In November, Conservacion Patagonica hosted our first annual workshop on ecotourism in Chile’s Aysén Region. What’s a conservation NGO doing talking tourism?
The future Patagonia National Park will protect hundreds of thousands of acres, but we hope its impact stretches far beyond its borders, as an anchor for responsible, place-based local economies throughout the region. Tourism undeniably has its ecological impacts; nonetheless, in looking at this region, ecotourism jumps out as a fitting area for economic growth. Dramatic scenery, big open spaces, and a multitude of possible outdoor activities could make the region a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. High-quality, low-impact ecotourism would bring substantial resources to the region, currently the least-developed part of Chile.
Considered one of the most beautiful but least “discovered” parts of Patagonia, the entire Aysén Region receives fewer than 80,000 visitors a year. Both the region to the north (Los Lagos) and to the south (Magellanes) receive many times more tourists each year, largely due to higher development of touristic services, transportation, and marketing. For individual tourism-based businesses to thrive, the region as a whole must grow into more of a destination.
We’re far from the first people to think about this. SERNATUR, the Chilean government agency for tourism, and CIEP, which studies scientific tourism in Patagonia, are both developing projects to promote tourist routes, improve visitor information, and foster local businesses in this area. Throughout the region, local entrepreneurs are operating numerous excellent tourism businesses, from trekking and rafting companies to cafes, and hotels. However, many of them see a need for greater coordination and training, and few of them had an in-depth understanding of the role that the future Patagonia Park can play in regional activities.
To foster discussions on regional ecotourism while introducing many local entrepreneurs to the park, we sponsored a multi-day workshop for over fifty participants at the start of the touristic season, in early November. Participants came from Cochrane, Coyhaique, Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Puerto Guadal, Puerto Bertrand, Chile Chico, Caleta Tortel and Villa O’Higgins, as well as from Puerto Varas and Santiago.
The conference was an interactive affair, alternating between informal presentations by a selection of conservation and tourism professionals, and tours of the facilities under development at Valle Chacabuco. Participants saw first-hand how CP’s ambitious conservation project will act as an economic stimulus for southern Aysén, while serving as a critical safe haven for the wildlands and wildlife of Patagonia.
One of the guests invited to speak at the conference was president of the Argentine Foundation for Ecotourism, Hugo Vecchiet. Vecchiet addressed the need for new modes of development in Patagonia, emphasizing how a protected natural area can act as a transformative force, generating new business opportunities while putting value back into the land. Vecchiet also stressed the importance of developing strong working relationships between those who work to protect the land, and those who will bring the public to appreciate the value of a wild and natural place.
Javier Obrach, subdirector of “Estudios del Servicio Nacional de Turismo,” came to represent the subsecretary of tourism, Jacqueline Plass. Obrach’s presentation delved into the history of sustainable tourism development in Chile, setting the development of the future Patagonia National Park into perspective as one of a growing number of ecotourism destinations in the state, most notably the famous Torres del Paine, which has generated huge amounts of revenue for local communities in the Magellanes region.
In all, the workshop was a success, starting many conversations and building new connections, which we hope will flourish in the years to come. Regional ecotourism development is a massive and lengthy project, which hinges on factors beyond our control: airport improvement, road paving, international exchange rates. Each summer, though, more travelers seem to be finding their way to Aysén, and more residents are starting or expanding small businesses to cater to their needs. Through providing a forum for the leaders in local and regional tourism to step back and think big-picture about growth of the next decade, Conservacion Patagonica hopes to play a role not just in promoting more tourism in Aysén, but better tourism—lower impact, more thoughtful, more authentic, and higher quality. This form of economic development, which relies on Aysen’s intact natural beauty, may serve as a strong defense against destructive development in the years to come.