For most people the Amazon cannot be done in a day. For as long as I can remember tourism depended on an exterior market, mostly affluent foreigners with time, money and an interest in the region’s biodiversity and geo-political importance. And they weren’t going to come all this way and spend all that money just for one canoe trip, or one rainforest walk. As in other tropical countries a collection of jungle lodges was developed in the 1980s to receive a growing tourist clientele. In the 1990’s a new means of exploring the region was developed- something more authentic and unique to a region full of rivers, flooded forests and fluvial island chains- riverboat tourism.
During the last decade however growth in the Amazon tourism sector of Brazil has inexplicably stagnated despite its obvious appeal and recognized importance. Neighboring countries such as Peru and Ecuador have, despite their obvious limitations, done remarkably well in comparison. Numbers have seldom topped 400,000 tourists a year in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, largest and most affluent of the region, and best known for the fabulous 19th century Opera House which still dominates the skyline of its booming 2 million person capital, Manaus. The state invests millions every year in promotion and marketing and has little to show for it all. One mistake has certainly been the lack of integration with the local tourism trade, the majority of whom are small operators and family-run businesses who truly represent the potential of tourism in the country.
There are signs of resuscitation and spurts of new energy, due mostly to the stabilizing factor of recent two-term president, Lula Ignacio de Souza. The Brazilian economy is stronger than ever and should continue to grow under the command of Lula’s hand-picker successor, Dilma Rouseff, the country’s first woman president. Brazil is poised to become the 5th largest producer of oil in the world, and the “green” superpower of the future. A more robust economy and stronger currency has resulted in more Brazilians travelling than ever before. Many are visiting the Amazon for the first time though most are taking advantage of the weak dollar and euro to travel outside the country. Local Amazon tour operators are adapting their products in response to this growing national market. They are also developing tourism products for a new local market, adventure activities and daytrips at prices accessible by all.
The fact that Manaus will host a number of football (soccer) games during the 2014 World Cup has prompted a construction explosion unparalleled since the “Paris of the Tropics” was conceived by Governor Eduardo Ribeiro in the late 1900s. The capital is enjoying an unprecedented boom, good and bad. As the city, and state, prepare for the near future the number of tourists, foreign and national, will naturally increase. Yet will the numbers grow expressively and put Manaus on the international list of top destinations like Paris, London and New York or will it never surpass the numbers of a Niagara Falls, Timbuktu or Havana? Time will certainly tell, but one thing seems obvious to this observer…that unless a tourism that reflects the philosophy of the moment, that of sustainability and local participation, is quickly developed then all will be for nothing.
A broader offering of community-based tourism services and products is desperately needed if Brazilian culture is to truly express itself as tourism, a natural enough vocation for this Latin country of 200 million blessed with sun, surf and all combination of cultural festivities and natural wonders. Business-as-usual is not good enough anymore, no matter what older operators want. Local populations, government agencies and the market itself demand something new, something more inclusive, something more authentic and rewarding for all.
For too long tourism in the Brazilian Amazon has been dominated and run by a small group of 25+ year old tour operators known as the “G-7”. Despite the growth of Manaus, the capital, and a steady increase in the number of travel agencies and small operators these companies have been able to maintain control of the increasing numbers of tourists that visit the region. Like old stock rubber plants in the Far East the tourism product in Manaus has not changed much over the years and certainly has not accompanied global trends. While the rest of the world worries itself about the fate of the Amazon rainforest the very people who have the ability to show off its beauty best, and insure its value as something other than chopped wood and cow patties, haven’t responded to the call.
One reason is a certain gringo-phobia, sadly discernable in much of modern Brazilian society. Brazilians welcome tourists of all types, and are happy to trade smiles and other favors for hard cash. But foreigners are treated differently once they decide to stay. Simply because they are foreigners their input is often shunned or, worse, ignored. Even when it is obvious that a foreigner’s contribution would benefit all it is often belittled and neglected.
