Photo: Ron at the Summit

From the archives: 2002’s Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Web Conference Report
Also available in Spanish and French

Over the past two decades ecotourism activities have expanded rapidly and further growth is expected in the future. Recognizing its global importance, the United Nations designated the year 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism, and its Commission on Sustainable Development requested international agencies, governments and the private sector to undertake supportive activities.

In this framework the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) organized a pioneering forum that was conducted solely online the Internet. The Conference was developed and moderated by Ron Mader, author and webhost of the website.

The prime objective of the conference was to provide easy access for a wide range of stakeholders involved in ecotourism to exchange experiences and voice comments, especially for those who had not been able to attend the regional preparatory conferences that had taken place in the past year.

The experience and results derived from the Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Web Conference will be presented at the World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec, Canada (19-22 May 2002).

More than 900 stakeholders from 97 countries participated in this Conference, representing international, public and private organizations, NGOs, academic institutions and local communities. During the event, more than 100 messages, received from around 30 countries, were posted and archived for future reference. Participants shared information through case studies, specific examples and field experiences, and recommended resources for those interested in ecotourism issues. Intensive debates developed on some messages, analyzing specific topics from a range of views. Archives were accessible online until late 2019:

Participants were asked to send messages in English, Spanish and French.

The discussion was focused on four main themes defined for the World Ecotourism Summit, in four thematic sessions addressed in each of the four weeks of the event:

Theme 1: Ecotourism Policy and Planning: The Sustainability Challenge
Theme 2: Regulation of Ecotourism: Institutional Responsibilities and Frameworks
Theme 3: Product Development, Marketing and Promotion of Ecotourism: Fostering Sustainable Products and Consumers
Theme 4: Monitoring Costs and Benefits of Ecotourism: Ensuring Equitable Distribution among all Stakeholders

As in other preparatory conferences for the World Ecotourism Summit, there was some overlap in the dialogue, particularly at the beginning of each theme week. Participants often consciously chose to mix their responses to various topics in a single post. These messages provided particularly useful insights to the complex nature of the ecotourism market.

A draft of this summary report was circulated among participants for comments.

Throughout the four-week conference there was a thoughtful dialogue about the complexities of ecotourism. Several participants indicated that the process leading up to the World Ecotourism Summit and the Summit itself present a major opportunity to promote mutually reinforcing relationships that exist among tourism operations, conservation, and local community development.

As ecotourism has dramatically captured the attention of people around the world, there are many expectations of what ecotourism can offer for a particular locality, as well for larger regions and in the global environmental movement.

There was a plethora of discussion about definitions that should be used in this field. There was also a healthy dialogue about the type of ecotourism that can and should be promoted. Discussions drew from the complexities of ecotourism regulation, certification, product development and marketing. Of note were repeated comments and dialogue about positive and negative impacts of tourism on communities and local people.

There is a growing concern that ecotourism is such a powerful force driven by the world’s largest industry and participants stressed that it is essential that the ecotourism sector remains a low impact niche.

Several participants questioned whether travel could be considered a sustainable activity, because of basic environmental impacts associated with the use of motor vehicles and aircrafts. These questions led participants into a productive dialogue about available information resources as well as the need for continued study and the development of action plans.

THEME 1: Ecotourism Policy and Planning: The Sustainability Challenge
Questions: Participants were asked to reflect on how effective are ecotourism plans at the international, national and local levels in promoting sustainable ecotourism. Among other questions, they were asked whether ecotourism policies integrate with wider planning frameworks and what is the most efficient way to balance conservation and development objectives in ecotourism policies.

Overview: Participants presented edited case studies of ecotourism policy from Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Hungary, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Venezuela. Of special note were discussions that linked successful management of protected areas to the inclusion of local people and stakeholders.
Comments and Conclusions

The conceptual and practical workings of ecotourism have been isolated from each other too long. Ecotourism development should focus on action plans and not become, as one participant complained, “bogged down” in definitions.

Ecotourism promoted by single organizations with single objectives, without involving all stakeholder groups affected, lead to poorly balanced strategies. Governments, environmental and social groups, the private sector, academics and local communities need to work jointly towards the development of effective ecotourism policies.

The governments’ role in ecotourism development is to provide the overall policy environment to permit development to proceed along an orderly path. This framework needs to clearly involve and welcome participation of other sectors. Ecotourism plans should be widely circulated among community members, NGOs, government agencies, travel companies and other stakeholders.

