Today, we are pleased to share with you reflections on the disputed International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) and ecotourism development in Mozambique by Tamsyn Reynolds, an investigative journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. The Mozambican case study shows that a large ecotourism scheme in the Bazaruto Archipelago, the Vilanculos Coastal Wildlife Sanctuary, is generating the same pattern of problems like in other developing countries: discrimination of local residents, displacement, disruption of traditional economic activities and loss of natural diversity, for example. Yet, the government reportedly considers the project as a "model" for future developments in the country.

Notably, the first regional conference in preparation for the IYE on "Planning, Development and Management of Ecotourism in Africa" was organized by the World Tourism Organization (WTO-OMT) in Mozambique's capital Maputo last March. Although some of the negative ecotourism impacts on local communities and the environment were articulated at the meeting, the WTO-OMT report concluded, "...2002 presents an excellent platform to display Africa's success stories. Africa's enthusiasm for ecotourism needs to be communicated [to the World Ecotourism Summit] in Quebec in 2002..." While African official and business-minded circles backed by WTO-OMT were primarily interested to make the IYE an opportunity to put the region onto the world's ecotourism map, local people's voices and reality-based case studies were neglected as usual.

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


International Year of Ecotourism 2002 and a

Case Study from Mozambique

By Tamsyn Reynolds

The United Nations' declaration in 1998 of 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) has sparked major concern among NGOs worldwide. There is a growing awareness that ecotourism is not the benign enterprise many believed it would be; that it falls far short of its stated aims, and of the principles which supposedly underlie it: conservation of nature and cultures, benefits to local people, and local participation.

In a much-publicised letter to United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan, members of the Third World Network, an international group of organizations and individuals involved in issues relating to development, have called on the UN for a fundamental reassessment of the IYE. They want it renamed the International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism, and say that "Unless the [World Tourism Organisation] and the [United Nations Environmental Programme] 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 takes into consideration the political, social, economic and developmental conditions and the serious issues of globalisation."

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), who, together with the World Tourism Organisation (WTO-OMT) is the official organiser, has responded by including review as one of the wider aims of the IYE.  However, the original spirit  - one of celebration of ecotourism  still seems to be dominant. Review is not one of the four core objectives, as listed in UNEP and WTO-OMT's joint statement. Instead, the objectives are primarily concerned with improving the marketing and promotion of ecotourism; exchanging successful experiences in the industry; and generating awareness of its capacity to contribute to the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage in remote areas, and to improve standards of living.

The Third World Network (TWN), along with other civil society organisations and activists, is concerned about both the running of the IYE  primarily issues to do with transparency and participation  and its substance: the promotion of an industry with inherent problems and serious dangers.

The Tourism Lobby

Ecotourism should be understood as part of tourism, an industry whose proponents frequently boast is the largest in the world. Over the last two decades, it has made its way into the tourism mainstream, and is now the fastest growing sub-sector of the industry. It's part of the general "greening" of business that sees companies like BP sponsoring wildlife initiatives and sporting a green, leafy logo.

Under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the tourism industry is one of the most deregulated and centralized in the world. It is strongly dominated by transnational corporations: major hotel, leisure and travel companies, almost all of them based in tourist-generating countries in the West.

Even the United Nations' WTO-OMT is business orientated  it's the only intergovernmental organisation that permits membership by the private sector. While private members, such as Arthur Anderson, Euro Disney and ITC Hotels, used to be "affiliates", their role was upgraded in 1997 when the Business Association (WTOBC) was formed, with the aim of giving "greater purpose to a mixed collection of different interest groups which include airlines, hotel groups, travel agents, tour operators and international associations..."

Together they form a very powerful pro-tourism lobby. The WTO-OMT has called the tourism industry "one of the most remarkable economic and social phenomena of the last century".  It's pitched as a development strategy, the general idea being that, as a generator of jobs and wealth  as a conduit through which prosperity can flow from the developed to the developing world  all efforts should be directed at ensuring it grows without barriers or restrictions. With that in mind, one of the main aims of the WTO-OMT is encouraging further liberalisation of the international tourism industry.

