▲ Ecologist Hector Ceballos-Lascurain believes Jeju Island needs a clear strategy for sustainable eco-tourism. Photo by Yang Ho Geun
As Hector Ceballos-Lascurain descended from Sunrise Peak, Seongsan, Seogwipo City, the man who coined the term, ecotourism, was unequivocal about the beauty of the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.
“The views from the top are fantastic, thrilling and dramatic,” Ceballos-Lascurain said. “All the vegetation and growth up in the crater were fascinating.”
Despite promotional hyperbole being as much a part of Jeju’s linguistic heritage as the thick local dialect, such praise from Ceballos-Lascurain is dear. The Mexican architect-cum-ecologist has become a seminal figure in the world of conservation, being central to the phenomenal growth of the sector.
“We have a psychological need nowadays as urbanites to get away from the rat race,” he said. “This is only confirmed in the phenomenal growth of the ecotourism sector, which is growing at around 15 to 30 percent every year.”
Ceballos-Lascurain always had the natural world close to his heart growing up in Mexico and it was while traveling around the country with his family that he experienced the combined beauty of nature and Mexico’s architectural wonders. These two loves went on to define his professional life.
“Seeing such beauty in Mexico inspired in me a love for the environment. The rich archaeological heritage also left a lasting impression on me. The two have been combined in my passion for ecological design,” he said.
Trained in environmental planning, Ceballos-Lascurain undertook post-graduate research in Mexico, France, the Netherlands and the U.K. He has authored more than 130 books and articles on ecotourism and planning and is director general of the Program of International Consultancy on Eco-tourism and special advisor on Eco-tourism to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. With such a resume, it is easy to see why he is a near-mythical figure in the world of ecotourism. He created the term in 1983 and the IUCN went on to adopt a revised definition in 1993.
“The definition they adopted defines ecotourism as environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature that pro-motes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations” he said.
With this in mind, Ceballos-Lascurain holds some reservations about whether Jeju is ready to become an ecotourism destination, despite its obvious beauty and ecological value.
“People talk of Jeju as a natural place, but actually Jeju is very built up and there has been very little development planning. All the way from the airport to Sunrise Peak there are built-up dual-carriageways,” he said. “I would like to see more environmentally sensitive planning.”
▲ Photo by Yang Ho Geun
Despite being impressed by the beauty of Sunrise Peak, Ceballos-Lascurain felt there was still some way to go before the area could be developed as a true eco-tourism hub. At the top of his concerns were a lack of facilities and overcrowding.
“Zoning should be introduced on the trails which would separate the mass crowds from the nature enthusiasts. The funnel effect at the top of the trail is actually quite dangerous. With the bustle of the crowds it was hard to feel close to nature,” he said.
Despite this, Ceballos-Lascurain, as is characteristic of his infectious optimism, sees great potential for Jeju Island, but believes it has to take advantage of its UNESCO classification.
“UNESCO designation can be extremely positive, but authorities have to make sure that facilities are developed so sites can cope with the extra visitors,” he said. “Overcrowding and lack of education facilities are a common result of a lack of planning at UNESCO sites. I would like to see interpretive centers constructed to educate visitors about the natural history of the island and more of an emphasis on education as a whole. There is so much potential for the island, but it is dependent on effective planning from local authorities.”
Ceballos-Lascurain believes that tourism development need not conflict with the local environment and the key is to develop strategy at the governmental level.
“Any nation that is considering developing its ecotourism infrastructure should first develop an ecotourism strategy,” he said. “The lack of one on Jeju is apparent and I would say a priority for the future is to promote development which complements the natural assets of the island.”
Ecotourism is in its infancy on Jeju Island and policymakers may need to heed Ceballos-Lascurain’s advice if the sector is to be sustainably developed.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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