In Manaus there are a good numbers of foreigners working in tourism. And unnoticed by the local Brazilians these foreigners have for the most part attempted to integrate themselves into the local culture rather than establish the sort of polarizing expat communities found in so many other foreign capitals. New blood brings with it new ideas. New alliances being with them new powers. But rather then welcome the new blood and ideas of these “wash-ashores” they have been ignored and marginalized by the very people they mean to help. Brazilians seem to still see foreigners as colonial exploiters of the 19th century.
With the local tourism trade in disarray the established operators of Amazonas state have been able to take advantage of this lack of union and maintain the status quo. And there is no trickle-down effect. Without a unified voice the greater part of the local tourism trade has also been ignored by local, state and federal authorities. Instead of working in harmony the private and public sectors have carved out independent niches and followed contradictory paths. Development of a broad-base of diverse tourism products has been impossible under these conditions. To complicate things even further the conservation sector represented by a whole gammet of NGOs and coordinated by public sector institutions such as IBAMA (federal) and SDS (state) has pursued a policy of establishing conservation units that all but exclude tourism as a viable means towards sustainable development. Vast tracts of the Amazon are thankfully being preserved at long last through access to these resources by Brazilians and foreigners alike is being restricted. As time passes the gulf between private and public interests will only widen and animosities only deepen. At a time when opportunity knocks the Brazilian tourism sector appeals unable to respond because it has not found it’s voice yet.
Only as a result of pressure from below, from smaller tourism operators who make up the majority in most places, and from above, from a more enlightened political generation emergent in the wake of Brazil’s flirtation with militarism, have things finally begun to change; though not as fast as most would like. Examples are springing up here and there of local tourism projects designed to meet new market demands and reflect the new political thinking. But the march is slow.
From below the ABETA organization represents a grassroots effort by the tourism trade itself to organize and express itself as a contributor to the vigorous, new Brazilian economy as well as a promoter of a growing socio-environmental philosophy. Business for business sake is no longer acceptable but must be grounded in fiscal responsibility, solid ethics and an active promotion of social and environmental needs of the nation.
And from above the Brazilian government struggles to realize itself as either the United States of South America in all it’s consumerist and oil-guzzling glory or as the world’s first truly green nation complete with a humanitarian and environmental agenda second to none.
On the lower Negro River where this writer operates the signs of community-based tourism are, sadly, far and few between. While a series of municipal, state and national parks have been created across the state- today 97% of the state is protected by law as conservation land- what have local operators done to turn these biologically and culturally diverse building blocks into sustainable reserves for the indigenous populations who live there? The answer is, very little. I have already observed that a lack of cooperation and consultation has excluded the tourism trade from the bargaining table. Individual families benefit from the tour companies they have formed alliances with over the years. Many communities have however been exploited by the owners of larger jungle lodges. Resentment, suspicion and, above all, abandonment are evident wherever you go.
Only recently has the tourism trade begun to make itself heard and demand its right to participate in the economic development of the Amazon interior. And the public sector has responded well, if not enthusiastically, to the trade’s offer of logistical coordination. What the government has been unable to do, namely, turn physical relationships with the locals into business relationships, local operators are able to do as many of them come from these distant riberine communities or have been working with these people for years. What local operators are able to do is put into place locally the web of education and self-empowerment the distant government wishes for but is unable to do.
It is precisely this role of intermediary that has been missing from the entanglement that is Amazonian tourism today. Unless well-intentioned persons at all levels of society are invited as equals to the bargaining table no amount of good will by anyone will amount to much good. Only as a melting pot of peoples and ideas will Brazil resolve its economic differences and be able to understand and develop its social and environmental agenda which is only now being hinted at. If the people can honestly find their voice within the halls of power Brazil might escape the consumerist fate that threatens so much of the developed world at present. The time has come to bring the actors together and raise the curtain over a new Brazil.