In Puerto Rico, nearly a quarter of tourists have one thing in common: They flock to El Yunque National Forest. The lush, 11,735ha protected area, just an hour’s drive east of San Juan, has become the island’s No.1 nature attraction and most-visited site since the Covid-19 pandemic.
It draws approximately 1.2 million visits annually, according to tourism board Discover Puerto Rico, with spending on excursions, transportation, lodging and restaurants in that area representing up to 30% of the territory’s tourism economy.
Guests hike various trails, swim in waterfalls and learn about the forest’s more than 250 animal species and 240 native tree species. With luck, they’ll spot the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot, hear the calls of the native coqui frog and climb observation towers to take in a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling, cloud-covered, green canopy.
Now, some of them can help conserve it in a first-of-its-kind initiative for Puerto Rico. As of November, guests checking in to select resorts in the area have been given the option of including a US$1 (RM4.70) nightly donation to benefit El Yunque. The funds will go to trusted non-profit organisation Fundacion Amigos del Yunque, which runs the rainforest’s long-term programmes for conservation and community development.
The effort started with two beach resorts: The five-star Wyndham Grand Rio Mar near El Yunque, and three-star Wyndham Palmas Beach And Golf Resort in southeast Puerto Rico. Two more, Dos Aguas and the boutique Rainforest Inn, joined the effort this month, with the latter pledging to match every donation. An additional three hotels are in discussions to join the effort soon.
While the idea itself isn’t remarkably innovative, its impact stands to add up: Amadeo Zarzosa, general manager of the two Wyndhams, estimates that the resorts will manage to raise some US$350,000 (RM1.64mil) in 2024. With roughly 130 hotels across the island, that number could quickly scale up – though a tiny, four-room hotel like Rainforest Inn won’t contribute as much as, say, the 532-room Wyndham Grand Rio del Mar.
“You’re letting the traveller decide if they want to contribute – and more often than not, they will say yes,” says Carmen Portela, executive director of Fundacion Amigos del Yunque, adding that her goal is to help hospitality providers become sustainable stewards of their destinations.
Megan Epler Wood, managing director of Cornell University’s Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program, notes that it’s difficult to engage mainstream tourists in conservation. This initiative stands to be successful, she says, because of how many sun-and-sand tourists have first-hand experience of El Yunque and understand its vital role in stabilising the local ecosystem.
The rainforest accounts for 20% of the island’s water and helps absorb impact from major storms. It also regulates climate conditions, which is important to the health of coral reefs because they are sensitive to changes in sea temperature.
Guests at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar will learn much about this at check-in as part of an education campaign the hotel hopes will spur donations. If you appear tired upon arrival, the staff is trained to address the point later.
The funds are sorely needed, particularly for community development around El Yunque. Since 2018, the reserve has received federal backing for much of the research that happens there along with basic maintenance, says Keenan Adams, who serves as the park’s forest supervisor. This, however, leaves out programmes that could engage Puerto Ricans and help them care for their ecosystem.
To that end, donations to Amigos del Yunque will largely focus on building a year-round conservation curriculum for local school kids; the funds will also support training programmes for surrounding communities that help manage the rainforest. As the programme grows, proceeds will also be directed toward grassroots environmental groups on the island, says Portela.
Adams agrees that even small donations will go a long way in “actually making this place better”. Finding ways for tourism revenue to trickle far enough into local communities is a challenge, he says; an ideal next step would be getting cruise lines to participate. El Yunque is the No.1 attraction for cruisers to Puerto Rico, he explains, so guests from the huge vessels have a big impact on trails and facilities without bringing any direct funds to the forest.
Simple as it is, the initiative in Puerto Rico has little precedent.
But a small number of comparable programmes around the world have shown that it doesn’t take much effort for hotels to become active contributors to conservation efforts in their backyards. Anantara Hotels And Resorts, for instance, introduced a brand-wide voluntary donation programme across its 50 hotels last year to support 20 causes around the world; in Fiji, the six-villa VOMO Island raises some US$400 (RM1,878) monthly for turtle conservation and coral reef health monitoring through its automatic US$2.50-per-stay (RM11.80) donations.
In the United States, hotels such as Wintergreen Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park and Vail Resorts all have similar systems in place.
Why aren’t such programmes more common? Voluntary donations by guests could become more prominent, says Cornell’s Epler Wood, if major hotel brands were to add schemes supporting key ecosystems to their corporate social responsibility programmes. “Resorts in general are going to be more and more in jeopardy (as a result of climate events),” she explains, emphasising the relatively high stakes of conservation work for global tourism. Yet for all the talk about operational greening at hotels, she says, “there’s been very little public discussion of this.”