With the forthcoming IYE, the tourism lobby is directing itself at ecotourism, an increasingly fashionable niche. While it has become more and more difficult to deny that conventional mass tourism has serious negative consequences, ecotourism is touted as a win-win form of tourism, a panacea that offers all of the benefits, without the drawbacks.

In another letter, this time to UNEP's Tourism Programme Coordinator, Oliver Hillel, the TWN and others say that one of the "most worrisome aspects is that the UN General Assembly and agencies have agreed to give the green light for the IYE without first making an adequate assessment of the nature of the ecotourism industry and its multi-dimensional effects."

There are powerful arguments that ecotourism is not only full of empty promises, but actually poses a very real and serious threat to environments, economies and indigenous populations  all over the globe, but particularly in the third world. While its supposed benefits are often illusive  or fall into the wrong hands  its costs can be huge, including displacement of the local population, social degradation, environmental ruin, economic disruption and the facilitation of biopiracy.

Ecotourism in the Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique

By its very nature, ecotourism targets the earth's last untouched, pristine (undeveloped) areas, and "authentic", "pure" cultures, opening them up for investment and development.

One such place is the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique. It comprises five exceptionally beautiful and highly sensitive tropical islands that have a wide range of distinct terrestrial and marine habitats, including coastal sand dunes, pioneer dune vegetation, coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. They are home to a myriad of species of flora and fauna, including red duikers, crocodiles, night apes, samango monkeys, and over 180 species of bird. There are also dolphins (spinner, humpback, bottlenose and common), four kinds of turtle, the endangered dugong, and over 2000 fish species. The archipelago's human population is estimated as 2697 (1995 figures), divided into 580 families. 

Most of the archipelago was declared a National Park in 1971. This encompassed the southern islands of Benguerua, Magarouk and Bangue, while Bazaruto and Santa Carolina were declared Surveillance Zones. But it was not until 1989  towards the end of the Mozambican war  that the Park authorities established themselves in any meaningful way. 

In the same year, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) began working in the area. They hoped to increase the National Park to include the whole archipelago, feeling that by far the best way to conserve it was to treat it as an integrated system which would take into account the interdependence of the islands and the mainland  as well as the needs of both the indigenous people and the natural resources.

They conceived and implemented a comprehensive, long-term plan for conserving and developing it, and appointed several 'Guardas de Fauna' or 'wildlife guards', people from the community whose mission was to inform and educate local people about conservation.

Fishing has, at least until recently, been the main source of income for over 70% of the local community. Sheila Ramsay, a social scientist who worked in the area for years, wrote in 1995 that although the islanders were relatively poor in material terms, they were highly skilled as fishermen, and experienced traders, with a stable and strong society and culture and "a robust economy based on a successful trade in marine resources."

Since the 1950s, tourism has also been a significant part of the area's economy. By 1998, six tourism concessions had been granted over four of the islands. The same year, Antonio Reina of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in Maputo, warned at an international symposium that "although tourism is usually perceived as having great economic value for the local people, in Bazaruto tourism and artisanal fishing must be complementary industries. The financial success of both the tourism and artisanal fishing on the islands is crucial to the conservation of the Bazaruto Archipelago in the long term."

At the same time, the WWF noted that the area was fast becoming a hotspot for eco-adventurers eager for remote destinations, and they saw this as a threat to the islands. A 1998 report says "pressure is increasing to allow more tourism developments in the archipelago."

It seems that the area has now given way to that pressure. When I visited in June 2001, at least three new major commercial developments were under way. One is Jordan Properties' 30 000-ha Vilanculos Coastal Wildlife Sanctuary. It covers the San Sebastiao Peninsula and two islands, Lenene and Chilonzwini, and is, according to the press release, "a low-density ecotourism venture....consisting of 50 stands and a small, up-market boutique-style commercial lodge." The South African company plans to introduce the "big five" into parts of the sanctuary.

At the same time, Lenene Island Resort, a company owned by two South Africans and Mozambican Filipe Chibale, were also busy developing the uninhabited, 200-ha Lenene. Chibale told me he'd been advised that the island couldn't accommodate another project (other than Chibale's, he implied), but that both developments were going ahead. "I'm not interested in what they're doing", said Chibale.

