At the official launch of the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) 2002 in New York on 28 January, Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “Ecotourism has many definitions, but as a general goal it should provide an opportunity to develop tourism in ways that minimize the industry’s negative impacts and a way to actively promote the conservation of Earth’s unique biodiversity.”

One question to be asked is, however, what precautionary measures have the agencies in charge of the IYE actually taken to deal with the plethora of controversial ecotourism projects and the exploitation of the IYE by vested interests?  Despite all professions to altruistic principles, many reports received in the last few weeks suggest that the commercialization and corporate take-over of nature for tourism purposes is continuing unabated, and the IYE is likely to speed up industrial ecotourism whose goal of making quick optimum profits is in direct conflict with the long-range goals of conservation and sustainable development.

In today’s Clearinghouse, we are sharing several examples for discussion:

For today, Valentine’s Day, local authorities and business people in Thailand have teamed up to turn a national park in the Northeast and a marine area in the South into sites for mass wedding spectacles to boost the numbers of high-spending ecotourists. 

Off-road driving tours and motor rallies in wilderness areas - often jointly organized by tourism agencies, automobile and oil companies as part of nature and adventure travel promotion - have become a new scourge around the world and are increasingly provoking protests by local residents and environmentalists. A few days ago, a coalition of American conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court against the US National Park Service’s decision to authorize motorized vehicle tours in Georgia’s Cumberland Island wilderness area.

While poor farming communities in Third World countries are often facing hardship and even forceful eviction in areas set aside for nature conservation, American national park authorities have started a lease programme that allows to set up farms on parkland, which also encourages private tourism businesses. Conservationists have strongly criticized the project, arguing that as much as 1.3 billion acres in the United States are already devoted to agriculture, while the area for nature reserves is rapidly shrinking. Scott Silver of the Oregon-based Wild Wilderness organization called it “an industrial tourism scam”, saying, “It is worse than absurd. It represents a further example of the privatization of management control of our National Parks. It is the Disneyfication of ‘the rural farm experience’  turning small-scale farming into an ecotourism product to be sold as an attraction to park visitors.”

Apparently, there is no more place on Earth today that is safe from being marketed as tourism destination. Is Chernobyl to become a paradise for ecotourists? Unimaginable but true, a new plan, drawn up by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNICEF with help from the World Health Organization and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, aims to promote ecotourism around the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident , where the environment is still poisoned by deadly radioactivity and thousands of people are suffering from incurable diseases as a result of the disaster nearly 16 years ago.

Civil society groups around the world have repeatedly denounced increasing UN-corporate collaboration as it favors market-driven globalization rather than the environment and disadvantaged social groups. Nevertheless, UNESCO has in January made a deal with Aveda, a global cosmetics company based in Minnesota, on a multi-million-dollar project to promote ecotourism to six biodiversity-rich sites in Central America and Indonesia. Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, welcomed the public-private project, which will be co-managed by UNESCO and the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, a US-based international NGO. Apparently, there is little, if any, concern about the danger of biopiracy, despite growing evidence that pharmaceutical and cosmetics corporations are sending out their agents, who - as “innocent ecotourists” - illegally collect plant species and indigenous knowledge for industrial use.

The campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network (TWN)

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

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia

‘Wild’ Wedding Spectacles on Valentine’s Day

BANGKOK  Those who are planning to tie the knot with their sweethearts on Valentine’s Day might never think of the popular Phu Kradung National Park in Loei province, northeastern Thailand, as a wedding venue. This year, however, couples can book the park for this purpose.  The mass wedding ceremony will be incorporated with an ecotourism programme. Supphachai Dolprasit, chief of Phu Kradung National Park said he expected almost 100 couples to join the mass event.

Trekking trails in the Phu Kradung mountain reserve are known to be the toughest in the country. It was often said that lovers and married couples broke up right after trekking along the mountain trails together.

However, Supphachai said the concept behind the mass wedding was that true love generally grows from caring and consideration between lovers. Young couples that participate in the mass wedding will have to pass several steep paths on the trekking trail. When the couples reach the top of the mountain, where they spend the night, they will understand their relationship. Their marriages consequently will be happy and successful ones, said Supphachai.

In Trang, southern Thailand, some 36 couples have registered to take their marriage vows underwater off the island of Koh Kradan on Valentine’s Day. The Underwater Wedding is Trang’s best-known tourist event that started six years ago. It has generated much interest and international media attention and attracted the Tourist Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways as its chief sponsors.

The idea for an underwater wedding was mooted by Surin Phongtapien, hotel owner and deputy chairman of the Thailand Chamber of Commerce and permanent honorary chairman of the Trang Chamber of Commerce. Surin also owns a travel agency and a scuba diving school in Trang, both of which play a key role in the annual underwater wedding.

“The first condition is that the couple should both be certified divers,” said Photong Sanpawichu, the general manager of Thumrin Thana Hotel. Once the couples are met at the airport by the Trang Governor and other dignitaries, they are taken by horse-carriages to the city hall for the formal welcoming ceremony. The one-kilometre route is lined with people waving and wishing them good luck. Then, a big cocktail party and dinner is held at the Thumrin Thana Hotel with couples dressed in Thai costumes, followed by Thai music and dancing.

