October 27, 2000

Oliver Hillel, Tourism Programme Coordinator

United Nations Environment Programme

Division of Technology, Industry and Economics

Production and Consumption Unit

Tour Mirabeau, 39-43 Quai Andre Citroen

75739 Paris - Cedex 15, France

Dear Oliver,

RE: Call for a Fundamental Reassessment of the International Year of Ecotourism This is in response to your email of September 2000 and the International Year of cotourism (IYE), encouraging organizations and networks to dialogue on the subject of ecotourism and to collaborate in furthering related debates.

As you know, RTP and numerous other Indigenous and community-based NGOs share growing concerns about the direction of the IYE. Some of these concerns were noted in the discussions on the information kit on ecotourism. 

I want to encourage you to take an even more cautious approach to this IYE.

During an NGO meeting in Berlin last year, which you attended, many Indigenous (including RTP) and southern groups expressed a strong concern about promoting ecotourism during such an untimely year as 2002, the Earth Summit +10. Our concerns are based on the fact that:

1) Most ecotourism projects are not really community-based initiatives and have been developed through a top-down development approach with no critical analysis or information/planning about problems that occur over the long-term. We are concerned 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. Like other forms of tourism, ecotourism extracts profits for capital, which can move on what its profitability is higher elsewhere - the host communities are left with the negative effects and little of the profit.

2) There is much proof that many ecotourism projects do not bring about the benefits that they are suppose to - often in fact, increasing social, environmental and other problems in communities. To advance the IYE at this stage will only enhance these problems for the numerous communities that are completely unprepared for increased tourism.

3) One of our main concerns is that international environmental NGOs and ecotourism organizations will be benefit financially from the IYE - not communities. This certainly appears to be the case with such "eco-light" programs such as "tourism awareness kits" and the like which are really marketing and promotional strategies by environmental groups to "sell" ecotourism to unprepared communities.  Furthermore, the marketing of "tourism awareness kits" promotes a universal model, or cook-book approach to ecotourism development that has several negative implications: a) it promotes ecotourism development as a technical procedure as opposed to a social one based on the will and concerns of a local collectivity; b) it assumes that ecotourism development should provide a homogenized product or experience for tourists, as opposed to encouraging individual communities to engage actively with tourists in a way that brings tourists to new understandings of human-nature interactions, cultural differences, etc. and c) it promotes the idea that the only economic alternative for Indigenous and rural communities lies in tourism, instead of opening a dialogue on the many economic possibilities (integrated into the larger regional or community vision) that do not involve the socially and ecologically-destructive effects of directly hosting tourists.

4) Environmental NGOs and ecotourism groups have no interest in examining proposed 'ecotourism' developments from the perspective of the Indigenous Peoples whose communities and homelands are at risk. 

Such an approach is, at best, paternalistic and at worst motivated by the self-interest of these groups who are outsiders to the communities their policies will affect.

5) Indigenous Peoples' lands and lives are at stake when it comes to any form of development. Ecotourism is directly targeting Indigenous Peoples.

Yet, Indigenous Peoples are still excluded from formal working groups (including UN) and other opportunities to develop policy and guide these development initiatives.

6) And most importantly, an Indigenous-led approach to education, training, technical assistance and participation in international policies and programs IS yet to happen. Until governments, UN programs such as yours, environmental NGOs and ecotourism groups are willing to allow Indigenous and other rural peoples to take the lead and make dramatic, grassroots changes to this form of development (with the option of  saying "no" when undesirable impacts cannot be mitigated), this will continue to be a top-down development tool that only serves to exploit lands, cultures, and traditional economies.

Since the IYE was announced two years ago, RTP has monitored the preparations and our concerns are  valid - NGOs and government programs are capitalizing on this theme / industry for their own benefit and have not met and worked with lead organizations and recognized Indigenous groups that have been working in this field.  There has rarely even been an opportunity for dialogue. Because of this, RTP is coordinating an Indigenous Peoples tourism conference next year in Mexico to directly address this issue.

I personally spoke to you about this concern last spring in Berlin. At the time, your colleague at CI threatened to not sign the NGO tourism statement to the COP5 if it mentioned "concerns or anything that might be construed as negative" about eco/sustainable tourism. We did not know at that time of your collective efforts around the IYE.  Over this year it has become quite clear that CI and your program are benefiting and therefore are opposed, or wanting to play down negative concerns.  You would therefore be opposed to the concerns of Indigenous Peoples if they would negatively impact your own agenda.

Despite our efforts to dialogue, educate, and express concerns on this issue, our words have continued to fall on deaf ears. You have already received letters from other NGOs calling for fundamental reassessment of the year of ecotourism.  We add our voice to this growing chorus advocating an alternative vision. One that recognizes the socially and ecologically destructive potentials of ecotourism yet recuperates the potential of ecotourism to provide a genuine base for grassroots development and autonomy for Indigenous and rural communities. Our concerns have been the failure to include and communicate directly with organizations in the global south and Indigenous Peoples in the planning and promotions of the IYE.

On behalf of the Rethinking Tourism Project and our partners,


Deborah McLaren
Rethinking Tourism Project
Protecting & Preserving Indigenous Lands and Cultures
PO Box 581938
Minneapolis, MN 55458-1938 USA
Saint Paul, MN Office Phone/Fax: 651-644-9984