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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Autumn 2001

Cancel the ‘Year of Ecotourism’

An Open Letter to UN Secretary Kofi Annan

Third World Network

The UN proclamation of 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) has created a major debate because of the growing awareness that the ecotourism industry is not as benign as initially believed. In many studies conducted around the world, ecotourism falls short of the ideals inherent in the principles it promotes – conservation of nature and cultures, benefits to local people and local participation.

There are grave concerns that the IYE will result in misconceived mass-tourism that inevitably will exacerbate the degradation of ecosystems, loss of biological and cultural diversity, disruption of local economies, and displacement and dispossession of communities and indigenous peoples.

Consequently, a coalition of citizens from the South and North has urged the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to reassess the IYE in collaboration with affected communities.

Because nature-based tourism is one of the world’s most lucrative niche markets, powerful transnational corporations are likely to exploit the IYE to impose their own definitions of ecotourism, while people-centered initiatives will be squeezed out.

The WTO and UNEP have acknowledged that there is "little consensus" about the meaning of ecotourism. The agencies also have recognized the need to avoid ecotourism’s "past shortcomings and negative impacts," and that "there has not been, so far, a truly comprehensive effort to allow the various stakeholders to voice their views."

Myth of the Green Tourist

A survey by the Bangkok daily, The Nation, found that under the pretext of ecotourism, massive development projects – some involving logging – were in full steam in national parks countrywide, funded by loans from the World Bank’s Social Investment Project and the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund.

It is not difficult to imagine how the IYE could serve as a justification to turn the last nature reserves into concrete jungles.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region development scheme covers a vast area comprising Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan/China. The project’s eco-tourism plan heavily relies on the implementation of the Asian Development Bank mega-infrastructure program, which includes the construction of highways, airports, ports, megadams and entire cities.

The plan would resettle 60 million ethnic highlanders from their homeland as part of the project’s controversial "watershed conservation" program. The governments would "compensate" the refuges by offering them "ecotourism jobs."

Once the major bottlenecks in infrastructure are removed, the project’s emphasis will shift from ecotourism and village tourism to the promotion of "all segments of the tourism market." For the Mekong region, at least, ecotourism is not an approach that implies the persistence of small-scale and community-based activity. It is rather used by official agencies and private industry as a springboard to develop mainstream mass tourism.

Hotels, Logging and Biopiracy

The idea that ecotourism is a viable alternative to more unsustainable development activities is a myth. Because tourism provides the physical infrastructure for freer movement of people and goods within countries and across borders, ecotourism has opened opportunities for investors to gain access to remote rural, forest, coastal and marine areas. The more transportation systems that are established, the more encroachments, illegal logging, mining and plundering of biological resources occur.

The ecotourism boom has given rise to a new multi-billion dollar business – the illicit collection, smuggling and trade in marketable biological resources. In 1998, the World Customs Organization warned that this unprecedented illegal global trade in flora and fauna has resulted in vast damages and economic losses.

There is evidence that biotechnology companies are sending scouts around the world – often posing as tourists – to discover genes that have commercial value for the drug and food industry. Ecotourism makes biopiracy and illicit bio-prospecting easy because local people are often employed as "nature interpreters" to guide visitors in biodiversity-rich places and share their knowledge about indigenous biological resources.

Ecotourism’s "bad" policies and practices far outweigh the "good" examples. We fear that the IYE, in combination with the globalization policies, will make things worse.

A Call to Reconsider

Mr. Secretary General, we appeal to the UN to re-focus the program and change the name of the International Year of Ecotourism to the International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism (IYRE).

The new name will convey an unmistakable message to the international community that 2002 is not a time for celebrating the ecotourism industry but is meant as a period to reflect, take stock and search for solutions to the problems associated with ecotourism.

The Reviewing Ecotourism campaign will more aptly fit the agenda of Earth Summit 2002, which includes a review of sustainable development, including sustainable tourism. The re-focused program should advance ecological protection, economic equity, social justice and human rights over commercial interests. The IYRE will be less susceptible to abuse by profiteers and privileged minority groups.

We propose that the UN establish an International Commission on Ecotourism involving representatives from governments, communities and indigenous groups, nongovernment organizations, the private sector, academia and other concerned actors. A World Ecotourism Summit is planned from May 19-21, 2002, in Canada, as the main event of the International Year of Ecotourism. We believe that it is more appropriate to schedule this summit towards the end of 2002, after the Commission on Ecotourism has presented its report.

Unless the WTO and UNEP agree to initiate a comprehensive and sincere reassessment, we shall direct all our efforts to resist the IYE. We demand a complete review of ecotourism issues that take into consideration the political, social, economic and developmental conditions and the serious issues of globalization.

What You Can Do: For more information, visit the Third World Network website[http://www.twnside.org.sg]. Contact UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer [Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya, http://www.unep.org] and UNEP Tourism Programme Coordinator Oliver Hillel [Tour Mirabeau, 39-43 Quai André Citroën 75739 Paris – Cedex 15, France].

   

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