Oliver Hillel
Tourism Programme Coordinator
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
Production and Consumption Unit
Tour Mirabeau, 39-43 Quai Andre Citroen
75739 Paris - Cedex 15

20 October 2000

Subject: Call for a Fundamental Reassessment of the International Year of Ecotourism

Dear Mr. Hillel,

We are referring to your email communication of 8 September 2000 regarding the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE), which encourages organizations and networks to share their experiences on the subject of ecotourism and to collaborate in furthering related debates.

In view of the growing concerns about the direction of the IYE - as expressed by several groups in the discussions on the information kit on ecotourism - we are glad to learn that UNEP intends to take a cautious approach to the IYE, rather than using this event to promote ecotourism at all costs.

Nevertheless, we, the undersigned NGOs from the South and North, feel compelled to warn all concerned parties not to skirt the critical issues of ecotourism and the fact that a mountain of money will be spent and a flood of projects initiated around the IYE in order to boost the ecotourism industry. In contrast to advocates who tend to portray ecotourism development as a "win-win" approach, a means to protect biodiversity and enhance the well-being of local people, we are gravely concerned that this IYE will result in a "lose-lose" situation for communities and the environment in destination countries.

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. Nor have the priorities and objectives of the IYE been clearly spelled out.

You state, "For UNEP in general and for me and my colleagues in particular, the occasion of the International Year of Ecotourism should be used to assess what it is, or can be, what is currently called ecotourism, rather than only a promotional event for UN member governments, for the private sector and for recipients of development aid. No previous agenda should be set."

To suggest, let's have the event first and then we may understand better what ecotourism means or what it can be, is unconscionable, given that the fate of local communities and biodiversity-rich areas worldwide is at stake. Such a laisse faire approach is also unacceptable, given that the rampant misconduct in ecotourism practice and many of the negative impacts of such developments have been widely acknowledged.

Too often, international agencies have used the South for misguided and outright destructive development experiments, and in the light of this conventional wisdom, we oppose the idea that the IYE serves as an instrument for ecotourism experiments in developing countries, which are likely to cause more harm than good.

Ecotourism cannot thrive without the mass travel and tourism industry, nor the construction, real estate and other industries. So one can expect that those who will benefit most from the IYE will be large companies providing most of the physical infrastructure, facilities and services that make ecotourism possible, while once again, local people will be put off with empty promises or chicken feed.

Even though the "trickle down" of tourist dollars may increase in some of the better organized micro-projects, the claim that ecotourism generally contributes to a more equitable distribution of tourism income and a reduction of poverty has not been substantiated with hard facts. A 1997 study on an ecotourism project in Taman Negara, a national park in western Malaysia, conducted by forestry expert Bernd Stecker and commissioned by the German GTZ, concludes that only a tiny proportion of the tourist money actually reaches ecotourism destinations in the South. As for European and North American ecotourists, Stecker found that about two-thirds of the expenditures go to foreign airlines and travel agencies, and a large proportion of the rest is spent, before and after the visit to an ecotourism destination, in the large cities and well-established tourist centres.

Also, ecotourism is not different from conventional tourism in that it often disrupts and distorts the structures of local economies, displacing activities such as food production that have served to carry self-reliant and sustainable community development.

A common hazard in the tourism industry is also oversupply. If the IYE is to suggest that all UN member countries should encourage ecotourism projects in rural and natural areas, the danger of an oversupply of ecotourism facilities is very real. What happens, if thousands of communities around the world compete with each other for a share of the ecotourism market? And who will take the responsibility, when ecotourism initiatives make investments based on miscalculated demand and later face decline, local businesses go bankrupt and entire communities are pushed into crisis?

Another question is, what would happen if the IYE encourages all holiday makers to become ecotourists? In this case, the words of Dieter Brauer in a recent editorial of 'Development and Cooperation' (D+C, Sept./Oct. 2000) are worth savoring: "…tourism is by no means more 'sustainable' if tourists leave their ghettos and begin to interact with the local population…" His argument is that if more and more tourists would decide that travelling through a country's villages and protected areas was more desirable than staying in the existing tourist centres, then it would soon turn out that such a form of tourism was more damaging than organized travel in its present form.

Governments are utterly ill equipped for the IYE. They have tended to promote all forms of rural and nature tourism as ecotourism, while frameworks to effectively scrutinize, monitor and control developments are poorly developed or non-existent. In Thailand, the upsurge of ecotourism demand has resulted in construction frenzy in rural and natural areas to provide accommodation and infrastructure for visitors. A recently published survey by the Bangkok daily 'The Nation' found that under the pretext of ecotourism promotion, massive development projects - some involving logging operations - were in full steam in national parks countrywide, funded by loans from the World Bank's Social Investment Project and the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF). It is not difficult to imagine that contrary to the high-flown goals of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of biological resources, the IYE will serve as a justification to turn the last nature reserves into concrete jungles, while the public has to pay for this folly to amortize the foreign debt.

Another particularly bad example is the ecotourism policy promoted by the tourism working group under the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) development scheme led by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which covers a vast area comprising six countries - Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan/China. The GMS tourism plan heavily relies on the implementation of the ADB's mega-infrastructure programme, including the construction of highways and entire cities dubbed as "development corridors" as well as the building of airports, ports, large dams and other large-scale facilities. Likewise alarming is the ADB's plan to resettle 60 million ethnic highlanders from their homeland as part of a controversial GMS watershed conservation project and to “compensate" them with ecotourism jobs in new locations.

