Photo from Alberto Blanco

Is sustainable tourism possible in Bolívar and Amazonas states? Negative implications of the Mining Arc on our tourism strength

EXPLORA Magazine. Second Special Edition. 2021.


Historically, tourism in the states of Bolívar and Amazonas has been marketed as an activity of adventure, physical challenge and cultural contact. The first tourism trials were different in each state. In Bolívar, it was focused on adventure (trekking and hiking) and nature-based (birdwatching, camping, nature interpretation) tourism. These activities were mainly limited to the Canaima National Park (CNP), in the tepuis and Sierra de Lema on the eastern area of the park or within the Kamarata and the Canaima lagoon as base points to Angel Falls on the western area of the park. In Amazonas, tourism was rather focused on a river adventure experience with cultural exchange. The Humboldt Route, visits to native communities and to the Autana tepuy were the most popular.

The growth experienced by both domestic and receptive tourism markets in the 70s and 80s, hindered incorporating sustainability into tourism development in these states. However, tourism operators and custodians started looking for alternatives that would be less harmful to the sites. Given the fragility of ecosystems, in the 90s, people began to talk about hydraulic energy in the Canaima camp, solar energy in La Gran Sabana, management of organic and solid wastes, and load capacity. The latter was a concern because of the overuse to which the Roraima tepui -the most visited trekking destination- was being exposed. This natural process of refining public and private policies based on a responsible tourism activity was constrained by the political instability that the country has experienced since the late 1990s and which remains to date.

Before tourism started developing in the area, small and medium-scale gold and diamond mining were the main economic activities in the area. Mining affected several tourist attractions such as the upper basin of the Caroní and Cuyuni rivers (Bolívar) and the Yapacana tepui (Amazon). Mining was illegal, though allowed by local authorities, and stimulated the growth of mining poles with little or no criteria for the conservation of vulnerable ecosystems. Most mines were not part of a development project, but rather expanded in a disorganized and even chaotic manner. This historic account is important, as it shows the background of the problem currently faced.

Photo from Alberto Blanco

Discussing the potential for sustainable tourism in the states of Bolívar and Amazonas will facilitate the structure of public policies to transform these regions into truly sustainable tourist poles.

Now, what is sustainable tourism? Like any concept of universal use, it is a term that is subject to multidisciplinary analysis and therefore generates controversy. Almost all the authors agree that it is a model that takes into account economic, cultural, environmental, and social variables in the decision-making process so that the tourist attraction remains or is perpetuated in the best possible state. This decision-making process includes governmental, business, academic, and environmental and cultural non-governmental organizations. The model requires agreement among the parties, where each understands that perpetuity of the tourist attraction is the common objective. Planet Earth does not have unlimited resources. Their proper use will facilitate development with benefits for all stakeholders and for longer than, for example, mass tourism or cruise ship tourism, to name two major types of tourism that generate incalculable environmental and cultural damage.

Prime for this to happen is the strengthening of policies for sustainable development within a government where the separation of powers exist and differences can be addressed through a fair justice system and at the same time, legislation can be enacted without power interests. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Venezuela. With the creation of the Orinoco Mining Arc National Strategic Development Zone (ZDEN-AMO, for its acronym in Spanish), the Venezuelan government ceased to be an impartial judge to resolve conflicts among sectors with interest in mining, tourism and conservation, tilting the balance in favor of the mining activity. With indescribable blindness, the government has made mining his own, sheltering both independent miners and large multinationals. What is truly tragic is that the enormous environmental damage has not been pondered in any area. Add to that the fragility of the ecosystems within the Guayana region, and it becomes the perfect formula to generate an ecocide of incalculable consequences.

Therefore, talking about sustainable tourism in Venezuela is no more than a dialectical activity, since the absence of an impartial and participatory national state, limits any initiative that is made under the criterion of sustainability. This becomes more serious when the same predatory State seizes the word “sustainable” and embeds it within its justifying speech when creating the Ministry of Ecological Mining Development.

The previous analysis unmasks the reason why, under the current government, it is impossible to speak of sustainable tourism in Venezuela. The nation-state that allows and facilitates environmentally predatory activities, wants to sell itself at the same time as a protector of nature. This situation goes beyond semantics since it generates a false and conformist ideology in the face of the enormous environmental destruction of which it is its main agent and promoter.

Photo from Alberto Blanco

Facing and correcting the above problem would be the first step to seriously address the issue of sustainability. Additionally, issues such as the lack of sovereignty (criminal groups in mining areas), the increase in tropical diseases (for example, malaria and tuberculosis), the absence of a plan to maintain communication routes, lack of incentive for business entrepreneurship, and the negative image of the country within international tourism markets will be the main points that a Ministry of Tourism with high technical capacity should place in its plan for tourism development in southern Venezuela.

