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CLEARINGHOUSE FOR REVIEWING ECOTOURISM, No. 19

UN 'INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF ECOTOURISM 2002'

IN A DEEP MUDDLE - SCRAP IT!

The highly controversial UN-initiated International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) 2002  started on 1 January. For over a year, NGOs, people's organizations, indigenous peoples groups and concerned citizens - many of them from the South - have repeatedly expressed grave worries about the UN programme in statements and letters to UN General Secretary Kofi Annan and the IYE organizing agencies, UNEP and the World Tourism Organization (WTO-OMT).

There is clear evidence that ecotourism worldwide has become a form of development aggression that often involves environmental destruction, plundering of biological resources, disruption of community life, forceful removal of residents from their homes and lands and discrimination against local and indigenous peoples. Thus, a global citizens movement has emerged to oppose the IYE that promotes ecotourism as a viable tool for "sustainable development and the conservation of natural and cultural resources".

Unfortunately, efforts by civil society to redirect the IYE to make it a "Reviewing" event to properly and comprehensively examine and tackle the many serious problems inherent in ecotourism have not really been successful. On the other hand, the IYE organizers have failed to rally public support for their disputed programme, and preparations have become increasingly isolated.

Most importantly, the gloomy prospects for world peace and economic stability in the wane of the September 11 attacks in the United States will most likely result in a further decline of interest in ecotourism and, thus, the IYE,  as tourists are changing their behaviour, and governments, industry and other parties concerned with tourism are shifting their activities and resources to other areas.

Therefore, we have come to the realization that this highly ill-conceived and untimely IYE programme should be abandoned. Instead, concerted efforts need to be made to examine the sustainability of tourism as a whole, particularly in view of the "new world disorder" that causes profound changes in the international travel and tourism industry, with unforeseeable impacts on societies and the environment.  

OPPORTUNITIES LOST

Although our campaign to refocus and rename the UN programme to "International Year of REVIEWING Ecotourism" has given impetus for a more comprehensive and meaningful public debate on ecotourism issues, our hopes to foster a constructive dialogue with the inter-governmental agencies in charge of the IYE have largely remained unfulfilled. What has been actually done to reframe the programme is too little and too late.

While it is true, that the IYE organizers have, at least rhetorically, picked up on some of our ideas, it is important to note that there has been no consultation on how our proposals can translate into action in an open and fair way. For this and other reasons, we feel there is a trend to co-opt and distort the inputs of NGOs' and people's organizations so that these fit into the strategy of a handful of influential ecotourism lobbyists who are firmly holding grip on the content and process of the IYE that reflect narrow interests.

The Review - one of our main demands - appears to have become the new buzzword of the IYE. But without a thorough discussion with all concerned parties - particularly local communities and indigenous peoples as major rights-holders - on the process, the content and goals, it has a hollow clang of an empty bucket.

Indeed, there is little evidence that UNEP and WTO-OMT are even prepared to seriously forge a sincere and impartial Review because of the clear lack of interaction with concerned organizations, community groups and citizens who are documenting and monitoring local developments and seeking for genuine solutions based on the principles of political and economic equity, social justice, cultural integrity and ecological sustainability. 

Meanwhile, despite the IYE's organizers' verbal commitments not to support the promotion of ecotourism without "a thorough and inclusive process of reviewing" , all the reports and programmes of the regional preparatory conferences organized by WTO-OMT and UNEP as part of the IYE suggest that promotional and marketing aspects are still taking precedence over holistic and critical representations of ecotourism.

A recent workshop held in New Delhi - organized by two NGOs from Germany and India and sponsored by the German Environment Ministry and UNEP - could have been a good opportunity to work towards more transparency and participation in the IYE process. While the meeting clearly focussed on a discussion of global guidelines for sustainable tourism under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), UNEPs tourism programme coordinator also gave a presentation on the IYE, and NGOs from the South and the North had the chance to respond directly. However, the way UNEP has since then attempted to turn the meeting into an official IYE preparatory event is extremely disturbing. UNEP even produced a report that gives the impression that the workshop, organized by NGOs for NGOs, was a UNEP consultation and the main theme was the IYE, which is far from the truth. In our view, this incident clearly reflects UNEP's unfortunate attitude towards NGOs on this issue and an ethically questionable method to purportedly draw free and independent groups into the IYE process. We welcome efforts by UNEP to integrate perspectives of NGOs and community organizations into any official process, but are disturbed by the treatment of the New Delhi workshop.

