Today, we first present a commentary on 'The Myth of Ecotourism' by Jackie Alan Giuliano, which was recently published by the Environment News Service (ENS). As other critics have argued earlier, Guiliano suggests that ecotourism is not a solution to the severe environmental and cultural problems caused by conventional mass tourism. He also warns that ecotourism efforts may just serve the interests of global corporations that are responsible for the destruction of tourist destinations in the first place.

According to information recently released by the World Tourism Organization, UNEP and The International Ecotourism Society (see e.g. WTO website and the UNEP Manual for the International Year of Ecotourism- IYE 2002), the IYE unleashes a new wave of ecotourism conferences the world over. But many people who are seriously seeking solutions in the field of tourism are increasingly disgruntled at such events. Even if organizers claim to foster 'multi-stakeholder' dialogue, these conferences often turn out as networking gatherings of tourism players with vested interests and 'green-washed' business events, with little opportunity for in-depth analysis and forward-looking debate. Also in relation to the recent WTO-organized IYE preparatory conference held in a luxury hotel in Cuiba, Brazil, critics came out to say the event was 'closed-door', unfocused and unproductive. And as far as we can see from the official IYE programme, forthcoming meetings are unlikely to take a different approach and to deliver more satisfactory results.

Independent tourism researchers like Martin Mowforth and Ian Munt, the authors of the book 'Tourism and Sustainability: New Tourism in the Third World', and Brian Wheeller of Birmingham University's Centre for Urban and Regional Studies have observed and questioned the nature of these ecotourism conferences for many years already. We have selected some snippets from their works for this Clearinghouse issue to show that, in the words of Mowforth and Munt, "such regular gatherings of interested parties to discuss sustainability may serve as mass exercises in self-deception and self-assurances that 'we' are getting there."

As we have pointed out earlier, we resist the IYE unless the organizing agencies adequately provide for open and independent forums, where concerned local people and supporting civil society organizations get a chance to fully share their ideas based on real-life experiences and genuinely work towards solutions. We have also demanded that the UN initiates an International Commission to conduct a complete and impartial review of ecotourism-related issues. Unfortunately, however, this proposal has so far remained unheeded by the IYE organizers (see UNEP's response to NGOs, Clearinghouse, No.7). Yet, we believe that a Commission that honestly strives to listen to all voices and pays less attention to narrow commercial tourism interests could be a viable alternative to the conference extravaganza in relation to the IYE. And probably, it would also spare poor countries, whose national tourism organizations often co-sponsor costly ecotourism conferences, from wasting scarce financial resources.

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


The Myth of Ecotourism

By Jackie Alan Giuliano

New Millenium,
Old Millenium,
Time is timeless.
Grasping is futile,
Rejecting is painful,
Care lightly and gently.

Like a mother holding a child,
Not too loose, not too tight.

* Martine Bachelor, Zen Buddhist teacher, Sharpham College, England

The United Nations has declared the year 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism. The goals of this designation are lofty and the UN hopes to make environmental protection an integral part of tourism development. But the idea that tourism can be sustainable at all may be a myth. It may not be possible for struggling nations around the world to resist compromising their environment and their culture to lure affluent foreigners and their dollars.

Many different organizations, governments, and businesses have defined ecotourism, but I especially like the definition adopted by the Estonian Ecotourism Association. Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic countries, bordered by the Gulf of Finland in the north, Russia in the east, and Latvia in the south. This definition says, "Ecotourism is responsible travel, that conserves the natural and cultral heritage and contributes to the well-being of local communities."

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people."

Some of the philosophies of ecotourism as outlined by the Estonian association include understanding the social carrying capacity of the area, understanding the ecological carrying capacity of the area, benefiting the local people, appropriate pricing strategies, building environmental costs into the prices of goods and services, and responsible marketing of tourist opportunities.

Has experience shown that these goals are even remotely possible?

The Rethinking Tourism Project states, "The environmental, cultural, social and economic impacts of tourism development reverberate in communities around the world, but increasingly target indigenous peoples. The last pristine wilderness areas: national parks, biospheres and other protected areas, coastal areas, mountains, jungles, and deserts are all Indigenous homelands. All are being targeted for increased tourism development, often without full participation, management and ownership of Indigenous Peoples."

Developments to attract tourists often conflict with traditional uses, such as subsistence farming, fishing or hunting. Sites that are sacred to the indigenous people of a region such as rivers, rocks, and other places of spiritual significance are being destroyed or invaded by tourists. When cultures and lands are changed or destroyed, they rarely revert back to their original uses of forms.

The tourist industry netted nearly US$500 billion in 1999, but to whom did the money go? Certainly not to the local craftspeople and merchants, who sell their wares, often hand crafted over many weeks, for a fraction of what their time would be worth in a tourist's home country. Certainly not to the thousands of native guides who have given up farming for their families to take a few paltry dollars from stingy tourists.

How often have you heard a friend or relative brag about how he got a beautiful piece of art for a couple of dollars? If a tourist was really interested in supporting the local culture, if the artisan asked for two dollars, the visitor would give $20 instead.