Considering the above, below we list the strengths and threats to the tourist attractions that are affected by the ZDEN-AMO area, and in the broadest sense, in the states of Amazonas and Bolívar. This is as an exercise to contribute to a Tourism Development Plan for the Venezuelan Guayana (which includes the Orinoquia and the Amazon); starting from the construction of a nation-state with true separation of powers and underpinned by universal democratic principles.

In the tourism field, there are two types of markets, the mass market and the low-impact market. The first is widely linked to sun and beach options, while the second refers more to niche market tourism, so the number of users is substantially reduced. The same person can participate in both types of tourism, for example, buying a vacation on a beach in the Caribbean, and then signing up for a hike to a tepui or Gran Sabana.

For mass tourism to exist, there must be a substantial investment in human resources, infrastructure (roads, hotels, wastewater disposal, etc.), and promotion. In addition, global competition would force them to offer products with a price-quality ratio almost impossible to match. Considering the environmental variables of the Orinoquia and the Venezuela Amazon, the only possible option is that of niche tourism or low-density tourism. The reason for that is that both in the Orinoquia and Venezuelan Amazon, acid soils predominate, and by association, they have quite vulnerable habitats, as well as high levels of endemism in their flora and fauna.

Now, talking about niche tourism involves a question that does not always have an adequate answer. How many people can each attraction tolerate in a way that allows for sustainable use? In reality, there is no formula that applies to all tourist attractions equally and the answer will always be in the hands of a multidisciplinary team. For example, it is not the same to determine the “carrying capacity” of the “Laguna de Canaima” than that of the top of the “Roraima tepui”, and this is because there are different biological factors. Therefore, these teams must determine a maximum number of visitors, and from there, monitor the environmental variables to determine if adjustments should be made to the proposed limits.

That said, it is appropriate to point out which areas should be part of the tourist priorities in southern Venezuela. However, that would happen once there is a nation-state that understands that mining activities in this part of the country, will not only bring ruin but also a level of destruction from which is probably impossible to recover from.

Photo from Odimar López

Main tourist attractions. Internal market and diaspora

(The concept would be for families or couples):

  1. High Volume:
    State of Bolívar: Gran Sabana, Canaima Lagoon and Angel Falls
    State of Amazonas: Puerto Ayacucho, Gavilán, Orinoco River.
  2. Specialized:
    State of Bolívar: Tepuis (Table Top Mountains) and indigenous communities.
    State of Amazonas: Tepuis surroundings, indigenous communities

Activities by sectors or niches:
Climbing and rappelling
Rafting or canoeing
Observation of flora and fauna
Photography
Mountain biking
River trips
Cultural activities
Car trips using posadas/cabanas to sleep at night

Main tourist attractions. Receptive market

(The concept would be for groups with similar interests):

  1. High volume:
    Angel Falls
  2. Specialized:
    State of Bolívar: Tepuis, Sierra de Lema, Caura river, indigenous communities
    State of Amazonas: Tepuis surroundings, indigenous communities, archeological activities, river walks (Orinoco and Casiquiare river).

Activities by sectors or niches:
Climbing and rappelling
Rafting or canoeing
Observation of flora and fauna
Photography
Mountain biking
River trips
Cultural activities

Sustainable tourist business opportunities in the area of influence of Arco Minero

  1. River trips. The Orinoco and Caura rivers represent two tourism icons of incalculable value. The word “Orinoco” has great penetration in the European market and is associated with river travel and pristine areas. The presence of medium-sized boats (maximum 25 passengers) should be promoted to make trips along the river. There is a previous experience, the Chalana Santa María, which in the rainy season sailed through the flooded plains, and in drought from San Fernando de Apure to the Orinoco River. The routes along the Orinoco River could be sectorized between the delta zone, the middle Orinoco and the Upper Orinoco. The latter would allow smaller vessels.
  2. Glamping. This term refers to camping activities with a glamorous approach. The areas of the La Gran Sabana and Alto Caura would be invaluable natural attractions for developing low-impact concessions.
  3. Trekking or hiking with camping to the tepuis. Those routes where tourist activity will be allowed should be defined. Currently, there are established trails that only require their formalization, among others Roraima, Auyan, Ptari, Sarisariñama and Kukenam.
  4. Low impact Posadas/Cabanas. The route to the Gran Sabana offers a unique opportunity to stimulate the development of low-impact Cabanas all along the route, with bird feeders and spectacular views.

Final considerations

For there to be a sustainable tourism development protocol for the Venezuelan Guayana, it is necessary for the nation-state to recover its main role, which is to create equity and justice. Subsequently, working groups with true and genuine representatives of the sectors involved (business, academic, governmental, cultural, and environmental) must be created to define the tourist priority areas and those of conservation priority. At the same time, the business crew should work as a team with the Ministry of Tourism to establish the promotional guidelines of the country and of the Venezuelan Guayana in order to send a unified message and close the perfect circle with financially successful companies, communities involved and protected tourist attractions.

David Ascanio
Researcher, author and bird watching guide.
Director of Ascanio Birding Tour.
david@abtbirds.com

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