Megadiversity along the equator route in Ecuador – stepping stone or impediment for a sustainable development of tourism?
Karl-Heinz Diertl, Adriana Tutillo Vallejo
Ecuador is one of the world’s ‘hotspots’ of animal and plant biodiversity. The variety of the country’s landscapes determines a variety of different ecosystems including the Amazon basin (Amazonía), the Andes mountains (Sierra) with an altitude of up to 6310 m, the Pacific coast (Costa) as well as the Galápagos Islands that are 1000 km off the coast. However, the cultural diversity of the country with its different ethnicities, cultures, languages, customs and traditions is likewise remarkable. In the early 19th century Alexander von Humboldt already mentioned that the only constant in Ecuador’s geography is its diversity. This diversity contains an enormous tourist potential that is still waiting for an adequate valorisation by a sustainable tourism.
It is without doubt that the small country at the equator attracts more and more tourists. Since 2010 the number of foreign tourist arrivals has steadily increased from about 1 million to more than 1.5 million in 2014. The political elite headed by Rafael Correa has identified the potential of tourism as an opportunity to transform the productive sector and render it more independent from imports. In 2014, tourism represented the most important source of income for the state next to the export of oil, bananas and shrimps and is thus also a mainstay in the future strategic alignment compliant with the national plan ‘Buen Vivir’ (2013–2017).
The constant increase in numbers of foreign tourist arrivals is certainly more important than the domestic tourism, which cumulates in a few public holidays per year. In order to present the international market with appropriate tourism offers, the Ecuadoran tourism department initiated various theme travel routes.
One of the most promising projects surely is the development of tourism in the regions along the equator. The so-called Ruta Paralelo Cero (parallel zero-route) is supposed to connect the sights of the country’s four regions (Amazonía, Sierra, Costa and Galápagos) for tourists. The plan sounds attractive: the tourist is able to explore an impressive profile of the country in relatively short time along the continental route that is just 600 km long. Furthermore, under the presidency of Rafael Correa the country’s most important streets were renewed and expanded, which facilitated the linking of the attractions as a route for tourists.
As attractive as the megadiversity of the equator appears to the tourist, as difficult is the equal valorisation of the regions for sustainable tourism. The disparity of the social and infrastructural development is distinctively reflected in tourism development. Therefore, individual measures for tourism promotion and implementation of tourism infrastructure are necessary for the heterogeneous regions with their specific manifestations of climate, morphology, culture, customs, languages etc.
The following three examples from the equatorial regions Sierra, Costa and Amazonía are to illustrate these challenges:
The small Andean capital suburb San Antonio de Pichincha is the hub of the country’s largest flow of tourists. The centre of attraction is not the unattended village itself but Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (city centre of the earth), which is an artificial tourist village created around the equator monument. It is the most visited place in Ecuador, counting almost 600,000 domestic and foreign visitors per year. However, the insufficient involvement of the local population in the development of tourism, the missing regulation and allocation of tourist flows as well as the non-existent interconnection with the surrounding sights is especially striking (e.g. with Pucará de Rumicucho – an archaeological site that is only 3 km away but barely known).
By contrast, the equatorial coastal areas in Ecuador surrounding the cantons Jama and Pedernales are solely characterised by domestic tourism, which is limited to weekends and public holidays. It is apparent that the quality of tourist attractions and the related infrastructure is insufficient, partly due to the lack of basic supply with drinking water and sewerage. Some of the major impediments concern food safety, the access to and signposting of tourist destinations, supply with tourist information as well as functioning services and clean accommodation facilities. Only about one third of the accommodations offer breakfast or other meals. Moreover, the search for hotels or tourist activities via search engines and databases on the Internet is a difficult task to undertake. There is hardly an institution that has a ‘hospitable’ presence on the Internet as online bookings are usually not available and in many cases even key information such as address or telephone numbers are missing. Thus, the equatorial coastal region of Ecuador remains mostly hidden for foreign tourists that primarily use the Internet for their travel planning.
Tourism in the Amazon basin, on the other hand, is for the most part limited to a couple of lodges within the Cuyabeno-Reserve. These accommodations are primarily operated from the capital. For most, the almost uniform three- to five-days travel packages are booked by international travel agencies or through the Internet and are predominantly sold to foreign visitors. Nevertheless, the local and indigenous population has almost no share of the development and revenues from tourism generated by the exclusively organised travels. Even in Nueva Loja, the largest city of the Amazon basin that was built in the 1970s as a base for the newly tapped oilfields, most tourists only get to know the airport. It is the base from where visitors are directly transferred to embark on the Cuyabeno River. The few hotels in Nueva Loja are primarily booked by staff of the oil production companies.
A current study by the authors is to determine the existing potential of the mega diverse equator route and to explore concrete measures for a sustainable development and market integration of tourism in cooperation with the local stakeholders and the tourism department.