My favorite time of year is coming up, Memorial Day weekend heralds the arrival of the newest installment of Mountainfilm in Telluride, May 22 – 25 this year.
This is one of my favorite festivals maybe anywhere in the world. I like to tell folks it’s a film festival with soul. Set against the magnificent backdrop of Telluride, CO, Mountainfilm attracts, film, filmmakers and adventurous spirits of all ilks and nationalities to share in the storytelling and story shaping of issues of import to the mountain lifestyle, mountain cultures and the indomitable spirit.
The first time I stumbled upon Mountainfilm was about 15 years ago, entirely by accident and a stroke of good fortune. It was a rainy Memorial Day weekend in Colorado, as that weekend tends to be, and I was tent camping in the cold rain/snow mix at Ridgway State Park. As luck would have it I found a flyer about Mountainfilm. Sounded interesting and, more than anything, the lure of being inside, dry and warm and watching movies had immense appeal.
I will never ever forget the lunchtime picnic discussion with some legendary mountaineering I had only read about until then: Paul Petzoldt, Charlie Houston, Brad and Barbara Washburn and Bob Bates. Throughout the picnic the panelists answered any random question from the crowd, fireside chat style. The mountaineering pioneers told of weeks spent just trying to determine the best approach route to climbs that have now become standard routes up some of the world’s most famous, daunting and highest peaks. Brad and Barbara talked of developing techniques for taking photos of Alaska out the open door of an airplane in decidedly un-OSHA approved style. The outward appearance of these senior versions of the legends of American mountaineering belied the incredible exploits and achievements of their youth. It was imminently clear that while their bodies might be withering, their spirits clearly were still as vibrant and undaunted as ever.
The details are a little foggy but I will always remember being so impressed about a story Petzoldt, visionary founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School, told that day. It was a story from his participation in the first American expedition to K2 in the Himalayas. While on this climb, Petzoldt set a record for the longest continuous time at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet without artificial oxygen. Later, he was asked to speak at a meeting of Air Force brass who wanted him to tell them about the effects of sustained exposure to thin air since the military was just entering the era of high altitude flight. At the time, commonly held belief was that you would die or go crazy without supplemental oxygen at such lofty heights. Although Petzoldt had clearly demonstrated to the military crowd that he had not died, at the end of his speech, out of the corner of his eye he spied an officer with a lot of medals on his chest making the cuckoo bird symbol with his forefinger making circles around his temple. Incensed, Paul said he took the microphone back and told the audience he had one last story to tell. He spoke of sitting at 20,000 feet being so overcome with raw emotion from the beauty dawn broke over the HimalayaÂ that he was inspired to write a poem. That day in Telluride, Paul recited the poem with a strong voice and no hint of faulty memory, just as I imagine he had for the military brass decades ago. I wish I had written down that poem. Something about that moment, that spirit, has stuck with me and is part of the enduring magic that keeps me coming back to Mountainfilm.
If you haven’t been to the festival yet and you love mountains, mountain people, flora and fauna and are open to joining in more than a few lively discussions and debates about issues affecting mountains and the earth and its oceans from which they rise, you’ll love Mountainfilm. Mountainfilm and its sensitive, exuberant and thoughtful presentation of films and filmmakers about mountains and the people who love them underscores the heart of geotourism: preserving and cherishing sense of place, unique cultures, and a deeper respect for all life on this pretty blue planet.
This past fall I got to spend three weeks on one of the teensier of the constellation of teensy islands that comprise St. Vincent and the Grenadines. A person of average fitness can bike the hilly island in a day with time to spare before the sun sets. There’s a certain distinctive yet casual rhythm to the day, and the days of the week, that’s easily habit forming; a completely laid-back chill vibe and not much of any tourist hustle. The water was so warm that even a cold-averse wimp like me could just plunge right in. Locals would go to the beach and just bob around in the blissfully warm waves and catch up on the day’s gossip. It was just what I was looking for! No decision bigger than whether to snorkel, swim, walk the beach, trundle over to a different beach, or mix it up and hop a local cooperative van into town.
We stayed in Marie Kingston’s sweet little cottage right at the end of idyllic Lower Bay beach. There aren’t any chain hotels here and I hope there never will be. One of the biggest hotels on the island – at least as of this fall – had little more than a dozen rooms. Lodging prices weren’t too bad, especially since we arrived just before tourism season kicked into swing, but stocking our little cottage with food was a pricey proposition due to the high cost of food transport, since little is grown locally. The sea still supplies sustenance from subsistence fishing. Whaling continues as it has for centuries, the islanders are limited by international covenant to just four per season, still chased and caught by a few brave men in traditional whaling dorys.