On Bazaruto, Indigo Bay was being developed by the Mantis Collection, also South African. The company has won World Travel Awards for the last four years running, including the coveted prizes for World's Leading Conservation Company and the World's Leading Safari and Game Reserve. The Mantis Collection is so named to "honour the bushmen, San and all the early people who revered the earth and served each other with true humanity and humility. An example all of us in the modern world would do well to emulate."

All of the developers boast of how pristine the areas are. All of them claim the developments will benefit the locals and the environment, and that the local people were consulted at every step. And they all speak of their projects in terms of "ecotourism".

Pristine? Not any more. The Indigo Bay development, for example, which has since been opened, offers waterskiing, knee boarding and "doughnut'ing"; as well as horse-riding and guided island drives. It consists of 23 beach chalets, each one air-conditioned, with en suite shower, mini-bar, 24 hour power and satellite TV. The resort features a rim-flow swimming pool, and a PlayStation for children. Environmental consultant Paul Dutton noted in a letter to the Secretariat for Eastern African Coastal Area Management (SEACAM) that a vital protective beach-rock reef was being removed at Indigo Bay for the comfort of bathing tourists, and that wetland was being drained through canalisation.

Dutton also noted in his letter to SEACAM that Jordan Properties' concession area was totally unsuited for the "big five", a sentiment echoed by representatives of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in Maputo. He objected strongly to a proposal by the company to excise the tiny Bangue Island from the reserve, and develop it.

Jordan Properties boasts that their sanctuary is part of a World Heritage Site, although when I asked the World Heritage Centre, a spokesperson said that it is not yet inscribed in the World Heritage List."The World Heritage Centre has been working with the Mozambican authorities in preparing the nomination file for the site". At least one member of Jordan Properties must have known this: Mozambican Minister of Environment John Kachamila is a 25% shareholder. The spokesperson said the Centre was unaware of the developments.

How will locals benefit? When I asked Filipe Chibale, he said, "later on, when we have made some money back, we will be building a shop on the island". Jordan Properties has undertaken to construct a school. They all say the locals will get jobs.

Rui Nyantumbu of the WWF in Vilanculos says that the new tourist developments affect the area and the local community in both positive and negative ways. But he has, as it turns out, few positive things to say. "They're getting jobs, and development in the area. But they are changing basic ways of life."

He indicates that the issue of jobs is complicated. Firstly, most of the labour on the islands is imported ("they say local labour lacks the skills"), and certainly people at management level are foreigners. And wherever labour comes from, an estimated 2.6 workers per tourist bed staying permanently on the islands put the islands themselves at risk. The infrastructure needed to support them  fuel, waste disposal, water, sewage  will mean that the islands will no longer be self sustaining.

Secondly, it's not at all clear that the people want the kinds of jobs on offer. "Most of the people here" Nyantumbu says, "are fishermen. But there's a new policy implemented this year regarding the peninsula and the islands that says nobody can fish in certain areas. There's a "sanctuary", and nobody can fish around there. People who used to fish on the coastline have to stop, or they have to go to high sea. And they don't have the means to go to high sea; their boats aren't right for that. So they have no choice but to turn themselves into guards or whatever."

And as for the shop and the school, Antonio Reina scoffs. "That's nothing," he says. "This kind of thing needs a process, not just actions. They should say, during the next 50 years we are going to do this, this, this and that. They need to start working in communities sustainably, over quite a long period of time."

On the question of consultation before Jordan Property's sanctuary was declared, Nyantumbu says he's unaware of it. "You can see that the locals are not happy; they're asking how they are going to live, with 30 000 hectares that you can no longer set foot in to fish, because it's a sanctuary." What's more, he says that the sanctuary has nothing to do with preserving animals. "The problem is, they don't want those [local] people there. They want the area to be reserved for tourists." According to an article published in the Mail & Guardian in September, the sanctuary will displace 18 long-established communities with at least 1000 members removed.

In an interview in June, Antonio Reina pointed out that it's not enough for them to claim to have consulted with local people; there are many other stakeholders  most notably, the WWF and the National Park, but also other tourist operators in the area. He said that neither his organisation nor the WWF had had any official communication from any of the developers.

