June 24, 2024

Adventure Tourism in the Darien Gap Raises Ethical Questions

Deep in the Panamanian jungle, Venezuelan migrant Franca Ramirez was scrambling to reach higher ground as a rushing river broke its banks, he said, when something caught his eye: a group of young men, snapping photos of the landscape.

The former policeman, who says he escaped imprisonment and torture in Venezuela, surprised him.

They were more than a day’s journey into the Darien Gap. The infamous stretch of jungle in Panama is a treacherous part of the journey for thousands of people wandering across the Americas, hoping to reach the United States.

“I asked if they were migrants,” Ramirez said last month, after going to Mexico. “They said no, they were creating content and scenery in the jungle.”

The encounter was a rare moment where two different worlds collided in one of the wildest places on earth.

The jungle has long attracted hardy adventurers. Panama’s Darien isthmus is called the ‘gap’ because it is the only missing section, running about 60 miles, of the Pan-American highway that runs from Alaska to Argentina.

For years, only the most intrepid travelers ventured into this once impenetrable forest – avoiding guerrillas and bandits; hunting for rare orchids or the great green macaque; and trying to enjoy the thrill of being one of the few brave enough to enter the wilderness where the road ends.

As adventure tourism has become popular around the world – from climbing Mount Everest to riding a submarine to see the Titanic – tour agencies have also organized group trips to the remote jungle.

“Tourism has been on the slow burner in the Darien for years,” said longtime Panamanian tour guide Rick Morales. “The jungle is special because it is powerful and humble.”

In recent years, parts of this jungle have been the site of a humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from around the world, including as far as Afghanistan, and parts of Africa, cross the dangerous terrain en route to the US border.

Blocked by visa restrictions from entering countries closer to the United States, a quarter of a million people crossed the region lawlessly last year.

At least 137 migrants have died or gone missing, including at least 13 minors, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In addition to the lack of infrastructure, the Darien poses security challenges: the migration routes in particular are controlled by criminal groups.

“The actual number of migrants who have died and disappeared in the jungle is much higher,” the IOM said in a statement to Reuters.

Tourists and migrants rarely meet face to face; the routes are almost always separated by thousands of miles. The migration routes hug the northern Darien coast of the Caribbean Sea, which offers the most direct path to cross the trackless jungle. The vast majority of tourism takes place closer to the Pacific Ocean.

Tour advertising does not mention the humanitarian crisis. Depending on the type of trip, tourism packages can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars per person for a package that can include medical care, satellite phone, proper equipment and a cook.

Marco Wanske, a 31-year-old German who went on a 12-day jungle trek in January, said everyone in his group suffered minor injuries such as “jungle rot,” a fungus that affects the feet, and that the group had to carry one person on the last day because she could not walk.

Migrants, at the mercy of smuggling gangs, often get much less for their money.

Kisbel Garcia, a migrant from Venezuela, said she paid over $4,000 to a guide who promised to lead her, her four children and her mother-in-law safely through the jungle. But instead of tourist protection, Garcia’s guide abandoned them two days into the trek.

The family walked six days through the mountains, passing corpses and running out of food, she says, relying on scraps of blue cloth tied to trees by migrants to mark the path for those who followed.

They lived.

“Migrants have to fight against all the risks without any help of any kind,” she said. “The Darien is hell.”

Conflicting Goals

The global adventure tourism market is booming, according to experts, with spending exceeding $680 billion, according to a 2021 report from the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

Social media has fueled interest in visiting some of the world’s most remote and inaccessible places, as travelers increasingly express the risk and exclusivity of their journeys through selfies and TikTok videos.

The government of Panama hopes to turn the Darien National Park into “the main ecotourism destination in Central America,” according to the country’s 2020-2025 master plan for sustainable tourism.

Many naturalists and bird watchers are drawn to the park, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981 for its biodiversity, dramatic scenery and indigenous peoples.

