Wednesday February 9, 2022

For the last two years, FISHBIO has a been leading a project to exchange lessons related to freshwater fish conservation and community-based ecotourism between Laos and Costa Rica. While the project has focused primarily on sharing experiences from Laos to inform the establishment of freshwater protected areas for fishes in Costa Rica, we also wanted the project to include a two-way exchange of knowledge and draw on Costa Rica’s strengths as an ecotourism leader. To that end, we enlisted the expertise of two Costa Rican ecotourism consultants to provide recommendations about how Lao communities could use tourism related to their freshwater protected areas (known as Fish Conservation Zones, or FCZs) to derive benefits for the community. We hope that acting on these recommendations will increase awareness about the value of managing Fish Conservation Zones in Lao communities while enriching the experience of visiting these special sites.

Limited economic opportunities in rural communities can lead people to depend heavily on natural resources, sometimes at levels that are unsustainable. Ecotourism offers an economic alternative to increase local incomes near areas of rich natural diversity while also encouraging the protection of that diversity – an approach that Costa Rica has widely embraced. While we originally conceived of our project as a series of international exchange visits to share knowledge between Costa Rica and Laos, we quickly had to pivot to a virtual approach due the COVID-19 pandemic. The Costa Rican consultants developed a questionnaire to learn about community interest and needs related to ecotourism Laos. This survey was administered by FISHBIO’s Lao director in the three main villages we partnered with for this project, and virtual meetings were held to introduce the consultants to each of the project communities. The consultants then used the results of the questionnaire to develop their recommendations.

Their primary recommendation was to use a process based on “design thinking” to guide the development of FCZ ecotourism marketing products through generating, testing, and refining ideas. This approach could be used to create products such as nature trials, tour stories to be shared by local guides, informative signs, websites and logos, or a chain of businesses associated with FCZs and tourists. The consultants first recommended creating a community group dedicated to developing local ecotourism initiatives, similar to the fisheries management group that is responsible for overseeing a village’s FCZ. This group could identify the main natural attractions of their area and develop a “brand” for their village as an ecotourism destination, in part through creating a logo that graphically captures unique aspects of their site.

A community ecotourism group could then use a design thinking methodology to create and test an ecotourism product in five phases. The first of these is to investigate and reflect on the perspective of potential ecotourism visitors. This could involve interviews with prospective tourists to understand their needs, interests, and expectations when visiting a natural site. A community could then develop profiles of various target audiences that they seek to attract, such as local tourists from Lao cities who wish to meditate in nature, or international tourists seeking adventure travel in Laos. The second phase of the process is to reflect on the needs identified by tourists and see how these align with the needs, desires, and resources of the community in order to prioritize actions to take.

The third phase of the process involves generating ideas to address a specific ecotourism need while highlighting the benefits of nature (or in the case of this project, Fish Conservation Zones).  These ideas should explore how to create a gratifying visitor experience in a way that helps care for the environment. The group should also think of ways to promote and market their ecotourism attractions. The fourth phase is to implement a prototype of an idea, such as an interpretive nature trail near an FCZ. This could include the development of signs to educate tourists on the purpose of the FCZ and the species that it protects, as well as the cultural importance of protecting fish. The ecotourism group should consider the messages, languages, design, and placement of the signs. A mascot or character can also be developed to help engage visitors and relay key messages.

The final phase of the process is to evaluate how well the prototype performs with visitors, and whether changes are needed. This can include surveys to assess visitor learning and satisfaction. The consultants also shared some specific recommendations to the project villages about offering food products, services, and handicrafts for visitors, hosting recreational events connected to the FCZ, and highlighting the benefits of nature tourism as an outdoor activity with low COVID risk. A key point emphasized by their approach is to make sure that any ecotourism activities respond to the actual needs of the target visitors. These recommendations provide a helpful roadmap for Lao communities to follow and explore ways to derive additional benefits from their Fish Conservation Zones. We hope this project will help unlock the potential of aquatic protected areas to provide economic support to communities while also enhancing wellbeing.

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