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Taking the natural path: in 2002, the International Year of Ecotourism, will we set new standards for green travel?

At 7,000-feet elevation in the Southern Sierra Madre de Chiapas Mountains you'll encounter the magical 300,000-acre El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. This cloud forest is home to the elusive tapir and jaguar, as well as one of nature's most beautiful birds, the resplendent quetzal. The lure of such incredible flora and fauna attracts ecotourists by the thousands to this unspoiled corner of Mexico, and there's no shortage of tour operators to ease your way.

But will your trip be arranged by a fast-buck artist who maximizes his own profits while exploiting the local community, or will you go with a dedicated, conservation-minded tour operator like Boulder-based Emerald Planet? The tragic fact is that you're more likely to hear about the high-volume commercial service, because they advertise widely. According to Emerald Planet partner Mark Willuhn, "Linkage to the market is our biggest problem. In the protected areas of the world, anyone can come up with great itineraries because the natural resources are so spectacular. But the big firms spend millions of dollars a year on marketing; they have beautiful catalogs and ads in national publications. With each trip, we generate $2,000 to $6,000 in revenue for our local partner organizations, which cuts into our profitability. We persevere out of dedication." Emerald Planet conducts 60 trips a year; some of the large ecotourism companies handle thousands of them.

Welcome to ecotourism in 2002, the year it's all supposed to come together. This is the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE), and never has there been a more intensive discussion about defining what green travel is, or more questions about how to certify it as both protective of natural areas and beneficial to indigenous communities. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), the concept can be summed up in a single sentence: "Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." But in reality, the term "ecotourism" has been applied to a wide range of travel options, some far more "green" than others. A beachfront hotel tower built of imported materials with absentee owners and no local employees is not an eco-resort, even if it does offer its guests the option of not washing their towels.

The United Nations' IYE designation is not a blanket endorsement. Not just an opportunity to celebrate all that ecotourism operators have accomplished, it's also meant to be a time for reflection about what has gone wrong. As the World Tourism Organization (WTO) describes it, "The United Nations General Assembly wished to draw the attention of governments, and the international community, to the potential impacts (both positive and negative) of ecotourism on the natural environment, biodiversity conservation, and the social and cultural fabric of host communities." Oliver Hillel, the tourism programme coordinator for the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), says that the IYE year"will be very useful as a tool to increase awareness among the different stakeholders about the issues that are important for local communities. It's a chance to assess what ecotourism is, or can be, rather than only a promotional event for UN member governments, for the private sector and for recipients of development aid." (A question-and-answer interview with Hillel accompanies this story.)

A Growing Market Share

Recent studies indicate that a full four to seven percent of all tourism worldwide operates under a green label. By 1992, according to one survey, eight million U.S. travelers had taken at least one ecotourist holiday, and by 1994, 77 percent had taken a trip involving nature and the outdoors. In the Asia-Pacific region, ecotourism accounts for 20 percent of all travel. In South Africa, where most visitors travel to nature reserves and game parks, the figure is even higher. (The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that 80 percent of visitors come to see wildlife. And TIES says 20 to 40 percent of all American tourists can be classified as "wildlife-related.") But without a generally accepted set of guidelines, hotel operators who practice business-as-usual are free to ride on the goodwill created by genuine ecotourism.

There's a sharp contrast between real conservation-oriented trips and traditional "adventure" touring. "In our experience, the average adventure tourist wants a physical challenge and an adrenaline rush," says Jeff Hall of major tour operator GAP Adventures. "They want to bungee jump Victoria Falls, or go whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River." Hall says adventure tourists are usually sensitive to environmental concerns, though this isn't always apparent in adventure-oriented publications like Outside magazine.

