central America



Our Partners

  • MiAmbiente
  • Ministry of Tourism Panama
  • IDB
  • GEF

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Mountain landscape

A Sustainable Tourism Standard for Mountain Resort Destinations

Offering picturesque natural landscapes, unique cultures, and countless recreation opportunities, mountain regions are popular tourism destinations. Particular care should be taken when developing tourism in mountain destinations, as their fragile environments and host communities can be especially prone to negative impacts. The Mountain IDEAL standard helps destinations balance tourism growth with local needs to protect nature and wildlife, improve the well-being of residents, and preserve cultural heritage.

What is a mountain resort destination?

Due to the diversity of mountain environments and communities, it can be difficult to define a mountain resort destination; however, most share the following characteristics:

  • Typically are located in high altitude regions
  • Tend to be rural areas where traditional industries, such as farming, ranching, and mining, intersect with tourism.
  • Economy is highly reliant on tourism and outdoor recreation
  • Outdoor winter and/or summer activities are central
  • Offer a range of accommodations and services that support visitors
  • Have a small local population that is heavily outnumbered by visitors

Examples of mountain resort destinations include ski and snowboard resort communities, national parks and their surrounding communities, and
public land hiking/biking areas and their surrounding communities.

Why mountains matter

About 1/4 of the world’s population lives in or next to the mountains.

Mountain areas attract 15-20% of global tourism.

Over half of the world’s population relies on freshwater from mountain regions for drinking, hydropower, food production, and other uses.

Mountains ecosystems provide a habitat for approximately 25% of terrestrial biodiversity.

Key challenges in mountain resort destinations

  • Climate Change

    Climate Change

    Despite their dramatic and powerful appearance, mountain ecosystems are especially vulnerable to climate change impacts, such as rising temperatures and decreasing snowfall. Climate change is a contributing factor to many of the other sustainability challenges affecting mountain destinations.
  • Decreasing Freshwater Resources

    Decreasing Freshwater Resources

    As a result of global warming, annual snowfall is decreasing in mountain regions and glaciers are rapidly shrinking or disappearing completely. In addition, as temperatures continue to change, snow will melt earlier in the year. This impacts freshwater supplies and the availability of freshwater in lowland areas. In mountain resort destinations, this is particularly problematic as tourism development places added pressure on water supplies.
  • Economic Impacts of Tourism Seasonality

    Economic Impacts of Tourism Seasonality

    Because of the seasonal nature of mountain tourism, mountain resort destination economies tend to fluctuate throughout the year and local residents are challenged to find consistent employment. As winters get shorter, this means the winter ski season will likely get shorter too, which will further impact the economy and livelihoods in winter tourism destinations.
  • Natural Disasters

    Natural Disasters

    Mountain landscapes are particularly fragile and change resulting from climate change, population growth, and land development is likely to lead to an increased risk of environmental hazards such as drought, flooding, avalanches, and wildfires.
  • Habitat and Biodiversity Loss

    Habitat and Biodiversity Loss

    Uncontrolled tourism development and increased human-wildlife interactions can result in loss of important mountain habitats and harm to biodiversity. It can also degrade the very landscapes and scenic views that attract tourists to begin with. In addition, increased development in fragile areas can create runoff and sedimentation which affects water quality and aquatic life.

Mountain IDEAL sustainable destination standard

Sustainability standards outline what it means to be a sustainable tourism destination by transforming the concept of sustainability into measurable criteria. They help destination managers evaluate how sustainable a destination is and identify opportunities for improvement. In addition, standards help visitors identify sustainable tourism destinations.

Developed in 2017 through a collaboration between Sustainable Travel International, the Town of Vail, and Walking Mountains Science Center, the Mountain IDEAL standard outlines not just what it means to be a sustainable destination, but what it means to be a sustainable mountain resort destination. It accounts for those challenges and priorities that are unique and most important to mountain resort destinations. This includes managing activities on public land, protecting scenic views, ensuring year-round employment opportunities, reducing energy-use related to snow making and melting, and embracing mountain cultural heritage.

