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Matching conservation with enterprise: a look back at the international year of ecotourism.

Thirty thousand flamingos lifting off a soda lake in northern Tanzania. Sidling up in a shallow boat to a herd of 30 Asian elephants shredding a shoreline of tall grasses in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Waking up each morning to view at first light the world's third highest mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga, in northeastern India's high Himalayas.

As director of the International Year of Ecotourism program for The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), I had the opportunity to see these amazing sights. More importantly, as I helped to organize regional meetings around the globe, I had the opportunity to hear from local communities and tourism operators what was and was not working in tourism development in and around protected and natural areas.

The same soda lake on the Tanzania-Kenya frontier bordered on the traditional homelands of Maasai people who have been dealing with human-wildlife conflicts and land ownership issues. The elephants and other endangered species were seeing their food sources and living space being depleted by timber cutting and the expansion of palm oil plantations. The beautiful mountainside in Sikkim is also a biodiversity hotspot, with many unique fauna such as the clouded leopard and red panda under threat from poaching and habitat loss.

How do you preserve and sustain these beautiful places, filled with many natural wonders, as they are being compromised?

One of the principal tools is ecotourism. The term was first coined by Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in 1988, as a way of describing an economic activity that enlists the support of local residents to help preserve the local environment. This was formalized a few years later by a widely-accepted definition from TIES which defines ecotourism as: "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people."

The United Nations believed the growing interest and application of ecotourism was significant enough to designate 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism. With the support of the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), numerous preparatory meetings were held prior to the World Ecotourism Summit in May 2002.

My task, in partnership with UNEP, was to assist with the preparation of regional meetings in Mesoamerica, South Asia, Andean South America, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Arctic. Whereas the WTO held more formal policy-oriented dialogues with government officials and larger scale tourism operators, the TIES-UNEP meetings focused on rural, community-based initiatives, where most ecotourism activities take place and the positive and negative effects are greatest.

TIES also led stakeholder input workshops for the Rainforest Alliance's Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council Process (STSC) regarding the establishment of a global body to accredit tourism certification programs, and facilitated discussions on ecotourism and conservation in UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites at the Southeast Asia and East Africa events.

At the six meetings held in Belize, India, Peru, Thailand, Kenya and Sweden, discussion often centered around community participation and the potential benefits of ecotourism being introduced into their towns and villages. There were also concerns expressed about mitigating any negative environmental, social, or economic impacts, such as ignoring traditional land use rights, indigenous people's participation, or economic leakage to outside tour operators.

All of these meetings led up to the World Ecotourism Summit (WES), which convened in Quebec City, Canada in May 2002. Twelve hundred people from over 130 countries attended (more than double the originally estimated number!), indicating that a better understanding and core of professionals is developing in the ecotourism field.

Unfortunately, IYE was operating under two clouds: the wrenching aftereffects of the September 11 tragedy, and external criticism. The events of that Tuesday morning saw an immediate decline in tourism traffic, and brought into question the need to travel outside of the perceived safety of one's borders. The Bali bombing was just another terrifying incident that reinforced those fears.

Nonetheless, the Summit revealed a number of points: whereas ecotourism was thought to be a small niche market, global interest and participatory numbers proved otherwise; whereas critics of the year argued about adequate representation during IYE, TIES' delegates and those from the UNEP-sponsored NGO and Indigenous Peoples meetings proved that theirs was a reasoned, experienced voice to be heeded; and whereas the usual byproduct of these global Summits is a well-worded document that elucidates very hopeful goals, the small group of individuals gathered by TIES have demonstrated that more tangible achievements can and will be made through a cooperative, concerted community-based effort.

The major post-IYE activity that will be taking place focuses on the issue of certification: the instruments necessary to assure operators and guests alike that a destination or business is acting in a sustainable manner. TIES, in conjunction with the Institute for Policy Studies/ Stanford University, Rainforest Alliance, and UNEP, has been funded by the Ford Foundation to help create an international framework for eco- and sustainable tourism certification programs, and to build support for the launching of a global accreditation system.

What does this all mean for the ecotraveler? In terms of the focus on certification, it there will be greater assurance of their green travel choices through the application of a global standard. On a broader scale, IYE has shown there are more destinations emerging, showcasing their unique wildlife and landscapes, while working towards enabling greater benefit and participation for local communities and sustaining local natural resources.

I will no doubt have many more wonderful experiences in the months to come after emerging from IYE with a new sense of perspective, and girding myself for the next series of meetings. The beauty and livelihood of natural spaces have proven to be fragile; however, there is hope that the growing number of people applying thoughtful ecotourism approaches will support ongoing sustainable travel throughout the world.

Fergus Tyler Maclaren is TIES' Director of International Programs, and managed the international stakeholder input process for the International Year of Ecotourism 2002. He can be reached at
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Author:Maclaren, Fergus
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Previous Article:How to be a responsible ecotourist.
Next Article:The search for truth. (From the editor).

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