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Cablegate: Get This Monkey Off My Back: Bolivian Ecotourism

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DE RUEHLP #2669/01 3652132
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 302132Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY LA PAZ
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9615
INFO RUEHZN/ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COLLECTIVE
RUEHAC/AMEMBASSY ASUNCION 8688
RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA 6048
RUEHBR/AMEMBASSY BRASILIA 0011
RUEHBU/AMEMBASSY BUENOS AIRES 7233
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS 4279
RUEHPE/AMEMBASSY LIMA 4612
RUEHMN/AMEMBASSY MONTEVIDEO 6041
RUEHQT/AMEMBASSY QUITO 6896
RUEHSJ/AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE 1674
RUEHSG/AMEMBASSY SANTIAGO 1674
RUEHC/DEPT OF INTERIOR WASHINGTON DC
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 LA PAZ 002669

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV ECON ENVR BL
SUBJECT: GET THIS MONKEY OFF MY BACK: BOLIVIAN ECOTOURISM

1. SUMMARY. Known as the "Tibet of the Andes," Bolivia has
long relied on beautiful mountains, lush valleys and the
opportunity for adventure for its tourism industry. As more
of Bolivia's mystique is revealed to the outside world,
ecotourism experts continue to clash on how to develop (or
not) one of South America's hidden treasures. Some want to
promote Bolivia to whomever will come, while others worry
that such an invasion would cause more harm than good. Both
sides agree, however, that infrastructure problems, lack of
regulation, and overt poverty will hinder Bolivia's chances
to become the next Costa Rica, at least in the short-term.
END SUMMARY.

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TROUT TO TRAILS; SALT TO SNAKES
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2. Nearly every state (department) in Bolivia is working to
thrive as an ecotourism destination. Sucre offers fossils,
Potosi offers the Salt Flats, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando
offer the jungle and La Paz focuses on Lake Titicaca and the
Andes. Not all locales are created equal, however. Beni and
La Paz ecotourism officials have joined together to promote
linked travel between the two departments. Supported by the
Vice-Ministry of Tourism, the La Paz-Beni Tourism Foundation
promotes travel to Lake Titicaca for the Altiplano experience
and a trip to protected area Madidi National Park to
experience the Amazon rainforest. Pando ecotourism expert
Etelka Debreczeni lamented to Emboff that the national
government support for La Paz-Beni tourism limits the
capability of the other departments, who rely on state and
private funding alone. Recent changes within the state
government also cause conflict. "The people in the government
now aren't from Pando -- they don't know the rainforest and
it's hard to get them to care," says Debreczeni.
Vice-Minister of Tourism Ricardo Cox told Emboff that the
national government is not trying to discriminate against
anyone. Cox said, "we want people to experience all of
Bolivia, but the Lake (Titicaca) is one of our most popular
destinations."

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NO HARM, NO FOWL?
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3. Despite the boom, tourism in Madidi National Park remains
controversial. While Madidi is protected grounds, the area
around it is not. Four flights a day in and out of
Rurrenabaque bring hordes of backpackers, and locals undercut
La Paz-based tour operators promising a cheaper deal.
Environmentalists cringe as more "eco-lodges" spring up,
cutting down trees without any regulation. The travel
industry cheers success, but ecotourism experts worry that
Rurrenabaque's growth will quickly burn out as the lure of
nature becomes overrun with the sensation of a tourist trap.

4. Rurrenabaque is not the only location struggling to
straddle cheap tourism with environmental concerns. In many
of the jungle towns, unemployment remains at around 50%, so
the opportunity to make money will come before an
environmental conscience. In the border-town of Guayaramerin,
the Itauba Tourist Resort promotes a "wildlife park" with
live jungle animals. Emboff visited the site and noted it was
more of a glorified backyard zoo. Amazon birds, monkeys,
capybaras and jaguars huddled in cramped cages while visitors
snapped photos. Some parrots roamed freely, but their wings
were clipped to prevent escape. When asked where he obtained
the animals, the owner responded "You can buy anything in
Bolivia if the price is right."

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RUSSIAN ROULETTE ON THE ROAD
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5. The Amazon's birds are not the only creature at risk in
Bolivia. Thrill-seeking mountain bikers have flocked to one
world-famous Bolivian passageway that was monikered the
"World's Most Dangerous Road" by the Inter-American
Development Bank in 1995. Locally known as the "Road of
Death," it is rarely used for cars anymore, but thousands of

LA PAZ 00002669 002 OF 002


tourists come every year to ride down the steep 10-foot-wide
unpaved path that offers no guardrail between the biker and
the 2000 foot drop below.

6. The view itself cannot be beat, but not everyone gets to
covet the popular "I Survived Bolivia's Death Road" t-shirt
handed out by tour companies at the end of the trip. At least
13 bikers have died on the road in the past ten years, two in
2008 alone. One was an experienced biker, whose traveling
companions now say they want the road closed. "People aren't
fully aware of the risks they are taking when they sign
up...we certainly weren't," said biker Russell Herbert to
press after the accident. Tour companies maintain that the
trip is safe, and without regulation from any official
Bolivian entity, tourists will have to just take their word
for it.

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POOR MAN'S PERU?
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7. The variety of landscape in Bolivia is astounding, but
other countries do offer similar sights -- and in a more
organized manner. Peru is Bolivia's primary competition, as
it not only offers Machu Picchu, but owns one-half of Lake
Titicaca and has a Pacific coastline. Basic tourism services
lag behind in Bolivia, making it that much harder to attract
first-world clientele. American visitors have further been
discouraged by the $135 visa requirement, put in place by the
government in 2007. Access also remains a problem, with only
one daily flight by American Airlines (AA) and three weekly
Aerosur flights in and out of Miami. This proved troublesome
for travelers who were stranded in Bolivia during the
September unrest when AA canceled flights for over 15 days.

- - - -
COMMENT
- - - -

8. Ecotourism in Bolivia is a budding industry with lots of
potential. Before it can really grow, however, a concerted
effort needs to be made to organize it at a national level to
attract high-paying visitors, not only the backpacking crowd.
Additionally, regulations on safety and development would
ensure that Bolivia's beauty is not being exploited beyond
revival and visitors are not being placed at extreme risk.
While ecotourism leaders may want to hold-off development
until it can be catered to high-end tourism, those that are
jobless and in poverty may not be able to wait that long to
accept traveler's money. Due to continued political and
economic instability, Bolivia's ecotourism future remains one
that will attract "risk takers," leaving protected areas more
and more vulnerable. END COMMENT.
LAMBERT

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