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Reflections on the International Year of Ecotourism

Photo: Ron Mader at the 2002 Summit (Some rights reserved)

From the archives. Revisiting and slightly editing in 2022

In 2002 leaders from around the globe gathered in Quebec for the Ecotourism Summit. Twenty years past the event is a good time to ask what the event accomplished.

Soon after the summit, in 2006 we asked whether the good will generated by the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) had been squandered? In our 2006 survey of small tour operators working toward ecotourism indicated that they are dissatisfied with the support and promotion they received from national secretariats.

Grassroots organizers and tour operators complain about the lack of transparency in development agencies and international banks. Have things improved in the past five years?

On an institutional level there has been a rotation of officials (in government and non-governmental positions) who left their posts and have been replaced with others less passionate about ecotourism. Sadly, tourism is rarely conducted as a meritocracy and lack of continuity remains a problem.

Vertical and Horizontal Power Structures
It should be no surprise that with the maturing of ecotourism, there has been a clash between vertical and horizontal power structures.

Vertical hierarchies — government and non-governmental organizations — had difficulty obtaining support within their own organizations for work promoting ecotourism. They also had trouble incorporating comments and participation from individuals and communities.

Horizontal organizations — community groups and trade associations — were busy working in the field. Many of these leaders were critical of the International Year of Ecotourism as they had difficulty figuring out the proper protocol of communicating with officials.

Lessons Learned
COMMONALITIES CROSS BORDERS — Ecotourism practitioners often work in an isolation, so one of the achievements of the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) was the discovery of commonalities across the globe. We learned about ecotourism’s good practices and failures. Knowing what does and does not work provides us all with a better idea of how to make tourism sustainable.

COOPERATION YIELDS GOOD WILL … AND RESULTS — Cooperation between the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) were at an all-time high. The IYE set a benchmark for institutional cooperation at international and national levels.

LOCALS TAKE THE LEAD — Grassroots efforts were plentiful. Art galleries and libraries focused on what constitutes ecotourism. There were a number of conferences and fairs organized at the local level that put ecotourism into the spotlight.

WEB-BASED COMMUNICATION WORKS — The Web proved to be a useful and cost-effective tool for communication and collaboration. Planeta.com was one of the leaders. From 2001-2003 we hosted the online IYE2002 Forum to facilitate a global dialogue among IYE officials and critics. I also had the privilege of moderating the official preparatory Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Conference which drew nearly one-third of all the participants in pre-summit conferences.

Stones in the Road
While there are a number of successes, we have even more challenges — the proverbial stones in the road. Here are the top problems that came to light during the IYE and additional reading that may illuminate solutions.

1) TRAVELERS ARE TAKEN FOR GRANTED – The traveling public was insufficiently targeted in IYE events. The Cairns Charter and the Quebec Declaration do not include travelers as valued stakeholders — a serious omission.
Recommended reading: Understanding Stakeholders, aka Players

2) EVENTS ARE NOT ECO – Most of the official events were not particularly eco. We may have discussed green hotels, but we certainly did not stay in them. The events could have showcased some great eco-solutions. This was and continues to be a missed opportunity.
Recommended reading: Greening Conferences, Evaluating Events

3) TRANSPORTATION IS RARELY ECO – While there is a great deal of discussion about certifying destinations and individual businesses, there has been little attention given to the environmental impact of transportation.
Recommended reading: Environmental Impact of Transportation

4) MONEY – Financing remains elusive for communities as well as entrepreneurs. We have learned that much of what has been financed has failed. Worse, white elephants continue to be funded! At the Quebec Summit, much was said of what had been funded, but there are no clear indications or guidelines of how ecotourism/sustainable travel projects and services will be funded in the future.
Recommended reading: Emerging Industry

5) WHAT IS NOT UNDERSTOOD CANNOT BE PROMOTED – Travelers interested in ecotourism are generally ill-informed by government and tourism board propaganda. (Instead, they turn to guidebooks and the Web for ideas and opportunities.) National promotion boards continue to confuse ecotourism with anything to do with being outside. Hopefully, this will change in the near future.
Recommended reading: Media, Environment and Tourism

6) REGULATION HAS BEEN MISDIRECTED – Governments continue to regulate ecotourism in a manner that does not provide incentives. When it is easier to get the permits and build a golf course or condominium than a multi-use trail or community-run lodge, we cannot expect ecotourism to succeed.
Recommended reading: Stones in the Road

7) LACK OF CONTINUITY COMPROMISES SUCCESS – Entrepreneurs and environmentalists complain that it takes a long time to teach government officials the basics of ecotourism. The lack of continuity is not just a problem within government offices. Social organizations or NGOs — uncertain of whether to promote ecotourism as a conservation or development strategy — also have a revolving door.
Recommended reading: Value of Continuity

8) TOP-DOWN APPROACHES DO NOT ENCOURAGE STAKEHOLDER PARTICIPATION – Individual pioneers often have difficulty having their voice heard by national or regional ecotourism advisory councils. Ecotourism associations also have a poor record of listening to their members. Sustainable development cannot be encouraged in such a “trickle down” fashion.
Recommended reading: Sustainable Development Index

9) POOR COMMUNICATION HAMPERS DEVELOPMENT – Development agencies and foundations rarely document the success or failure of the programs they help finance. Nor do they conduct workshops or provide online instructions on how to apply for a grant or a loan.
Recommended reading: The Value of Communication

10) MEDIA DOES NOT CARE – While there are certain publications, websites and TV shows that are interested, most react like a USA Today Reporter, who presented with the idea of covering the International Year of Ecotourism replied, “Yawn.” Who can blame her? Tourism policy is rarely interesting for the traveler. Our challenge is to create interesting media stories without resorting to pandering to sensationalism.
Recommended reading: Media, Environment and Tourism, Healing the Disconnect

Notes from the Summit

The only field trip scheduled during the event was an evening ‘cruise and booze’ trip via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Several participants refused to go, considering the cruise out of place for a conference on ecotourism. Others complained that only minimal drinks and appetizers were served! For those who attended, it was a great time for networking. = El único viaje de campo programado durante el evento fue un viaje nocturno de ‘crucero y bebidas alcohólicas’ a través de St. Lawrence Seaway. Varios participantes se negaron a ir, considerando el crucero fuera de lugar para una conferencia sobre ecoturismo. ¡Otros se quejaron de que solo se servían bebidas y aperitivos mínimos! Para quienes asistieron, fue un gran momento para hacer networking.

IYE 2002


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