The following is our response to UNEP's letter that comments on concerns raised by NGOs and indigenous groups in relation to the 'International Year of Ecotourism 2002'. Since we are replying point by point, our comments are incorporated in UNEP's text.

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


31 May 2001


Re: Document ‘UNEP and the International Year of Ecotourism 2002’

We would like to thank Mrs. Jardine Aloisi de Larderel, Director of UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, for forwarding to us UNEP’s official response to concerns raised by NGOs and indigenous peoples groups in relation to the UN-initiated International Year of Ecotourism (IYE). With this open letter, we wish to share our comments on UNEP’s positions.


UNEP’s response:

The United Nations Secretariat as well as the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Tourism Organization have received a number of letters from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressing concerns about the declaration of the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) in 2002. They raised important questions about the IYE, stating NGOs' fears that it could lead to promotion of unregulated ecotourism and to misconceived and inflationary mass tourism in ecologically sensitive areas.

It is certainly true that some socially and environmentally sensitive areas are under pressure from excessive tourism visitation  traditional tourism tends to focus on some very limited destinations.  But it may be simplistic to be concerned only about the risk of global over-visitation through the IYE’s activities. More than 90% of potential ecotourism sites, such as the over 160 natural World Heritage Sites, are used well under their visitor carrying capacity. Many of the negative consequences of current visitation are as much due to inefficient management of visitation, inadequate policies for ensuring local tourism benefits, and lack of capacity building for local decision makers and community representatives, as to sometimes excessive numbers of tourists. Improved visitor management policies and practices in these and other sites could in fact be a key factor to ensure long-term benefits for host communities and conservation of natural resources  and the IYE could help define and disseminate the proper instruments to achieve this.


Our Response: 

We are concerned that UNEP understates the problem of escalating tourist numbers, if it claims that only “some” socially and environmentally sensitive destinations are under pressure. While industry promoters are rejoicing at the seemingly unlimited growth of global tourism   with ecotourism being the fastest growing sector -, it is unconscionable that the essential issues associated with increased volume and spatial expansion of tourist activities into new fragile areas continue to be neglected or obscured.

As regards World Heritage Sites, we strongly recommend that UNEP consults concerned UNESCO officials who have a clearer picture about the real situation. In stark contrast to UNEP’s view that the sites “are used well under their visitor carrying capacity”, there have been many reports about the devastating tourism onslaught on cultural and natural World Heritage Sites. This alarming trend is encouraged by countries’ tourism authorities and entrepreneurs who regard these unique  and increasingly popular - sites as mere cash cows.  Citing numerous examples from the Asia-Pacific region, the UNESCO office in Bangkok has repeatedly warned that the sheer number of tourists renders management efforts extremely difficult and destroys these places faster than they can be restored.

It is regrettable that UNEP sidesteps the important debate on the contradictions between social and environmental sustainability and unfettered tourism growth, by offering “improved visitor management policies and practices” as a key factor towards sustainable ecotourism. Given that tourism in general is one of the most fragmented and unregulated industries, it is simplistic - and detriment to all our experiences - to believe that planning and management tools suffice to effectively tackle the negative impacts of ecotourism.  At best, they may help to cure some of the symptoms in relation to micro-projects. And even if on-site impacts can be mitigated, off-site impacts and the serious problems caused by air, land and water transport to and from destinations remain largely unaddressed.

In reality, while ecotourism lurks behind a facade of “proper management” and “best practices”, it is and remains a policy of unrestrained growth. UNEP should recognize that and the fact that the intended IYE “celebrations” will not only encourage the mass movement of tourists but also attract more profit-hungry investors to sensitive areas, which in combination with inefficient bureaucracy, the lack of management funds, corruption and other chronic obstacles will inevitably increase not reduce unsustainable development.

However, while warning of the consequences of over-zealous ecotourism activities, it would be a misrepresentation to say that NGOs questioning the IYE are only concerned about the risk of “over-visitation”. Their critique goes far beyond and involves the discussion of deep-rooted structural problems associated with ecotourism that produce faulty development policies and unsustainable projects; facilitate the corporate take-over and commodification of nature, cultures and peoples in the global market place; exacerbate injustices and inequalities within and among countries; and so on. Voices from the Third World and indigenous peoples have repeatedly pointed out that tourism  and ecotourism  is part of a foreign-designed and imposed development model that not only adversely affects the environment but impinges on societies’ sovereignty, self determination and cultural integrity. All these broader concerns must not be undervalued.


UNEP acknowledges the NGOs' specific concerns and provides its responses below.

