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April, 2009

EXPERTS

Highlighting the Pros of Constanza

JOCV member Ochi Motoko recently returned to Japan from a two-year tour of duty promoting tourism in the Dominican Republic town of Constanza. The Japan Journal spoke with her.

Tourism is an important industry that supports the world economy. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism in 2008 accounted for about 9.9% of the world's GDP and employed an estimated 238.3 million people, or 8.4% of total global employment. Tourism plays a particularly important role among developing countries, which depend on it heavily for earning foreign currency and creating jobs.

The Dominican Republic in the Caribbean is one such country. The Dominican government began actively seeking foreign investment to develop tourism in the 1980s, resulting in the many resort hotels that now line Dominican beaches. Today, about 4 million tourists, mostly from Europe and the United States, visit the island nation each year. According to the WTTC, tourism accounted for 16.6% of its GDP and employed 550,000 people, or 14.4% of all employed Dominicans. However, coastal development for tourism has been facing increasingly serious problems in recent years, including environmental degradation and the slowing of tourism demand. Therefore, the government has begun to promote ecotourism and is focusing on developing tourism in non-coastal areas.

One of the model districts for this new kind of tourism is Constanza, a town with about 90,000 residents located near the center of the country at an altitude of about 1,200 meters. Despite a cool and comfortable average annual temperature of 18°C and the presence of a lush national park nearby, Constanza is still relatively unknown as a tourist destination, with only about 10,000 people visiting each year.

"Most visitors to Constanza come from other parts of the Dominican Republic to escape the heat," says Ochi Motoko, who worked to promote tourism in Constanza from January 2007 to January 2009 as a member of Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV). "But Constanza doesn't really provide enough information and services to tourists yet."

Ochi worked in the Constanza branch office of the Ministry of Tourism, which also serves as a tourist guide office. When she first arrived, about the only tourist information the office could provide was a map. So Ochi collected information about lodgings, restaurants, transportation, and other things tourists need to know and made a leaflet that visitors to the office could take with them.

A lack of adequate trash cans in town had created an obvious litter problem, so Ochi proposed that new trash cans, decorated with pictures drawn by children, be placed wherever needed. This not only helped to clean up the community as a tourist destination but also raised the consciousness of children and other residents concerning the litter issue. Working with city government and another member of JOCV, Ochi asked local elementary school students to draw pictures with environmental themes. With her associates, Ochi organized an exhibition with 150 works of art, from which fifteen were chosen as winning entries and put on the trash cans that were distributed throughout the town.

"Because I talked about those trash cans virtually every day, one city government officer teased me about how much I seem to like them," Ochi laughs. "But I think that approach helped me to get the idea across to city officials that environmental education can take many different forms."

Ochi also cooperated with local residents of Japanese ancestry to make Constanza more attractive to tourists through a project dedicated to planting cherry trees. Japanese immigrants living far from their homeland have strong feelings toward cherry trees, which are the symbol of Japan. People of Japanese descent in Constanza had long dreamed of planting cherry trees in their town. By getting the support of the Japanese Embassy, Ochi and Japanese descendents started a project to transform Constanza into a cherry-tree paradise by planting them as a symbol of exchange between the town and Japan. The project was enthusiastically embraced by the entire community, which responded by establishing a project office headed by the mayor. To implement the plan, Ochi has appealed to a Japanese aid organizations for funding; the results of her efforts will be announced in March. If the project receives support, they will be able to purchase about 1,000 cherry tree saplings, which will be planted by children in various locations in town, near the airport, and at schools.

Another project Ochi pursued in cooperation with the city government and an NGO was the opening of a pottery class for the purposes of developing a local product and helping to alleviate regional poverty. Working with people in the tourism industry, she also spearheaded the development of a horse trail that serves the ecotourism market.

"In Constanza, I strongly sensed the importance of interpersonal relationships," Ochi says. "I learned that when you have trouble getting things done by yourself, you can often achieve your goals by working together with people who share your ideas."

SAWAJI Osamu, The Japan Journal