6 September 2023
Sustainable Tourism and Life-long Learning in Bocas del Toro
Photo credit: Lynn Wagner
story highlights

Tourism that exposes visitors to different ways of life can also support the achievement of SDG target 4.7: “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles[...]and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

In Bocas del Toro, Panama, community-based tourism initiatives help visitors gain an appreciation and respect for nature.

By Siri Grund

Target 8.9 under Sustainable Development Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth) calls for devising and implementing “policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products” by 2030. This summer, I experienced firsthand the importance that a focus on “local culture” adds to the UN World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) definition of sustainable tourism: “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.” While this definition is often understood to mean that touristic activities should not cause environmental harm, which is very important, tourism that exposes visitors to different ways of life can also support the achievement of SDG target 4.7: “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles … and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” 

Two Indigenous tourism initiatives I visited in Bocas del Toro, Panama, demonstrated the value of combining sustainable tourism and education opportunities. The goal of Indigenous tourism is to positively support the “social, cultural and place identity of Indigenous peoples.” In Bocas del Toro, these initiatives seek to support the economic well-being, cultural conservation, and environment of Indigenous communities.  These initiatives also provide important learning opportunities for the visitors.

These tourism initiatives, or community-based tourism (CBT), aim to include Indigenous communities in tourism development. In Bocas del Toro, Panama, Indigenous communities have had support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others to develop CBT initiatives. I had the opportunity to participate in two of these Indigenous CBT initiatives and learn from the different perspectives they offered.

In June 2023, I participated in a study abroad program in Bocas del Toro. One pillar of my studies was sustainable tourism, so our field trips included visits to a number of CBT initiatives. At the conclusion of this study abroad program, I traveled around the area with my family, and I was eager to share this knowledge and appreciation of CBT initiatives with them.  

With my classmates, I visited the CBT initiative “Timorogo,” which is located in the bay Bahia Honda. This bay is located between the islands of Bastimientos and Solarte and is home to a community of Indigenous Ngäbe people. The CBT initiative involves taking a boat ride through an aquatic trail with the opportunity to visit a bat cave (Timorogo). 

Our tour began with a conversation with Rutilio, the head of the CBT initiative, about life in their community as well as the initiative. One thing that stuck out to me was that Timorogo has seen a decline in visitation that began even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Rutilio attributed this decline to hotels and tour guides advertising a ride up the aquatic trail as a form of wildlife tourism. With hotels and tour guides organizing trips from the city of Bocas del Toro, the community of Bahia Honda is bypassed. However, these tours do not have the same respect for the environment and support for the community that Timorogo does. 

Next, we boarded the motorboat with Rutilio and an assistant who helped to manually paddle the boat once we entered the trail. After reaching the trail, the boat motor was turned off in an effort for us to make as little impact on our surroundings as possible. The trail itself was surrounded on both sides by several types of mangroves. Some even grew over the trail creating a tunnel-effect. As we slowly made our way along the trail we had time to observe and learn more about the plants and animals we were near. We saw sloths hanging from the trees and crabs climbing through the roots of the mangroves.

This tour provided an experience and venue to learn about and observe wildlife. The Indigenous perspective provided a different way of thinking about the human role in interacting with nature and whom it affects. We heard stories about the uses of different plants and we were able to slow down and exist in the environment. After the aquatic trail tour was over, it was time to eat lunch at the restaurant. We were served a delicious plate of chicken, lentils, rice, and patacones, which are a traditional side dish in Latin America made from fried and flattened plantains. This experience allowed the participants to gain an appreciation for the many ways in which the environment provides services for us. It also demonstrated that, in order to receive benefits from the land, we have to respect it.

With my family, I visited another Ngäbe community situated at the foot of the Cordillera Central mountains. The community named Rio Oeste Arriba developed a CBT initiative titled, “Örebä,” which aims to teach visitors how cocoa is cultivated, produced, and marketed in a sustainable way for the environment and community members. Visiting an Indigenous community that produces cacao seemed perfect for my family of chocolate lovers. The trip began with a water taxi ride from Isla Colón to the mainland, followed by a taxi ride into the valley of the Cordillera Central.

We were greeted with a delicious lunch with vegetables grown in the community. Our cups, bowls, and silverware were carved from the fruit of plants we could see through the window. After eating we were led on a tour through the plants that the community uses as food or medicine. Every few feet, our tour guide, Mao, would point out a plant and have us guess what it was based on its appearance or smell. It was fascinating to see all of the different plants growing side by side and to hear from our guide about what each plant was used for. We walked past the purple-hued potatoes (tarot, called dasheen in Panama) that we ate for lunch as well as the tree whose fruit was carved to make our bowls. We saw the plant whose fiber is used by Ngäbe women to weave the bags seen on the shoulders of people throughout Bocas. Through all of our guide’s descriptions, the respect and love that the community has for their environment and all that it provides for them was clearly conveyed.

While walking through the cacao trees, we learned the work put into the care of the trees is a labor of love. Different species of cacao are mingled with different species of banana trees, as well as other plant families. This intermingling avoids the challenges introduced by a monoculture system. No pesticides or fertilizers are used, so the individual health of each plant is incredibly important. Each plant has to be closely monitored to ensure that diseases are contained and do not spread to the other plants. This intense care means that small quantities of high-quality cacao are produced.

When we arrived at the area where the cocoa is processed, we were greeted by local women ready to show us the fermentation and grinding process. When freshly picked, the cocoa fruit has seeds covered with a sweet substance with the texture one might expect from a mango. After tasting the raw seeds, we tasted seeds that had been fermented. They had a more bitter and deeper flavor. Next, the seeds were crisped up over a fire stove while we talked with our guides about their cacao process and the Örebä organization. 


Throughout the tour, the guides stressed the importance of their visitors spreading the word about their initiative. They explained that the revenue gained from tours through the cacao plantation goes directly back to the local community for school, health, and other community needs.

The experience taught us the importance of respect for the land. The Rio Oeste Arriba community sees the land as an extension of their community and understands the importance of protecting and working with their environment so that it will be sustainable for future generations. 

The sustainability initiatives carried out by these CBT initiatives provide an opportunity to engage in sustainable tourism. Additionally, by learning and sharing the knowledge gained from these experiences tourists can bring home a newfound appreciation and respect for nature.

This article was authored by Siri Grund, IISD Generation 2030 intern. She is majoring in environmental studies and health equity and health promotion at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  

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