·              The UN has designated the IYE without previous examination of the nature of the ecotourism industry and its impacts on destinations. The IYE's priorities and objectives have not been spelled out clearly. To reflect these concerns, a number of NGOs suggested changing the title to “The International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism”.

UNEP's response - The title of the IYE is the result of a decision by the Member States of the United Nations General Assembly.  It cannot be changed without a decision of the General Assembly.  However, the greater concern is not being ignored. UNEP and the World Tourism Organization (WTO) have stated that one of the goals of the IYE is to review the role of ecotourism.  Neither UNEP nor WTO supports the promotion of ecotourism without a thorough and inclusive process of reviewing its benefits and costs to all stakeholders  and our ongoing work is aimed at ensuring this.


Our Response:

We recognize that UNEP agrees to a review of ecotourism issues, but a crucial question is what is actually going to be reviewed. So far, the IYE organizing agencies have not come up with a clear outline on the content and process of a review.

The joint announcement by UNEP and the World Tourism Organization (WTO-OMT) on the IYE 2002 clearly states that the programme will primarily focus on the review of “successful ecotourism experiences”, which certainly provides little or no space for critical perspectives. Then, the Minutes of the Preparatory Meeting of the World Ecotourism Summit - the main event of the IYE - reads, “…besides exchanging information on good practice cases and successful experiences, negative examples of ecotourism practices should be mentioned [sic!] and brought to the attention during the Summit and previous conferences as well.” If the latter is to indicate a shift towards a “Reviewing” approach, it is an extremely poor move and, indeed, a far cry from the expressed need for a comprehensive and impartial re-assessment.

In addition, we would like to reiterate that we have called on all concerned parties to refrain from ecotourism promotion during 2002 and instead give the review Number One priority. We have proposed that for good reasons because inadequate research leads to faulty analysis, resulting in wrong policies and highly dubious promotions, all of which can cause great harm to society and the environment.

Unfortunately, the IYE organizing agencies have diluted our demand and only consider a review as one of the goals, while promotion and marketing remains a predominant theme, according to the Minutes of the Madrid meeting.  However, trying to do both reviewing and promoting ecotourism at the same time reveals an inherent contradiction.

Although there is admission that even the meaning of ecotourism is not clear, UNEP and WTO-OMT are prejudging the situation by suggesting it is viable to develop and promote ecotourism worldwide in any case, which in fact constitutes a depreciation of the review even before it is completed. This is unacceptable. What, for example, if the reviewers come to the conclusion that ecotourism should only be developed in certain locations and under certain conditions, or local communities and indigenous peoples insist on their right to say ‘no’ to ecotourism and do not wish to be promoted as attractions?

Therefore, we repeat, promotion and marketing ecotourism must be removed from the IYE agenda, until a review is done that fully reflects the needs and aspirations of local people and can serve as a base for reasonable policy-making to bring forth genuinely sustainable development. We do hope that government delegates at the UN will support our appeal to make 2002 a Reviewing Ecotourism Year to achieve this goal.


·              Southern NGOs have not been given sufficient opportunities at UN planned activities to express their concerns.  They have reservations about the seriousness of tourism corporations’ and large NGO’s social and environmental policies. Furthermore, there has not been a clear strategy of involving indigenous peoples, Southern organizations and communities in the IYE preparatory process.

UNEP's response - UNEP believes that the participation of local communities and indigenous peoples is an essential contribution to the Ecotourism Summit and its follow-up. In order to promote environmental conservation and sustainable development of host populations, practical guidelines for ecotourism need to result from equitable negotiations between the local communities, indigenous peoples, governments, industry players and environmental specialists. UNEP and WTO are working with many partners on publications, regional and stakeholder-specific meetings, and awareness campaigns to contribute to the IYE.  UNEP will be distributing a manual for the IYE to help NGOs, governments, and academia to contribute to IYE activities.  It will include suggestions for organizations to participate in the IYE and to develop their own programme of action.   The manual will provide information on contacts in each region of the world for geographical coordination of activities. Another contribution will be an Ecotourism Information Pack with basic background data and references for governments and practitioners in the field of ecotourism, to be published this spring.

In partnership with NGOs, UNEP is arranging funding arrangements for an NGO meeting to help develop a common NGO position.  UNEP is also making arrangements to assist practitioners in attending the preparatory workshops as well as the World Ecotourism Summit. We welcome suggestions, advice and support to increase multi-stakeholder participation. UNEP also seeks to hold regional meetings for the IYE with representative groups of practitioners from NGOs, the private sector, government and communities, in partnership with the International Ecotourism Society. The goal of these meetings is to improve long-term planning capacity for ecotourism, and to prepare Governments and industry practitioners in key regions to participate actively in the IYE and the Summit.


