When dreaming of a tropical getaway, we often envision stunning coastal vistas and coral reefs teeming with wildlife. As visitors, these underwater ecosystems quench our wanderlust by providing a remarkable backdrop and playground for adventure. But coral reefs provide so much more than tourist gratification – they are incredibly important assets for the communities who live near them as well. About 40% of people live within 60 miles (100km) of the coast. Of these people, more than 275 million live in close proximity to coral reefs (within 30 km of reefs and less than 10 km from the coast). These nearby inhabitants often depend on reefs for their survival and well-being.
In the Indian Ocean, about 20 miles off the coast off of mainland Zanzibar, sits Chumbe Island, a private nature reserve that was developed in 1991 for the conservation and sustainable management of the uninhabited slice of coral reef. Today, Chumbe features a fully protected marine sanctuary, a forest reserve inhabited by extremely rare and endangered animals, an eco-lodge and historical ruins. All reserve buildings are state-of-the-art and designed for zero environmental impact. And Chumbe’s park rangers—once local fishermen—are now trained, environmental educators who teach tourists and local communities about the importance of conservation.
For a country slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina, Panama boasts an impressive number of environmental firsts: Most diverse wildlife in Central America, largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere (outside of the Amazon Basin) and with 933 bird species, one of the world’s best bird watching destinations.
While devoted birders are among the 1.6 million tourists who flock to Panama each year, the country has never positioned itself as a green destination, the way Costa Rica and Belize have. Until now. On Earth Day 2015, President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, Minister of Environment Mirei Endara, Minister of Tourism Jesús Sierra Victoria and General Director of the National Institute of Culture Mariana Núñez announced The Green Tourism Initiative, designed to integrate the protection of biodiversity and culture with tourism.