For all its wonders, the tourism industry is plagued by overcrowding, cultural deterioration, and environmental destruction. These issues have prompted myriad solutions from both the public and private sectors: Machu Picchu, for example, has limited the length of visits to four hours; U.S. national parks, such as Yellowstone, are considering caps and reservation systems; and tour operators like Native Tours, which specializes in Peru trips, are following a community-based tourism model that works directly with local populations.
One creative approach to all three of these problems has popped up from an unexpected quarter. Around the world, landowners are getting more involved in tourism by opening their spaces to paying guests. Some of these private properties—or “private reserves” as they are sometimes called—feature lodges built to accommodate visitors on otherwise wild lands; others have revived and repurposed existing infrastructure, breathing new life into historic places. Occasionally, tourism itself is the main goal of these enterprises. But in most cases, the primary objective of a private reserve is multifaceted, intertwining a profitable crowd-free alternative, the preservation of local culture, and environmental conservation.
Exclusive alternatives to crowded places
With international tourism forecasts projecting 1.4 billion travelers by 2020, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, destinations are struggling to balance their need for the additional income with the importance of outstanding visitor experiences and minimal environmental impact. Most solutions look to manage crowds; private reserves offer the chance to avoid them altogether.
In many cases, these reserves abut popular natural areas, like national parks. At Mara Plains in Kenya, for example, guests have exclusive access to the 100,000-acre, privately-owned Olare Motorogi Conservancy within the otherwise open-to-the-public Masai Mara. On the reserve, one can enjoy the same animal-spotting excursions without the company of dozens of other safari vehicles.
In South America, Patagonia Camp sits at the doorstep of Torres del Paine National Park and encompasses similar terrain. Its 131 acres of land alongside Lake Toro are only open to its guests and are excellent for hiking, kayaking, and fishing. Isabel Meneses, marketing manager of Patagonia Camp, says the reserve allows visitors to experience Torres del Paine as it was before the tourism boom.
“[Torres del Paine] National Park attracts adventurers from all over the world, and through the years it has become famous and more famous,” said Meneses. “Now [the park] is experiencing large crowds during the high season because so many travelers dream to get to the main viewpoints and see the marvelous landscape. The heart of the [Patagonia Camp] project was to allow guests to experience the wild, vast, remote, and lonely area surrounding Torres del Paine.”
A way of life, maintained
Private property is also being used to preserve cultures in decline, and one of the best examples is in the United States. Cattle ranching and cowboy culture were once defining characteristics of the American West. Yet as times and economies changed, this way of life became less financially viable, and many ranches were forced to shut down or greatly reduce their operations.
But some have turned to tourism to supplement their incomes and, most importantly, continue their way of life. “Guest ranches” or “dude ranches,” such as the 500-acre Latigo Ranch in Grand County, Colorado, welcome visitors from around the world and introduce them to horseback riding, cattle penning, and other western traditions.
“The origin of the guest ranch business was people trying to figure out a way to maintain their western lifestyle by sharing that with other people,” says Randy George, owner of Latigo Ranch.
According to George, without tourism, many ranch owners would be tempted to sell off their land and pursue something else. But because people are interested in experiencing the culture and the land of the Old West, places like Latigo and people like George have been able to maintain their traditional identities.
The creative use of private land can also allow tourism to play a key role in conservation—a solution that, when managed correctly, can help ensure that open spaces do not become development projects.
For example, in 1995, Costa Rica created the Costa Rican Network of Private Nature Reserves, which now includes more than 200 parcels of land protected and cared for by a variety of owners: farmers, NGOs, families, and educational institutions. Many of these plots are managed by ecotourism endeavors, which offer experiences that showcase the importance of the land and raise the funds to manage it. One example is the 870-acre, 50-room Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa. Originally built for Smithsonian scientists, it sits adjacent to Arenal Volcano National Park and essentially serves to expand the park’s boundaries.
“Many private nature reserves function as buffer zones for national parks,” the Lodge writes on its website, “allowing for the free movement of species, so the parks do not become ‘biological islands,’” or isolated areas in which flora and fauna don’t develop defenses to outside forces.
In New Mexico, the four lodges of the Ted Turner Reserves help fund the protection of one million acres of landscape in the U.S. Southwest. The space is owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, whose theory is that if you design a situation where people can visit natural landscapes easily, comfortably, and in small numbers, people will become more interested in global conservation.
“Turner wishes to share his love of nature and discovery,” the reserves’ mission states, “in the hope that those visiting his properties will develop a deeper appreciation for and awareness of what our Earth has to offer and, just as importantly, a shared responsibility for the well-being of our environment.”
Of course, there is no perfect solution yet to the issues troubling the tourism industry. While private reserves can solve certain aspects of overcrowding and impact, they also raise new questions about the accessibility of land. Still, they provide a balance to mass tourism and, perhaps, give hope that more ideas are not far behind.
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