RESPONSIBLE RESPONSE

Ecuador 2014 | TOURISM | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Roque Sevilla, Chairman of Metropolitan Touring, on the frustrations of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, preserving Ecuador's biodiversity, and thinking beyond the Galapágos Islands to mainland tourism opportunities.

Roque Sevilla
BIOGRAPHY
Roque Sevilla is an Ecuadorean businessman, ecologist, and former politician. He leads a corporation that has investments in insurance, health, tourism, and renewable energy. Sevilla has been Mayor of Quito, a Member of Parliament, and was the Chairman of the Yasuni Initiative. He was also the Founder and Chairman of an Ecuadorean environmental NGO, Vice-Chairman of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galápagos, and a Member of the Board of WWF International and WWF in the US. Sevilla is an Economist and holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University.

How would you characterize the level of success Ecuador has had in protecting its biodiversity?

I would like to put your question in context: Ecuador has the highest biodiversity per square kilometer in the world. More than 20% of Ecuador's territory has been declared a protected area. The Galápagos National Park is a world example of good environmental management. But some hot spots of biodiversity are in great danger because of oil and copper extraction. An example is the Yasuni National Park, the most biodiverse place in the Western hemisphere.

As the former head of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, how do you feel about the final outcome of the project?

I feel disappointed both with the international community and with the Ecuadorean government. The idea was to avoid oil exploitation in the Yasuni National Park, keeping 20% of Ecuador's oil reserves under the soil forever and asking the world community to contribute to half the value of that oil. Ecuador committed to invest those resources in conservation, reforestation, renewable energy production, and support for the poorest communities. After 18 months as head of the Yasuni Initiative, I managed to receive the support of six European countries with a commitment to contribute during 13 years a total amount of $1.76 billion. Unfortunately, large countries such as the US and China showed no interest. When the negotiation was ripe, the Ecuadorean government proposed conditions on the donors that were not attractive, and the project fell apart. Having said that, I must say that I feel proud of the Ecuadoreans who collected 750,000 signatures demanding that a public consultation should be held asking the people whether oil should be exploited in the national park. The authorities bent the law to avoid public consultation.

How important is the environment for Metropolitan Touring?

We live from this incredible environment. We give the highest level of support to any kind of regulation that is established in the places where we work. Where such regulations do not exist, we promote them ourselves. A good example of that is what we do in Mashpi and in the Galápagos. Our hotel in the Galápagos has received the Travel Award for the third year in a row, as the green lodge of South America. In Mashpi, we are investing not only in the protection of the forest, but also in research. We are developing a project to reintroduce a species of monkey that had disappeared in that area. There were only 250 of them in Ecuador previously. We have constructed a 3.6 MW photovoltaic plant in the same area.

Up until now, Ecuador's tourism sector has focused on the Galápagos. Do you see the future of tourism developing in Ecuador as tourism on the mainland?

Ecuador has great potential. We must be careful to avoid the type of large-scale, cheap tourism that does not bring progress into the country. I would prefer a tourism portfolio of small facilities where the people, not the large companies, are the owners. That is consistent with the philosophy of the government, with which I agree. Ecuador has the characteristics of small ecosystems and ecodestinations that are completely different from each other. This means that each town's people can develop small facilities, such as hotels or tourist services that can be managed by them. The good thing in tourism is that you need a relatively low amount of capital and training to offer good service. For example, in Mashpi, almost 70% of our employees in our 22-room lodge come from the region. They are learning English, and becoming first-class guides for watching the 450 species of birds. In just a year and a half, they have become experts in tourism, while before they were farmers. That is the value of tourism if you do it in the right way. I hope that the model of tourism we develop in Ecuador will use these small niches wisely, where you will feel the difference between one place and another.