We are delighted that civic groups and the media participate in the Reviewing Ecotourism process and help to raise awareness about the risks of the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE). Here are two examples from Europe on how this is being done. Firstly, the Arbeitskreis Tourismus & Entwicklung (AKTE; Working Group on Tourism & Development), a Swiss organization based in Basle, has produced a paper in German, French and English, which explains the need for a fundamental reassessment of ecotourism and, thus, contributes to foster informed public discussions on IYE-related issues; AKTE’s document was also distributed among delegates at a recent meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. Secondly, we present a summary of a long feature article, written by Sarah Marriott of the Irish Times, which examines the question “Is Ecotourism a Greenwash?” and highlights the IYE controversy.

On this occasion, we renew our call to actively support our campaign for an ‘International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism’ and to contribute case studies and analyses that bring forth grassroots perspectives on ecotourism. The official IYE preparations show that UNEP and the World Tourism Organization (WTO) primarily focus on organizing large conferences that are overly dominated by tourism officials, businesspeople and consultants. There is still a clear emphasis on promotion and marketing of ecotourism, while people’s voices continue to be neglected, even though UNEP had agreed to undertake a review and to improve participation of all concerned parties. Increased efforts are needed to persuade the concerned inter-governmental agencies to take responsibility, e.g. by fully informing member countries and the general public about the manifold problems associated with ecotourism and by urging decision-makers at all levels to enforce effective development controls. In addition, civil society organizations and the media have to play a key role in furthering impartial investigations and monitoring activities, if it is to prevent major damages that the IYE is likely to bring. 

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), Thailand

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia

Evaluation of “Ecotourism” Needed

Environmental and human rights organizations fear that the International Year of Ecotourism 2002 (IYE) will primarily serve the interests of international tourism companies. They demand a fundamental review of the “ecotourism” model.

By Marianne Frei, Arbeitskreis Tourismus & Entwicklung (akte), Switzerland

The Cordillera Region in the north of the Philippines is world-famous for its beautiful landscape and its traditional rice terraces. Its attraction for foreign visitors is further increased by the “exotic” diversity of indigenous peoples’ cultures. It is an “ideal tourist site”, according to the Philippine government that intends to generate income through “ecotourism” while promoting environmental awareness and preservation of the cultural and natural diversity at the same time. Therefore, it spends a lot of money for the development of tourism infrastructure, whereas hardly any funds are left for the enhancement of agriculture. But “nature” and “culture” put onto the market by the tourism department do not belong to the government, complains Joan Carling from the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA). “The people have the right to decide what to do with their resources and with their culture. The government has no right to make a Tourism Master Plan for them and to sell them. And if the people decide to utilize their resources for tourism, they ought to be the ones to benefit from it.”

The dark side of “ecotourism”

Lack of participation in the decision-making process and inequitable distribution of tourism benefits are not only unsolved problems in the Cordillera Region of the Philippines but in many “ecotourism” projects located in natural areas of the South. Most of these projects are initiated and controlled by outsiders. Thus, a large proportion of income leaks away to national centers and partially to foreign countries, and too often, just a small share is available for nature conservation and income generation at the local level. In many cases, locals are left with no more than a few low-qualified jobs. Particularly in remote areas, residents are overlooked in the process of developing tourism, often because they do not have secure land rights or legal control over resource management. Even today, people  especially indigenous communities  are driven from their land or have their traditional customary rights abolished so that they lose access to natural resources, due to the establishment of new protected areas.

Furthermore, it is problematic that in the name of “ecotourism”, new  supposedly “untouched”  areas are opened up for investors, whereas little is done to make existing tourism more sustainable. According to critics from various countries, this has caused additional environmental destruction. Among other things, the opening up of more natural areas is said to have encouraged illegal logging and mining activities and settlements. Hence, the attempt to keep out less sustainable land-uses by introducing “ecotourism” has often led to the opposite result.

Even sharing traditional knowledge about medicinal plants and local plants - a special attraction of many “eco-tours” - bears risks. The Philippine Ministry for the Environment, for example, is aware of several cases of biopiracy, in which foreign pharmaceutical and agricultural companies successfully claimed intellectual property rights on valuable natural resources that had been illegally smuggled out of the country by scientists. Unless preventive measures are taken, the services of local nature interpreters can be abused very easily by profit-oriented research interests.

However, environmental constraints do not only occur in “ecotourism” destinations. Many of the biodiversity-rich places are located in Third World countries, and therefore the majority of “eco-tourists” has to travel over long distances to reach their destination  mostly by airplane. The leisure traffic is rarely considered in the debate about “ecotourism”, even though air travel is already responsible for 13 per cent of CO2-emissions generated by the Swiss population, for example. The contribution of air traffic to global warming, which has devastating effects on nature and the entire environment, is substantial and rapidly increasing.