There has been a lag in governmental response to development that threatens conservation of protected areas at many destinations. Obstacles include a lack of qualified personnel, lack of continuity and lack of interest in small scale ecotourism operations.

Policy making lies often in the hands of people with limited field business experience. This leads to regulations that are not feasible at the ground level and consequently are not implemented. Said one participant: “The cycle of impossible laws, blatant non-compliance, corruption and disbelief in the legal system is a constraint for businesses aiming at ecotourism operations in a sustainable way. Therefore, policy is often incongruous with reality.” When policy makers do not have the background in this field or experience in the local area, there is a need to teach policy makers so that policies reflect social and environmental concerns as well as market realities.

National directives are often unimplemented because of lack of cross sector commitment from various ministries or lack of continuity. High turn-over and poor communication between government offices were cited as chief causes of this problem.

While national level policies are important to ecotourism, development takes place at the local level. Local authorities play a key role, and in many localities a bottom-up approach to ecotourism planning is desirable. There is a great need for cooperation between authorities at different levels. Also, legal standards need to be integrated so that the structure supports the development of ecotourism

Development plans need to identify financial sources and financing mechanisms for local, regional and national programs and cultivate these resources for long-term investment. Ecotourism projects rarely succeed as quickly or as profitably as other sectors, so ecotourism requires long-term financial commitment.

Ecotourism operations may cause a negative impact on local populations. Tourism can drive up local prices and force locals to move away or restrictive policies lead businesses to develop operations elsewhere. Ecotourism for protected areas must bring indirect conflict resolution with local people/stakeholders, education for visitors; financial income from tourism for communities living within or adjacent to those areas.

It is to everyone’s advantage that nature based tourism operations move increasingly towards adoption of the principles of ecotourism, to ensure that sensitive natural areas are conserved and local community and cultural benefits are maximized.

THEME 2: Regulation of Ecotourism: Institutional Responsibilities and Frameworks
Questions: Participants were asked to reflect on how policies and plans can be implemented and what are the positive and negative effects of these regulations on stakeholders and on the environment of ecotourism sites? Among other issues, they were asked about what the role is and could be of ecotourism certification and who benefits from such programs.

Overview: Participants provided numerous examples about regulation, including detailed essays about tourism certification in Brazil, tourism legislation in Venezuela and community tourism in Ecuador. Others noted the absence of legal mechanisms ensuring repayment of economic activity income to the protected area. Participants also brought up the pros and cons of certification programs.

Comments and Conclusions
If regulation is too strict it can hamper competitiveness, and operators or countries can be placed at a disadvantage. On the other hand, if consumers place an economic value on healthy ecosystems, the market will drive all operators to achieve higher levels of environmental stewardship.

Regulation will not work effectively if the community, the tour operator, tour guide and tourists themselves do not share the same concept of ecotourism. The concepts must be relevant to all stakeholders. Successful ecotourism development requires agreements on definitions and consistent legislation.

Effective certification programs need to inform the traveling public about ecotourism products and services. Certification and accreditation should include as a priority a campaign and a coalition of media and communication professionals that effectively deliver the message. If clients are not requesting certification standards, one participant argued the practice may be “putting the cart before the horse.”

Other participants noted that even if certification schemes are not sought by tourism consumers, business-to-business operations do pursue them. Well designed certification programs can help achieve the objectives of ecotourism by providing incentives to certified ecotourism operators with a marketing advantage.

National broad-based coalitions have the best records for developing certification. One example frequently cited is Australia’s National Ecotourism Accreditation Programme (NEAP) which has developed as the result of multi-sector discussions among the government, private sector and academics.

THEME 3: Product Development, Marketing and Promotion of Ecotourism: Fostering Sustainable Products and Consumers
Questions: Participants were asked to reflect on challenges and opportunities of ecotourism product development and marketing. Among other questions, Participants were asked what role is played by public and private protected area managers and the private sector. Also, what marketing and promotional techniques have proven to be effective and how participants saw the role of transnational corporations, hotel chains and franchises in facilitating sustainable tourism development and supporting local tourism businesses.