We believe the Mountain IDEAL standard is a significant development for sustainable tourism. Because it is based on the internationally recognized GSTC criteria, the Mountain IDEAL standard can be used in mountain resort destinations around the world. In addition, it also has the potential to help encourage collaboration between mountain resort destinations that share similar challenges, such as exchanging solutions and best practices.

Make the World a Better Place

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Related Work

Vail, Colorado

Learn more about how we helped Vail, Colorado become the first destination certified to the Mountain IDEAL standard.

Aruba View

Engaging the Aruba Community in Sustainable Tourism Planning

Our team visited Aruba to present the results of the rapid destination diagnostic and meet with local stakeholders to map out a more sustainable future for the tourism industry

Header image by David Kirsch / flickr

Located just north of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean, Aruba is a small island spanning only 70 square miles (181 square kilometers). While just over 100,000 people call the island ‘home’, these inhabitants are by no means the only people you’ll find on the island. Though Aruba may be small, its allure is mighty.  The constant sunshine, long stretches of white-sand beaches, and cool trade winds attract millions of visitors to Aruba’s shores year after year. In 2015, over 1.8 million people visited the island and took part in activities such as diving, kite-surfing, and exploring the desert-like hills of Arikok National Park.

Given the small size of the island and the limited availability of natural resources, local stakeholders felt a need to determine how the tourism industry could more positively impact the environment and local community. With the aim of encouraging greater collaboration and planning around sustainable destination management, Aruba joined the Sustainable Destinations Alliance for the Americas (SDAA) in 2016.

 Eagle Beach by Chris Ford / flickr; Arikok National Park by Christina Leigh Morgan / flickr; Tourists in downtown Oranjestad by Roberto Maldeno / flickr

Identifying the issues and taking action

We began our work in Aruba last year with an initial onsite diagnostic in October 2016. During this first visit, we had the opportunity to meet with over 50 stakeholders from the government, businesses, and local community. By listening to their insights and seeing the island’s key tourism sites in-person, we were able to gain a better understanding of the current sustainability status of Aruba’s tourism industry. At the start of the new year, we returned to Aruba for a second time to share the diagnostic results with local stakeholders and to help them outline the next steps they’d like to take.

Over 35 stakeholders, including representatives from the Aruba Tourism Authority, local hotels and tour operators, and other government entities, gathered for the workshop we hosted in Oranjestad. We began the workshop by presenting the diagnostic results. Remember how we said over 1.8 MILLION tourists came to Aruba? While these millions of tourists were exploring the island and pumping their dollars into the local economy, they also used energy, created waste and used thousands of liters of drinking water. The results of the diagnostic highlighted the different sustainability issues that we discovered within the tourism industry in Aruba.  Some of these issues were inefficient waste management, poor visitor management and monitoring, and low community involvement within the industry.

Following the presentation of the results, we facilitated a discussion and action-planning activity. When asked which of the sustainability issues were the most important to them, there was resounding agreement among the attendees that dealing with the island’s waste should be one of the top priorities. Waste is a major problem affecting the island, especially since the current landfill is reaching its limit. One issue attendees cited was the occasional waste burning that occurs in the landfill. This causes air pollution and poses an environmental and health risk. Not only does the lack of a sustainable waste model waste negatively affect the visitor experience, but it also harms the island’s marine life and affects the quality of life of Aruba’s residents.

Participants were then tasked with coming up for ideas about what action should be taken to address the waste issue. They discussed the pros and cons of having an incinerator, converting the waste into gas so that this energy could be used, and increasing recycling capacity. All of these options need careful analysis and the involvement of other players, so these will be the next steps to ensure that Aruba manages its waste in an appropriate manner.