“Ecotourism”  a controversial term

Under the label of “ecotourism”, a wide range of tourism products are on offer, which sometimes have only one thing in common: They include - at least for a short period of the trip - a visit to a natural area. An internationally recognized definition, which would clarify what criteria are to be used to measure the implementation of “ecotourism”, does not yet exist.

Nevertheless, the United Nations have declared 2002 the “International Year of Ecotourism” (IYE). This has alarmed many indigenous communities and environmental and human rights organizations, particularly from the South. They fear that transnational corporations might use the IYE to enforce their own visions and definitions of “ecotourism”. In fact, the Year also allows plenty of scope for interpretation. According to the organizers at the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), the United Nations have not provided any guidelines for the organization of the IYE. Thus, the goals and priorities have yet to be agreed on.

For the time being, the WTO and UNEP are taking their bearings from the definitions developed by the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) - organizations that primarily aim to finance conservation measures and nature reserves, generate local income and increase the acceptance of nature conservation among residents. However, the US-based organization “Rethinking Tourism Project” (RTP) maintains it is incomprehensible that these definitions that have been repeatedly rejected by indigenous peoples, are still being used as guidance, while the “ecotourism” definition developed by several NGOs, indigenous organizations and trade unions on the occasion of the 8th  Session of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD8) 2000 has been ignored. The latter puts emphasis on self-determined and sustainable development, a process in which all concerned parties are involved as equal and fully informed participants. This explicitly includes the right of indigenous communities to decide against a tourism development in their home territory.

In this context, it is important to raise the question of power and influence of the parties involved. In principle, the “ecotourism” model is based on the assumption that the cooperation between the tourism industry, nature conservation organizations, governments and local communities will finally lead to successful planning and implementation of “ecotourism”. Common interests are emphasized. The fact that in practice, “ecotourism” has so far only been able to fulfill its promises to a very limited extent, is usually explained with insufficient planning and implementation, and that will have to be further optimized  for example with the help of “best practices”. What is ignored, however, is that traditional communities in many natural areas have been - and still are - the targets of repressive and exploitative policies by their country’s dominant social groups. Their political and economic influence is accordingly small. In view of the often contradictory interests and motives of the parties involved, the fundamental question needs to be raised whether the “ecotourism” model will be able to fulfill its “win-win” promise with respect to disadvantaged population groups.

Reassessment of the “International Year of Ecotourism 2002”

Meanwhile, an international coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has been formed, which calls for a reassessment of the Year. Instead of pushing ahead a “promotional year” for a form of tourism that is so vaguely defined, the Year should rather be used to critically review so-called “ecotourism” and its impacts on the environment and people’s lives. In January 2001, the coalition sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as well as to the organizers at the WTO and UNEP, demanding that the Year be renamed the “International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism” and that an independent evaluation commission be set up to examine related issues. In addition, the coalition demands that the WTO and UNEP take a more serious approach to participation in their preparatory work. For in the follow-up of the Earth Summit of Rio (1992), the United Nations has committed themselves to a “Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue” that is meant to ensure the meaningful involvement of all parties concerned. Yet, the WTO and UNEP only invited one NGO representative from the South to the IYE preparatory meeting last February, and she even had to cancel her participation because funds for travel and accommodation were not provided.

An evaluation is urgently needed

A thorough evaluation of “ecotourism” is necessary indeed. “Ecotourism” is today considered as one of the most dynamically growing niche markets of the globalized tourism industry. Recently, it has even become a prominent subject on the international political stage. However, the tourism industry has not been able to substantiate the claim that it could make a significant contribution to poverty reduction. On the contrary, given the financial results of transnational tourism corporations and the concentration processes in the industry, one can assume that this big business rather contributes to a redistribution of income from the poor to the rich. The frequently expressed hope, namely that “ecotourism” could be more than a niche product and, indeed, become a model for a sustainable functioning of the tourism industry, seems to be increasingly doomed in the light of international economic policy.

As long as liberalization agreements in the service sector, such as the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and their effects on nature and the host population are left out of the debate, the hopes for genuinely sustainable “ecotourism” can hardly be taken seriously. It is precisely this service liberalization that also affects “ecotourism” projects, which worsens the chances of financially weak and vulnerable actors to survive the worldwide escalating competition in the industry. Self-determined community-based “ecotourism” projects, which invest in the sustainable utilization of resources and foster broad political and economic participation, often do not have the necessary experience to generate significant income and to withstand the competition from financially strong large companies.

GATS also does not adequately address environmental issues. National and local authorities’ scope to introduce rules for the protection of natural resources will probably be strongly limited by international commitments. The Indian organization “Equations” has expressed fears that the free import of technology, know-how, finances, labour and other services could result in increasing marginalization of local providers, the opening up of natural areas and more development of tourism infrastructure, without heeding ecological criteria.