Lee Pera and Deborah Mc Laren, author of the book "Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel: The Paving of Paradise and What You Can Do to Stop It", report that "the tourism industry is encroaching on remote and biologically diverse areas, home to Indigenous Peoples, and threatens our environment and way of life."

The World Tourism Organization said that in 1998, there were 635 million tourist arrivals around the world. Pera and McLaren said that few of these tourists leave any benefit for poor, Indigenous Peoples.

In an article for the Rethinking Tourism website, Pera and McLaren wrote, "For the recipients [host countries] of international tourism, the tourism industry creates dependency upon a fickle and fluctuating economy beyond their local control. Local economic activities and resources are used less for the benefit and development of communities and increasingly for export and the enjoyment of others."

"With so few international policies and guidelines restricting it," Pera and McLaren say, "tourism has given free reign to develop throughout the world. In fact, it has led the globalization process in the areas of transportation, communications, and financial systems."

While I have no doubt of the sincerity of the efforts of environmental organizations worldwide to promote a more sustainable approach to tourism, most of the world tour operators use ecotourism claims as marketing ploys rather than as statements of true philosophical commitments.

Global tourism, while allowing some opportunity to meet people, visit exotic environments, and understand cultures, provides billions of dollars to the corporations that are raping, polluting and destroying the Earth, her people, and her animals. Of course, there is ample corporate support for ecotourism efforts, and nations all over the world are getting help opening their doors to rampant consumerism and corporate takeover of every aspect of our world.

The vast majority of tourists are not folks with sustainability and community building on their minds, who stay with local families and respect local customs. The vast majority of tourists sail in on huge cruise ships or fly in to stay in large hotels and take advantage of local people.

Pera and McLaren said, "Tourism introduces a consumer culture into communities whose societies and values may not be based on the economic power of the individual. Tourists' quest for 'authenticity' often leads to a prostitution of the local culture for the demand and enjoyment of the tourists."

It is important to note that the introduction of Western products and lifestyle into developing nations is actively promoted by the World Trade Organization.

Cruise ships are among the most obscene offenders. For example, each day, whether at sea or in port, a typical cruise ship passenger may generate one kilogram of burnable waste, half a kilogram of food waste and one kilogram of glass and tin - five or six times as much as a person on shore. On a ship carrying 3,000 passengers, this could be as much as 7,500 kilograms a day of waste, much of which is dumped at sea into fragile marine ecosystems.

In fact, most international treaties governing cruise ship pollution specifically allow ships to dump waste, including untreated human waste, at sea. Every month, 200 cruises take 400,000 visitors to Caribbean ports alone.

Global corporations, promising a tidal wave of income to local cultures, lure men and women all over the world to become slave labourers to the tourism trade. Local people are forsaking feeding and supporting their families as farmers or workers in sustainable jobs in their own communities in favor of demeaning jobs playing the simple foreigner to visiting affluent tourists who couldn't care less about their cultures.

I think there needs to be a serious reality check done by ecotourism proponents about this idea that tourism will generate world peace and environmental harmony. What it does generate is deadly pollution, toxic chemicals and waste, the destruction of ecosystems, and the erosion of communities, turning local people into agents of the world's corporations.

While I applaud organizations around the world to change the damaging effects of tourism, encouraging more people to travel through ecotourism may just be contributing to the problem. And I support those compassionate individuals who travel to be with people, not to take advantage of them. But as long as we have leaders committed to a global economy bent on every inch of the globe, ecotourism efforts may be playing into the hands of global corporations.

Possibly the best recommendation toward healing the tourism issues is to begin a worldwide effort to restore damaged cultures and twisted economies - and to ask people to just stay home.

Source: ENVIRONMENT NEWS SERVICE: Healing Our World - Weekly Comment

(c) 2001 Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. Reproduced with permission of the author ( and the Environment News Service ( The author may be contacted at <>.


Ecotourism Conferences Under Scrutiny

'Like Any Other Business'

By Martin Mowforth and Ian Munt

In July 1991, the Caribbean Ecotourism Conference was held in a hotel - the construction of which necessitated stripping the protective mangrove cover - on the ecologically fragile outskirts of Belize City. It was followed later that year by the First World Ecotourism Congress, then, from 27 April to 2 May 1992, also in Belize, by the First World Congress on Tourism and the Environment.

The 1992 conference registration fee ensured that only the professionals, the tour operators and those with their fares and fees paid for them were able to attend. Delegates heard two days of presentations and plenaries which allowed little or no opportunity for in-depth analysis. Questions were unrelated to each other and debate never got off the ground.

The two days of fieldwork gave delegates the chance to trample through the pristine environments that they value so highly and to wrap themselves in sustainability and appropriateness.

Howards Hills, a US investor speaking at the conference, promised money. Ecotourism, he argued, is just like any other business. He boasted that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation would lend up to $50 million to any 'environmentally sound' tourism development, conditional upon a 25 per cent US stake in the project. Environmentalists consider such sentiments anathema to the very ethos of ecotourism. They argue that a small scale, locally controlled and ecologically sensitive industry can neither sustain many visitors, nor be a big money-maker.