Local destination stakeholders attended an action planning workshop in January 2017

Priority Action Projects

In addition to the sustainable waste processing project, the participants identified three additional priority action projects during the workshop:

Development of sustainability tourism standards: This project involves designing and implementing a set of guidelines for tourism sector providers including tour operators, restaurants, accommodation, tour guides, and transport providers. The creation of these standards will help ensure that tourism activities are performed in a manner that is safe, environmentally responsible, respectful of heritage and beneficial for the local communities.

Creation of a formal watchdog platform for the Destination Development Plan/SDAA actions: This project will establish a multi-stakeholder destination stewardship council that will enforce existing laws and policies as well as oversee the long-term implementation of the destination action plan. This watchdog platform will help to protect Aruba’s natural and cultural resources by improving the management of tourism sites and mitigating negative tourism impacts.

‘Bario Boost: Mi Dushi Bario’: This project will set up participatory platforms in each bario (neighborhood) that will give communities the opportunity to take part in tourism-related planning and decision-making. These platforms will also help to increase resident pride and awareness of their role in the tourism value chain.

While these changes won’t happen overnight; the progress that destination stakeholders have made so far in developing an action plan is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. We look forward to continuing our work with Aruba and helping them make this vision a reality.

Learn more about the Sustainable Destinations Alliance for the Americas

Ecotourism livelihood development in Indonesia

Increasing the perceived value of forest conservation through ecotourism development

Made up of over 17,000 islands dotting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Indonesia is a country with rich natural and cultural wonders. From dense rainforests and towering volcanoes, to picturesque mountain valleys and secluded stretches of beach, Indonesia possesses some of the world’s most spectacular biodiversity. Indonesia has the third largest expanse of tropical forest in the world. At least 30 million people depend directly on Indonesia’s forests for their livelihood but deforestation rates are some of the highest in the world.

The areas most at risk include the carbon rich peat forests in Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of Borneo) as well as areas of northern Sumatra and Papua. From sequestering carbon and combating climate change, to providing freshwater for local communities, these forests represent a precious and vital resource. In addition, these forests are home to a number of critically threatened species such as orangutans and Sumatran rhinos and elephants. Reducing deforestation will help conserve the environment, protect rare species, safeguard the community’s livelihood, and preserve the destination for years to come.

Our Role

In 2015, USAID launched the LESTARI project to combat Indonesia’s growing threat of deforestation. LESTARI means “everlasting” in Indonesian and the project aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve protected area management in Central Kalimantan, northern Sumatra, and Papua.

LESTARI  is a five-year project implemented by a variety of partners under the leadership of Tetra Tech and funded by the United States Government. Sustainable Travel International’s role in this project focused on identifying and developing alternative livelihoods through ecotourism.  Our specific goal was to develop a series of small scale ecotourism partnerships in Central Kalimantan and Aceh that have high conservation value, bring community benefit and are economically viable, appealing to domestic and international markets. Areas of particular focus are Sebangau National Park, Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, Gunung Leuser National Park, and the Trumon-Singkil Wildlife Reserve.

LESTARI targets a 41 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction in its landscapes by project completion in 2020.


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Destination: Indonesia

Region: Asia



Our Partners

  • Tetra Tech

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Sustainable Destinations Alliance for the Americas

In the Caribbean, where tourism drives the economy and the tension between the desire for development and the need to protect resources is ongoing, we led a consortium of businesses, destinations, donors, regional organizations and nonprofits — all with a vested interested in maintaining and restoring the region’s natural, cultural and economic integrity.

The destinations that belonged to the Sustainable Destinations Alliance of the Americas (SDAA) included:

  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Aruba
  • The Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Dominica
  • Honduras
  • Jamaica
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Riviera Maya
  • St. Kitts & Nevis

Our Role

In each of these destinations, we provided a host of regionalized approaches to their unique set of challenges and opportunities, ultimately allowing them to determine their own paths toward ongoing sustainable development.