Our Response:

It is laudable that as a result of strong criticisms from Southern and Northern NGOs and indigenous groups, UNEP is now paying more attention to the issues of participation. But as it stands, there are still no clear commitments to ensure that all concerned parties will be equally and meaningfully involved in the IYE process. Also, given that primarily Southern countries are targeted as ecotourism destinations, it is unfair that Northern NGOs that have no mandate to represent Southern and indigenous groups continue to play a dominating role in the process. That only the US-based International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and the Germany-based Ecological Tourism in Europe (ETE) are mentioned reinforces continuing concerns on this matter.

It should not be forgotten that the obstructive attitudes of the IYE organizing agencies regarding participation has caused considerable apprehension among many groups and caught the public eye. An especially embarrassing example were the flip flops performed by the WTO-OMT in relation to the first IYE preparatory meeting in Madrid last February (first inviting NGO representatives without providing funds for their participation, then cancelling the invitations, and in a last-minute action arranging to re-invite a selected few). The justification given by both WTO-OMT and UNEP that the UN has not provided any instructions and funding for the IYE does not bode well and raises the suspicion that the avowed more participatory approach remains mainly rhetorical.

Similarly, the production of UNEP’s information package for the IYE has attracted controversy because it overly relied on information and views of TIES, and only large North-based and international organizations were invited as official reviewers. Citing tight deadlines, repeated calls for a second review have not been met.

As regards the planned NGO meeting, we understand this is not an initiative by UNEP, but it will be organized by ETE and funded primarily by the German Federal Ministry of Environment, whereas UNEP is just a co-sponsor. 

According to the Minutes of the IYE Preparatory Meeting, UNEP will be largely responsible for NGO liaison. Due to the lack of consultation, however, it seems to have poor knowledge and understanding of the networks and groups that have been active in relation to the IYE. For example, UNEP’s tourism programme coordinator Oliver Hillel recently suggested erroneously that indigenous peoples “are not yet organized as a group to represent their views, needs and expectations about ecotourism within the process (official and unofficial) of the International Year of Ecotourism”. That shows there is no awareness, or acknowledgement, of the international indigenous peoples movement as an organized voice  not even of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus at the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and at the Conference of Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). The significant contributions to the ecotourism/ IYE debate by indigenous peoples are being denied altogether. There is also no recognition of the concerted efforts of indigenous groups to hold a IYE-related conference in Mexico in 2002, separate from the official process. UNEP should also be informed that a strong grassroots movement of Adivasis in India has joined the worldwide NGO campaign and recently put forward a Resolution denouncing the IYE.  


·              Promotion of nature-based tourism as a lucrative niche market could result in exploitation by transnational corporations, and initiatives centered on local people may be squeezed out or marginalized. If the IYE is used only as a promotional tool, small-scale efforts for community-based tourism may be overwhelmed by the powerful interests of big business.

UNEP's response - It is necessary to investigate which factors determine the economic success of small-scale, community-based ecotourism. Recent research from the International Ecotourism Society indicates that only one third of more than 150 ecolodges around the world are profitable. Almost three-quarters of the entrepreneurs, nevertheless, are committed to continued investment. While the "triple bottom line" approach of social, economic and environmental goals may justify this, it’s essential to ensure economic returns to local stakeholders in order for ecotourism to be viable.


Our Response:

In this context, we wish to point out that advocates often present ecotourism as “different” from conventional tourism and neglect its linkages with the complex international tourism system. While the mentioned TIES study on the profitability of ecolodges may be instructive, we believe UNEP is not well equipped to properly assess the economic value of ecotourism, unless it takes into account the increasing amount of research on macro-economic issues and the impacts of globalization and progressive liberalization in the tourism sector.

Therefore, we urge UNEP to consult its sister agency UNCTAD that has done substantial work on these issues and recently presented a very worrisome report entitled “The Sustainability of International Tourism in Developing Countries” at a OECD seminar on Tourism Policy and Economic Growth (see website: ). This study, prepared by UNCTAD’s Chief of Trade in Services, David Diaz Benavides, reconfirms that the economic, social and environmental sustainability of developing countries’ tourism industries is seriously threatened by escalating levels of financial leakages and the increasing “predatory practices and anti-competitive behaviour” of tourism companies primarily based in Europe and the United States. It further argues that the combined impact of these factors undermines the economic viability of local enterprises and the ability of countries to allocate necessary resources for environmental protection and sustainable development.