So I was psyched when about midway through our visit, Jacqueline’s Nature Zone opened. She had just harvested the first of the season’s veggies and herbs on what must be the prettiest garden plot on the planet, right across the skinny two-lane road from the most delectable beach on the island. Jackie’s business is mostly seasonal, dependent on the annual influx of tourists and yachties. Compared to the Carribbean and Bahamas farther north, this is a sleepy part of the western Atlantic so business is rarely described as brisk. A patient woman, Jackie persists, convinced that demand for her locally grown food will steadily increase. She likes knowing where her food is grown, how the plants are nurtured and that they are free of pesticides. Jackie explained that most of the produce in the grocery stores comes from nearby St. Vincent, where she said farmers still drench their crops with powerful pesticides.
Oddly, the locals don’t think much of Jackie’s garden goodness. One exception is Fernando, whose namesake restaurant has a well-deserved reputation as one of the very best on the island. Fernando at his Hideaway
Usually though, when Jackie offers native-born neighbors a sample, they spit it out.
With a diet dominated by canned goods, rice and beans, Jackie’s greens and veggies taste too strange to most locals’ palates. On the contrary, I adored everything she grew. Intriguingly, something in the soil added a hot zing to some of the veggies. Not to miss: Jackie’s crazy good ginger basil pesto! I love to cook, and did so aboard charter sailboats for a couple seasons. As most cooks and chefs agree, nothing beats fully ripened, fresh-picked organic produce, so you can trust me when I say Jackie’s produce is worth seeking out.
Once upon a time, the islanders used to grow more of their own food, though it was no easy task on the freshwater scarce island. A local lady told me that when she was a little girl in the ’60′s, folks used to grow, harvest and process cassava. She described to me the ways they used to cook and process the plant using every bit of it for food, starch and more. She also told me how locals used to grow more corn then, and on Guy Fawkes Day they’d put big giant cassava rendering pots in the middle of town, cove the bottoms with sand, place the the pots over a hot fire and have a giant popcorn celebration.
Cassava and corn and small gardens are rare here today. As more and more modern conveniences arrived on the island, local food productions and traditions withered away. Jackie said the locals think she’s crazy for growing her own food. I think she’s brilliant and I hope she’s there next time I go back.
A recent USA Today article extolled the delights of the â€œNew Maya Frontier.â€
Much of the story focuses on Mahahual, a once sleepy fishing village, pop. 80. That was before the Mexican government hatched its plan to transform the area into what has become Mexicoâ€™s second busiest cruise ship port. Puerto Costa Maya was designed to accommodate six cruise ships at once. In 2006 it deposited more than a half million tourists, most of whom were directed straight to Puerto Costa Maya, a shopping, cultural and recreation complex for cruise ship passengers only.
In 2007, only a Cat 5 hurricane named Dean, stopped Puerto Costa Maya from hitting the million cruise ship visitor mark. The article is clearly intended to convey the news that after a frenetic year of rebuilding, Puerto Costa Maya is back in business.
I stumbled upon a blog from one cruise ship couple who had visited the port and described their surprise at discovering the real Mahahual. Their cruise ship hosts apparently forgot to mention that there was life beyond the confines of the staged authenticity of the port complex.
I imagine it goes without saying that the cruise ship passengers also werenâ€™t told of the damage to the reef and the pollution left in the wake of the cruise ships or the vital mangrove swamps destroyed to pave the way for mass tourism and vacation time share real estate developments.
On the upside, I can always hope that maybe now that the cruise ships actually stop in the area perhaps they donâ€™t jettison their trash as they pass offshore where currents deposit it directly on the beaches of the Sian Kaâ€™an Biosphere Reserve just to the north of Mahahual. Or at least that was the case when I visited the Reserve in 2000 for a cross-cultural writers workshop and was appalled by the unconscionable amounts of cruise ship pollution littering what should have been a pristine beach.
A few years ago a report by the The International Ecotourism Society, clearly largely ignored by the Mexican government, described possible impacts from the planned Cancun-style development in Mahahual. TIES warned that the hotels and timeshares financed largely by, and designed to attract, giant piles of foreign investment dollars, will at a minimum, raise the cost of living for the locals and at worst, force them to move elsewhere. News reports hint that the widening economic gap is already showing signs of creating social tension.
The population has grown from 80 dependent on subsistence fishing BC (before cruises) to 3,500 mostly dependent on tourism.Â Earlier projections estimated population could skyrocket to 25,000 as early as next year, and reach nearly 100,000 in 15 â€“ 20 years AC (after the arrival of cruise ships).