According to the United Nations, successful ecotourism needs to include all of these elements:

* Its main motivation is "the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas";

* It contains "educational and interpretation features";

* It is organized "for small groups by specialized and small, locally owned businesses";

* It minimizes negative impacts "upon the natural and socio-cultural environment";

* It supports the protection of natural areas by 1) generating income for host communities; 2) providing alternative employment and income opportunities; 3) increasing awareness of the need for conservation of natural and cultural assets. But these principles are frequently ignored in practice. Wendy Brawer, creator of New York City's environmental Green Apple Maps, says she was "chagrined" when she first heard about the 2002 IYE designation. She decries, "The roads cutting through pristine forests for greenwashed hotel development, indigenous rights pushed aside by snap-happy bio-pirates masquerading as awe-filled ecotourists, the tons of carbon dioxide expended flying there--the momentary pleasure seeker inadvertently obliterating the eternal. Even those who prepare carefully can leave an oversized eco-footprint behind."

A Long Process

Planning for the IYE began in 1998, when the UN Economic and Social Council first proposed to the General Assembly that a year be so dedicated. UNEP is working with TIES, the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and Ecological Tourism in Europe (ETE) on a full program of activities. In preparation for the major World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec, Canada last May (see sidebar), there were a series of events on such subjects as "Europe" (St. Johann, Austria, September 2001); "NGOs and Grassroots Organizations" (New Delhi, September 2001); "Central America" (Belize City, November 2001); "Small Island Developing States" (Seychelles, December 2001); "South Asia" (Gangtok, India, January 2002); "South America" (Cuzco, Peru, February 2002); "Southeast Asia" (Chiang Mai, Thailand, March 2002); "East Africa" (Nairobi, Kenya, March 2002); and the "Arctic Circle" (Hemavan, Sweden, April 2002).

UNEP has also prepared The UNEP Manual for the International Year of Ecotourism and a handbook, Ecotourism: Principles, Practices and Policies for Sustainability. (These publications and other related documents can be downloaded from the World Wide Web at www.uneptie.org/pc/tourism/ecotourism/documents.htm.)

During the IYE, workshops and events will be coordinated with such concurrent activities as the International Year of the Mountain, the Carpathian Ecoregion Initiative, the Sport and Environment Initiative, the Great Apes Survival Project, and several initiatives on coral reefs and the world's seas. The crowning event, last month's Summit in Canada, was the largest worldwide gathering on ecotourism ever held.

Ecotourism: Hope and Reality

The events of September 11 led to an overall 10 percent decline in global tourism and an estimated loss of 8.8 million related jobs worldwide, according to the World Travel and Tufism Council. Among those affected by the setback are airlines, hotels, tour operators, car rental agencies and credit card companies. According to Oliver Hillel, "Two thousand and one was the first year since the 1980s in which there was a small but detectable decrease in tourism revenues. Even if it's a slight reduction, it jeopardizes all the benefits that have been accruing from ecotourism. But tourism overall is still very strong, so I don't think we'll continue to see that slight decrease over the next couple of years."

Echoing Hillel's thoughts, the Council also expects the picture to improve, albeit slowly, "as consumer confidence about safety and security recover." Travel and tourism will remain one of the world's biggest industries, generating more than $3.5 trillion in economic activity annually. The travel industry represents more than 11 percent of the world's gross domestic product, and it employs 8.2 percent of the world's workforce--some 207 million people.

The WTO estimates that 75 percent of all travel is for leisure. Globally, there were 698 million international tourist arrivals in 2000--a new record and up 7.4 percent over 1999--and that represents only a quarter of the tourist travel that does not cross a national border. For 83 percent of countries worldwide, tourism is one of the top five sources of foreign currency. In the Caribbean (badly hit by the fallout from September 11), tourism provides half of the total gross domestic product. The destination for three quarters of all international travelers, however, is the U.S. or Europe.

"Tourism at the turn of the century is growing faster than even our most optimistic predictions," said WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli shortly betbre September 11. It may be several years before travel rebounds to pre-September 11 levels, but that it will now seems inevitable.

