Cancel the `Year of Ecotourism'

By Ling, Chee Yoke; Pleumarom, Anita et al. | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Cancel the `Year of Ecotourism'


Ling, Chee Yoke, Pleumarom, Anita, Raman, Meenakshi, Earth Island Journal


The UN proclamation of 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) has created a major debate because of the growing awareness that the ecotourism industry is not as benign as initially believed. In many studies conducted around the world, ecotourism falls short of the ideals inherent in the principles it promotes -- conservation of nature and cultures, benefits to local people and local participation.

There are grave concerns that the IYE will result in misconceived mass-tourism that inevitably will exacerbate the degradation of ecosystems, loss of biological and cultural diversity, disruption of local economies, and displacement and dispossession of communities and indigenous peoples.

Consequently, a coalition of citizens from the South and North has urged the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to reassess the IYE in collaboration with affected communities.

Because nature-based tourism is one of the world's most lucrative niche markets, powerful transnational corporations are likely to exploit the IYE to impose their own definitions of ecotourism, while people-centered initiatives will be squeezed out.

The WTO and UNEP have acknowledged that there is "little consensus" about the meaning of ecotourism. The agencies also have recognized the need to avoid ecotourism's "past shortcomings and negative impacts," and that "there has not been, so far, a truly comprehensive effort to allow the various stakeholders to voice their views."

Myth of the Green Tourist

A survey by the Bangkok daily, The Nation, found that under the pretext of ecotourism, massive development projects -- some involving logging -- 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.

It is not difficult to imagine how the lYE could serve as a justification to turn the last nature reserves into concrete jungles.

The Greater Mekong Sub-region development scheme covers a vast area comprising Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan/China. The project's ecotourism plan heavily relies on the implementation of the Asian Development Bank mega-infrastructure program, which includes the construction of highways, airports, ports, megadams and entire cities.

The plan would resettle 60 million ethnic highlanders from their homeland as part of the project's controversial "watershed conservation" program. The governments would "compensate" the refuges by offering them "ecotourism jobs."

Once the major bottlenecks in infrastructure are removed, the project's emphasis will shift from ecotourism and village tourism to the promotion of "all segments of the tourism market." For the Mekong region, at least, ecotourism is not an approach that implies the persistence of small-scale and community-based activity. It is rather used by official agencies and private industry as a springboard to develop mainstream mass tourism.

Hotels, Logging and Biopiracy

The idea that ecotourism is a viable alternative to more unsustainable development activities is a myth. Because tourism provides the physical infrastructure for freer movement of people and goods within countries and across borders, ecotounsm has opened opportunities for investors to gain access to remote rural, forest, coastal and marine areas. …

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