We understand that the IYE organizers are in a desperate position to seek recognition for their programme and therefore want to demonstrate that the IYE has become much more inclusive and participatory and successfully incorporated civil society initiatives. But for us, "inclusion" must never take place without the full consensus of the concerned actors, and sponsoring agencies have no right to claim ownership of and misrepresent events they financially support.

LACK OF SUPPORT

By mishandling the programme, the IYE organizers have manoeuvered themselves into greater isolation, and preparations have become more muddled and  less transparent, with only a selected few "stakeholders" participating.

As regards NGO engagement, one of the greatest ironies and a major cause of contention is that exactly those large international and North-based organizations that have been strongly criticized for ignoring local people's rights and needs have been allowed to play a key role in the IYE and are clearly privileged by donor agencies to proceed with their IYE-related activities. In view of the growing controversy, however, several NGOs, who were originally undecided, have stayed away from the IYE and some of them even joined the campaign against the official IYE.

Indigenous Peoples and their support groups are also increasingly appalled as to how their rights, values and interests have been ignored. In a recent statement to the Seventh Session of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) under the Convention of Biological Diversity, indigenous peoples representatives reiterated their position: "...it is very disturbing that the UN International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) in 2002 has been approved, with the explicit mandate of promoting ecotourism... Ecotourism is particularly damaging to Indigenous Peoples, who have maintained high biological diversity within their traditional territory over generations and millenia; their homelands and cultures are now the prime target globally for rapid commercialization and exploitation by the ecotourism industry."

Many groups and individuals, who have shown an interest in ecotourism and the IYE, have vocally complained about the "closed-door" nature of the IYE. Indeed, the IYE organizers have hardly done anything to provide the public with detailed and realistic information and a clearer perspective on the issues under discussion.

The information given on the WTO-OMT website and UNEP's Manual for the IYE reveals that the programme is almost exclusively about holding conferences, which are known to be out of reach for the majority of concerned and interested parties and rarely subjected to public scrutiny. 

For instance, a participant of the IYE2002 online forum run by planeta.com recently wrote in reply to a posting by WTO-OMT regarding the preparatory conference in Brazil: "The meeting was open ONLY for those who could afford the ticket. Attendance would cost between $1500-3000! Fine if [the] Ford [Foundation] is buying your ticket or you have friends in a Washington NGOs, but for the rest of us?" (spelling mistakes removed).

Although the meetings initiated by the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) in cooperation with UNEP are less extravagant and expensive than those of WTO-OMT, representatives of poor rural and indigenous communities and local organizations working for social and environmental justice will also be excluded from the Southeast Asia meeting for the IYE in Chiang Mai, Thailand, next March, because of prohibitively high prices for travel, accommodation, registration fee, and related training and ecotour-programmes.  Since we are told there is only a "small fund" available to cover participants' expenses, it will be - as so often before - dominated by foreign "experts" and some local ecotourism planners and practitioners who can afford to pay. In conclusion, this series of IYE-related meetings look more like business ventures catering to rich conference tourists from the North and local elites, rather than an opportunity for meaningful knowledge sharing and education, involving local disadvantaged groups. 

Responses to our Clearinghouse for REVIEWING Ecotourism reveal that there is increasing disillusionment among people - including students, academics, writers, and even ecotourism consultants and practitioners -, who earlier had good faith in the benefits of ecotourism. There is also the observation that the media are increasingly alerted to the IYE controversy and present critical views on ecotourism issues.

END OF THE ECOTOURISM HYPE

The glossy brochure published by the organizers of the World Ecotourism Summit - the main event of the IYE - stresses the growing importance of ecotourism and boasts its great potential for economic development.

However, there is increasing acknowledgement that the growth rates and the demand for ecotourism have been vastly exaggerated. While WTO-OMT and other promoters had put forward estimates that ecotourism made up 20 per cent of the total tourism business - probably to attract private investments and funding for projects from donor agencies -, recent market research reveals that the projected growth rates in ecotourism of approximately 20 per cent have not realized, and merely 3-5 per cent of the international tourism market can be accounted to this niche market, according to the latest statistics.

