Tourism and sustainability in Chile

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By Robert Currie Ríos
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 9
Sustainable development is that which meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The term was first coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development nearly 30 years ago, and since then has seen a number of efforts from the international community to promote a more fair and respectful development model. These efforts include, for example, the creation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Millennium Development Goals, and most recently the Sustainable Development Goals.
In this sense, tourism development in places like Futaleufu clearly shows the possibilities of achieving a balance between the economy and the environment. Local communities, tourism businesses, NGOs and various officials have taken measures such as creating a Community Environment Committee and the pending application to declare Futaleufú as a Zone of Touristic Interest (ZOIT), which includes a development plan to link economic, environmental and cultural aspects and to promote public and private investment in sustainable tourism.
Despite the undeniable benefits of a model like the one described, in our country there are still those who insist on a model of unlimited conversion of limited natural resources into financial capital, that in turn is concentrated in the hands of a few while bringing only economic, environmental, social and cultural poverty to the rest.
Take a hydroelectric project on a river like the Futaleufú. Not only would such a project challenge Chile's international commitments, but it would challenge their willingness to adhere to a fair and democratic system in which environmental justice is respected, i.e. ensuring that the poorest and most isolated communities do not have to absorb the negative externalities of ill-conceived projects. It's worth looking at the experience of the Bio-Bio River, which was once a world-class tourist destination. Today, as a result of the dams built there, it is an impoverished place where the native Pehuenche communities are hard hit by alcoholism, depression and suicide.
Why is it important to strengthen sustainable tourism? Not only will it support the protection of Chile's biodiversity and scenic beauty that are so admired by visitors, but it will create a more resilient economy. More than 50 percent of Chilean exports are mining commodities. These are extremely vulnerable to the global economic situation, resulting in significant losses when other economies suffer a slowdown like what's happening now with China, the world's largest importer of metals. But these same fluctuations in the international market present economic opportunities for other sectors. For example, as the purchasing power of the dollar increases, Chile becomes a more attractive tourist destination for foreign visitors. According to the World Travel and Tourism Association, tourism made up 9 percent of Chile's GDP in 2014 and is expected to grow steadily in the coming years. To not bet on its strengthening would prove a damaging lack of diversification in state planning.
Places like Futaleufu are quickly becoming must-see destinations for tourists, especially lovers of adventure sports. Internationally, it is beginning to be ranked alongside Chile's major attractions like Torres del Paine, Easter Island, and San Pedro de Atacama. The same is true for other sites with unique characteristics, and in the Patagonian region generally.
Chile currently has a number of legislative initiatives, ranging from the creation of a Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service and a National System of Protected Areas, to a bill for the protection of glaciers. Hopefully, these projects do not lay dormant in our Congress for years on end, as has been the trend in the past. Rather, their consideration, approval, and entry into law should be accelerated to strengthen our system of protecting those resources which not only enrich our country economically, but culturally, socially, and spiritually.

We can address these issues now, while we still have our natural treasures, or wait a few more years and end up crying over spilled milk.  

Robert Currie Ríos is a Chilean attorney and founder of Futaleufú Riverkeeper.