The shade coffee farms, forested volcanic landscapes, and beaches of Western El Salvador are an unknown treasure for ecotourists in Central America. An increasing number of Salvadoran tourists, as well as the international surf community already enjoy its delicious climate, world-class waves, wonderful coffee, and great local food. Surfers are often the first to discover new adventure travel destinations as a New York Times article recently notes. The coffee economy of this lovely shaded region has declined due to foreign competition, a major threat to biodiversity and the local economy.

Sustainable tourism helps to augment and diversify the economy of the region, support local communities and preserve biodiversity. Through specialized business planning, market research and coordination with municipalities, NGOs and international tourism corporations, EplerWood International executed a destination development campaign to build the identity of the region and ensured it was developed sustainably. This campaign included a new brand, EcoExperiencias El Salvador, a website, targeted advertising, graphic arts, specialized illustrations, and special events to promote the destinations and encourage investment, while working closely with local developers and municipalities to ensure the framework for sustainable tourism development was in place on the ground.

As a subcontractor for DAI on USAID’s Improved Management and Conservation of Critical Watersheds (IMCW) project, EplerWood International advised on planning for tourism in national parks, community development in tourism development zones, and coastal sustainable tourism development planning. EplerWood International helped this project raise over $2 million in new investments and sustainable tourism economic activity in the region as of September 2009.

During the next phase of this project (September 2009-October 2010), EplerWood International focused on planning for tourism in Montecristo National Park, home to the cloud forests known as El Trifinio which are shared by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Endangered sea turtle conservation and tourism at select turtle nesting sites along the entire Pacific coast also took high priority. The Salvadoran government prohibited the collection, sale and use of sea turtle eggs and body parts. Four of the six species of the world’s endangered sea turtles come to the beaches of El Salvador to lay their eggs, and it is estimated that up to 99% of the eggs are stolen from nests and sold for human consumption, regardless of species. The most common species in El Salvador are the Olive Ridley and the Pacific Green (Black).

Please see the Project Update: Financial Sustainability of Parks and Sea Turtle Conservation program for more information on this work.

EcoExperiencias also inaugurated a new attraction, Vista Lago (Lakeview) at Coffee Cooperative Los Pinos, along beautiful crater lake, Lago Coatepeque, recently nominated as one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World. There was a very successful grand opening with distinguished officials from the Ministry of Tourism and USAID. Narrow hiking trails wind through the lush coffee plantation from the upper ridges of the crater to the lakefront. The trails are dotted with custom made wooden-deck look outs which offer amazing views of the lake and at the bottom hikers can relax on the dock or in the grassy recreation area. Until now, most Salvadorans were not able to enjoy the lake, as the majority of lakefront property is privately owned.

Gap Adventures with the Planeterra Foundation now offers a voluntour to the region. This trip will include volunteering at Los Pinos Coffee Cooperative, visits to the Pyramids of El Tazumal and Casa Blanca, indigo and jade workshops, a Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee farm, and the Joyas de Ceren Archeological Site.

Local tour operators have also had a successful humpback whale season. EplerWood International supported the development of guided whale watching tours along El Salvador’s protected hard coral reef, near Los Cobanos. This is the first time the Salvadoran population has been able to view the whales. Most people were not aware that the humpbacks made the coral reef their temporary home during their annual migration. You can see exciting footage here.