In the light of this, it is not surprising that at the WTO-OMT-organized IYE preparatory conference in Austria last September, the European Union representative, Reinhard Klein, clearly pointed out in his speech,  "Ecotourism is no topic for the policy of the European Union".

The corporate world considered ecotourism as a lucrative business as long it was "trendy" and offered companies an opportunity to "green-wash" their unsustainable tourism activities. But there has been a drastical change, and the tourism industry is known for its quick responses to market fluctuations. It is after all a lifestyle industry. The growing realization about the lack of economic viability in combination with the rapidly declining image of ecotourism may be an explanation as to why the business sector - contrary to our expectations - has kept a very low profile in the IYE. Instead, the big industry associations such as the WTO-OMT Business Council and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) are focussing their activities on "sustainable tourism" at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in September of this year.

IYE AFTER SEPTEMBER 11

The UN programme has been in trouble from the very beginning; but in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the looming "global war against terrorism", the IYE may be dead on arrival. The knock-out of the airline industry and the volatile geo-political situation accompanied by a deepening global economic crisis have already shown an immense ripple effect on tourism, which of course includes ecotourism. Events on September 11 have exacerbated the industry's crisis.

The WTO-OMT's Market Intelligence and Promotion Section released a report on September 18, admitting that the September events had a more severe impact on travel and tourism than any other crisis in the past and "the situation is exceptional". Both business and leisure travel have dropped sharply since September, with cancellations of bookings around the world between 20 and 30 per cent. Travel to some countries with large Muslim populations has even plummeted by 60 to 70 per cent. A whole range of tourism-related services have been thrown into an unprecedented crisis, including airlines, hotels, cruiselines, tour operators, transport companies such as car rentals, organizers of conferences, trade fairs and sports events, the food service and entertainment industry.

If the WTTC statistics can be trusted, in case of only a 10 per cent decline of international tourism, almost 9 million jobs will be lost worldwide. But these figures probably do not include the millions of jobs in the informal tourism sector, and the losses for local communities that are eking out a living from tourism may be immeasurable.

The WTO-OMT and a report prepared for the Pacific Asia Travel Association have identified three main factors that may wreak havoc to the tourism industry for years to come: Firstly, the lack of consumer confidence in the safety of air travel; secondly, the overall uncertain world situation, including the possibility of armed conflicts, civil unrest and insecurity at home and in tourist destinations; and thirdly, the weakening of the global economy, which already affected travel and tourism before September.

In this situation, countries are making all-out efforts to ensure the economic survival of their tourist industries and to adjust their marketing strategies. In addition, governments are spending huge amounts of public money to beef up security and safety, to subsidize crisis-struck businesses as well as for promotional campaigns to get people travelling again. For instance, only a few days after September 11, the US federal government approved US$5 billion in cash and US$10 billion in loan guarantees for American airlines. Not enough, US airline companies additionally asked to postpone paying some US$4 billion in taxes until January. According to an ABC News report, some US congressmen and senators even called on the federal government to subsidize up to US$500 of personal travel for every American through the end of 2002.

Naturally, there is now much less interest in ecotourism and the IYE than anticipated. We can expect that this will also have a significant impact on the funding decisions by governments, development aid agencies, financial institutions and the private sector and that budgets for social and environmental components in tourism-related projects will shrink substantially. 

Rather than visiting remote and unknown places to enjoy nature, "exotic" cultures, and adventure, tourists, if travelling at all, will most likely resort to "risk-free" holiday-destinations, preferable in their countries and regions. Tourism authorities and industry have rushed to come up with new marketing schemes that promote destinations as "safe havens" for visitors.

It is well-known that tourism is one of the most fragile industries, and we have experienced again and again as to how local communities relying on tourism activities  have been pushed into economic despair as a result of political instability (e.g. the 1991 Gulf War), economic downturns (the Asian crisis that started in 1997), natural disasters (Southeast Asian haze in 1997), diseases and other unexpected happenings. In view of the predictably bleak future for travel and tourism, the IYE is likely to contribute to an unhealthy oversupply of ecotourism infrastructure and products because it encourages governments, local communities and the private sector around the world to get involved in related projects.  