In the morning of Valentines Day, the couples take the boat for the two-hour-trip to Koh Kradan Island. Following a ‘Blessing’ ceremony on the beach outside Koh Kradan Resort, the couples don their diving costumes, masks, oxygen cylinders and take the plunge - literally. The underwater ceremony takes place at a table on the seafloor, where the marriage certificates are signed. After the underwater ceremony that takes less than 30 minutes, the couples return to Trang, where they change into their bridal attire for a grand Reception arranged by a luxurious beach hotel. The couples spend their wedding night in specially decorated rooms in the Thumrin Thana Hotel.

The next morning, the newly weds visit the National Park, where each couple plant a tree as a symbol of Trang’s commitment to ecotourism.

Edited from articles in The Nation, 9 and 13 February 2002.

Motorized Vehicle Tours Violate Wilderness Designation

WASHINGTON, DC—Three conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court today challenging the National Park Service’s (NPS) decision to authorize motorized vehicle tours in the Cumberland Island Wilderness. The suit, filed by Wilderness Watch, Defenders of Wild Cumberland (DWC) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), seeks to stop motorized tours in the Wilderness to protect the area’s primitive character and to bring the NPS management of the area into compliance with the law.

Cumberland Island, which lies off Georgia’s southeast coast just north of the Florida border, is the largest undeveloped barrier island on the eastern seaboard. The entire island was designated as the Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972. Ten years later, Congress designated 8,800 acres of the heart of the Island’s north end as the Cumberland Island Wilderness. The island provides shelter for over 300 species of birds and nesting sites for sea turtles, including the threatened loggerhead sea turtle. Because of its incredible ecological significance, Cumberland Island was named an International Biosphere Reserve in 1984.

Conservationists oppose the tours, citing that the Wilderness Act prohibits the use of motorized vehicles in wilderness except in rare cases such as emergencies. The suit also alleges that the commercial nature of some tours violates the Wilderness Act’s limitation on commercial use. While some of the tours are operated by the NPS itself, the majority are conducted by Greyfield Inn, a private corporation. In both cases, before authorizing the tours, the NPS failed to consider the environmental impacts of the tours or to elicit public review and comment.

“This is the only place in the country where the national park service drives tourists around in the Wilderness,” says George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch. “It sets a terrible precedent for Wilderness everywhere and flies in the face of the Wilderness Act.”

Hal Wright, director of DWC noted, “It is not our goal to end all tours on the island. We’re only concerned with those motorized tours which take place in Wilderness, where motor vehicles are prohibited by law.”

Most of the popular visitor sites lie outside the Wilderness boundary on the south end of the island and tours to those areas would not be affected by the lawsuit.

“The lawsuit is needed because the entrenched politics surrounding Cumberland Island have prevented Park Service managers from fulfilling their legal obligations,” stated PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer. “Congress made it clear that the Cumberland Island Wilderness must be managed by the same rules as all other Wildernesses in the United States. Restrictions, like those excluding motor vehicles, were put in place to achieve this goal. If we allow motor vehicle tours here, then we could have them anywhere in America’s Wilderness,” added Nickas.

Attorneys representing the conservation groups include Jon Dettmann and Anne Mahle from Faegre & Benson, and Dan Meyer, PEER’s General Counsel.

Press Release by Wilderness Watch, Defenders of Wild Cumberland and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, 11 February 2002.

Wilderness Watch is based in Missoula, Montana. Founded in 1989, it is the only national organization dedicated solely to the protection and proper stewardship of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness Watch (

Defenders of Wild Cumberland (DWC) - based in St. Marys, Georgia - was founded in 1995 to preserve as Wilderness the lands, bays and marshes of Cumberland Island National Seashore, (

Public Employees for Environmental Ethics (PEER) is a national organization that promotes environmental ethics and government accountability (

Farming the National Parks

PENINSULA, Ohio (AP) - Three families of modern-day pioneers will soon set out for the Cuyahoga River valley to carve out farms on national parkland. The three are the first selected for leases of up to 50 years to farm within the boundaries of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, an oasis of  coyotes, hawks and white-tailed deer between Cleveland and Akron.

The families were chosen in a competition run by the National Park Service with an eye toward preserving historic homesteads and encouraging environmentally friendly farming. The park service eventually hopes to set up farmers on 30 plots totaling 1,500 acres of the 33,000-acre park, which is in a valley that used to be covered by farmland.

Thomas A. Bradley, assistant superintendent of the park, said the lease  program is the first in the nation involving farmland in a national park. Backers expect it to become a model for farm preservation efforts. Bidders for the leases had to submit proposals that took into account the valley’s environment and the fact that they would be farming in a park that draws 3 million visitors a year. The farmers must limit herbicides and accommodate visitors if possible.

The government maintains title to the property and homesteaders get a renovated farmhouse, barns and land. They must pay rent for their houses at half the market rate, discounted because of the highly public park setting. They must also pay up to 10 percent of their gross farm income as rent for the land.

“It could be the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Darwin Kelsey, executive director of the Cuyahoga Countryside Conservancy, a nonprofit group that screened would-be farmers for the park service.