Tourism offers huge--and in many cases, indispensible--benefits to local economies, but it also causes unforeseen consequences. According to Sue Wheat, editor of the British organization Tourism Concern's quarterly magazine, In Focus, "Evidence of the downside of tourism--culturally, environmentally and economically--is now such that tourism has become a dirty word among many communities, environmental groups and human rights campaigners." Although there are now many shining lights of holistic ecotourism (see sidebar), Tourism Concern didn't have to look far to find these negative examples:

* "Ecological hotels" around Lake Titicaca in Bolivia that dump untreated wastewater into the lake. (Bolivia has no environmental standards for hotels, so "ecohotel" is entirely a self-designated title);

* Ecotourism operations in Botswana's Central Kalahari desert that have pushed the remaining few hundred San people off the land they've inhabited for centuries. The Botswanan government has stated that (eco) tourists will not want to see "primitive" people. The San are now exiles, living in desolate camps outside the parks and reliant on food aid. In Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and other African countries, pastoral farmers have been evicted to make way for conservation, professional hunting and safari tourism. In some cases, as with the Maasai people of East Africa, sources say that local councils have gained some control over park revenues, but corruption in the process has meant that little has filtered down to local people.

* In Thailand, angry villagers near Khao Sok National Park report that they are arrested if they collect mushrooms in the forest or corals in marine parks, yet various World Bank-funded projects are allowed to fell trees and make landscape changes without prosecution, even though it contravenes Thai law.

Ironically, the huge biodiversity that still exists in many parts of the world is both a draw for tourists and is to some degree threatened by them. The World Tourism Organization notes that between 1980 and 1998, visitors to seven ecotourism nation countries with high levels of biodiversity--Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa and Thailand--rose 242 percent. But these are some of the same countries experiencing massive biodiversity loss, partly because of the increase of tourism. The effect is complicated and hard to measure, especially since tourism dollars also support conservation of protected areas in many countries.

Wheat offers some examples of tourism straining such basic resources as land, water and energy. On the Mediterranean coast, for instance, she notes that three quarters of the sand dunes have disappeared "largely because of the construction of hotels and holiday flats." In the popular resort city of Goa, India, she adds, new five-star hotels consume as much water as five villages. Tourist visitors to Goa use 28 times more electricity than local residents. And because Goa has no garbage collection, the detrius of tourism--plastic bags, cans and bottles--is often simply dumped at sea.

A British-led plan to build a 14 billion [pounds sterling] tourist development in the north of Zanzibar, which would have endangered the island's coral reefs, destroyed the local fishing and farming industries and compromised water supplies, was halted after major public campaigns in Britain and Zanzibar. "The lack of discipline of government and the demand for growth will undermine efforts to create sustainable ecotourism economies that are small but beautiful," says Megan Epler-Wood, president of TIES. "Overbuilding and land speculation will continue to destroy once-tranquil zones." As noted in the book Managing Tourism Growth: Issues and Applications, however, effective strategies--including zoning controls, self-imposed visitor limits and design plans--can be put in place to limit the damage. Some 29 international NGOs recently signed a letter citing several examples, especially in Asia, where so-called ecotourism projects are clearly working against the interest of the environment and local communities. In projects in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, for example, plans center on the construction of vast "development corridors" that include airports, large dams and other facilities. Some 60 million ethnic highlanders could be displaced by the projected corridors.

Wangari Maathai, who founded Kenya's Green Belt Movement, notes with some heat that many of the country's ecotourists never interact with Kenyans. "They fly to Nairobi, then fly to the animal reserves without seeing or interacting with the people of the country to whom this rich and wonderful heritage should belong," she says. "The government gets the tourist's dollar and uses it to enrich itself. But if the people benefited from tourism, they would attach more value to the animals."

Tourism Concern's Patricia Barnett says, "The mass tourism operators have learned the language of sustainable tourism, or whatever you want to call it. But little has really changed." She notes that the ecotourism industry in the Balearic Islands fought bitterly against a government proposed tourist eco-tax of less than $1 a day to help offset environmental damage caused by tourist development. "People talk about ecotourism, but the fact is that the tourism industry is always looking for a quick buck," adds Doug Rhodes, who owns Hotel Paradiso del Oso in Chihuahau, Mexico, where many"ecotourist" hotels lack waste disposal facilities and therefore throw their waste into local canyons or near community wells.

According to People and the Planet, environmentalists in some Third World countries now link ecotourism with biopiracy. In 2000, three French scientists were caught in national parks in the Philippines illegally obtaining plant specimens believed to have medicinal properties. Philippines Environment Secretary Antonio Cerilles says, "At least one tree with cancer-curing potential, four native vegetables, one snail which produces an effective painkiller, an antibiotic soil fungus, one fruit tree and several rice varieties have been stolen and are now owned by foreign pharmaceutical firms."