Local communities and businesses in the Third World, who have always been at the bottom of the international tourism system's hierarchy and forced to sell their services under value, are now losing out even more, also because large tourism corporations from developed countries are coercing providers in developing countries to greater price-cuttings in order to reduce their costs and to give incentives to tourists in these times of crisis.

The structural violence associated with unjust and destructive tourism development that often results in serious conflicts in local situations must not be underestimated. In this context, we should heed the words of Klaus Toepfer, the UNEP's Executive Director, who recently urged to fight the root causes of poverty and civil unrest. Just 10 days after the September attacks, he warned at a launch of a regional environmental action plan in Kazakhstan:

"When people are denied access to clean water, soil and air to meet their basic human needs, we see the rise of poverty, ill-health and a sense of hopelessness. Desperate people can resort to desperate solutions....What happened in the United States was a crime against humanity, an act of horrendous violence against all races and creeds. But we must also expose the forces that create poverty, intolerance, hatred and environmental degradation that can lead to an unstable world."

He added the rise of globalization and its impacts on global trade patterns was also a key issue that the international community must face up to.

Therefore, it is important that the agencies in charge of the IYE, and other international bodies, eventually recognize the realities and act responsibly. Ecotourism is a barrier, rather than a viable tool for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. It must no longer be denied that related projects in the Third World have engendered incredible human hardship and misery and subsequently provoked countless local protests, with a number of them ending in violence.

Particularly in the context of globalization with its "free market" driven liberalization, ecotourism schemes around the world have not only aggravated environmental problems but also facilitated the corporate take-over and sale-out of nature, cultures and peoples, exacerbated inequities and injustices, and undermined people's rights and aspirations for sovereignty and self-determined, environmentally sound development.  

CONCLUSION

All that said, a celebration of the IYE appears to be an even greater folly than before. The IYE has been unacceptable from the start and now it has ended up in a hopeless mess. So let's scrap it! In view of the highly precarious situation, there is no point to argue "The show must go on", and to sacrifice common sense and waste scarce resources in order to save this ill-guided and untimely IYE programme at all costs.

We do not need the IYE to further the debate on ecotourism-related issues and seek for realistic solutions. The idea to set up a separate structure around the IYE to specifically deal with ecotourism makes little sense anyway, especially in view of the fact that its significance has been highly overrated and has even declined. We strongly believe, it is more important to integrate the discussions on these issues in processes such as the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), which take a more broad-based approach to sustainable development within which tourism can then be properly assessed. This way, we can also avoid an unneccessary fragmentation of the tourism debate, and it is easier to tackle the great challenges that have emerged since September.

Given that the IYE process has been far from giving sufficient space to all parties, particularly local and indigenous peoples voices, it is also more advantageous to focus on other multi-stakeholder processes, particularly the CSD, which are more democratic and open to a wider spectrum of civil society, including NGOs, community and indigenous peoples' organizations, women's groups, youth groups, trade unions and research institutions.

Since we are shifting our campaign from Reviewing Ecotourism to broader issues, we are in the process of expanding this information service to  "Clearinghouse for REVIEWING Tourism" with ecotourism as one component.

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

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SIGN-ON STATEMENT CONCERNING THE DRAFT INTERNATIONAL GUIDELINES ON TOURISM DEVELOPED UNDER THE CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY (CBD) AND INDIGENOUS PEOPLES CONCERNS ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL YEAR OF ECOTOURISM (IYE)

The Rethinking Tourism Project (RTP) and the International Support Centre for Sustainable Tourism (ISCST) are calling for the endorsement of the following statement,  which was presented at the technical meeting (SBSTTA7) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Montreal in November. It concerns the draft international guidelines on tourism being developed under the CBD and Indigenous Peoples concerns about the International Year of Ecotourism.

The CBD Secretariat has made no attempt to get any word out to Indigenous Peoples internationally on the International Year of Ecotourism, or to facilitate meaningful involvement by Indigenous Peoples in the CBD process on tourism. This statement criticizes this process and gives recommendations for ways the CBD can support more Indigenous involvement.

RTP and ISCST will be forwarding this statement on to the CBD Secretariat with names of Indigenous Peoples' organizations as well as supportive groups that wish to sign it.

