“IYE” puts ecotourism in world spotlight


Happy International Year of Ecotourism. That’s the theme the UN has selected for 2002. And, yes, there’s an acronym: IYE.

It’s tempting to write off these year-of-the-(fill in the blank) events as so many flashes in the bureaucratic pan. But the UN has tried to give the International Year of Ecotourism substance, organizing a series of regional meetings that began last March and will end in April of this year. The findings will be presented at an ecotourism summit in Quebec, Canada, May 19-22.

Discussion of ecotourism also is expected to loom large in September at the UN Sustainable Development summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. Meanwhile, at least 20 countries have announced national ecotourism initiatives of one kind or another for 2002, and non-governmental organizations such as the Vermont-based International Ecotourism Society are planning parallel events and debates.

So what issues matter to Latin America amid all these deliberations? If the official IYE regional meeting for the Americas was any indication, two crucial ones are ecotourism certification and local-community involvement in ecotourism.

The regional meeting, held here in late August on the edge of Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, attracted roughly 500 self-selected government, industry and NGO representatives from over 20 countries. Formal discussion was organized around four themes that will provide the backbone for the meetings in Quebec:

- planning and product development;

- monitoring and regulation;

- marketing and promotion;

- costs and benefits.

While not presented as a panacea, ecotourism was portrayed as a relatively low-cost way to help address the problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

“It is not that expensive,” Eugenio Yunis, chief of sustainable development of tourism at the UN’s World Tourism Organization (WTO), told EcoAméricas in an interview at the regional meeting. “We don’t need to be experts in microbiology to become ecotourism providers.”

Some participants also noted an important demand-side benefit: ecotourists can become staunch conservationists. “Tourists enjoy, learn something about nature and hopefully want to protect it,” says Carolyn Wild, president of Wild International, a tourism consultancy in Ottawa, Canada.

The meeting’s conclusions, a mélange of ideas presented during presentations and floor debate, were not subject to a formal vote. Instead, they were read to the plenary and revised in accordance with comments from the floor, but then only with the approval of Yunis, the meeting chairman. The World Tourism Organization, which along with the United Nations Environmental Program is overseeing preparations for the Quebec meeting, has posted a final report on the meeting at its website. (See Documents & Resources.)

The UN, which traditionally chooses a different issue to highlight each calendar year, didn’t select ecotourism because it was running out of worthy topics. At least until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, tourism in all forms had been growing robustly. And while the industry has suffered since the attacks, many experts believe it will regain momentum.

In 2000, international tourist arrivals were 7.4% ahead of their pace in 1999, numbering 699 million worldwide, according to a World Tourism Organization report released in September. Revenues totaled $476 million, a 4.5% increase over the previous year. Overall, tourism accounts for 11% of the world’s gross domestic product, according to the Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based environmental group.

Reliable numbers for ecotourism are scarce, but experts say nature travel has grown at least as fast as tourism as a whole. In Costa Rica, one of the world’s top ecotourism destinations, two-thirds of all tourists visited a natural protected area in 1996, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute. The Rainforest Alliance reports: “Lesser developed countries like Costa Rica have joined the ranks of developed nations largely due to nature-related tourism, which has become one of the top industries in that country, surpassing coffee and bananas.”

What is ecotourism, anyway?

One barrier to the collection of reliable statistics is the lack of a consensus on what constitutes ecotourism. Critics complain too many tourism operations stretch the definition. They cite mega-complexes such as Costa do Sauípe in Brazil’s Bahia state. The resort claims to concern itself with the preservation of the region’s natural beauty and environment. Yet its creation involved the construction of six hotels, smaller inns, an 18-hole golf course, 15 tennis courts and a mock town where tourists can shop and dine without rubbing elbows with the locals.

Still, a consensus definition of ecotourism seems to be emerging—at least among sustainable-development proponents. Opening the Cuiabá meeting, the World Tourism Organization’s Yunis stated it this way: “Any form of tourism in which the primary motivation of the tourist is the observation and appreciation of nature, which contributes to its conservation and which generates minimal negative impacts on the natural and cultural environments where it takes place.”

In another presentation, Ricardo José Soavinksi, general coordinator of Proecotur, a Brazilian program to promote ecotourism in the Amazon, offered this definition: “[Ecotourism is] an enlightened travel experience that contributes to conservation of the ecosystem while respecting the cultural integrity of host communities.”

Several ecotourism case studies presented at Cuiabá jibed with these definitions. One centers on a Brazilian Amazon community in the Pedras Negras extractive reserve in Rondônia state. There, in the Guaporé Valley, a lodge has been established with help from the state Rubber Tappers Association, the international conservation group WWF, and various federal, state and local agencies. Extractive reserves are protected areas where local communities are permitted to maintain their traditional hunting and gathering activities. At Pedras Negras, visitors can trek through the jungle areas where residents harvest nuts and other rainforest products. At a sister reserve called Curralinho, rubber tappers take tourists on hikes that include a hands-on demonstration of how to draw latex from rubber trees.

It’s to help tourists differentiate between the Sauípes and the Guaporés of the world—and perhaps make subtler distinctions in between—that many of Latin America’s ecotourism entrepreneurs and activists favor the development of a unified certification standard. Criteria should be used to evaluate ecotourism destinations and operators, they say, just as standards of the Oaxaca, Mexico-based Forest Stewardship Council are now used to gauge the sustainability of timber operations.

When a single certification program might emerge, if ever, is far from clear. Scores of ecotourism-certification schemes exist. Some, such as Australia’s, are national. Others, like the United Kingdom-based Green Globe 21 program, are industry initiatives. Still others are offered by independent auditors.

