Responsible tourism in Ecuador

Edgar Morin is one of France’s leading philosophers, and, on a visit to Ecuador in 2012, he highlighted this stunningly biodiverse country as a model of good living; how it is the right path to follow if you want to understand how social and conscious economies work. This is the effect Ecuador has on people, even 90-year-old philosophers. It has ‘good living’, or buen vivir and the rights of nature written into the constitution, for goodness’ sake. And it even has a Minister for Good Living. So, it is up to us, as visitors, to not only to respect their inspiring attitude to life, but to learn from their generous community ethos, and apply it to our own lives back home as well as to our travels elsewhere in the world.

Culture & Nature

Going local – it's in the constitution

The one thing that strikes you in Ecuador is that responsible tourism comes naturally. So much of it is locally run and environmentally aware. This is due to a combination of factors. First, they seem to be innately socially conscious people and proud of that heritage. Second, the people took on the oil industry and its devastating impacts on people and place, in an unprecedented case to protect their indigenous lands in the 1990’s. And thirdly, in 2008, a new constitution was ratified by the people which included a Chapter: Rights for Nature. This acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, and that the people have legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems.

This explains the reassuring proliferation of eco accommodation in Ecuador. In nearly all cases, when you look for somewhere to stay, it will be locally managed, environmentally responsible, with local employees and serving local food. These range from plush haciendas to small, locally run lodges. Gleaming examples include the famous Black Sheep Inn, Napo Wildlife Center and Kapawi Ecolodge of course, but these are just like the elders in a one great big family of businesses looking out for one another.

However, times are a changing in Ecuador at the moment. The current government is threatening to overturn some of the 1990’s social and environmental achievements, announcing in 2013 that that it will auction more than three million hectares of Amazonian rainforest to Chinese oil companies. Not only do local people object, but international campaigners are watching on with interest too. For more information, see Amazon Watch’s website. The Pacific coast is developing too, with a push to attract outside investment, in particular from expats who want somewhere cheap to retire to. Expats who want nothing more than a second tourism income to top up their retirement fund. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, with many destinations kept afloat by expat tourism businesses. However, just to be wary that on the coast, in particular, the community vibe might be dissipated with time. But hopefully not.

Volunteering – who does it help?

Volunteering vacations are big in Ecuador. Be wary, though, because this hugely growing market of ‘giving back’ vacations is getting a little out of control. Choose your volunteering vacation carefully, and ask yourself – and the vacation company – these 10 questions. This way, you can check that the work you are doing is actually sustainable and that the needs and expectations of the host community and local environment are being well met on every level. We feel particularly strongly about the issues surrounding volunteering with children and have, consequently, put in place some guidelines in this area for any organisation featured on our site. We also do not promote orphanage volunteering for anyone but qualified volunteers - and do not recommend teaching placements for unqualified volunteers either. It Is far better for the pupils and local teachers if you support them in a role as a classroom assistant, instead.