Nyantumbu of the WWF says: "People say we have to preserve the islands, but for whom? These are our islands. We are Mozambicans, where do we get $100 or $150 to go there? The islands shouldn't be only for rich people. They are reserving the best areas for foreigners. I'll tell my child we have dugongs, turtles, and dolphins  but I won't be able to show them to him".

Have the locals benefited from tourism in the area in the past? Tourists improve trade for sellers  although South Africans, who are the most common tourists there, are notorious for entering Mozambique fully stocked with everything from tinned food to toilet paper. Money can also be made transporting tourists from the mainland to the reefs and islands and back. For a time, the lodge operators paid the community a fee for each tourist staying at their lodge, but this practice has now stopped. The backpackers' centre I stayed at on the mainland was owned by a South African and a Moroccan, and run by a Zimbabwean and his South African wife. They warned me not to trust local operators, describing them as "shifty". The barman was British. There were about three down-trodden looking Mozambicans constructing new rondavels, and a small Mozambican boy of about ten, Pedro, who did odd jobs, and was constantly shouted at by the manager. When I asked him how much he was being paid he said he didn't know, he hadn't been paid yet. He said he'd been working there for about six months. And Nyantumbu says if you could find a lodge in Vilanculos where 20% of the income stays in the area you'd be lucky.

Mozambique and the International Year of Ecotourism

Several hundred kilometres south, in Maputo, the first of the WTO-OMT's regional seminars in preparation for the International Year of Ecotourism was held in March.

In its follow-up report, the WTO-OMT concludes by saying, "the potential of ecotourism to benefit local communities and conservation is being recognised in Africa and there is enthusiasm for it....Ecotourism is an important mechanism for realising an income for local communities from their natural and cultural capital, and for the conservation of those resources....2002 presents an excellent platform to display Africa's success stories. Africa's enthusiasm for ecotourism needs to be communicated [at the World Ecotourism Summit] in Quebec in 2002."

Tourism has been actively promoted by the United Nations as a development strategy in Mozambique for some time now. The opening up of the industry to foreign investors has been included in its Structural Adjustment Programme, and the government has committed itself to removing obstacles and speeding up the process of tourism development, and making sure foreign tourists have easy access to the country.

In an article in Business Day Mozambican Tourism Minister Fernando Sumbana Jnr is reported as saying that the government is looking to develop the Vilanculos Coastal Wildlife Sanctuary as a model for future projects along the same lines.

In the context of development, it is worth noting the observations of Sheila Ramsay in her 1995 discussion of ecotourism in the Bazaruto area. She said that one should look further than the generation of wealth and possessions when assessing quality of life; that happiness has much more to do with marriage, work, leisure and friendships. This is almost always overlooked in development discourse, as is the fact that many subsistence economies are thriving, productive, and sustainable.

Problems of Definitions

A big part of the problem is the fact that the term "ecotourism" is flexible to the extent that it has no content, allowing just about anybody to use the label, and making it dangerous to promote. While its first tenet was originally to "take only photographs and leave only footprints", ecotourism today often simply denotes a holiday in a natural environment.

The WTO-OMT acknowledges this lack of consensus. It does not have a formal definition of its own, but does have a list of "general characteristics", which are in line with the definition of the International Ecotourism Society (TIES)  a definition which the US-based Rethinking Tourism Project (RTP) says has been repeatedly rejected by indigenous people. The WTO-OMT's "characteristics" foreground the experience of tourists rather than host communities ("All nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas".) As far as local participation goes, ecotourism "supports the protection of natural areas by generating economic benefits" and "providing alternative employment and income opportunities" for host communities. UNEP's "basic elements" go a little further, by including "local participation, ownership and business opportunities".

Meanwhile, an alternative definition developed by several NGOs, indigenous organisations and trade unions at a UN conference has been pointedly ignored by the WTO-OMT. This definition explicitly includes the rights of indigenous people to say "no" to tourism development, and promotes processes for them to control and maintain their resources. It also stresses "equal, effective and active participation of all stakeholders". Recently, UNEP officially acknowledged this; not as a definition, but as a statement of genuine concern from primary stakeholders.