The result is confused travelers and “a lack of demand for certified holidays,” says Fergus Maclaren, director of The International Ecotourism Society (Ties), a Vermont-based association of 1,700 individuals and ecotourism businesses from 70 countries. And despite the multitude of certification schemes, fewer than 1% of ecotourism businesses have signed onto one, according to a study sponsored by WWF United Kingdom.

To address this problem, the Rainforest Alliance is drafting a blueprint for a single international-certification program. The proposed Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council would be a global accreditation body for ecotourism certifiers.

In September, the alliance launched a feasibility study for the council at Ecotour Amazonia 2001, a trade fair in Manaus, Brazil. Alliance officials presented a draft plan to 300 participants and held a workshop with 50 individuals. It is scheduling 13 similar workshops between now and June and plans to publish recommendations in November.

Meanwhile, independent initiatives continue to crop up. Along with Australia, Costa Rica ranks among the pioneers in national efforts with its Certification for Sustainable Tourism program. The Dominican Republic also has a national program. Meanwhile, debates over national certification are taking place in Brazil and Peru.

In Ecuador, the private sector is receiving government help to create a national certification program that might give tax breaks and marketing assistance to qualified operators. The Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association (Asec), a trade group, began developing the program in 1995 with the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN), says Diego Andrade Ubidia, Asec’s executive director. The plan calls for the creation of an independent, non-governmental auditing agency. Asec would have a seat on the board but will not control the agency. Says Ubidia: “There has to be continuity and transparency. In Ecuador there’s a saying: it isn’t just what you do but also how it appears.”

These initiatives face problems not encountered in green-seal programs developed for such activities as logging or banana cultivation, however. One is that the “product” is more ephemeral, its chain of custody harder to establish, says Sérgio Salazar Salvati, tourism and environment program officer for WWF Brazil.

Yunis notes that the subject of certification loomed far larger at the Americas IYE meeting than at the regional meeting in Africa, held last March in Maputo, Mozambique. “In Africa, certification didn’t come up,” he says. “That may reflect the differences in levels of development of ecotourism.”

The issue of community participation also surfaced repeatedly in Cuiabá. Stanford anthropologist Amanda Stronza presented the case of the Posada Amazonas, a joint venture between the U.S. operator Rainforest Expeditions and a community of Peruvian Indians and mestizos. Local residents are full partners, not merely employees. A 24-room lodge is run in conjunction with the native Ese’eja community. Most staff positions and 60% of profits are reserved for locals. After 20 years, the Ese’eja are slated to take over the entire business.

The key, Stronsa asserted, was that the community entered into an agreement based on a solid business plan, not just good intentions. Andrade Ubidia says the hazards of ignoring business realities are evident in Ecuador, where only a small percentage of the ecotourism projects undertaken are functioning. “They build this lodge, people receive training and expectations are raised,” he says. “And then not a single tourist shows up.”

Outsiders hoping to help develop community-based ecotourism projects must be persistent and patient, experts say. Community members “didn’t believe they were going to receive support,” says Doria Carolina Rodrigues da Costa, a biologist working as a technical assistant to the Pedras Negras and Curralinho projects in the Brazilian Amazon. “At the first few meetings, only a few people showed up. Now they fill the room.”

While many experts cite the need for community participation, Yunis offers a word of caution. “What do we mean by communities?” he asked in the interview. “One has to be very careful. One has to make sure that the NGOs or whatever social organizations at the grassroots level are truly representative of, if not the entire community, at least a substantial part of it. It is important to have the community involved in an organized and representative fashion.”

IYE process skewed?

Some experts object that issues such as community involvement ultimately will be ignored because the process leading up to the Quebec summit favors governments and large companies. The Cuiabá gathering, like other preparatory meetings held so far, was formally open to all comers. But in fact, few community-level representatives were in attendance.

That doesn’t surprise Ron Mader, host of the Mexico-based ecotourism website Cost constraints effectively bar small operators and community leaders from attending such meetings, and alternatives—online deliberations, for instance—have not been organized, he points out. Says Mader: “The bureaucrats have taken over the process.”

Others argue the International Year of Ecotourism could be counterproductive by promoting “mass nature tourism” that does more environmental and cultural harm than good. Representatives of the Malaysia-based Third World Network, for instance, charge that large infrastructure projects, displacement of local communities, logging and bio-piracy all have occurred in the name of ecotourism.

Citing a “growing awareness that the ecotourism industry is not as benign as initially believed,” Network members last year called on UN Secretary Kofi Annan to change IYE’s title to International Year of Reviewing Ecotourism.

“The new name will convey an unmistakable message to the international community that the year 2002 is not the time for celebrating the ecotourism industry, but is primarily meant as a period of reflection, stock taking, learning and intensive search for solutions to the various problems associated with ecotourism,” they said in a letter to Anan.

World Tourism Organization officials are undaunted. The Quebec meeting “is expected to be the largest-ever gathering of all stakeholders involved in or affected by ecotourism,” Dawid de Villiers, the agency’s deputy secretary-general, said in a speech in Cuiabá. He forecast: “The year 2002 could prove to be an important watershed year both for tourism and the environment.”

- Bill Hinchberger

Diego Andrade Ubidia
Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association
Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +(59 32) 250-3833
Fergus Maclaren
The International Ecotourism Society (Ties)
Burlington, VT, United States
Tel: (802) 651-9818
Sérgio Salazar Salvati
Tourism and Environment
WWF Brazil
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 364-7400
Ronald Sanabria
Sustainable Tourism Program
Rainforest Alliance
Moravia, Costa Rica
Eugenio Yunis
World Tourism Organization
Madrid, Spain
Tel: +(34 91) 567-8100