In view of this, the proclaimed goal of the IYE to enhance local tourism benefits appears unrealistic to achieve and may be misleading. So we would argue that policies and programmes should rather be directed to reduce the vast asymmetries and inequalities in the international tourism system and, thus, to create more favourable conditions for socially and environmentally sound development that is not confined to tourism.



·              An international commission is needed to examine ecotourism before the World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec on May 2002. NGOs have submitted a request to UNEP and the UN Secretariat to set up such a commission.

UNEP's response - We will continue to implement open processes for the IYE.  However UNEP believes that it may be contrary to IYE's objectives to establish a single official Committee  its sheer size, and the chance of leaving out significant practitioner groups, make it unfeasible. UNEP would rather support informal working groups (possibly through the regional meetings) to exchange agendas, experiences and position papers, ensuring that all parties will be fairly represented in preparatory activities, at the Summit and in its follow up. The IYE should be seen as a milestone, but by no means should it end the efforts to improve ecotourism’s toolbox.


Our Response: 

Drawing from experiences in the past, meetings and informal working groups, as suggested by UNEP, will only add to the piecemeal work and perpetuate the fragmentation of discussions, without delivering satisfactory results. Hence, we renew our call for an open and impartial International Commission on Ecotourism that can wrap up and assess all the experiences and work done on ecotourism-related issues and produce a comprehensive report for public scrutiny and for policy-makers at all levels to forge binding resolutions. The experience of the World Commission on Dams is a valuable precedent to consider.


In closing, UNEP and WTO have highlighted other concerns:

·              land tenure, prior informed consent and control of the ecotourism development process by host communities;

·              efficiency and fairness of the current concept of protected areas for protection of biological and cultural diversity;

·              the need for additional precautions and monitoring when operating in especially sensitive areas;

·              indigenous and traditional rights for self-determination in key areas suitable for ecotourism development.


Our Response:

We welcome the acknowledgement by UNEP and WTO-OMT relating to some sensitive issues such as community and indigenous peoples rights for self-determination, land tenure, local control of conservation efforts and tourism projects, etc. We look forward to exactly see how these themes are highlighted and what ideas will be tabled to work towards conflict resolution in these areas. For example, it will be interesting to see how UNEP’s forthcoming ecotourism manual deals with these questions. Since 2002 is coming closer, we also eagerly wait for an outline of precautionary measures to curtail the risks of abuse and repercussions from misconceived ecotourism activities during and after the IYE.

We would like to reiterate that ecotourism is not only a major force for change in itself but also a pioneering activity that opens the door for other commercial activities, resulting in escalating competition for the use of limited land and natural resources. Since poor and disadvantaged communities can hardly cope with the pervasive global race-to-the-bottom that threatens their livelihoods, customary rights, and cultural integrity, ecotourism planners can expect increasing contention and resistance from resident peoples. 

One major cause of conflict is the accelerating privatization and commercial exploitation of biodiversity driven by the booming biotechnology industry. Given the alarming reports about increasing biopiracy in relation to nature-based forms of tourism and the lack of legislation and monitoring systems to curb such illegal activities, it is disappointing that UNEP continues to uncritically support the merger of biological research and ecotourism - as recently shown again at its conference on Integrating Tourism and Biodiversity in Mexico City.

Accordingly, the proposal put forward at the IYE preparatory meeting by the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Biodiversity Programme to hold a workshop on “Investing in Biodiversity Businesses and Ecotourism” as a side event at the World Ecotourism Summit in 2002 should be dropped.

Instead, the IYE organizing agencies should foster open and sincere discussions on the dangers of tourism-related plundering of genetic resources, plants and wildlife, and illegitimate bio-prospecting and appropriation of traditional indigenous knowledge. These issues must be subjected to further investigation, and effective counter-measures need to be explored.  All that, we believe, is an indispensable part of the review of ecotourism.


The World Ecotourism Summit in 2002 will not be an official UN meeting, there will be no official policy making at the UN level, and ministerial attendance is voluntary. What we achieve through the IYE and its preparatory activities is entirely up to us. We appeal to all interested parties to join efforts and contribute to make this event help achieve the two basic goals of ecotourism: the participatory conservation of natural resources for generations to come, and the sustainable development of host communities.


