Do We Need the International Year of Ecotourism?

By Anita Pleumarom, Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team

The first flush of ecotourism is running into trouble. Claims that we can protect nature, benefit local communities and also bring national revenues to the South are faced with a different reality on the ground. From Thailand to Belize, ecotourism has opened the doors to more forest destruction. Indigenous peoples in affected areas have been forced out of their traditional lands in some cases. Reports are also growing that such “tourists” are illegally collecting forest plants with potential medicinal value for the biotechnology industry.

So when the United Nations proclaimed 2002 as International Year of Ecotourism, many NGOs who have been monitoring tourism impacts went on the alert. In October this year, an international coalition of environmental, human rights and indigenous peoples groups launched a call for a fundamental reassessment of the UN Ecotourism Year 2002. They also denounce the lack of transparency and failure to meaningfully involve indigenous peoples and Southern organizations in ongoing preparations.

"We are extremely concerned that this UN endorsement of ecotourism in light of all the fundamental problems related to the industry - in many cases another greenwash - will destroy more biodiversity and harm even more local communities," said Chee Yoke Ling, a representative of the Third World Network based in Malaysia.

"I really think this is going to be worse than the launch of package tours to the Third World," commented Nina Rao from India, Southern co-chair of the NGO Tourism Caucus at the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD).

The UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution (A/Res/53/200) in November 1998 to prepare for Ecotourism Year 2000. The UN Environment Programme  (UNEP) and the UN-affiliated World Tourism Organization (WTO) are to organize activities and projects around the event, and one highlight will be the World Ecotourism Summit, to be held in Quebec, Canada, in May 2002.

Critics argue the UN has given approval and is making preparations for the Ecotourism Year, without proper examination of the nature of the ecotourism industry and its many negative impacts on the tourist destinations. A letter to UNEP's tourism programme coordinator, Oliver Hillel, signed by more than 20 groups from the South and North, says, "Too often, international agencies have used the South for misguided and outright destructive development experiments, and … we oppose the idea that the International Year of Ecotourism serves as an instrument for ecotourism experiments in developing countries, which are likely to cause more harm than good."

The coalition letter vigorously questions claims that the ecotourism approach rectifies the economic inequalities, social injustices and ecological problems associated with conventional tourism. Rather, it warns, such developments have "opened opportunities for a whole range of investors to gain access to remote rural, forest, coastal and marine areas", and "more encroachments, illegal logging, mining and plundering of biological resources occur, including biopiracy by unscrupulous and corporate collectors."

In the letter, the groups also point out that "governments are utterly ill equipped for the International Year of Ecotourism" and often "promote all forms of rural and nature tourism as ecotourism, while frameworks to effectively scrutinize, monitor and control developments are poorly developed or non-existent."

Ecotourism promoters primarily target indigenous peoples and their lands, ecosystems and cultures, and this has especially attracted criticisms from indigenous and Southern rights activists. Deborah McLaren, the coordinator of the US-based Rethinking  Tourism Project that works for protection and preservation of indigenous lands and cultures expressed worries, "that much of what passes as 'ecotourism' is designed to benefit investors, empower managerial specialists, and delight tourists, not enhance the economic, social and ecological health of the host communities."

Rodney Bobiwash, director of the Forum for Global Exchange's Center for World Indigenous Studies stressed the need for a broader vision of indigenous concerns: "More than anybody, indigenous people realize that the discussion of tourism must be situated within a larger discourse encompassing the discussion of environmental and habitat protection, sustainable development, traditional knowledge, intellectual property regimes, biological diversity, access and benefit sharing, biopiracy and cultural property."

"Any discussion carried on without consideration of the cumulative impact of all of these processes will not only lack credibility but will also limit the opportunities for indigenous participation in the discourse," he said.

The Ecotourism Year is clouded with questions and doubts since its priorities and objectives are far from clear. Critics ask, for example, what will happen if this initiative suggests that all UN member countries should encourage ecotourism projects in rural and natural areas and many thousands of communities around the world end up competing with each other for a share of the tourism market? "…who will take responsibility, when ecotourism initiatives make investments based on miscalculated demand and later face decline, local businesses go bankrupt and entire communities are pushed into crisis?" ask the groups in the letter to UNEP.

Another scenario is that the event will encourage all holiday-makers to become ecotourists, resulting in hordes of travellers invading villages and protected areas, rather than staying in the existing tourist centres. Surely, such development could not be called "sustainable" and would have more undesirable impacts to add on to the vast problems already found in existing organized tourism.

The letter goes on to warn that ecotourism programmes that are promoted as part of the economic liberalization and globalization wave are likely to make matters worse. It states, "As supranational institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization are pressuring developing countries towards trade and investment liberalization, national and local governments are increasingly disabled to plan and manage tourism - and ecotourism - on their own terms."

It emphasizes that local concerns are at odds with the interests of "the corporate tourism industry, (which) aggressively pushes for non-intervention in companies' decision-making processes to expand their business and maximize their profits."

"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," says the coalition letter.

With the services sector under tremendous pressure in the World Trade Organization to be opened to foreign corporations, there are signs already that tourism in the South, a major service industry, is eagerly targeted by transnational corporations.

Meanwhile, the NGO coalition's concerns have also been discussed within World Bank circles. One official, Kreszentia M. Duer, acknowledged that "if we don't take a strategic position on tourism development…, small-scale efforts for community-based tourism will always be overwhelmed by the powerful interests of big business and the enticements of the big pay-offs they can offer to government officials."

"Without organizational efforts…and a multi-pronged, strategic approach, community-based tourism will tend to remain ad hoc, piecemeal, and micro," she concluded, adding, "The 'International Year of Ecotourism' will be little more than rhetoric, unless these challenges are addressed directly."

The debates around the Ecotourism Year have been heavily overshadowed by politics and a serious conflict of interests has evolved. Critical NGO observers complain that corporate industry and large nature conservation/ecotourism organizations have colluded to lobby for the UN endorsement of ecotourism and now want to exploit it for self-serving purposes (e.g. to get free promotion or funding for their projects), while voices that question the interests of the protagonists are excluded or given only cursory treatment. 

It is conspicuous, they point out, that only certain environmental NGOs and The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) have been allowed to play a key role in the preparations - exactly those organizations that have been strongly criticized by grassroots-oriented and indigenous groups for ignoring local people's concerns.

"In our experience, large nature conservation and development organizations do not respect (local people's) right," says a statement presented by a spectrum of indigenous peoples representatives and NGOs to more than 150 governments at a meeting on the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nairobi, Kenya, last May. "For example, several activities undertaken by the Ecotourism Society, Conservation International

and IUCN do not respect the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, particularly in regard to Year of Ecotourism activities, and often threaten cultural and biological diversity."

Initially, the UN invited all concerned parties "to exert all possible efforts on behalf of the success of the Year" (Resolution 1998/40). But the question arises, success for whom? If the charges turn out to be true that only certain parties will reap the major benefits of the Ecotourism Year, the UN's integrity and its proclaimed mission to primarily work for the well-being of the world's poor and disadvantaged will surely be put in doubt.

Given the great contradictions and ironies surrounding this UN programme, the already shaky image of ecotourism may further deteriorate, to the point that the grandiose Ecotourism Year scheme collapses like a house of cards. Is it worth all the energy and money that the UN can ill afford?


For more information on the Campaign on the International Year of Ecotourism, please contact: Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team at

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