I'm just back from the Central American Republic of Guatemala where I've been on a nine-night familiarisation tour. It's a country that I've long wanted to visit and at last the opportunity came following an invitation received from Bitty Ramirez-Portilla of Guatemala Nature Tours. I first talked to Bitty about Guatemala at the British Birdwatching Fair back in 2008; it’s taken a while for me to get there but I’m pleased to say that it was well worth the wait.
The main purpose of the visit was to research the possibility of AvianAdventures offering a birding tour to a country that is comparatively little-known to UK birders and one that is trying very hard to develop its tourism industry. Research of this kind involves looking at all aspects of a potential tour including such things as accommodation and transport as well as sampling some of the main birding sites and meeting and birding with local guides. When I take a group of birders on a tour anywhere in the world I want to know as much as possible about what I can expect!
On this trip I was one of a small group that comprised Carole Sevilla Brown from Philadelphia, PA, Eduardo Ormaeche of Lima, Peru and Mike Nelson of Knoxville, TN. Together with Bitty, their company and good humour helped greatly to make the trip the success that it was.
I have been involved in similar situations in the past in several other countries that have been trying to develop the potentially lucrative birding tourism market or break into it for the first time. Amongst them, Uganda and Colombia come to mind as examples of countries that have had to overcome a negative image that has resulted from serious long-term security issues. Both of those countries are now very much open for business and it is to be hoped that over the next few years Guatemala can follow suit.
Another important aspect of these trips is the opportunity to give help, advice and sometimes training to the people who are involved in trying to attract visiting birders and those who will be guiding them and catering for them. Birders have a few particular needs that make them different from most other tourists. For instance, we keep unsocial hours and want to have breakfast when other tourists are still on their way back from partying! The fact that INGUAT, the Guatemalan Tourism Ministry, covered the cost of my return flights from Portugal is an indication of the value placed on this advice and wherever I have travelled in this capacity I have found people extremely keen to learn.
Just as a very simple example, one piece of advice that we gave to the Guatemalans was to focus in their advertising on the important bird species that are likely to attract visitors. In other words, to give people a really good reason to visit their country as opposed to Costa Rica or Panama for instance, which are their two main regional competitors in the birding market. Examples would be range-restricted birds such as Pink-headed Warbler, Fulvous Owl, Ocellated Turkey, Orange-breasted Falcon, Horned Guan and Belted Flycatcher. If these featured birds can also be brightly-coloured and easily recognisable, so much the better. There is little point in highlighting widely distributed species that can be seen in many other countries. It's obvious if you're a birder but maybe not if you simply own a hotel or lodge.
Portugal and particularly the Algarve is also looking to further develop birding tourism but it's disappointing that, in complete contrast to what I have seen elsewhere, the tourism people here don’t seem to be getting, or at least acting on, advice from anyone who knows about birding. The result is that we have recently seen plans that will waste scarce financial resources on erecting hides, boardwalks and information panels that are mostly unnecessary and in some cases wholly undesirable. Their advertisement last year in the UK's Bird Watching magazine attempted to entice people here with promises of "kingfishers, chickadees, herons, bee-eaters and elusive otters". One protected area in the Algarve already has a sign at its entrance telling visitors to look out for "Capped Herons and Blue Hummingbirds" and some time ago information leaflets were on display in tourist offices that featured species that have never been recorded in Portugal! As for the hides in the Algarve, there is scarcely one that is well-designed and most are also very poorly located. I could go on but by now you will have the picture! And, of course, it isn't that we haven't offered help.
Every country is different but there are aspects of birding tourism that are common to all. At the moment, the main difference between Guatemala and Portugal is that one of them realises they need advice and is prepared to go out and get it.
More about Guatemala very soon...