Different interests, different logic

Hence, those who put “ecotourism” into the spotlight of the international public as a desirable goal, must not omit the political frameworks of trade and finance. Wolfgang Strasdas characterizes “ecotourism” in developing countries as an activity that intersects different systems - nature conservation, tourism, development cooperation. Although there may be common interests, contradictions always remain because each system basically follows its own logic. The tourism system primarily aims to enforce its economic self-interests in global markets. Due to its fragmented organizational structure - the various actors and corporations involved at the local, national and international levels -, tourism as an industry has a tendency towards short-term thinking and the externalization of operating costs. In contrast, nature conservation tries to realize long-term interests for the common good.

According to Strasdas, actors in each system understand - or accept - interventions from outside only if they correspond to the logic of their own system. Conservation organizations have realized this and are now offering the tourism industry and local entrepreneurs in natural areas a market-oriented response to the question as to why nature conservation is a worthwhile goal.

Through “ecotourism”, natural assets are being turned into commercial products, and two objectives can be achieved simultaneously: to generate money for nature conservation and to make the local population aware of the value of an intact environment. But that supports the argument that traditional subsistence economies are neither productive nor profitable, and local people are not utilizing natural resources in a sustainable way. The fact that in many places, indigenous communities - with their well-adapted economy and way of living - have ensured the maintenance of biodiversity-rich ecosystems for generations, is often ignored.

Even if in some cases, highly destructive activities - such as oil drilling - can be averted, an essential question is whether the commercialization of natural areas through tourism is really compatible with the goals of environmental protection and in the interest of local traditional economic and cultural systems. The “International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism” offers an opportunity to bring forth such long-overdue analyses and to learn from the experiences of the affected people in the South.


•               Joan Carling, “Fragwuerdiger Oekotourismus” (Questionable ecotourism), in: mosquito 6/1999;

•                Equations, “About time we rethought Tourism in the GATS”, 2000;

•               Anita Pleumarom, “Ecotourism: A new ‘Green Revolution’ in the Third World”, in: Clearinghouse for Reviewing Ecotourism (;

•                Wolfgang Strasdas, “Oekotourismus in der Praxis” (Ecotourism in practice), Ammerland, 2001;

•              akte-Kurznachrichten (News in brief), 1/2001 and 2/2001 (

This is a revised version of a paper the Arbeitskreis Tourismus & Entwicklung (Working Group on Tourism & Development, AKTE) distributed among delegates at a meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva last July. The article was also published in German language in the periodical “integra“ in June 2001. German and French versions of the paper can be requested at AKTE , Missionsstrasse 21, CH-4003 Basle, Switzerland, Tel. +41 61 261 47 42, Fax +41 61 261 47 21, e-mail:, website:

Is Ecotourism a Greenwash?

Since ecotourism facilitates the opening up of ecologically and culturally sensitive areas, it can be worse than mainstream tourism, argues Sarah Marriott of the Irish Times.

“Whale-watching in Ecuador may be more exciting than waterskiing in Alicante; trekking in Nepal may be more spectacular than trailing around New York, and seeing hill-tribe villages in Thailand may be more interesting than sunbathing in Turkey, but many of these ‘alternative holidays’, which are advertised as ‘green’ or ‘eco’, may actually damage the environment, local communities and wildlife,” she writes.

Drawing on experiences from many parts of the world, Marriott finds that ecotours often fail to live up with the standards, and even well-intentioned holidays and activities may cause long-term damages to the environment and particularly indigenous communities. Even small tour groups or lone travellers can have devastating effects on local communities. For instance, Survival International, a campaign group for tribal peoples, has warned tourists not to visit any of the little-contacted tribes on India’s Andaman Islands as there is the possibility that they pass on diseases such as measles, which can be fatal for the tribals.

Indigenous peoples are featured in brochures and on postcards as major tourist attractions, but there is clearly a lack of sensitivity for the people visited. Rigoberta Manchu, a Guatemalan Quiche Indian and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is quoted as saying: “What hurts Indian most is that our costumes are considered beautiful, but it’s as if the person wearing it didn’t exist.”

“Governments of some developing countries promote ecotourism and indigenous cultures, but seem to lack respect for tribal land rights or traditions,” says Marriott. “In Paraguay, the state tourist-board brochures promote indigenous cultures, yet racist views have been expressed by officials. One diplomat complained: ‘The Indians have become mercenary, changing their traditional dances for the tourists’ benefit’, while a former director of Paraguay’s airline commented: ‘The trouble with Indians is that they don’t do any work, they don’t produce wealth, they bring backwardness’.”