You know, itâ€™s bad enough that, as the USA Today story notes, many tourists to the area already are under the gross misimpression that the Maya disappeared from the area long ago. If plans like this by the tourism ministers of the Mayaâ€™s elected leaders in far away Mexico City go unchecked, sadly, the tourists may well prove to be prophets.
Nugal-warra story-keeper Willie Gordon who keeps his ancestral rock art alive by sharing its stories with guests near Cooktown, Queensland
The competition was stiff among the 15 website nominees all of which represent compelling authentic travel experiences around the globe.
To see all the worthy nominees and winners, click here.
Measured by traditional standards of return on investment, Tourism Queenslandâ€™s Best Job in the World campaign may also turn out to be a case study for future textbooks on marketing in the Web 2.0 era.
The campaign certainly has made lemonade out of the lemons produced as a result of the global economic meltdown that has cost millions of jobs and slowed spending on everything including travel abroad. Despite this reality, or because of it, some 34,000 people from 200 countries around the globe responded to Tourism Queenslandâ€™s call for online video applications to be hired as caretaker for one of the islands in the Great Barrier Reef. Some applicants sourced their own media coverage of their application and established websites and blogs dedicated to promoting their application.
According to a Tourism Queensland spokesperson, the $1.8 million campaign has already returned $80 million in publicity and generated more than 2.3 million visits to the campaign website IslandReefJob.com
In creating the campaign, it would seem the creative minds at Cummins Nitro got their hands on an advance copy of David Meerman Scottâ€™s â€œWorld Wide Raveâ€ and created the perfect vehicle (a global search for a tantalizing job) to achieve three key hallmarks of a World Wide Rave: when global communities eagerly link to your stuff on the Web; when online buzz drives buyers to your virtual doorstep; and when tons of fans visit your Web site because they genuinely want to be there.
Seems as though the big challenge now is in choosing the caretaker. It seems obvious that one of the imperatives of unleashing a World Wide Rave is accepting the consequences, intentional or unintended, that go along with it. In this case, it seems as though there is a potential for some negative backlash if the members of this particular World Wide Rave sense any hint of marketing mischief in the selection of the lucky caretaker. As Brian Solis recently opined at UGCX, “consumers will smell what’s authentic or not.” And there are already plenty of examples of swift Web 2.0-enabled retribution when consumers think they’ve been wronged or duped.
It will be interesting and instructional to follow this campaign through to its conclusion. And “good on ya” to my mates who’ve entered.
An ecotourism hero Iâ€™m proud to have crossed paths with is Martha Honey. Martha started her professional life as an investigative journalist based in Central America and East Africa. As a freelance journalist, Honey reported for such esteemed clients as The Times of London, The Nation, ABC TV and National Public Radio.
Along with her husband Tony Avirgan, Honey had a ground floor, up-close window on some of the most volatile but little understood wars of those regions. She chronicled the CIAâ€™s War in Costa Rica including eyewitness accounts of a botched assassination attempt. Her experiences in Africa led to the essay â€œRacism, Exploitation and Neglect: Bush and Africa,â€ which was included in the book â€œPower Trip: US Unilateralism and Global Strategy After September 11.â€ She and Avirgan also published a book â€œWar in Uganda: The legacy of Idi Amin.â€
Advocacy and investigate journalism seem to go hand in and the travel industry should count its lucky stars that Martha decided to take up the banner of ecotourism. I met Martha just shortly after she had become executive director of The International Ecotourism Society.
During her tenure from 2003 through 2006, TIES took many noteworthy steps including the following:
â€¢ Moved its offices to Washington DC
â€¢ Conducted the first worldwide study on the social and environmental footprint of nature-based lodges
â€¢ Supported relief efforts and advocated for sustainable tourism in Indian Ocean countries devastated by tsunami
â€¢ Sponsored the first conference on Ecotourism in the US
â€¢ Launched distance learning courses and Sustainable Tourism Certification with George Washington University.
Martha left TIES to form her own ecotourism-focused non-profit called the Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development.
In conjunction with Stanford University and the Institute for Policy Studies, the mission of the non-profit CESD is to design, monitor, evaluate, and improve ecotourism and sustainable tourism practices and principles. Its policy-oriented research focuses on ecotourism as a tool for poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation, as well as socially and environmentally responsible tourism practices.
Martha has written and lectured widely on ecotourism, Travelers’ Philanthropy, and certification issues. Her best-known book is the seminal â€œEcotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?â€ recently updated and re-released by Island Press.