At the ADB's annual meeting in Chiang Mai last May, thousands of local residents and environmental activists from Thailand and overseas protested against these gigantic projects because they threaten the survival of countless communities and cause gross environmental damage.

Alarmingly, the GMS tourism plan also states that, once the major bottlenecks in infrastructure are removed and international standard facilities are in place, the emphasis will shift from ecotourism and village tourism to the promotion of  "all segments of the tourism market throughout the region." Hence, as for the Mekong region at least, ecotourism is not an approach that implies persistence and the capability to continue as a small-scale and community-based activity in a longer term. It is rather used by official agencies and private industry as a springboard to develop mainstream mass tourism in less developed territories, without addressing the self-destructive processes inherent in tourism evolution (as described, for example, in the "Tourism Area Cycle of Evolution" by Canadian geographer Richard Butler.)

That ecotourism is a viable strategy to replace other more unsustainable development activities is another myth that needs to be exploded. In fact, the opposite is the case. Tourism provides the physical infrastructure and logistics for freer movement of people and goods within countries and across borders in general and, thus, it naturally has knock-on effects on other sectors. Accordingly, ecotourism development has opened opportunities for a whole range of investors to gain access to remote rural, forest, coastal and marine areas. There is the observation that the more transportation systems are established into remote areas, the more encroachments, illegal logging, mining and plundering of biological resources occur, including biopiracy by unscrupulous individual and corporate collectors.

Along with the ecotourism boom, the illicit collection, smuggling and trade in marketable biological resources has become a multi-billion-dollar business. That was also confirmed by officials of the World Customs Organization at the 1998 World Travel Mart in London. They stressed that customs authorities and the travel and tourism industry should be warned and educated about the unprecedented illegal movement of items, including valuable flora and fauna, across the globe, which has resulted in vast damages and economic losses for countries.

There is evidence that biotechnology companies are sending scouts around the world - often posing as innocent tourists - to discover genes that have commercial value for the drug and food industry. These bio-pirates are especially hunting for local seeds, medicinal plants and even for genes of indigenous people, and once acquired, companies are likely to claim intellectual property rights on them. Ecotourism makes biopiracy and illicit bio-prospecting activities easy because local people are often employed as "nature interpreters" to guide visitors in biodiversity-rich places and to share with them their indigenous knowledge about biological resources and how to use them.

So our experience is that "bad" policies and practices in ecotourism by far outweigh the "good" examples (for more details, see the Third World Network's tourism website We fear that the IYE in combination with the globalization policies underway will make things worse. As supranational institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization are pressuring developing countries towards trade and investment liberalization, national and local governments are increasingly disabled to plan and manage tourism - and ecotourism - on their own terms. The corporate tourism industry aggressively pushes for non-intervention in companies' decision-making processes to expand their business and maximize their profits. As nature-based tourism is presently seen as one of the most lucrative niche markets, powerful transnational corporations are likely to exploit the IYE to dictate their own definitions and rules of ecotourism on society, while people-centred initiatives will be squeezed out and marginalized.

For all these reasons, we shall direct all our efforts to resist this IYE, unless the World Tourism Organization and UNEP agree to initiate a comprehensive and sincere reassessment before any more preparations are made for the event. We demand a complete review of ecotourism issues that take into consideration the political, social, economic and developmental conditions and the serious issues of globalization. It is also necessary to examine why existing recipes to tackle ecotourism-related problems - planning and management tools, best practice initiatives, etc. - have not worked in practice and sometimes even create new risks.

If this IYE is to go ahead, it must be made clear to all actors and the public, what the event is about, what it tries to achieve, and how it seeks to do so. Precautionary measures must be put in place in advance so that countries and societies are properly equipped against abuse and backlashes.

We also appeal to you to use your influence to ensure full and fair Southern participation in the IYE process. In cooperation with our grassroots networks, we will further investigate and monitor ecotourism-related issues and put forward our findings and proposals regarding the IYE directly to decision-making bodies. We strongly reject being represented through international and Northern-based NGOs such as those invited to the IYE preparatory meeting in Madrid.

Finally, we request that you keep us informed about the revised version of the information kit on ecotourism and other activities in preparation of the IYE.

Yours sincerely,

Third World Network

Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team (Thailand)

Thai Network on Tourism (TNT) (Thailand)

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth, Malaysia)

Consumers Association of Penang (Malaysia)

The Akha Heritage Foundation (Thailand)

Equations (Equitable Tourism Options) (India)

Accion Ecologica (Ecuador)

Instituto del Tercer Mundo (Uruguay)

Forest Peoples Programme (UK)

Transnational Resource and Action Center/CorpWatch (USA)

The Edmonds Institute (USA)

Nina Rao, Southern co-Chair, NGO Tourism Caucus-CSD 7

Teena Amrit Gill, Journalist  (Thailand)

Mariam Mayet, environmental lawyer (South Africa)

Additional supporters:

Local Artists Alliance for Solidarity (South Africa)  

Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity (Biothai) (Thailand)

World Rainforest Movement

Global Network for Anti-Golf Course Action (GNAGA) (Japan)

Alliance for Sustainability (USA)   

Institute of Tourism & Development Studies, DeMontfort University (UK)

Rethinking Tourism Project (RTP), (USA)

The Forum for Global Exchange, Center for World Indigenous Studies (USA)

Alliance for Sustainability (USA)

Friends of the Earth (Sweden)

Arbeitskreis Tourismus & Entwicklung (Switzerland)

Tourism Alert (Germany)

FernWeh-iz3w (Germany)

Norbert Suchanek, Journalist and Writer (Germany)