The major organizers of the conference were Bob Harvey, Diane Kelsay Harvey and the Belize Tourist Board. The former two, US citizens, went on to organize the Second World Congress on Tourism for the Environment in Venezuela (1993) and the Third World Congress in Puerto Rico (1994). All these conferences were run as profit-making enterprises and all were dominated by US participants, US interests and US groups.

Conferences are of course an eminently suitable medium for the sharing and transfer of ideas, debates and developments in the field of tourism. [However], we wish to point out a new trend in conference content linked to new forms of tourism and the notion of sustainability. It may be argued that such regular gatherings of interested parties to discuss sustainability may serve as mass exercises in self-deception and self-assurances that 'we' are getting there.

[Also], the motive for conferences may [have] more to do with the attraction of extra tourists than with the sharing of ideas. In such cases, the conferences themselves are merely an extension of the conventional tourism business and should be recognized as such.

Excerpted from Mowforth, M./ Munt, I. (1998), 'Tourism and Sustainability: New Tourism in the Third World', London/ New York. Martin Mowforth is a Research Fellow in Human Geography at the University of Plymouth (UK), and Ian Munt is an Associate Lecturer at the Open University in London (UK).

A Carry-on Up the Jungle

By Brian Wheeller

The thriving mushroom of ecotourism continues to swell at a disturbing rate. Manifestations of this phenomenon were clearly evident at the Adventure Travel Society's World Congess on Ecotourism and Adventure Travel [in Manaus, Brazil, in September 1993].

Held at the five-star luxury Tropical Hotel - a veritable pleasure dome - this vast complex seemed just a trifle incongruous, a touch ironic, when one considers the ideals of ecotourism. An obvious criticism I know but one that speaks (yells) volumes of the hypocrisy of ecotourism.

On second thought, may be it was precisely in keeping with, and the perfect paradigm of, the realities of ecotourism - an altruistic, even noble, concept hijacked for commercial and material purposes.

We were told, repeatedly, that worldwide, one in 15 jobs was created by tourism, therefore tourism was a proven job creator; that tourism was and for the foreseeable future is likely to remain the fastest growing industry, therefore employment prospects were good; that there were problems with tourism impacts but (you've guessed it) these were caused by mass, package tourism - the 'other', therefore that by avoiding, in every sense of the word, mass tourism and by promoting ecotourism we would have all the benefits of tourism without any of the costs. Wonderful.

Speakers, often themselves tour operators, expressed their passionate belief that the indigenous 'natives' should not be exploited by tourism but must have control of their own destiny; that the local populations should not be dictated to by outside pressures, etc. Yet this seemed strangely at odds with their own business practice. A number of speakers and delegates were in Amazonia not only to attend the conference but to sample, on behalf of their prospective clients, the various alternative (or more likely alternative native) jungle lodges in the vicinity. The criteria being applied were not from any theoretical eco-audit (for sale at the conference bookstall) but from a more prosaic 'keep the (ie my) customer satisfied' school of thought.

While this is perfectly reasonable from a commercial point of view, it is nevertheless difficult to marry with the ethical arguments of indigenous control being advocated from the conference platform. It suggests that, despite all the fine rhetoric, once again the tourists are calling the shots in these so-called havens of ecotourism.

The quality of the array of papers inevitably varied considerably though almost without exception they were delivered from an unequivocal pro ecotourism axis. There wasn't really anything new coming out of the conference in terms of solutions - just the familiar resort to suggested codes of conducts, restrictions of access and the dubious 'quality product' argument.

I know there are genuine individuals and genuine organizations striving, against all odds, for a 'better' form of tourism. Unfortunately, for me the impression from this conference was that these odds are lengthening. It was the same old story of the 'big sell' of ecotourism, where the desire, and the very real opportunities, for short-term returns in the form of the green-backed dollar took precedence over the long-term considerations of a green environment, and sustainable social and cultural structures.

To me this was the real agenda of the conference - how to increase/improve business in general and how in particular to develop commercial opportunities in ecotourism.

This begs the question though whether ecotourism refers to ecologically, or economically sound tourism. Some would say these are synonymous, most would argue they should be. On a global scale, however, I'm afraid they never will be. Significantly, it also raises the basic question of whether the World Congress on Adventure Travel and Ecotourism is a forum for open discussion on ecotourism or whether it is essentially a form of glorified 'Trade Fair' for ecotourism operators, government bodies and journalists eager to embrace ecotourism.

The formal conference proceedings were considerable enhanced by a spectacular evening social programme, including three sumptuous banquets. We eco-travellers really know how to have a good time. But it struck me as odd that, when the 'locals' did appear (to perform ethnic dances), we the eco-protagonists/eco-pretenders should greet them so rapturously. Odd, because no doubt we would scorn a Flamenco dance in a two-star hotel in Torremolinos as being a frivolous staged 'pseudo-event' - as demeaning and not the real thing at all.

For the full article, see Tourism Management 15[3], 1994. Brian Wheeller is a lecturer at Birmingham University's Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, University of Birmingham (UK)