Our Conclusion:

It is disingenuous of UNEP to assert that the Summit will not be an official UN meeting. The fact that the UN General Assembly has declared 2002 as the IYE is the impetus for the Summit. UNEP, as a UN agency, is at the centre of IYE activities and heavily involved in the Summit. The series of UN Summits on various themes have had widespread policy influence, and the World Ecotourism Summit itself seeks the participation of ministers. So while it is technically not a UN meeting in the manner of other UN Summits, it is also obvious that official acceptance of ecotourism, however ill-defined, is the objective.

Much more is therefore expected of the IYE organizing agencies, especially UNEP as part of the UN family, to build trust and confidence to truly understand the growing opposition to the IYE, which is rooted in deep concerns.

Although the concerns and questions raised by the critics of the IYE are considered as important, in practice, there seems to be little appreciation of holistic and critical appraisals of ecotourism and the legitimate fears that the IYE will do more harm than good. The less presentable aspects of ecotourism and root causes of problems are either not properly examined or glossed over by repeating the mantra of the “potential” benefits of ecotourism under “well-managed” conditions.

But emphasizing a desirable future state without elaboration as to how exactly the goals can be achieved is unhelpful to close the huge gap between rhetoric and reality, which is so prevalent in mainstream ecotourism discourses. Nor do the calls for “participatory” forms of conservation and tourism management sound credible, given the unhappy experiences of lack of full effective civil society participation in the IYE preparations so far.

Under these conditions, UNEP can hardly expect support from NGOs, people’s organizations and discerning citizens to lend credibility and legitimacy for the IYE. As for our part at least, we will rigorously continue our campaign at all levels for an ‘International Year of REVIEWING Ecotourism’. We also hope that our Clearinghouse for REVIEWING Ecotourism helps to raise public awareness on important subject matters and prevent that the IYE just perpetuates the pipe-dreams of ecotourism (for more information on the Clearinghouse, contact ) 

Again, we call on UNEP and the WTO-OMT to rethink their approach for the IYE. Meanwhile, we remain open to further debate and invite all concerned parties to give feedback on the points made in this letter.

Yours sincerely,

Chee Yoke Ling
Anita Pleumarom
Meenakshi Raman

On behalf of the coordinating groups:

Third World Network
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team
Sahabat Alam Malaysia
Consumers Association of Penang

The following is an updated list of networks, organizations and individuals who have confirmed their support for the campaign ‘2002: International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism’:

Third World Network
World Rainforest Movement
Asia Indigenous Women’s Network
South Asia Network on Food, Ecology and Culture
Tebtebba Foundation (Philippines)
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth, Malaysia)
Consumers Association of Penang (Malaysia)
Konphalindo (Indonesia)
Balai (Indonesia)
Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team (Thailand)
Thai Network on Tourism (TNT) (Thailand)
Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity (Biothai) (Thailand)
The Akha Heritage Foundation (Thailand)
CUSO cooperants in Thailand
Teena Amrit Gill, Journalist (Thailand)
Ubinig (Bangladesh)
Nayakrishi Andolon (Bangladesh)
Equations (Equitable Tourism Options) (India)
Nina Rao, Southern co-Chair, NGO Tourism Caucus-CSD 7 (India)
Environmental Support Group (India)
Children’s Rights In Goa (India)
Signatories of the Resolution against the IYE, Panchgani (India)
Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (Hong Kong)
Global Network for Anti-Golf Course Action (GNAGA) (Japan)
Institute for Sustainable Development (Ethiopia)
Zimbabwe Trust (Zimbabwe)
Africa Resources Trust (South Africa and Zimbabwe)
Local Artists Alliance for Solidarity (South Africa)
Mariam Mayet, environmental lawyer (South Africa)
Instituto del Tercer Mundo (Uruguay)
Accion Ecologica (Ecuador)
Instituto de Estudios Ecologistas (Ecuador)
Yachay Wasi (Peru/USA)
CorpWatch (USA)
Alliance for Sustainability (USA)
Rethinking Tourism Project (RTP), (USA)
Center for World Indigenous Studies (USA)
The Edmonds Institute (USA)
Cascadia Wildlands Project (USA)
Institute of Tourism & Development Studies, DeMontfort University (UK)
Forest Peoples Programme (UK)
Institute of Science in Society (UK)
Dr. Martin Mowforth, Dept. of Geographical Studies, University of Plymouth (UK)
Friends of the Earth (Sweden)
Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology (Norway)
Arbeitskreis Tourismus & Entwicklung (Switzerland)
Tourism Alert (Germany)
FernWeh-iz3w (Germany)
Norbert Suchanek, Journalist and Writer (Germany)