Overview: Participants recounted examples about product development and marketing in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Chile, Ecuador, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

A lively discussion over competing versions of ecotourism that needed to be promoted emerged during the third week. As one participant commented: “Like the environmental movement, there is room in ecotourism for many different styles. Just as a road protester chaining himself to a tree and a lawyer in a three-piece suit may be fighting for the same thing, and they are both necessary and worthwhile, ecotourism needs both the high-end, no microphones, one-at-a-time operator and the more mainstream, wholesale crowd pleaser.”

Not surprising for a conference conducted online, participants discussed the role of Internet in ecotourism development, particularly in marketing and promotion. Participants agreed that, particularly in this niche market of ecotourism and responsible travel, websites play an important role in developing consumer awareness and environmental education. Several website directors explained their operations. Of note were suggestions of how travelers could review the tour operators on the web, enforcing the standards of the operators. Other sites encourage a regional dialogue among stakeholders. Participants also noted that improved access and training will be necessary to “bridge the digital divide” as many parts of the world are less wired than others.
Comments and Conclusions

Educating consumers is key to raising awareness and stimulating demand for socially- and environmentally-friendly products and services. The hardest sale to make is to the first-time ecotourist. As one participants argued: “Once people have a chance to stay in an ecolodge and to use guided services, they are likely to become loyal customers.”
The stimulation for ecologically sensitive products should be the key driver to improving ecotourism. One participant said, “This should be done through customer education rather than through regulation.”

Media coverage does not adequately address the substance of ecotourism. One example: nature shows often focuses on dangerous animals or scenic landscapes and leave out the human part of the equation.

Information needs to be accurate. For example, if a sign reads that a path is 1 kilometer when in reality it is two or if at the end of a hike the expected meal or refreshment is not ready, the reputation of the tour is damaged by not meeting the expectations of the traveler. If the service does not meet expectations, the situation has the potential to harm the reputation of all regional operations.

The principal aim of an ecotourism business should be achieving high levels of satisfaction among its clients by providing quality services and contributing to the conservation of the natural and cultural resources.

Initiatives to develop and promote ecotourism are frequently divided among private sector and government programs. In Ecuador, for example, the past three years have seen stronger cooperation and improved results.

Internet Use
The Internet is a highly efficient, cheap and ecological way for communities to reach and be reached by ecotourists directly. The challenge lies in bridging the digital divide and providing the training required by communities to master this medium. Patience and continuity are key ingredients for success. If such training is not provided, the Internet will not fulfill its promise of leveling the small vs. large operator promotional playing field.
The experience of ecotourism operations that have successfully promoted their products and services online show that the Internet is a powerful tool for even the smallest operations.
Regular access has been shown to help communities communicate and share information.

Government tourism offices, environmental groups and companies need to improve their use of the Web as soon as possible.

The increasing use of Internet by ecotourists was demonstrated, for example, through the Rural Ecotourism Assessment Project in Belize where tourists were asked what types of marketing they had encountered pre-trip, and more than two thirds said they had encountered web sites, second only to word of mouth.

There is an untapped potential in Internet cafes in tourist centers. One participant suggested that cybercafe computers could “have a start page directing travelers to information on local sites or to a central consumer-oriented site.”

Product Development
Most comments underlined the inherent need for ecotourism marketing in development projects and operations, as a basic component for economic sustainability. One participant warned: “Noble, well-intentioned ecotourism programs fail if the heralded ecotourists do not arrive.”
Because the definition of ecotourism is vague, ecotourism developers and consumers are challenged by what the marketing message should be.

A good marketing plan should include a well-balanced, multi-media approach. Use of the Web should be complemented with traditional marketing.

Ecotourism operations need educated, empowered and inspired travelers. For this tour operators and service providers should inform and educate consumers they depart for a trip, or even before they make decision and book for a trip.

Tourists don’t want to be just “educated.” As one participant stated: “They want to have a safe, interesting vacation, worth their money and time.”

The tourism market is complex and there is no static profile of the “ecotourist.”
The results of investigations, and assessments of the “ecotourism market” are widely divergent, as survey methods and sources of information are varied. WTO researched existing market data as part of its Ecotourism Market Study Series, conducted in the 7 major ecotourism generating countries of Europe and North America. For example, the 1994 Ecotourism-Nature/Adventure/Culture: Alberta and British Columbia (Canada) Market Demand Assessment suggested that there was an ecotourism market of 13.2 million travelers (representing 77% of all respondents) in just seven of the major urban areas in North America. The ecotourism definition used was “tourism related to nature/adventure/culture in the countryside”. An In-Flight Survey on US travelers to overseas and Mexico, conducted by the US Department of Commerce in 1996 and 1999 suggests that the market represents 4% of US international travelers, and they spend less on average than the typical US traveler. This survey used the qualification that the ecotourists had to have participated in environmental or ecological excursions. In conclusion, it is necessary to further improve and coordinate ecotourism market research activities to provide more complete data on market trends. WTO applied a coordinated research methodology for its Ecotourism Market Study Series that implied surveys with specialized tour operators and tourists, in addition to the analysis of existing market data, in each country markets.