Responsible tourism tips

The Galápagos are a bit greedy and needy when it comes to getting all that Ecuadorian tourist adulation and adoration. Going to Ecuador and not spending serious time on the mainland is a bit like going to Sicily but never bothering with Rome, Florence, Tuscany or the Dolomites. So, yes, go for the iguanas and islets, but don’t go all that way and miss the Andes and Amazon, World Heritage cities and coast. National park fees are ridiculously low in Ecuador, and in some of the less-visited parks they are rarely enforced, meaning there are not enough rangers to patrol the areas, and the deforestation is on the increase. In coastal areas, this also results in the clearing of mangroves in protected areas to create illegal shrimp farms. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t visit national parks; you absolutely should. Just be sure to pay the fees. If you aren’t asked for them, push the issue. The new train service, Tren Ecuador, launched in 2013, travels between the port of Guayaquil and Quito. This is not an Orient Express experience by any means, but one that is about connecting you with Ecuadorian life, not just its landscape. It is also considered by local people to have been a super successful social initiative to re-engage communities that lost their way a little when the old railroad collapsed. In 2016, it was a joint overall winner of the World Responsible Tourism Awards.
Dominic Hamilton, editor Ñan Magazine:
"I think sometimes people can be disappointed when they go to Cotopaxi volcano. It is the one everyone wants to see, and there are superb images of it in all the brochures. But the weather is changeable here, and the experience not always what tourists had hoped for. I often recommend going to see Antisana volcano instead, which is easier to get to but yet less visited, and the weather is usually better too meaning you can see more, even the condors flying overhead."
If you are hiking, bring planet safe, paraben free soaps and detergents with you, as well as eco-friendly sun creams, and biodegradable bags and tissue for when you are caught short. And remember, all waste should, ideally, be carried out of protected areas. A good hiking company will provide all of this, so ask in advance so that you can get to see if they are practising what they preach. Being a responsible tourist also means being a responsible photographer. Always ask a person if you can take a photo. Not just ask and click, but check that they actually agree to it. It is a simple thing to communicate. And if you want to photograph children, ask the parents or adults with them, when possible. If in doubt, just leave your camera in its bag. It is not the end of the world if you don’t get that photo. It makes for a better world if you just stop to chat.
Simon Forster – Co-founder of one of our suppliers, Beyond Tourism:
"When I’m in Ecuador, I always feel as if I am being wrapped warmly up in an old culture. I really feel that there. It is not put on for tourists. It is not a cultural museum or show. It is real. Even when you see the Quechua communities in the tourist markets, they are not there to pose for photos, they are there doing a day’s work of trading with each other. Cultural tradition is something that is strong here, so I would ask that tourists just try to fit in around that. Don’t take endless photos as these people aren’t on show, they are just being themselves."
Go light on the packing because you are going to want to shop in Ecuador. And this is putting money straight into local coffers, so leave room for some winter woollies in that suitcase. Alpaca is the big seller but beware of fakes. Alpaca is expensive, so if you are offered something cheap it is most likely to be acrylic or a mix. Real Alpaca feels a little greasy to touch and loses its shape a little if stretched. The big tourist market is Otavalo where you will find plenty of goodies, but it has more of a mass produced feel here. Check out others if you can, for example Saquisilí on Thursdays, where you will also find some of the smaller sellers from Otavalo. Ambato also has a big market on Mondays and Sangolqui or El Quinche northeast of Quito on Sundays. Most villages will have a market at least once a week so you just need to ask around and try and time your visit to coincide with the sellers. Don’t think you are buying something foreign when you opt for a Panama hat to bring home. It was never from Panama in the first place, but is well and truly Ecuadorian. Head to Cuenca and Montecristo for the leading artisans of this iconic headgear. In terms of headgear, or any gear in fact, beware of anything made from feathers which are sometimes sourced from endangered birds. Chocolate and coffee buying is a must. Although it is not so well known for coffee, there are ideal growing conditions here, so look out for Fairtrade or organic producers if you can. For Arabica coffee head to Loja, Manabi and Guayaquil. For Robusto beans, it is the eastern slopes of the Andes that you want, such as Mindo. These are all great places to pick up the country’s high quality chocolate too. Chocolate tourism is on the up, with the famously aromatic chocolate having its own denomination now, Cacao Arriba. So, a bit like Champagne, no one else can say that they have this special chocolate, except Ecuador. The Galápagos Islands are home to many unique species, and a highlight of any wildlife fan’s trip to Ecuador. However, the fragile marine and land environment is under constant threat from growing tourism and development, so there are some important points to bear in mind when planning your Galápagos tour. Choose a smaller boat – which impacts less on the environment and is more reliant on local businesses for food and supplies; keep your distance from the wildlife no matter how enticing those baby sea lions may seem; and spend some time on land, eating at local restaurants, shopping in local stores and even staying in local hotels to get a real taste of Galapgueño life.
Edmundo Vega, Manager, award winning Black Sheep Inn
"The tourist should change his or her mindset when traveling to Ecuador – you need to learn about the culture and keep learning throughout your travels. For example, when I go to Europe, I know that everything is on time – so I need to change my mindset. One other thing that bothers me is the haggling over accommodation prices. I ask tourists to respect what is on our websites and not just turn up and demand a lower price. Because when they do this, it means that they are forcing each hotel to keep lowering its prices to compete, and it becomes unfair. This might work in the city, or in Europe, but here in rural Ecuador it is becoming a problem. We would like people to simply accept the prices that we have all put on our websites please."
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Longjourneys] [Volunteering : UNICEF Ecuador] [Quechua communities: young shanahan]