Ecotourism is taking a larger share of the visitor industry worldwide, but it's not clear how much Alaska is profiting from the trend.
Scant statistics in Alaska on ecotourism ventures, along with the lack of a formal certification program in the industry, have clouded the picture, including the potential for growth.
Megan Epler Wood, president of the International Ecotourism Society, touted "the green marketplace" in a keynote address to the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association conference in Juneau last week.
Nature-based, sustainable tourism is now the third-fastest-growing segment of the industry, after cruise ships and gambling, said Epler Wood, who lives in Vermont. About 22 percent of Americans are "true environmentalists," and about half of those are willing to pay more for green products, she said. The Oregon Tourism Commission has reported consistent 10 percent annual growth in ecotourism there.
There's danger in that success, Epler Wood warned. As the niche begins to attract more money, new owners might move toward a more bottom-line-oriented philosophy, she said. So far, ecolodge investors are most often philosophically motivated private individuals willing to accept a lower rate of return than would venture capitalists or corporations, she said.
"Mislabeling is a rampant problem," as there is no seal a business can get, Epler Wood said. "We don't have any way to prove we're green."
AWRTA, founded in 1992, has eight ecotourism guidelines. Among them: Businesses should seek to limit economic growth rates in a way that sustains the environment and minimizes visitor impacts on the land, wildlife, Native cultures and local communities. They should provide "direct benefits to the local economy and local inhabitants," according to the guidelines. "At some point, a tour group becomes too large to be considered 'ecotourism.'"
There is no policing of the guidelines, said Sarah Leonard, executive director of AWRTA. The group doesn't deny membership to anyone who wants in, she said.
There are about 300 AWRTA members, including about 250 business operators, with 65 to 70 of those located in Southeast, Leonard said. "There's probably a lot more (ecotourism ventures) out there. ... What's been a challenge is finding accurate statistics about that segment of the industry in Alaska."
The state Department of Community and Economic Development is conducting a visitors' statistics survey that should yield good data in the next year, she said.
Ecotourists appear to be a small segment of the market in Juneau.
There will be a record 680,000 cruise ship passengers arriving in Juneau this year, but advance bookings suggest the independent travel market will do well to hold last year's level of 105,000 visitors, said John Mazor, president of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Nevertheless, there is "a very definite growing demand for authentic ecotourism experiences," Mazor said. Alaska Discovery, which offers trips ranging from half a day to 12 days, is a good model for Southeast, he said.
The new statewide marketing plan now being developed by the Alaska Travel Industry Association, the tourism industry trade group under contract to the state, includes some promotion of cultural and adventure tours, a promising development for small entrepreneurs, Leonard said.
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