British environmentalist Chris Lang says he observed volunteers with the UK-based nonprofit group Society for Environmental Exploration collecting plant and insect specimens without permission on a visit to nature reserves and parks in Vietnam in 1993.

Chee Yoke Ling of the Malaysia-based Third World Network has many concerns. "We are extremely concerned that this UN endorsement of ecotourism in light of all the fundamental problems related to the industry--in many cases, another greenwash--will destroy more biodiversity and harm even more local communities," says Ling.

Does ecotourism benefit the working poor? Carlos Maldonado of the Geneva-based International Labor Organization has studied ecotourism's effects in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. He finds that local investors scared away by the lack of infrastructure often neglect rural areas in these countries, and that of the three Ecuador has done the most to foster community-based ecotourism development.

Models to Follow, Pitfalls to Avoid

Even the severest critics of questionable ecotourism would not want to see it disappear entirely. Traditional tourism, which would inevitably take its place, is hardly an improvement. Rather, they see the International Year of Ecotourism as an opportunity to reform and root out the worst offenders.

"IYE is important because it can educate the consumer and help change government policy," says Bruce Poon Tip, CEO of GAP Adventures, who points out that he practices what he preaches. "We set our own standards for sustainable travel. We incorporate local transportation in all of our tours, use locally owned hotels and pay guides and drivers `cash in hand.' We pulled out of Burma because the government wouldn't allow us to pay the wages we wanted. They wanted us to pay the government, and then they would disperse a minimal wage to employees."

Poon Tip says he's seen many environmental crimes committed in the name of ecotourism. "It's incredible how some companies package holiday ecotours on a cruise ship" he says. "Excursions in nature may follow an environmental slant, like a bus of 50 people visiting a beach where turtles nest, but they don't always follow ecotourism principles. In fact, greater harm can be done with the number of people who visit these sensitive areas and give nothing back to the communities or the wildlife."

Martha Honey, director of the Ecotourism and Sustainable Development Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, says the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica are good examples of countries that have taken a positive approach to ecotourism. "Costa Rica got the right stakeholders together, developed good guidelines and certified 50 hotels," she says. "Now they're working on certifying tour operators and guides. You need a strong national park system and a good infrastructure to serve as a backbone to sustainable travel." Honey adds that, as in other countries, there is tension in Costa Rica between the tourism and environmental ministries, with the former wanting to increase tourist numbers and the latter wanting to protect natural resources.

"Three trends have emerged in response to the growth of ecotourism," says Honey. "There is authentic ecotourism, `ecotourism lite' and green washing. Authentic ecotourism incorporates seven or eight of the principles. Ecotourism lite refers to businesses that make only a few cosmetic and cost-saving changes, like not laundering the sheets every day. And greenwashing occurs when big resorts label themselves as ecotourism destinations but reject core principles." The IYE, she says, "is important because we hope it will help fortify authentic ecotourism."

Fergus Maclaren, director of TIES' IYE program, agrees that Costa Rica is a good example of how to practice ecotourism. "Costa Rica has a better infrastructure for environmentally minded travelers than some of the emerging countries in South America," he says. "And they're working to sustain their park land." Ironically, however, Costa Rica has a rather high rate of deforestation outside its parks. He also cites the Galapagos, Belize and some sectors in Kenya for trying to encourage a conservation partnership model that adheres to ecotourism principles. "You don't have to chop down trees to achieve value," he says.

As a negative example, Maclaren cites the famous limestone caves of Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, which John Gray first explored by ocean kayak 10 years ago. Gray ran an environmentally friendly business exploring the caves but, Maclaren says, imitators who didn't necessarily share his concerns followed in his wake.

Rudolph Ryser, director of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, also offers both positive and negative examples of ecotourism. He praises the program put together by the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, pointing out that the tribe opened up a section of its land in the Badlands four years ago and laid out specific guidelines and rules for visitors that were in accordance with tribal law.