You canâ€™t go to any tourism conference, especially ecotourism conference in Mexico – or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world where they’re talking about ecotourism, without bumping into Ron Mader.
Ronâ€™s been promoting ecotourism since at least 1994 when he started his website Planeta.com
Ronâ€™s spoken at innumerable conferences, hosts online e-conferences and hosts an award for indigenous tourism websites.
Ronâ€™s latest website contest can be found here http://planeta.wikispaces.com/itbw
Anyone can vote for their favorite nominee for this yearâ€™s Indigenous Tourism and Biodiversity Website Award. The winning website gets little more than bragging rights but thanks to the competition, more folks will know about 15 indigenous tour operators and destinations than they might not have otherwise discovered.
I canâ€™t remember if I met Ron in Mexico or Venezuela or both. As I alluded to above, heâ€™s ubiquitous. The great thing about Ron is his consistency and unwavering passion for promoting ecotourism.
Author or co-author of travel guides for Mexico and Honduras as well as well as a guide to traveling, studying and living overseas, Ronâ€™s website says heâ€™s currently editing a seminal essay titled â€œToward Effective Communication in Responsible Travel and Ecotourism.â€
I look forward to crossing paths again with Ron in some sweet little village in Mexico. Until that day, Iâ€™ll have to settle for following him on Twitter, @RonMader.
Every industry has its canary in the coalmine and for travel, some would argue that cruise lines are the proverbial canary.
Travel industry pros skeptical about emerging industry trends are more willing to begin to gently embrace that trend if it can be shown that the major cruise lines are onto it.
So I thought Iâ€™d Google around and see what I could find out about the debates and tactics under discussion in the cruise industry.
March 2006. Conservation Internationalâ€™s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business publishes â€œFrom Ship to Shore: Sustainable Stewardship in Cruise Destinations.â€
The report was produced by CI as part of its work through the Ocean Conservation and Tourism Alliance (OCTA), an initiative between CI and the International Council of Cruise Lines working to protect biodiversity in main cruise destinations while promoting industry practices that minimize environmental impacts.
â€œAlthough cruise tourism has the potential to overwhelm fragile destinations if not managed effectively, the industry is also a great potential ally for conservation, because many cruise passengers are attracted by the opportunity to experience new places and cultures,â€ stated Russell Mittermeier, president of CI, in the From Ship to Shore Foreword.
The report features stakeholder examples of tangible steps taken to ensure a sustainable future for cruise tourism while maintaining a destinationâ€™s natural and cultural integrity. It also offers recommendations on best practices for the cruise lines, governments, civil society and shore excursion operators.
For example, this latter group is encouraged to â€œform partnerships with local communities and indigenous people in order to include cultural elements in their shore excursions and implement operating procedures to minimize negative impact on the local environment and cultures.â€
Feb. 2008. Geotourism was recognized as a new travel trend at the American Association of Port Authorities Annual Conference.
May 2008. Allies within the Belize cruise tourism industry signed a declaration of commitment to create sustainable cruise tourism practices. Conservation International hailed the accord between the government of Belize, the private sector, NGOs and cruise lines as the â€œfirst such document to address considerations by an established nature tourism destination,â€ and predicted the accord would become a role model for cruise line destinations worldwide.
June 2008. Conservation International and Cruise Lines International Association signed an agreement to renew the Ocean Conservation and Tourism Alliance to minimize the cruise industryâ€™s environmental footprint and protect biodiversity.
A press release about the agreement stated CI will continue to work with CLIA to develop and implement good practice standards and training tools for shore excursions, support conservation projects in key cruise destinations and raise awareness and support for conservation issues among cruise industry customers, employees and vendors.
More than a century ago the great American author noted Mark Twain opined, â€œTravel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.â€
Therefore, it is disturbing to note State Department stats showing just 30 percent of Americans possess a valid passport.
Travel and interacting with people in other cultures enriches our lives and I contend that traveling with respect and humility for other cultures helps make it harder to contemplate war. Pay attention when you travel and beyond foreign language, dress, customs and religions, at the heart of it, we are share some core aspirations. People want to live in peace and want to make their world and the world around them more comfortable and safe for their friends and loved ones, especially their children.
A travel industry-wide mindset focused on pleasing everyone and making folks â€œfeel at homeâ€ is eroding the distinctive characteristics that drew visitors to a destination or attraction in the first place. As underscored by a Travel Industry Association report, people are beginning to realize that destinations are morphing into homogenous places that offer similar experiences. Characteristics such as unique local customs and cuisines, architecture and culture are the primary draws for those consumers who take the most trips, spend the most money and produces the greatest volume of visits overall.
A pet peeve of mine on this topic is the rise of the all-inclusive resort. Perfect for time-strapped travelers and others who like a more predictable experience, all-inclusives insulate visitors from the authentic natural attractions, small local businesses, villages and towns of the â€œreal people.â€
There are other forces at work too, that if left unchecked, will lead to further erosion of the diverse and vibrant cultural fabric of this planet. Many immigrants who came to this country at the turn of the last century hid their languages, cuisine and customs in an attempt to blend in and be an American. In the same way, indigenous people, frequently shed their traditional food production and preparations, traditional attire and cultural customs in order to better assimilate into enviable Western culture.
Therefore I believe itâ€™s important to propel the principles of geotourism, which at its core â€œrepresents restorative and reconstructive forms of tourism that enhances a destinationâ€™s natural and cultural distinctiveness, as well as provides a high-quality visitor experience.â€
I am relieved the TIA study finds that the travel habits of the 55.1 million Americans who could be classified as geotourists are guided in their travel decisions by a high awareness of the world around them and have a seemingly insatiable appetite for unique and culturally authentic travel experiences that protect and preserve the ecological and cultural environment.
For me, culture and heritage are important components of the package that is geotourism. While it’s critical to preserve the planet and our fellow creatures, it sometimes feels to me as if not much emphasis is placed on preserving cultures. All over the world cultures are becoming extinct. Tibet is the most obvious example, but joining Tibetans are hundreds of indigenous cultures that are in danger of extinction. My favorite part of traveling is interacting with indigenous cultures. I contend they are the keepers of the world’s magic. Not magic like slight of hand, but that magic comes alive when people are still deeply connected to the natural world and all its wonders through their cultural mythology and spiritual beliefs.
The following story illustrates what I mean about magic as well as helps answer the question about “basics” of gaining acceptance in a new culture. Passing through the indigenous highland village San Andreas Xecul in Guatemala in 2001, I met TS Harvey (still a grad student then) who was studying language use and attempting to catalogue and cross-tab the different ways the Quiche Maya communicated their medical problems which varied dramatically depending on whether they were taking to a local curandero (traditional healer), sacerdote (mayan priest), or a traditional western trained doctor. To do so, Tenny had to earn the trust of the priests in particular who still carry heavy sway in villages in this area. In fact, Tenny was unable to visit the local San Simon effigy (a entirely different story but a fascinating and important Mayan deity, aka Maximon) until he was moved to a new host home or Tenny could risk eroding the trust heâ€™d built up with the priest and associated cofradia with whom he was working closely.
Tenny said his approach to gaining the trust he needed to do his research was to let the Maya be Maya and he be true to who he was. Because of the nature of his work and trust gained, Tenny had been offered to become a priest. Doing so would have opened more doors for him and his research but he didnâ€™t feel such a course was an honest approach. â€œItâ€™s a slower road but one with more respect and one where you can sleep at night,â€ he told me.
Tenny told me the village was experiencing â€œsoul lossâ€ and that about 15 people had died mysteriously in the past two months including some young children and teens who had gone rapidly from playful, healthy kids to dead. The villagers believed shades (spirits) were wandering through the town and they couldnâ€™t get rid of them. If you saw a shade and didnâ€™t get treatment right away you would die. Tenny said there were no obvious clues to what had been killing the people. He said the local Mayan priests (very few Catholic priests there) were really busy either trying to eradicate the shades or tending to funerals.
Elsewhere, while “visiting” San Simon in Xecul, I noticed a villager assembling the items for his â€œburn.â€ They included the usual assortment of copal and candles as well as two cans of green chile. I hadnâ€™t seen green chili used as an offering before and was told that chili smoke is supposed to repel evil spirits (and Conquistadors a long, long time ago). Fireworks thrown into the fire ended this prayer offering. It was explained to me that the ashes are saved and resold for those who would sprinkle them on someone whose love they hoped to attract.
In my journal I wrote that my experience during that month in Guatemala reminded me of a poster Iâ€™d seen in the States that sagely proclaimed â€œSome things have to be believed to be seen.â€
If Tenny didnâ€™t believe in the possibility of spirits causing illness, could he have â€œseenâ€ what he was studying? Could the Mayans fall sick, cure broken hearts, be healed by their Mayan priests and gods if they didnâ€™t believe in them?
Especially when traveling among indigenous cultures I have found itâ€™s important to suspend my Western beliefs about nature and especially God at least long enough to really see people and their daily lives and belief systems in refreshing, sometimes startling, but always interesting and enlightening ways.