Saturday, July 21, 2018

Post #140 - Playing human lives against one another: an ecotourism perspective

Real quick - Please feel free to share the link to this post/blog through your various birding and online networks! The more people that know about this project, the better! OK, on with the show....

As many of you know, I am currently in Colombia helping the National Audubon Society with an ongoing avitourism project. Most generally, the idea is to develop a series of birding routes, or trails, around the country. Sample itineraries for each trail will be publicly available, and the hope is that individuals or tour companies will be able to use those templates verbatim or modify them to suite their specific needs. The goals are to demystify Colombian birding and develop avitourism as a viable and sustainable revenue stream as the country continues to stabilize in the wake of the Colombian Peace Agreement. Long term, we hope that those individuals with an economic stake in the preservation of Colombia's habitat and associated birds will lead conservation efforts within the country. I wrote a bit more about the project in May, so please see that post (#137) if this rather quick overview doesn't satisfy you!

Spectacled Parrotlets - Forpus conspicillatus
Male on left, female on right
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600
Photo taken in Valle del Cauca Department

I was peripherally involved in the creation of the the first two Colombian birding trails, the Northern Colombia Birding Trail and the Central Andean Birding Trail, mostly as guinea pig to test those itineraries as designed by upstream others. This time I am playing a much larger and important role as I will help design two entirely new itineraries, The Southwestern Andean Birding Trail running through Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Nariño and the Eastern Andean Birding Trail running through Boyacá, Cundinamarca, Tolima, and Huila. I am now visiting a whole bunch of preselected birding sites - some established, others new - and will afterwards decide not only which of those sites should feature in the itinerary but also suggest how those sites should be connected to create the functional trail. With so many moving pieces and possibilities, the scientist/engineer in me is loving the challenge!

Southwestern Trail will run through red departments
Eastern Trail will run through yellow departments.

As awesome as it is to spend 42 days touring around these particular departments (and an additional 7 days of personal time in Caldas), it isn't all fun and games. I am being asked to make some very important decisions, decisions I understand will greatly affect people's lives. To understand this better, let's look at one of the decisions I am facing. Last week, I visited two very different lodgings in approximately the same area. The first property is an established guesthouse close to a small town. It is relatively posh, there are hummingbird feeders all over the perfectly manicured garden, and I know any birder would enjoy his or her visit. The woman who owns the home is wonderful, and her passion for birds is evident in every detail, the custom painted hummingbird plates included. It is about an hour drive from that house to a specific birding area.

The other property is a very basic family finca exactly adjacent to that same birding area. There is no hot water, meals are simple, and the owners like birds but do not fully understand the birding and hospitality industry. They tried putting up feeders, weren't successful in attracting birds, and eventually gave up (in speaking with them, I immediately realized the mistakes they made and advised them how to go about it again). They desperately want to become a birding destination, but they do not have capital to invest in the property. They too are wonderful people, and I was so thankful that they shared their home with me for a night. 

Andean Condor - Vultur gryphus
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/5.6, ISO 800
Photo taken in Cauca Department

As both properties offer access to the same birding area, though the finca is much closer, I really need to chose one to be part of the official Audubon itinerary. The guest house might seem the easy pick, but that would really crush the hopes of the finca folks as they know being featured in the itinerary could economically change their lives. Do I ask birders (i.e. you) to forgo the comforts and conveniences of a much nicer place to economically help a family that could really use it? Or do I reward the person who has already invested thousands of hours and a lot of capital into her property? If I recommend the guesthouse, every birder will like it. But If I recommend the finca, I know at least some fraction of birders will be disappointed with the product - at least as it stands now. The finca therefore needs to come with a qualification; the guesthouse does not. Who among us is willing to stay at the finca now to help them earn the capital for the improvements they will need to make in the future? If I recommend a rustic place one night, do I need to recommend a nicer one the next? And does that second recommendation come at the expense of another family trying to put a bit more bread on the table? 