In sharp contrast was a proposed ecotourist development for two villages in Chiapas, Mexico. The community rejected the plan because "they realized that if it were adapted their life as it was would no longer exist--it treated people as objects," Ryser says. "The tourists would have come to look with little understanding, then leave."

Beth Trask of the RARE Center says she's seen some very bad programs hiding under the heading "Eco Adventure." Says Trask, "There's as much fluff, bells and whistles as there is the real thing, especially in the U.S. domestic market. Internationally, you can pretty much bet that most activities in the Amazon, along the Caribbean reef, up in the Andes or deep in the Transvaal are going to be `an adventure' more than a real ecotourism experience. Is climbing Mount Everest an ecotourism activity, for example? Definitely not. Anyone with three months and $50,000 can climb the mountain. And base camp is a trash bin, with tons of garbage left by trekkers and climbers. Certainly the Sherpa communities have not benefited proportionately in' relation to their contribution to the commercial success of trekking."

Going Green: The Way Forward

Wendy Brawer says she'd like to see 2002 dubbed the "Year of Hometown Ecotourism." She writes in Manna: The Newsletter of the Alliance for Sustainability, "Let's experience the nature and culture that's nearby, and get a fresh perspective on the abundant and refreshing resources in our own cities and towns, bioregions and neighborhoods. [Let's] weave the ecologies of home and the responsibilities of sustainable choices into our recreation and daily habits."

Obviously, it would be ideal on one level if we could all just stay home and leave the polluting airplanes on the ground and the forest paths untrampled. But that's ignoring the considerable value in exposing people to nature in all its complex diversity, to other cultures and to other lifestyles, not to mention the economic boon that tourism in general and ecotourism in particular provides for many subsistence-level economies.

People will travel, and they will want to see wildlife in a pristine state, so it becomes the environmentalist's burden to help define responsible ecotourism and to ensure--as much as possible--adherence to that definition. Tourism Concern worries that undefined ecotourism falls prey to "greenwash" marketing. "Ecotourism can be whatever anyone wants," the group says. "There is no internationally accepted definition of ecotourism, and there is no certification system to abide by, or international monitoring body."

There may be no universally accepted certification program, but there certainly are a host of certification schemes and guidelines, including TIES' Guidelines for Nature Tour Operators. According to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) 1999 report Protecting Paradise: Certification Programs for Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism by Martha Honey and Abigail Rome, there are as many as 100 "green" certification and eco-labeling programs around the world (see sidebar). As they put it, "There is overlap, lack of uniformity and consumer and industry confusion." Certification is widely accepted in some countries, and practically unknown in others, including most of Asia.

Based on audits, certification programs award logos or seals to those businesses and attractions that meet or exceed agreed-upon standards. All these certification programs are voluntary and dependent on consumer awareness and willingness to follow their dictates. "Certification is a hot topic, and will get hotter during IYE," says Honey. "There is widespread recognition that certification is necessary to help the responsible traveler and hold the industry's feet to the fire." Epler-Wood of TIES adds, however, that this recognition has not yet extended to Asia. "There was little knowledge of certification in the stakeholder meetings held there," she says.

The way forward could perhaps be modeled on Kenya's experience. As the second largest tourism destination in Africa (behind South Africa), Kenya receives 700,000 visitors annually. Though the money they spend is vital to Kenya's economy, the Christian Science Monitor reports that the tourists take a toll.

But there's been some improvement, however incremental. Judy Gona, executive director of the Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK), says, "The future of Kenyan tourism is green." ESOK has 80 members, the majority of which call themselves ecotourism destinations.

IYE's goal is to help make solid ecotourism the rule, rather than the exception. There's no question that ecotourism is wildly popular, but that in itself is not enough. As more and more of the world's tour operators are beginning to acknowledge, ecotourism has to live up to its green claims.

CONTACT: The International Ecotourism Society, (802)651-9818, www.ecotourism.org; Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Tourism Program, (212) 677-1900, X205, www.rainforest-alliance.org/programs/sv/index.html; RARE Center, (703)522-5070, www.rarecenter.org; Tourism Concern, (011) 020-7753-3330, www.tourismconcern.org.uk.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E and frequent ecotraveler.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Earth Action Network, Inc.
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Author:Motavalli, Jim
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