Ecotourism Summit meets amid controversy

Posted: 16 May 2002

Over 1000 people from 120 countries met in Quebec City, Canada for the World's first Ecotourism Summit (19-22 May).

The summit was an initiative of the World Tourism Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme, in partnership with Tourisme Québec and the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC).

The year 2002 was declared the 'International Year of Ecotourism' by the United Nations in 1998. The event finished a series of about 15 preparatory conferences and seminars held in as many different countries.

Although ecotourism only represents between 2-4 per cent of all international travel expenditure, it is seen as one of the most lucrative niche markets in the tourism industry as ecotourists are higher spenders than 'ordinary' mass tourists. These are an attractive market for governments looking for ways of earning foreign exchange and for the tourism industry keen to take advantage of the growth in interest in 'nature tourism'.

NGO concern

World Tourism Organisation, Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli says: "Ecotourism, is far from being a fringe activity. It should not be regarded as a passing fad or a gimmick, or even as a secondary market niche, but rather as one of the trump cards of this industry of the future. And for a simple reason: it is crucial to the problem of developing a balanced, sustainable and responsible tourism sector."

However, many NGOs are concerned that a sudden growth in 'ecotourism' may not necessarily work in the interests of local and indigenous people in Southern destinations or fragile environments.

"There is a lot of concern around promoting ecotourism without thoroughly analysing how it should be developed sustainably," says Patricia Barnett, director of UK campaigning group, Tourism Concern. "Our research shows that ecotourism is increasingly being linked to very problematic consequences, such as people being evicted from their land."

Indigenous groups who met in pre-summit preparatory conferences have also expressed deep concerns. Two leaders leaders of indigenous communities who attended the International Forum on Indigenous Tourism in Oaxaca, Mexico this March, pointed out that 'there is no international consensus on what constitutes ecotourism, and much of what is being called ecotourism continues to threaten and destroy biodiversity." Many indigenous groups and NGOs are choosing to boycott the conference.

Others however, took a pragmatic view and attended in order to make sure that local voices from destination areas were heard at the World Summit.

Adama Bah, a hotel worker and tourism campaigner from The Gambia who attended the pre-summit International NGO workshop on tourism in New Delhi last September, explains: "We called for the World Ecotourism Summit to put in place the right development strategies and action plan so that efforts can be directed towards preservation of the ecosystem and integrity of cultural practices.

"There is the need to strengthen the NGOs engaged in advocacy so that the law of good practice will characterise the universal trend for ecotourism development. Funds have to be mobilised to support indigenous ventures designed to create a balance between the environment and the eradication of poverty."

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director, says: "Ecotourism has many definitions, but as a general goal it should provide an opportunity to develop tourism in ways that minimize the industry's negative impacts and a way to actively promote the conservation of Earth's unique biodiversity.

"If handled properly, ecotourism can be a valuable tool for financing the protection of ecologically sensitive areas and the socio-economic development of populations living in or close to them."

Relevant links:

World Tourism Organisation

World Ecotourism Summit 2002

Tourism Concern