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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2002 : Special Section

Special Section

The Paths Less Traveled

Sharing the lessons learned in sustainable planning, development, management and marketing of ecotourism.

Tourism is essential for the world’s economy. A substantial portion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment, especially in developing countries, is related to tourism. The United Nations (UN) estimates that globally, international arrivals amounted to more than 700 million in 2001. Protected areas, such as national parks and wilderness areas, now cover more than 10 percent of the earth’s surface and play a vital and increasing role in tourism. A key challenge is the path to sustainability; specifically, how protected areas can be managed effectively for tourism while ensuring their natural values—the assets that attract tourists—are protected for future generations.

The UN has designated the year 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE). Its focus on this issue is in recognition of ecotourism’s potential as a development tool that can advance the three basic goals of its Convention on Biological Diversity:

- conserve biological (and cultural) diversity;
- promote the sustainable use of biodiversity by generating income, jobs and business opportunities in ecotourism and related business networks; and
- share the benefits of ecotourism developments equitably with local communities and indigenous people.

The two principal organizations responsible for IYE are the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Their principal goals are to open a wide review on the potential contribution of ecotourism to sustainable development and to exchange information on good practice techniques and lessons learned in the sustainable planning, development, management and marketing of ecotourism.

“Tourism is a good business—4.4 percent of the world’s GDP flows directly from tourism—over 200 million people are employed in the tourism industry,” commented Klaus Toepfer, executive director of UNEP, in his opening remarks at the recent World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec, Canada. “Together, we should strive to harness this potential for the benefit of people and the environment, all over the world. Ecotourism is a set of principles that can, and should, be applied to all forms of tourism, and lessons learned can be shared with mainstream tourism.”

Ongoing Debate

Under the aegis of the IYE, a number of organizations are discussing concerns and expectations, including NGOs fearful that it could lead to the promotion of unregulated ecotourism and to misconceived and inflationary mass tourism in ecologically sensitive areas.

UNEP admits 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 also says that it may be simplistic to be concerned only about the risk of global over-visitation through the IYE’s activities. For example, more than 90 percent of potential ecotourism sites, such as the 160-plus 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. UNEP hopes that the IYE could help define and disseminate the proper instruments to achieve this.

The following is a summary of specific NGO concerns and UNEP responses to them:

Concern: 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 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 its ongoing work is aimed at ensuring this.

Concern: 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 distributed an agenda for the IYE to help NGOs, governments and academia to contribute to IYE activities. It included suggestions for organizations to participate in the IYE and to develop their own program of action. The agenda provided information on focal points in each region of the world for geographical coordination of activities.

Concern: 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.

UNEP and WTO have highlighted additional 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.

Many of ecotourism’s unique challenges are addressed in a publication launched jointly by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the WTO and UNEP. Entitled, Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas: Guidelines for Planning and Management, the report builds an understanding of protected area tourism and its management. Guidelines provide an analytical structure, based on a wealth of practical case studies and experience, and are aimed to help managers and policy makers better manage tourism and protected areas.

Ensuring that tourism follows a sustainable path requires clear leadership and enhanced partnership at all levels, particularly between the tourism industry and relevant government and non-governmental agencies. This book describes how this can be done, and UNEP, WTO and IUCN feel it will be a major contribution to the International Year of Ecotourism 2002.

For more information, visit: tourism/tourismguidelines.html.

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