Gateway communities—small towns that serve as entry points to national parks and other natural sites—play a key role in the sustainable development and management of protected areas in Chilean Patagonia and around the world. To preserve these natural treasures and the surrounding area’s economic well-being, local residents’ involvement is essential.
Chile was recognized as the top adventure travel destination in 2016 and 2017 in the World Travel Awards—the Oscars of tourism. And the country’s tourism secretariat expects visits to protected areas to increase by 60 percent in the next decade. But tourism is in its early stages in Patagonia, so there’s still time to create a sustainable tourism plan that incorporates community input and helps locals feel a sense of ownership. And that’s crucial, because when a community, park managers, and nonprofits working on conservation are aligned, everyone benefits.
Chile already has some experience on the subject, with the Panguipulli commune in the region of Los Ríos, in Southern Chile. Panguipulli’s economy revolved around the timber industry for about half a century—from the 1940s and 1950s, when forestry workers’ camps were established there, until the end of the 20th century, when the sector ceased being profitable and the community became one of the country’s poorest.
In 1999, through a private initiative, the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve was created just outside the town of Neltume. The goal was to transform the community from its lumber industry past into an economy based on sustainable tourism, a daunting task considering that the parents of 70 percent of those who now make a living from tourism in the area worked for logging companies. To achieve this shift in perspective, programs were developed to train residents in tourism and conservation. And students at area schools were taught the importance of sustainable economic development and caring for the environment. Today, more than half the residents of Neltume and surrounding areas are involved in tourism, and 90 percent of the biological reserve’s workers come from these communities.
When an area earmarked for protection has been used for decades as grazing land or for fishing, it’s natural for residents to feel resentful about their sources of subsistence or their traditions being altered. Motivated by a fear of change or economic concerns, they could try to block conservation efforts.
That’s why it’s vital for protected area managers, local governments, the tourism industry, and nongovernmental organizations to build strong relationships with residents of these gateway communities, to develop a sustainable tourism model that balances conservation with economic development.
Tourism encourages innovation and entrepreneurship, while also creating jobs and bolstering the local economy. At the same time, it helps members of the community feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for conservation. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ collaborators are working with gateway communities to foster a culture of conservation and sustainable development that can help them thrive.
Francisco Solís Germani directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work in Chile’s Patagonia region.