In Costa Rica, where both golf tourism and ecotourism are big, "ecogolf" is now being marketed: basically, golf played on a course built in an (otherwise) untouched environment. Similarly, the WTO-OMT's concept of ecotourism seems nothing more than a convenience, born of the fact that (after terrorism) both environmental politics and tourism are at the top of the world agenda. While there are, of course, many examples of "good" ecotourism, the WTO-OMT's concept of it seriously undermines them.

Ecotourism - Who Profits?

Ecotourism is promoted by the United Nations and its organs as a sustainable development tool, and a solution to poverty. It does generate jobs and income, and can provide business opportunities in host communities. There's no doubt that tourism is a big money-spinner  but who really profits?

The economics of tourism has a lot to do with General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), an international trade agreement that acts as a legal and operational framework for the gradual elimination of barriers to international trade in services. Where tourism is concerned, the ostensible aim of GATS is the stimulation of the tourism industry by making conditions favourable for foreign investment.

GATS removes restrictions on the right of foreign companies to transfer staff from one country to another, and allows them to send profit earned in the host country to the mother company abroad. Under GATS, government protection of the local tourism industry is considered unfair practice. At the same time, the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) removes the requirement for foreign companies to use local input.

It is in this economic context that the UN, and the World Tourism Organisation (WTO-OMT) in particular, are encouraging so-called developing countries to open themselves up to foreign investment in tourism, especially ecotourism. At the 2001 UN Conference on Least Developed Countries, tourism was included on the conference's agenda for the first time. WTO-OMT Secretary General Francesco Frangialli held that tourism can be a valuable tool in the international fight to alleviate poverty, saying also that tourism receipts contributed to balance of payments and to reducing external debt (some critics have dubbed this a debt-for-nature swap). Deregulation and privatisation of the tourism industry is also included in the Structural Adjustment Programmes of many countries.

In these conditions it's easy for foreign investors with hard currency and the ability to market, to capitalise on the tourism potential of poorer, less developed countries. In Belize, one of the world's top ecotourism destinations, despite its government's attempts to promote locally-run tourism ventures, an estimated 90% of the coastal development is in foreign hands, and the situation is similar in much of the developing world.

Although this is lost in the WTO-OMT's rhetoric of best practices and sustainable development, it has been raised by a sister agency, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). In a report published in March 2001 UNCTAD says that tourism is a sector in which "there is clearly an uneven distribution of benefits, which is threatening the social, economic and environmental sustainability of tourism in some developing countries."

It identifies leakages as a big issue ("the process whereby part of the foreign exchange earnings generated by tourism, rather than being retained by the tourist-receiving countries, is either retained by tourist-generating countries or repatriated to them in the form of profits, income, or royalty remittances, repayment of foreign loans, and imports of equipment, materials, capital and consumer goods.") It said that these outflows can "significantly neutralise the positive financial effects of international tourism."

 According to the report, the average leakage for smaller developing economies is between 40 and 50% of gross tourism incomes. These countries tend to be just right for ecotourism, being less developed and therefore more "unspoilt" than the developed West. What they lack in infrastructure they make up for in pristine coastlines, a favourable exchange rate, and appealing investment regulations.

A second (and related) issue identified by UNCTAD is the anti-competitive, or predatory, behaviour of big companies. According to the report, this deepens unbalanced trade benefits from tourism, and increases the leakage effect, thus threatening the benefits that tourism liberalisation can bring to developing nations. Anti-competitiveness is a practice that developing nations are largely unable to deal with or prevent; nor does the GATS framework provide mechanisms to control it.

While tourism often improves life for poor communities in the short term, one of the dangers of using it as a development strategy is that it promotes reliance on fickle buyers. It changes local economies by displacing activities that help a community to be self-sufficient, like food production. Then, when a destination is no longer fashionable, or when there is political instability or a natural disaster, the tourists and the tourism industry move on elsewhere. This is particularly true of ecotourism, which targets mainly rural communities.

The author Tamsyn Reynolds may be contacted at email: