An interview with Ron Mader of Planeta.com

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Photo courtesy of Planeta.com’s Flickr collection

Today we are featuring an interview with professional journalist and activist Ron Mader.

Mr. Mader is a journalist, photographer and founder of the award-winning website Planeta.com, which for over thirteen years has served to explore ecotourism and sustainable tourism around the world.

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Based in Oaxaca, Mexico, Ron organizes grassroots tourism fairs and co-founded a local rugby club. Ron received his Masters Degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in 1990 and his Bachelors Degree from Indiana University. His work has garnered numerous awards and Ron is profiled in the book American Environmental Leaders (Abc-Clio, 2000).

This interview is part of a new feature on the Practical Environmentalist called “People Making a Difference.” If you know of someone working in the environmental community who would like to share their story, please leave a comment!

Now to the interview….

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in sustainable tourism.

Let’s see. I’m a US expat who lives in Mexico. I conduct workshops and give presentations in Latin America, the United States and Australia.

Some background. In the late 1980s I embarked on a radical change — exploring and explaining Latin America to a Gringo audience. Something was pulling me South, so I decided to pursue my interest in Latin America at the Institute of Latin American Studies in Austin, Texas.

The focus of my studies was the then new buzzword ‘ecotourism.’ This was a great window into the culture of a region that otherwise does not receive much coverage in U.S. media.

Austin was a great place to study and later on I developed a long-standing friendship with Bill Christensen who developed the Greenbuilder website.

I have written for numerous publications, including Transition Abroad and have written nature guidebooks to Mexico and Honduras.

What was your role during the International Year of Ecotourism?

2002 was the International Year of Ecotourism, an event which sparked a lot of interest among ecotourism nerds around the globe. IYE or E-Yeah! drew a great deal of criticism and cheerleading. The United Nations and World Tourism Organization asked me to host and summarize the Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Web Conference which was the most attended preparatory event for the World Ecotourism Summit.

It’s time to conduct a proper review of what was or was not achieved in the past five years. Planeta.com will be launching a survey in April. We would like you and your readers to take part!

That’s one of the great things about the Planeta.com website. It’s so interactive and there are so many ways to participate!

Yes, I agree. I see my work as a means to catalyze communication about environmentalconservation, travel and peacemaking. Our website provides the ‘tools’ for communication across the range of tourism and conservation stakeholders. Our forum is set up so that members can announce upcoming events, post recommended reading, report dead links and participate in engaging dialogue.

The terms “sustainable” and “ecotourism” get thrown around a lot these days. I’m guessing that many people use these words without a real clear idea of what they mean. In fact, I’m not sure there is a real consensus on what they mean. How do you personally define “sustainable tourism”?

Experts know what sustainable travel and ecotourism are … on paper. The question is whether travelers and locals recognize it in the field. We have few statistics about what differentiates ‘traditional’ tourism from ‘sustainable tourism.’

The notion that tourism could be sustainable is part of the dialogue on sustainable development. The goal is that development meet the needs of the present tourists and locals while protecting future opportunities.

While there is no 100% pure ecotourism, there are plenty of green chances to be eco. Travelers who pursue the “eco” route are numerous and odds are that the readers of Practical Environmentalist are among this select group.

What are your current goals and projects?

We are working toward world peace.

On a less lofty level, current projects include promotion of the Ecotourism Spotlight Award and conducting the Tourism and Migration Conference.

What plans do you have for future projects?

Aboriginal Tourism Australia invited me to participate in the annual Business Development Symposium for Indigenous Tourism Operators and the 2007 Corroboree Indigenous Tourism Expo at the Sydney Opera House.

I am continuing to work with operators in helping them take their products to the world. We are also developing the World’s Indigenous People and Tourism forum.

What advice do you have for the average person looking to travel more responsibly?

Responsible travel and ecotourism initiatives abound which depend on informal volunteering and tourist expenditures that fund conservation and social work. Your vacation can have positive benefits for yourself and the people and places you visit.

Things you can do?

PICK UP THE TRASH — Actions speak louder than words. If you are concerned about the environment, show that you care by picking up trash or simply making a point of taking your trash with you. As the adage goes, ‘pack it in, pack it out.’

TAKE BOOKS AND LEAVE BOOKS — Global understanding could vastly be improved if we took (and left) better books on our trips! Find an extra copy of your favorite author and leave it behind where it can be appreciated. If you have academic leanings, find out if the local libraries can use more technical materials and take them something they can use.

SUPPORT URBAN ECOTOURISM — Before heading to the ‘pristine’ wilderness, be sure to visit some city parks. There are few remote ecolodges that are not visited in transit via a major metropolis. For those inclined, please sign the Urban Ecotourism Declaration.

BUY CRAFTS — Buying from a local artisan can cut out 40 steps in the traditional export chain. Planeta’s Tourism and Crafts Guide explains the details, but the point is simple — if you are looking for a gift or a souvenir, patronize the arts and demonstrate your support for local culture.

CONTRIBUTE TO A LOCAL CHARITY — Ask around and find out which social or environmental efforts can use your time or a financial contribution.

I appreciate the fact that you mention urban ecotourism. There are many ways to be travel in a more environmentally-friendly way and stay in the cities. Do you have any more “practical” tips for moving us towards a more sustainable future?

Want to maximize your expenditures? Slow down! The chief expense for most travelers is transportation, so if you slow down, you can go further. Think smart, travel slow.

That’s great advice. Traveling slow allows us to see and enjoy so much more. Ron, I want to thank you again for the interview and for your time. I also want to encourage all of our readers once again to visit the Planeta.com website.

You’re welcome!

For more information about Ron Mader, his work, and his books, please visit this page of the Planeta.com website.

And stay tuned for more great interviews with people who are actively working to make a difference. If you know of someone working in the environmental community who would like to share their story, please leave a comment at the end of the post!


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