The Irish Times article also points out the threat of bio-plundering in relation to ecotourism. “Biopiracy, the theft of seeds and plants with medicinal benefits and even genes of indigenous people, is on the increase - and could be linked to ecotourism,” it says. “At a recent international NGO workshop in Zimbabwe, participants warned that, under the guise of ecotourism, scouts from biotech companies are using local people as ‘nature interpreters’ in biodiversity rich places, to discover plants with commercial value. Biopiracy has been in the news recently in India, when two ‘tourists’ were discovered leaving the country with 1,000 rare species of butterfly.”

Although Marriott acknowledges that not all ecotourist initiatives cause problems and some benefit communities as well as the environment, she notes that “the creation of such popular eco-destinations as national parks and protected areas is destructive - when it ignores the rights and needs of tribal peoples”. She cites the examples of Kenya and Tanzania, where many Maasai herdsmen have been excluded from essential grazing lands because of the establishment of national parks.

She further reports about the Botswana government’s current attempt to remove the indigenous people who live in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Reserve, covering an area larger than Switzerland, was created in the 1960s as a safe haven for the Bushmen people and the animals on which they depend. The Bushmen have lived in the Kalahari Desert for thousands of years. But according to a Survival International report, they are now forced to live in camps and not allowed to hunt, although the government encourages hunting as a tourist activity elsewhere in the country. In August 2000, the 600 Bushmen, who had successfully resisted the forced evacuation of more than 1,000 people in 1997, were reportedly beaten and tortured by wildlife department officials.

Tourism activities and wildlife conservation in parks do not always match well, suggests Marriott, referring to a recent article in the Scientist magazine about the Wolong Nature Reserve in Southwest China. The research revealed that the habitat of pandas there was more rapidly destroyed than in areas not protected. While the human population had increased by 70 per cent since the park was established, the number of pandas had dropped from 145 in 1974 to only 72 in 1986. “Tourists don’t think they have an impact on panda habitation, but indirectly, each visitor has some impact,” the report was quoted as saying. “They come, they take their summer vacations there and stimulate the local economy, which in turn uses more local natural resources.”

Marriott’s article also highlights cultural and natural places listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites and points to the problem that an inscription of a site onto the list does not necessarily mean that it is protected from a tourism onslaught. “UNESCO’s WHC [World Heritage Committeee]… is an advisory body and has no powers to restrict development, pollution or even destruction of heritage sites,” it notes. “It is in something of a catch 22 situation, since inscription of a site onto the list can encourage tourists to visit; then governments and entrepreneurs, particularly in developing countries, take advantage of this; and the site becomes increasingly commercialized.”

The 1,300-year-old township of Lijiang in China’s Yunnan province, which became a World Heritage Site in 1997, is cited as a glaring example. “…surviving the Mongol hordes, the Communist regime and earthquakes was easier than withstanding the advent of tourism”, which has resulted in a rapid erosion of the unique Naxi culture.

“UNESCO’s inability to prevent development can have damaging consequences for heritage” says Marriott. She reports about the danger of a government-approved plan that includes the building of a cable car up the mountain at Macchu Pichu, the world-famous 600-year-old Inca city in Peru. After UNESCO indicated it might remove Macchu Pichu from the World Heritage list if the project went ahead, authorities postponed the construction of the cable car two years ago (which means the project can be revived at any time). Last year, a UNESCO team found that the area, which is visited by some 350,000 tourists a year, has reached saturation point and will not withstand any increase in tourist traffic. No new construction should take place and tourist services be reduced to save the site, concluded UNESCO’s survey.

Tourism is said to be the biggest industry in the world and ecotourism the fastest growing section in the international tourism market. However, the economic benefits for Third World destinations are limited. Marriott states, “…much of the money tourist spend in developing countries (on accommodation, food, drink and travel) ends up back in Western countries. This ‘leakage’ means holidays, particularly ‘all-inclusives’, in developing countries generate more money for Western companies than for the local communities.”

Yet, the UN General Assembly has designated 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE), which has triggered a major controversy. After outlining the activities of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Tourism Organization for the IYE, such as organizing a World Ecotourism Summit in Canada , the article voices the concerns of environmental, human rights and indigenous peoples groups that the UN-initiated programme may reinforce “greenwashing” activities and result in an influx of travellers in environmentally and culturally fragile areas, leading to more destruction. It also quotes from the NGO coalition’s letter to UNEP: “As nature-based tourism is presently seen as one of the most lucrative niche markets, powerful transnational corporations are likely to exploit the International Year of Ecotourism to dictate their own definitions and rules of ecotourism on society, while people-centred initiatives will be squeezed out and marginalized.”  

For the full article, see Irish Times, 26 May 2001, website: