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Okinawa's first Eco-Tourism Symposium seen as a success

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-04-05

Okinawa held its first Eco-Tourism symposium from March 25 to the 27 at the Okinawa Convention Center and the Kanucha Bay Resort. The symposium was planned by the newly formed Japan Eco-Tourism Association, which will officially open on April 1. The Okinawa Prefecture Government, the Okinawa Convention and Tourist Bureau, and the Okinawa Times were main sponsors of the event, along with many other organizations and businesses. Participants gathered from many different divisions of the government, tourist related industries, and from various environmental organizations to listen to presentations on the economic and environmental benefits of eco-tourism. Discussions also focused on current problems and impacts of eco-tourism occurring in other tourist destinations around the world.

Dr. Craig MacFarland Ph.D., a consultant for tropical natural resources and former President of the Charles Darwin Foundation of the Galapagos Islands from 1985 to 1996, was one of the main guest speakers at the symposium. MacFarland's presentation on the development and current problems of eco-tourism in the Galapagos Islands included a slide show, showing the strategies implemented to create low impact tourism on the fragile ecosystem. Tourists are always lead by a trained guide, who also act as the "eyes and ears" of the national park. All tour operators must have permission from the National Park Agency to operate, and they must obey the rules and laws of the park area. Enforcement of the rules is done by the government in cooperation with the park rangers.

Protecting the many endemic species and their habitats is a major priority. This is done by limiting the number of permits given to tour operators, and keeping tour groups to small numbers. Tourists use boats as their transportation and for accommodations, disembarking only at designated areas. Marked trails keep tourists from causing damage to fragile areas beyond, and visited sites are kept to a minimum. The system has created a protected park area that ensures close contact with wild life. This type of nature tourism also has excellent economic benefits for Ecuador, bringing in an estimated $100 million a year.

Despite all the precautions and strict rules, there are threats that the park must deal with and prepare for. A major problem is the introduction of foreign species into the ecosystem. The park must also now deal with the impacts from a growing number of tourists to the islands, as well as a growing residential population.

The growth in tourism also brings in larger corporations wishing to take advantage of the economic potential behind eco-tourism in the Galapagos. The possibility of allowing large cruise ships and small aircraft to enter the park is always a threat, and trying to make sure everyone within the system is working together and following the rules is becoming increasingly difficult. "Tour companies want to make profits, and in many cases they will choose an increase in revenue over protection. This doesn't mean that they are bad or good. It's the reality of the situation," said MacFarland.

The creation of the Japan Eco-Tourism Association has many people in the Okinawa tourist industry excited about new possibilities here on the island. Iriomote, which is a protected National Park, and the Kerama Islands Prefectural Park area have already started to develop eco-tourism within their own park areas. Last week's symposium not only brought the realization behind the economic potential behind nature tourism, but it also gave insight to all the potential problems that other tourist destinations are already facing. Okinawa Tourist Service's Managing Director, Yoshikazu Higashi, said, "This symposium was very good, especially since there was much discussion about Iriomote, Yambaru, and other areas in Okinawa that are now entering the eco-tourism market. Of course, there are many different opinions from the five major sectors - scientists, tour operators, government, locals, and tourists. Sharing these opinions is very important."

Okinawa has already destroyed much of its nature for tourism and development. The goals behind eco-tourism need to be recognized by all areas of the tourist industry, and cooperation is essential for both customer satisfaction and protection of the environment.

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