As a result of the SDAA’s efforts, each destination was equipped with a list of action projects as a way to develop best practices and work towards becoming a sustainable destination. The projects address top priority environmental, socio-cultural, and economic issues to help preserve the destination, improve the visitor experience, and increase benefits for local residents.


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Destination: Multiple

Regions: Caribbean Islands, Central America



“Environmental protection and development can go hand-in-hand. But it takes communication to create sustainability solutions.” – Ruleta Camacho, Senior Environment Officer, Antigua

Our Partners

  • Organization of American States
  • United States Department of State
  • Royal Caribbean
  • Caribbean Tourism Organization
  • Caribbean Tourism
  • Tourism Promotion Agency of Central America
  • Sistema de la Integracion Centroamericana

Protect the Places You Love

Give back to conserve our planet’s most vulnerable destinations and empower the people who live there. Join the movement today.

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Galapagos Islands Scenic View

Linking local fishers to the Galápagos tourism economy

Balancing marine conservation with community well-being by adding value to the local fish economy in Galapagos Marine Park.

A biodiversity hotspot both on land and underwater, the Galapagos Islands are an area of extraordinary global biological significance.  Because the islands are extremely isolated, an especially high percentage of the species in the Galapagos cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. In addition, the region serves as a habitat for nearly 3,000 marine species and is home to the largest biomass of sharks on the planet.

Marine Life in Danger

Hammerhead shark

Growing pressures from legal and illegal fishing practices increasingly threaten the islands’ unique marine life. Over the years, certain species such as sea cucumbers and lobsters have been exploited by overfishing. Sharks are particularly vulnerable as they are often hunted for their valuable fins which are used to make shark-fin soup – a delicacy in Asian markets.  The decline of shark populations extends far beyond the Galapagos region with scientists estimating that almost 100 million sharks are killed each year. At this rate, it is impossible for the sharks to reproduce fast enough to maintain their population. This not only threatens the long-term existence of many shark species, but also results in serious consequences for marine ecosystems as a whole.  

Conservation at Odds with Local Livelihoods

Galapagos fisherman market

Over the years, fishermen in the Galapagos have faced numerous added regulations as local priorities have shifted towards conservation and tourism development. Since the Galapagos Marine Reserve was created in 1998, commercial fishing has been restricted within its borders and local fishermen have only been allowed to practice artisanal fishing. In 2016, Ecuador formed a 15,000 square-mile marine sanctuary within the existing Marine Reserve.  By banning fishing in designated areas, the new sanctuary is designed help threatened wildlife populations to thrive. While conservation measures such as these are beneficial for wildlife, they can also have unintended consequences for local communities, such as the over 400 local fishermen and their families who depend on harvesting fish for their livelihoods.

Our Role

While it may be easy to point fingers at the fishermen and overlook their concerns, our experience has shown that environmental conservation and community well-being should go hand in hand.  As one of the oldest economic activities on the islands, fishing is deeply embedded within the Galapagos’ culture. For many of the fishermen, it is a way of life that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Losing the fishermen would not only alter the community’s identity, but it would also threaten local food security and drive up reliance on imported food – meaning higher prices for locals as well as an increased likelihood of new biohazards being introduced to the islands.  In addition, it would also diminish the authenticity of the Galapagos culinary tourism experience.

To lessen tensions surrounding the new sanctuary, in 2016 Sustainable Travel International worked with the fishermen, government, park management, local businesses, and NGOs to identify ways to support those affected by the added regulations.  Through a series of interviews, workshops, and focus groups, our team was able to gain a better understanding of the problems and potential opportunities related to two intervention strategies: 

  1. Increasing the value of locally-caught fish
  2. Pinpointing alternative livelihood opportunities for fishermen within the marine tourism sector

Through this collaborative process, we developed an action plan that outlines recommended next steps for the Government of Ecuador to alleviate the conflict and successfully implement these strategies. We hope that once this plan is put into action, that it will result in a beneficial future for both the wildlife and the residents of the Galapagos. 


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Destination: Galápagos Islands

Region: South America



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