Chile prepares to include birds in its GDP

Chile is a world destination for adventure and nature tourism. This line of the economy is growing and will soon reach higher levels thanks to the fact that birdwatching is on the rise in the country.

Chile, that long and narrow corner of the Americas, is the destination where hundreds of thousands of the continent's most extraordinary travelers hope to arrive every year after traveling some 10,000 kilometers that bring them to some of the best places in the Americas. That is precisely what the Hudsonian godwit does on its flight from Canada to the Chiloé Archipelago, where Audubon has worked for the past 20 years to ensure this unique tourist finds 5-star hotel options at its wintering and feeding sites.

Little by little, Chile is becoming a destination that is not only preferred by these birds but also by national tourists who "migrate" between the country's regions, in addition to international travelers who visit us every year and prioritize bird watching among their activities.

With a little more than 500 species, Chile offers some truly striking birds, such as the charismatic seven-colored bunting, which can sometimes be a challenge to photograph with its fast and nervous movements among the reeds that challenge the tourist's sight. There is also a wide range of brown and gray tones, black and white options, and an array of shades that confuse even the most seasoned birder when trying to find these well-camouflaged birds in their environment.

But so much color is only some of what is on offer. According to the birdwatching market analysis that the Chilean consulting firm Fernweh completed in 2022 for Audubon Americas, among Chile's strengths compared to its neighbors is the great diversity of landscapes and ecosystems, from deserts, Mediterranean, temperate and sub-Antarctic forests, to Antarctica. In addition, worldwide, our country is one of the top five sites for pelagic observations - imagine being able to observe the most incredible seabirds, such as albatrosses and petrels - and of the total number of bird species, Chile has 12 species that are endemic to the country and 40 that are endemic to Patagonia. 

The same study reveals that this industry generates $62.6 million annually for Chile. However, if we include mass tourism, the estimate rises to $120.8 million, representing 1.3% of the total tourism market and 2.4% of the receptive market.

Tourists of various feathers

But who makes up this market? If we talk about Chile's avitourist segments, we can mention four large groups. In the first place, the so-called hardcore birder or twitcher, who represents the most specialized segment and spends long days searching for specific birds to increase their list of sightings. They are tourists basically from the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Secondly, we find enthusiastic birders and photographers, a group that is snowballing nationally and internationally. Although the main reason for their trip is birding, they choose to include other birding activities, such as the observation of different species of flora and fauna. Within this same segment, the enthusiast and the photographer differ in pace and objective. While the former prefers to travel longer distances, the latter travels more slowly to take more time for each sighting.

In third place are casual birdwatchers and ecotourists, an expanding segment whose main objective is not birdwatching but rather a complement. They enjoy nature and activities such as trekking and are interested in the natural and cultural history of the sites they visit. 

Finally, the less specialized segment, the mass tourist, focuses on visiting the most popular destinations, mixing nature, gastronomy, and entertainment, and acknowledges a unique attraction for charismatic birds.

The significant relevance of this study is that it will guide us in defining the best strategies to promote bird tourism in Chile based on a conservative and realistic approach to the level of spending and preferences of these four segments of tourists. We want to focus on enthusiasts and casuals, both groups with an upward trend and whose characteristics can contribute significantly to the economic development of the localities they visit.

Birdwatching and national economy

Based on the conclusions of this study, Audubon Americas seeks to promote birdwatching in Chile as a sustainable livelihood compatible with conservation and, at the same time, as an activity that contributes to the economic development of communities and the country. Birdwatching has proven to have the capacity to mobilize people positively and to rally support for the protection of birds, the places they need, and the people, as well as to promote and open spaces for conservation and citizen science initiatives, linking people with the generation of scientific knowledge. We have already seen this in Latin American and Caribbean countries, including the Bahamas, Belize, and Colombia, where 400 birding guides were trained using the Audubon curriculum. 

For this reason, we will train 30 bird guides and support 20 local entrepreneurs associated with the tourism industry to incorporate birdwatching into their business model in the coming months. Three regions that are part of the biodiversity hotspot of the central-southern part of the country -Valparaíso, Biobío, and La Araucanía- will be the focus of our work.

In addition, we partnered with the Cape Horn International Center (CHIC) to scale this program in a higher education curriculum in the country, in the Magallanes Region, and strengthen our efforts in the Araucanía Region. For this reason, in 2022, part of the Audubon Americas Chile team went to Puerto Williams, the southernmost city in the world, to see the facilities where the training will take place and which hopes to be a center for community outreach.

Chile is a country of great geographic and natural diversity, from the Atacama Desert - the driest in the world - to Patagonia and Cape Horn, and is ready to welcome "with open wings" the birdwatchers of the world, as well as the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that each year spend a season in this exquisite corner of the planet.