About 400 people expressed interest in the five initial homesteads and 22 completed applications. The government hopes the farm restoration program will give a hint of  19th-century rural Ohio while appealing to 21st century tastes and tourists.

George Haramis, who sells Christmas trees on a fifth-generation family farm near the park, says the kind of small-scale farming coming to the park offers visitors an exciting outing. “You come here for a lot more than for a tree or flowers,” Haramis said. “It’s a cool trip. It’s a lot of fun and you get a good product but the product is at the bottom of the list.”

Excerpted from an Associated Press article, 6 February 2002

U.N. Sees Chernobyl Area as Ecotourism Hot-spot

By Irwin Arieff

UNITED NATIONS - The area around Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident nearly 16 years ago, should be promoted as an ecotourism destination, suggests a recent U.N. report.

The world body’s latest study of the human consequences of the tragedy found the international community was gradually losing interest in providing financial aid to the area and said more attention should be paid to its economic development. It called on the international community to explore with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia “the possibilities for promoting specialized ecological tourism and for maximizing the contribution that these areas can make to the preservation of international biodiversity.”

All visitors except scientists and a few elderly people who have insisted upon returning to their homes are now barred from going within 20 miles (30 km) of the disaster site in Ukraine. While radiation levels remain dangerously high in much of the vast area poisoned by the deadly cloud of radioactivity released in the April 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, some areas are now safe and the near-absence of human activity has enabled local plant and animal life to flourish.

Yet “little attempt had been made to exploit the reduction of human disturbance to the ecosystems and cultural landscape in a positive way, and the current national plans for biodiversity protection and cultural preservation hardly refer to this potential,” the report said. The zone is anything but a nuclear desert.

“It sounds odd, but the restricted areas have actually developed over the last 16 years or so into an extraordinary environmental opportunity,” said Kalman Mizsei, an official of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP). “The natural environment has returned there,” he told a news conference. “It is a huge area that is very natural, with lots of wildlife and unique types of animals.”

U.N. officials said it was time to stop viewing Chernobyl as a crisis zone and start helping it help itself. “By continuing to treat (area needs) as emergency problems, we probably have exhausted the funding available,” said UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown. “A self-sufficiency approach will be the next chapter.”

The report was prepared by the UNDP and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF with help from the World Health Organization and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It said poverty and unemployment “blight the lives of people still living in the contaminated areas and of those who have been evacuated.” It estimated that some 7 million people are now getting some form of Chernobyl-related aid.

While radioactivity levels are gradually declining, some 100,000 to 200,000 people living in the vicinity nonetheless “are facing a complex and progressive downward spiral of living conditions,” the report said.

That group includes those living in severely contaminated areas, those without jobs and those made sick by the accident, including the many who have developed thyroid cancers. While a long-predicted surge in leukemias has never developed, some 2,000 thyroid cancers have been diagnosed and other types of cancer are expected to emerge in the years to come, the report said.

It estimated the number of thyroid cancers would keep rising, eventually reaching 8,000 to 10,000 cases. “While thyroid cancer can be treated, all of these people will need continuing medical attention for the rest of their lives,” it said.

Edited from a Reuters article, 6 February 2002

World Heritage Sites Get a Make-Over

By Kalyani

UNITED NATIONS—The United Nations (news - web sites) has teamed up with a global cosmetics company on a multi-million-dollar project to promote responsible visits to six sites of outstanding natural beauty, ahead of the launch Monday of a year-long campaign on the importance of balancing the demands of tourism with environmental protection.

Minnesota-based Aveda, which manufactures a range of high-end beauty products, last week pledged US$500,000 to a four-year project, which began in 2000, aimed at providing a mix of conservation and business tips at six tourism hotspots in Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and Indonesia.

The six spots are among 690 areas of “outstanding universal value”, designated World Heritage sites by the UN Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which is co-managing the public-private project with the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation.

“This is a very exciting opportunity to get training and resources directly to people on the ground who are fighting to protect important natural sites,” Natarajan Ishwaran, a senior official at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, said in advance of the launch of International Year of Eco-tourism in New York Monday.

The project seeks to bring in representatives from the heritage sites, the tourism industry, and local people for training sessions in conservation education, planning, business development, and marketing techniques. Awareness-raising activities will help local residents and hotel staff, among others, understand the effects of tourism on the environment.

The work is expected to help bolster protection at Sian Ka’an and El Vizcaino natural reserves in Mexico, Tikal national park in Guatemala, Rio Platano natural reserve in Honduras, and Komodo and Ujung Kulon national parks in Indonesia.

UNESCO emphasized that rising numbers of tourists at heritage sites worldwide was leading to an increase in harmful waste released into sensitive areas. “The global tourism industry is currently generating few tangible benefits for World Heritage sites in developing countries,” Ishwaran said. However, he recognized that the industry was often an important part of bringing income to cash-strapped parks.

The UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) welcomed the move to help promote responsible visits to the sites. “Let’s hope that this project will become a model for environmentally sound tourism around the world,” said UNEP’s executive-director Klaus Toepfer.

Source: OneWorld South Asia, 28 January 2002,