Even some paradoxical migrants recognize the attractions of the jungle. “While I was traveling, my heart was suffering, but my eyes were happy,” said Alejandra Peña, from Venezuela, who crossed the jungle with her three children, her partner and her elderly parents last year on the way to the US border.

But adventure tourism in the Darien has been criticized by some humanitarian aid groups, saying that marketing trips is in bad taste as if it were a test of survival skills and affects the suffering of migrants.

“The Darien is a humanitarian crisis zone, not a vacation spot,” said Luis Eguiluz, who heads Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Colombia and Panama.

The intersection of these worlds has raised questions of ethical responsibility, experts say.

“For people who want to go to wilder places, what is our duty?” said Lorri Krebs, an expert on tourism and sustainability at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. “We need standards, we need the ethical or moral components in our tourism efforts.”

In written responses to Reuters questions about the ethics of such trips, the Tourism Ministry defended its efforts to boost international travel to the region, saying Panama is “blessed with sprawling jungles, mighty rivers, mountain peaks, endless coastlines, and diverse cultures.” At the same time, he acknowledged a “catastrophic humanitarian crisis” in a particular part of the Darien due to migration.

Under pressure from the US government, Panama says it has stepped up efforts to stop migrants from crossing the jungle, including a campaign announced with the United States in April. However, the number of migrants in the Darien continues to increase.

The US State Department tells travelers not to enter a wide swath of the jungle it says is commonly used by criminals and drug traffickers, and where emergency services are scarce.

The Mark of the Big Question

Some tourists are already grappling with these questions.

“The migration crisis in this region was a big question mark for me before the trip,” said German tourist Mark Fischer, who initially worried the 100-km (62-mile) journey would be like “crossing the Mediterranean on a rubber dinghy for fun,” referring to another part of the world with a migration crisis. His concern was expressed when he was told that the track would not cross the migrant routes.

From the beaches of Greece to Texas’ Big Bend National Park, which is near the U.S.-Mexico border, sunbathing and hiking often take place in areas where others risk their lives, said Morales, the tour guide.

But in nearly 25 years bringing people into the Darien, he has never encountered migrants and said he plans his ways to keep these worlds apart.

“Personally, I could not put food in my mouth, or lie in my hammock protected from the elements, knowing that just a few hundred meters down the track there is a hungry mother and child spending the night sitting on the bare ground without shelter from the rain and insects,” he said.

He added that trekkers often ask how they can help local communities.

Profit Communities

Some indigenous people in the Darien – whose name, according to some experts, comes from the Spanish pronunciation of the original indigenous name of a local river – rely on tourism to bolster the economies of their local communities.

Travel Darien Panama is an Indigenous-owned tour operator that says on its website that it aims to help fund schools and improve the living conditions of its village. “We have lived here for many years, and these forests are our home,” he says.

The company’s co-founder, Carmelita Cansari of Darien’s Embrera community, says part of the company’s aim is to share its way of life: “We offer what we have to our community,” she said. “Caring for nature, our culture, and our dance.”

Nina Van Maris, a 32-year-old outdoor enthusiast from Luxembourg, said she was unaware of the migration situation in the Darien when she signed up for a trip run by German tour operator Wandermut.

She had seen an ad on Instagram while recovering from a rare debilitating illness that left her temporarily unable to walk. Encourage the journey to make a full recovery.

“I thought to myself: when I can do that, I can do everything,” Van Maris said.

In 2021, she crossed the jungle for ten days, from a village on the Balsas River in the heart of the Darien before ending up in the Pacific Ocean.

“When I saw the beach, I thought to myself: I did it. I was crying, it was so emotional for me,” she said. “The jungle gave me my life back.”

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City and Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey; Additional reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City and Maria Laguna in Mexico City; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Claudia Parsons)

They were Daina Beth Solomon and Laura Gottesdiener from Reuters and was legally approved through the Industry Dive Content Market. Direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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