Chestnut-throated Seedeater - Sporophila telasco
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 1600
Photo taken in Nariño Department

This is the human side of bird tourism, a side we tend to ignore as we move from nice lodge to nice lodge. My general feeling is that the more comforts we as travelers are willing to sacrifice, the more we will learn as a result. But that's optimistic and coming from me, a guy who was willing to forgo the ease of vehicular travel for a year to bird the United States by bike. In trying to sort through all of the lodging and birding possibilities, I need be be in the mindset of the average birder; I cannot rely on my own standards as I know I can rough it in ways that most other birders - particularly those older and wealthier - would probably want to avoid. Interestingly, price isn't much of a consideration as lodging is so much cheaper here than in the US. Anyone who has bough the plane ticket to get here can basically afford to stay anywhere. I've found basic lodging (with 3 meals) for as little as $10-15 US per night.

I could make this work for a night! How about you?

So these are the sort of things - beyond purely birding considerations - that I will have to think about as I plan out these itineraries. I'd love to hear some thoughts on this if any of you have the time. I'd be particularly interested to know what comforts you're willing to sacrifice. Can you deal without a hot shower for a night? What about several consecutive? Do you need a private room? A private bathroom? Are you OK sleeping in a bunkroom with 4-8 other people? Do you want to choose your own food or are you OK eating whatever is served to a group? How many lunches and dinners in a row could you eat chicken, rice, and plantains, the default meal in rural areas (for example, I had a stretch of 3 days where that was what was served for lunch and dinner). Is sacrificing comfort something you're willing to do if you know it's really going to help someone else? Fear no judgement from me, this is purely research. As always, I'd prefer comments on the blog, but I'll take emails if people don't feeling like posting their thoughts and preferences publicly. That's it for now, cheers!

The end.
A Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager flees my lens....


  1. Wow, I don't envy your position! You already know that I prefer the more rustic. Besides the birds, I want to see the real lives of people where I travel. Super touristic areas can be fun, and yes, I do enjoy a hot shower and fluffy pillow from time to time, but the glamour is not for me. The people of Colombia are my favorite part of this country, so again, I love the idea of supporting the little guys. The established guest house sounds great, but it's already established. More and more tourists are coming here by the day. With a little guidance, the finca owners would get the hang of attracting birds and the hospitality basics the birders need. By the way, I birded a lovely finca in Huila that was using native plants around the home to attract birds, for their own enjoyment, but hopefully they will be entertaining occasional tours. Good luck buddy. It will be great no matter what!

  2. Dorian, is there room in the official birding route to provide annotated options for housing? I think you are right that most birders would opt for the more posh option, especially if prices are both low but in addition to some people opting for the more rustic option to help develop the industry, it is much closer to the birding site, which some birders would prefer.

    Thanks for the blog!

    Michel cavigelli

  3. Interesting perspective - and one that I had not thought of before. At 60 years old, I'm more comfort oriented than I was in my youth - I spent roughly two years living in a tent. When I travel, I'm all about experiencing the local culture - food in particular. I think I could handle a few days of no frills birding. I always try to keep in mind that when your asleep all lodging looks alike. Ultimately, I think for birders it is about the birds. If I'm having a great birding experience, great birds combined with great people, making a few sacrifices would be no problem. How well is each location prepared to handle "problems?" Bad weather, a health emergency, etc. I think for some older birders, that might be a consideration - although traveling in rural areas of Columbia, there may not be an ideal situation for some. I think helping the finca "get off the ground" is a wonderful idea - if they become successful, they would be another option for birders and another team supporting birding and conservation issues.

  4. oh lots to think about! i have thoughts - i like local; i love the idea of supporting a family starting out. staying closer to the birding arra saves fuel (?). maybe stay closer and then move to the comfort lodge for end of trip?

    i’d totally go rustic. due to sensitivities to chemicals (fragrances, scented products, bug spray, sunscreen), i would personally need a private room/bath to avoid others’ products (recognizing group tours are difficult for me for this reason). but i also need quiet down time. maybe one option for such for one who might need that?

  5. Is it possible to design the birding trail with options rather than picking a single establishment at each location? Many birders enjoy their creature comforts and would prefer hot showers, electricity, and multiple food choices if available, but others are certainly willing to sleep in simple structures and eat basic food, especially when it comes at a reduction in price or if it is for only a few days at a time. I suggest you design an itinerary that includes both basic and upscale options (if available) at each location. Each birder will decide what works for them, none of the local establishments will be excluded, and it might even result in people like myself returning for a second time to try the alternate option. I look forward to your final list of locations.

  6. Dorian, I applaud your working with Audubon to set set up a network of birding trails. Very useful for folks like me who would love to bird Colombia one day. Your blog shares an interesting dilemma and I would be very tempted to name both lodge and finca if possible, with appropriate descriptions. Now, at 77, I would definitely opt for the lodge and its comforts. But in my younger days, such as trekking Nepal at age 60, we stayed in places without showers night after night, ate the same dal bhat for every meal, and loved every minute. So some choice is useful to accommodate a range of birders' needs; but it may not be possible.

  7. Why one or the other? Both lodges can be featured essentially equally. The meticulous lodge with feeders, etc. would cost more and appeal to the more moneyed birder. The finca lodge can be taught how to do the feeders, simple food is usually also good food and may suit many, and the lodging would cost less. Important for the less well-heeled birder. Cold water showers in a hot country after a long hot day of birding may be acceptable to some folks. This can also be upgraded as the family makes more money. As long as folks know what they're signing up for.

  8. Sign me up for birding in Colombia. Both regions that you outlined sounded great. However, the more south you go, the more you are in coca country. I lived in Cali
    and Palmira (67-69) in el Valle de Cauca and found it to be beautiful in climate.
    The temperature changes with elevation. When I lived there, it was peaceful. I was surprised that you did not mention hummingbirds. I think of it as the land of tanagers and hummingbirds. Now in my 70s, my wife and I prefer comfort over roughing it. Nonetheless, one night without a shower would not be a deal breaker. My questions would be how much and for how long?

  9. As an occasional visitor I just saw this post. I'm surprised there are no comments. Unfortunately for the struggling and hopeful venues, I suspect a large proportion of visitors following an Audubon birding trail will prefer some creature comforts, like hot water, even though simple would be fine. I doubt that simple food would be a problem. International ecotravelers expect that. Is it possible to offer alternatives, outlining amenities (or lack thereof) at each?

  10. Hey Dorian, really enjoying these detailed posts, especially as I prepare to spend a three-month field season around Bogota ( I especially appreciate your commentary on the moral decision-making process. I don't know the inner workings of the product you have to produce, but it seems to me that the example you cite-- of deciding which of two adjacent properties to recommend on an itinerary, can be avoided. Why not specify the destination on a slightly broader geographic scale, supply information about both properties, and let the tourists decide for themselves which they want to invest in? For a New York City analogy, it seems to me like you're trying to choose between recommending birders go to the North End of Central Park, or the Ramble (this analogy isn't economically equivalent, but perhaps geographically). Why not describe both, and list the suite of potential accommodations? After all, this diversity of options is something that I think a lot of independent travelers (i.e. not tour groups, but not necessarily budget birders either) would appreciate in deciding where to spend their time and money.

  11. Why do you decide? You and the Audubon Society should provide information and let us decide.

  12. I am very late to the conversation, but... Can you offer two recommendations for lodging on the birding trail? Or does that make it all too complex? Proximity to the birding spot would be a huge plus for me (though I am also used to camping and thinking about distances in terms of biking speed!), and supporting a local family would be a real bonus, but comforts like a hot shower might be the deciding factor for other birders. Win-win for both lodges?

    1. The previous itineraries have been offered with one suggest lodging in each area (for practical reasons I don't want to detail here), but I am working to make this one different in exactly the way you describe. Wherever possible, I try to provide a two lodging options, once nicer and one more rustic. That way the traveler/birder can decide what suites him or her best - as you suggest!