How to save Patagonia’s environment: Interview with sustainable tourism expert Jorge Moller

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 Photo: Jorge Moller.Photo: Jorge Moller.

One of the world’s last regions with vast stretches of untouched nature, Patagonia, at the lower tip of South America, is host to an extraordinary geography of endless mountains, immense ice glaciers, snowcapped volcanoes, pristine temperate rainforests, and hundreds of clear, blue-green rivers and lakes. Scientists say the Chilean side of the Patagonian Andes – which is more verdant because of more rainfall than the drier steppe areas that predominate to the east in Argentina – is one of six "hot spots" on the planet with the greatest biodiversity, greatest number of undiscovered species, and greatest human threats to that diversity.

Today, this amazing landscape is not what it once was. The environmental conflicts in Patagonia mirror the dilemmas behind our larger global environmental crisis, and some cases are direct consequences of actions taking place across the globe. The metaphorical train has left the station and Patagonian nature is under constant threat as the pace of change in the region quickens due to improved access, technological advances, and migration from cities driven by drought, climate change and the covid-19 pandemic accelerating changes in living and working patterns. At the same time, big business continues to spread its appetite for unspoilt water, minerals, timber, and other natural resources and finis terrae, or the uttermost ends of the earth, is an inevitable target.
Patagon Journal has always been a magazine driven foremost by its love for nature and wild places in Patagonia. In December 2021,  Patagon Journal celebrated 10 years publishing its magazine. As such, we thought this would be a good time to evaluate the challenges facing Patagonia’s environment over the rest of this decade. To this end, we consulted with diverse environmental leaders, scientists, and journalists from Argentina, Chile, and around the globe, and in the current issue of our magazine we outline an environmental agenda for the next 10 years.
In this interview, our executive editor, Jimmy Langman, spoke with Jorge Moller, a renowned sustainable tourism expert who has worked in the ecotourism sector since 1985. For some 30 years he was at the helm of travel companies based in southern Chile such as Darwin Trails, Eco Travel and Altue Expeditions. Since 2015, he has been the director of Regenera, a non-profit that provides consultancy services to governments, communities and businesses across Latin America on sustainable tourism planning and business development. He also is currently the Latin America program director for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).
The following are excerpts from that conversation with Jorge:
Patagon Journal: What are the most important challenges facing Patagonia for managing its tourism growth so that it is environmentally sustainable?
Jorge Moller: Firstly, a significant change to how tourism is seen. Normally, until a few years ago, tourism was seen as something positive. Tourism has always been something beautiful in people’s imaginations. It has always meant recreation, vacation, and having a good time. But we have to understand that, today, the rules of the game have changed, for better and for worse. They have changed because today there are more resources, which have made tourism more accessible. Airlines have improved, connectivity and information have improved with the Internet, and the quality of life of Chilean people has improved.
The first challenge is getting people to understand that, today, tourism means responsibility, management and governance, and that we can no longer let tourism grow without direction as we have been doing for many years in this country. People must be educated in this responsibility behind sustainable tourism development. From the government bureaucrats to the mere citizen, those who dream of attracting more tourists and think that the best strategy is widespread indiscriminate promotion.
We need to understand that we are holding a double-edged sword. The negative side of tourism has increased over the last 15 years. And it can be just as damaging as what we often see and criticize about salmon farming, forestry, and mining, but no one wants to acknowledge.
What is happening today in San Pedro de Atacama, in Puerto Varas, in Pucón or at Easter Island is the dark side of tourism. I think we are an industry guided by improvisation. And, therefore, it is necessary to introduce planning. The most urgent matter today, before we start promoting, is that we establish and plan what it is we want to do with the visitors and the local community. We have to ask them, and let them have a say and make decisions.
For example, the new Route of Parks in Patagonia, it is incredible. But what is going to happen with those 17 parks, not all of which are accessible when it was promised that they would be? There are no trails, they lack toilet facilities, there are no accident and emergency policies in place; there are no quality hotels, no certified local tourist guides, etc.
Will we be able to care for the environment when we all understand that it is a wonderful asset? If we manage to look after it, maintain it and offer it to local communities and visitors as a sustainable resource, we will then realize that we can build in this country the perfect machine, called sustainable tourism, which can last thousands of years but which requires planning and care. It requires all of us to take charge.
Read “An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia” in the current edition of Patagon Journal. Read “An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia” in the current edition of Patagon Journal.
What countries that have done this well?
There are some. They are countries with cultural realities different to our own, but the blueprint does exist. Slovenia, for example, has achieved a percentage of certified sustainability above 96%. It is a country which cares immensely for its natural and cultural heritage. There are other territories which have also done it, such as Bonito, in Brazil, which has a governance model and a carrying capacity model declared within a very efficient management system of the area.
There are important cities in Spain, such as Valencia, that today are completely carbon neutral and measure their water footprint. In Cusco, Peru, they have achieved a management system which puts great emphasis on not exceeding carrying capacity. There are several destinations around the world that have understood that they have to manage their social, environmental and economic situation.
An example of bad development would be Puerto Varas…
Absolutely. That dream built on visitor feedback, where they talked about Puerto Varas as an amazing place, created the image of a dream to aspire to and it attracted many people. Tourism creates an image of a destination. It builds an imaginary construct of a paradise which does not exist. Because nobody shows a picture of the 7-kilometrer (4.5 mile) traffic jam at the entrance to Ensenada.
For example, if we had introduced, in time, a sound public policy for tourism in Puerto Varas, perhaps migration to the city would have been much more careful. Because we would have also considered that if we impose rules to those who come to visit from abroad, we should equally have some capacity to regulate for those who live there and those who want to come and live there. Hosting a visitor is the easiest way to get going with organizing the house.
Is Chile becoming more sustainable?
I think that we Chileans in general view our country as a refrigerator which we don’t appreciate but which never empties; we take more and more food out of it, and we don’t care. It comes from being human. There is a part of the human being that makes us disregard the damage we cause, and we Chileans, in general, have not been culturally educated to appreciate our natural resources.
There has been very little environmental culture, in an extractive country in the hands of 5 or 7 entrepreneurs, to value and find alternative uses for our natural resources. Chileans are used to living off an everlasting paradise, and they will not become aware until they have felled the last tree. Without a change in education, with regard to how to appreciate our natural heritage, care for it and make it sustainable, we will not be able to revert this perverse environmental damage we are continuously inflicting.
In order to change that, we need to educate the children in this country, so that when they grow up they are able to see nature not as a source of resources but as a source of sustainable development.
What are three concrete actions that the governments can do to foster sustainable tourism in Patagonia?
First of all, before we start promoting tourism there, to ask ourselves: what is our sustainable development plan? Where and in what are we going to spend our budget? How are local sectors equipped to meet tourism’s demands?
The second action is to empower the municipalities. They need a lot of help. We conducted a Patagonia-wide study of wilderness areas protected by municipalities and gateway communities, and the conclusions were extremely negative. In some municipalities it goes as far as lacking staff who can deal with tourism. They don’t train staff and they don’t communicate with wilderness areas, with tourism associations, etc. Municipalities must be equipped with planning tools to manage all tourism-related matters.
And, third, I would launch a massive educational campaign aimed at local communities, in order to empower them to play a part in future governance and decision-making with regard to tourism and other aspects in which they are stakeholders. I think that in Chile we need to create participative governance systems that are also strongly binding, because what is happening is that two or three people are making the final decisions, which are not necessarily in line with what the community needs or wants. I think these three actions will have a gravitational pull.
Through October 2022, each week visit for more interviews in this special series. Read "An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia" in the current issue of the magazine. Subscribe today or look for the magazine at our stockists