No. 4: NGO statement to government delegates at the UN         

In this fourth edition of the Clearinghouse, we are sharing an NGO statement regarding the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) that has been disseminated among delegates attending the 9th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD9) and the first preparatory meeting of the Rio+10 Summit and is being sent to government officials attending the UN General Assembly next September.

Organizations and individuals, who support this statement and wish to sign on, please email us at <>

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



NGO statement to government delegates at the UN

We, a coalition of NGOs, would like to inform you that the UN General Assembly’s resolution (1998/40) to declare 2002 as International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) has generated considerable anxiety and apprehension for a number of reasons.

Given the many uncertainties and the deepening controversy surrounding the UN-initiated programme in its present form, we would also like to explore whether the UNGA can move to refocus and rename the event ‘International Year of REVIEWING Ecotourism’ as we have already proposed in a letter to Secretary General Kofi Annan.

We believe there is an urgent need for a fundamental re-assessment of ecotourism because evidence has been mounting that it is largely an unsuccessful attempt to bring forth sustainable development, and the dangers inherent in ecotourism are worse than it was first recognized. This should be of particular concern for governments of developing countries that are primarily targeted by global industry forces as ecotourism destinations, who need to be cautious about the viability of tourism in terms of its economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability.

Since the IYE was approved three years ago in 1998, we suggest it is necessary to consider new developments and trends, especially those affecting destination countries in the South. These include:

1)             From many recent studies and reports disclosing realities on the ground, it can be concluded that, while ecotourism has been presented as a negotiated response to the imperatives of ecological preservation and community development, the profit-hungry tourism industry has opted for ecotourism, simply to use it as a marketing ploy with little or no regard for environmental and social justice issues. Many researchers agree that ecotourism is an activity overly dominated by North-based corporations that exposes developing countries and marginalized social groups to new dependencies and hardships.

2)             What has been generally overlooked in ecotourism discussions is that from a Southern perspective, the macro-economic climate is not conducive but has become outright hostile to forms of tourism that seek to prioritize more even distribution of benefits and environmental preservation.

A new UNCTAD study, presented at a OECD seminar during the International Tourism Exchange (ITB) in Berlin last March warns, for example, that despite developing countries’ efforts to develop the most suitable policies, the viability of their tourist industries is increasingly undermined by external forces beyond their control, including the impact of financial “leakages” (the outflows of foreign exchange earnings generated by tourism) that can easily reach levels up to 75 per cent. The UNCTAD study notes, “The predatory practices and anti-competitive behaviour [of a few tourism suppliers based in tourist-generating countries] have two main effects on the economic viability of the tourism in developing countries: unbalanced trade benefits, and the deepening of the leakage effect. Their combined impact minimize the positive impacts of spillover and multiplier effects inherent to tourism, and undermine the financial capacity of enterprises and the ability of countries to earmark necessary resources to maintain and upgrade basic infrastructure and quality standards in order to satisfy in an adequate way competitive conditions and international demand.”

In view of this, we hope that Southern governments will not let themselves be carried away by the dubious promises of ecotourism, but, as the UNCTAD study suggests, concentrate on re-negotiating commitments under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) system to remove the existing asymmetries in international tourism. In the long term, equitable trading conditions for economic sustainability may be of the best interest of developing countries as this forms the base for socially and environmentally sustainable development, in tourism and in general.

3)             Many governments in the South are alarmed about the tremendous increase of biopiracy cases and new international regulations on patents and intellectual property rights (IPRs) that favour North-based biotechnology corporations because it can cause immeasurable losses for their countries.

Ecotourism has been offered as a means to protect biodiversity and to provide for sustainable utilization of biological resources, but it can no longer be denied that nature-based forms of tourism also pose a great new threat in relation to bio-plundering, patenting and IPR. There has been the observation that prospectors and collectors often travel to biodiversity-rich areas as “tourists” to illegally collect genetic resources, plants and wildlife as well as associated knowledge with commercial value for the biotechnology industry.

This trend is unfortunately abetted by research institutions, conservation organizations and development agencies, including the Global Environment Facility, that support projects combining biological research, pharmaceutical prospecting and ecotourism activities. Since such activities may result in huge “invisible leakages” that even exceed the earnings from ecotourism, countries and inter-governmental bodies such as the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) should be extremely cautious and as soon as possible introduce adequate legislation and monitoring systems to control bio-prospecting, thereby taking into account the danger of ecotourism as a major channel for biopiracy.

While these and other burning issues need to be urgently addressed in relation to the IYE, the preparations for the event coordinated by UNEP and the World Tourism Organization (WTO-OMT) have been pursued in a grey area. For instance, it is not clear what actually led to the UNGA approval of the IYE and what was the original intention. This is a major handicap because despite many years of debate, there is no agreement even on the definition and meaning of ecotourism, due to divergent perspectives, values and interests of concerned parties. Subsequently, it is impossible to achieve consensus on an agenda and objectives for the IYE.

In the process, a clear division has developed between actors favouring promotion and commercialization of ecotourism as a major goal of the IYE, and a growing worldwide movement of public interest and indigenous peoples organizations that reject the IYE as a promotional and business-oriented campaign.

Both UNEP and the WTO-OMT have not been able to resolve the great contradictions and deepening conflict of interests. Nor have they made serious efforts to involve civil society organizations in the planning and decision-making process and to foster broad-based discussion on ecotourism-related themes. Confronted with growing criticisms and protests, both agencies have declared that the UN has not given any instructions nor provided funds for the IYE.

Since the entire programme has been heavily constrained by lack of orientation and growing polarization, we request that you discuss the many problems related to the IYE at the next UNGA meeting in September.

In particular, we call on governments:

1)            To put forward, at the UNGA, a clear statement of purpose and guidelines regarding the content and process of the IYE in order to assist UNEP, the WTO-OMT and other concerned parties in the implementation of the programme.

2)            To help design the programme in a way that public interest - such as ecological protection, economic equity, social justice and human rights - take precedence over narrow and short-sighted industry interests.

3)            To change the name of the event into “International Year of REVIEWING Ecotourism” (IYRE) and to provide for the establishment of an independent commission on ecotourism that will conduct a fundamental reassessment of ecotourism-related issues with the expertise from all concerned parties. As for the latter, we believe that the WTO-OMT is not appropriate to oversee this commission because its prime goal is to promote the tourism industry, which contradicts the need for broad-based and critical studies and analyses of tourism, including ecotourism.

We are bringing this matter to your attention as we are deeply concerned that the IYE will be particularly dangerous for developing countries. However, since governments and civil society organizations from the South have become more articulate and assertive of their rights in the international arena as a result of globalization impacts, we are confident that they can also play a prominent and decisive role in the debates of international tourism-related programmes, such as the IYE, and intercede for changes if they are likely to adversely affect their countries.

Finally, we would like to invite you to visit our website for background information on the IYE and to make use of our electronic information service ‘Clearinghouse for REVIEWING Ecotourism’ (contact Email:

Yours sincerely,

Third World Network
Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team (Thailand)
Sahabat Alam Malaysia
Consumers Association of Penang (Malaysia)
CorpWatch (USA)