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SBSTTA VII Session

U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity

Montreal, Canada: November 2001

Madame/Mr. Chair,

Thank you for opening the floor to NGOs for submissions. We are the International Support Centre for Sustainable Tourism.

We are here today to draw your attention to serious omissions in the process established to develop guidelines on tourism under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. As we have noted several times previously within U.N. forums, it is very disturbing that the U.N. International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) in 2002 has been approved, with the explicit mandate of promoting ecotourism.

Most forms of ecotourism are simply mass tourism, and are already known to have devastating impacts on biological diversity at the ecosystem level. Ecotourism is particularly damaging to Indigenous Peoples, who have maintained high biological diversity within their traditional territory over generations and millennia; their homelands and cultures are now the prime target globally for rapid commercialization and exploitation by the ecotourism industry. The only successful models for tourism involving Indigenous Peoples are those designed by Indigenous Peoples themselves, on the basis of their own traditional knowledge, practices and innovation systems, including their own customary laws.

Given these trends, and the risk that the ecotourism industry poses to both biological diversity and cultural diversity, we ask you to take note that the process within the CBD to prepare for the IYE has omitted any meaningful involvement of Indigenous Peoples. Specifically, we are concerned about the following:

   ^   The Workshop on Biological Diversity & Tourism (Dominican Republic, June 2001) was announced to just a handful of Indigenous Peoples' organizations only 2 months prior; thus, there was inadequate due diligence by the CBD Secretariat to ensure broad or effective involvement by Indigenous Peoples. Furthermore, no funds were provided to ensure Indigenous Peoples' readiness, e.g. prior coordination and analysis.

   ^   In the preparatory package for the Workshop on Biological Diversity & Tourism, the CBD Secretariat issued a paper titled Draft Guidelines for the Conduct of Toruism in Territories Traditionally Occupied or Used by Indigenous & Local Communities (UNEP/CBD/WS-Tourism/2). The Secretariat subsequently withdrew these guidelines, and withheld factual information on their authorship. It told NGOs that the CBD Working Group on Article 8(j) had drafted them, and did not admit until the last day that the Secretariat itself produced them. These draft guidelines are not only illegitimate, but poorly reflect the Rights, values and interests of Indigenous Peoples. They should never have been conceived or circulated as an official draft document.

   ^   The Report of the Workshop on Biological Diversity & Tourism does not accurately reflect the discussion held within the four working groups in Santo Domingo. Our organization presented a set of over 20 concise technical recommendations concerning the involvement of Indigenous Peoples; each of these recommendations was approved by consensus in the working group, yet none appeared in the workshop report, despite the written text being supplied to the workshop rapporteur.

   ^   For the United Nations supported NGOs meeting on the IYE in New Delhi, India (September 2001), not only did the funding timeline prohibit meaningful Indigenous Peoples' and NGOs involvement, but UNEP circulated necessary documents just three days ahead. As a result, those Indigenous Peoples' organizations aspiring to attend could not properly consult with their leadership or Elders, as per customary protocol and standard membership practice. This style of organizing official meetings connected with the IYE is preventing Indigenous Peoples from building any capacity to effectively comment on principles and practices for sustainable tourism.

In consideration of these concerns, we urge the CBD Secretariat to work together with UNEP and partnering state governments to ensure that Indigenous Peoples' proposals to host meetings in preparation for the IYE, and more importantly, for IYE follow-up, are fully supported with both logistical and capacity funding. It is imperative that Indigenous Peoples have the opportunity and institutional support to prepare and present their own analyses at the U.N. World Summit on Ecotourism in May 2001, and all subsequent U.N. discussions on tourism.

We submit our statement today with the full support and agreement of the Rethinking Tourism Project, which an Indigenous Peoples' organization based in the USA.

Thank you,

Alison Johnston, Director

INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT CENTRE FOR SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

sustour@axionet.com 

Please send your endorsement as soon as possible to RTP, email: info@rethinkingtourism.org. For more information, please contact the ISCST, email: sustour@axionet.com.

Rethinking Tourism Project * International Support Centre for Sustainable Tourism

Protecting and Preserving Indigenous Lands and Cultures

366 N. Prior Ave, Ste 203

St. Paul MN 55104

Ph: 651-644-9984

Fax: 651-644-2720

www.rethinkingtourism.org

 


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