Developing a product requires understanding client needs and a level of education and marketing that promotes the products and services in the niche of ecotourism. Marketing, however, is never as simple as “build it and they will come.” Many planners working in product development don’t have a clear idea of market competition. Citing work in the Amazon, one participant questioned the efficiency of a community-prepared brochure: “People have the idea that if they have a nice waterfall, it alone is worth the time for foreigners to visit.”

Air travel is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. According to one participant, “on an eight hour flight, each passenger is responsible for releasing the equivalent of one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If ecotourism is to be sustainable, it needs to address the aviation issue and give travelers the option of doing something to repair the damage they do.” Other participants added that the entire scope of transportation needs to be evaluated.

THEME 4: Monitoring Costs and Benefits of Ecotourism: Ensuring Equitable Distribution among all Stakeholders
Questions: Participants were asked to reflect on how the principles of ecotourism could be measured and monitored. Among other questions, they were asked for field experience and ideas on how local steward communities, park personnel, tourists and tour operators participate in monitoring activities.

Overview: Case studies of monitoring costs and benefits were provided from Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Ecuador, Georgia, Hungary, Iceland, India, Mexico, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Turkey and Ukraine.

Comments and Conclusions
It is necessary to have widely accepted terms of a definition for ecotourism and some consistent standards for the proper evaluation of the costs and benefits of ecotourism.
It’s difficult to imagine effective cost/benefit analysis without developing adequate baseline data, research mechanisms, or improving basic information sharing as quickly as possible. Those developing or investing in ecotourism need to share information about the successes and failures of projects integrating nature tourism and conservation.

The costs and benefits of ecotourism are often social, so these factors need to be included in a holistic monitoring program. “There is no easy model to evaluate all the true costs and benefits beyond the financial value,” said one participant, adding that the full payoff may be many years down the road.

While talking about indicators, it is clear that they must be developed by all the project’s stakeholders. In terms of the environment and local cultures, ecotourism destinations tend to be fragile areas. Consequently, contacts must bridge environmental and tourism interests. Examples were given from case studies at Lake Balaton, Hungary and the Valdes Peninsula, Argentina, from workshops and pilot projects conducted by WTO on sustainable tourism indicators. WTO has established a task force to prepare a new manual on the identification and application of sustainability indicators in tourism development.

Governments need to implement a system of monitoring in potential development areas and have a comprehensive action plan to respond to a development boom in ecologically sensitive areas and the surrounding communities. Satellite accounting, being developed under the coordination of World Tourism Organization offers a number of benefits to measure the impacts of ecotourism.

Many developing countries are particularly weak in providing access to timely information about current developments, investment opportunities, guidelines and best case examples. These resources need to be available for all stakeholders and written in a language directed toward their target audience.

There are both positive and negative implications for local ecotourism businesses working with transnationals. Local ecotourism business could benefit from partnerships with transnationals and bigger companies.The role of the transnational tourism company or hotel chain can be one of partner, competitor or investor. The ecotourism operator has some power over how the big companies will operate. One participant advised that “the operator must learn to think like a transnational” in order to work with them. Another participant said that “transnational does not necessarily mean enormous nor inhumane.”

Information-Sharing Proposals:
The Center for Sustainable Tourism at the University of Colorado announced that is developing an online data bank, in collaboration with UNEP and WTO, focusing on ecotourism/sustainable tourism. It will contain a broad range of documents developed in the framework of the International Year of Ecotourism by a wide range of organizations. suggested developing a working group that could develop an initiative that would promote the most effective means of communication among stakeholders. Each would be responsible for updating their website with a minimum amount of information.

Community Tourism
As a cross-cutting issue, community tourism was addressed throughout the conference. Some participants argued that ecotourism must stress the “maximum participation of local people” — others questioned who could be considered a local.

Comments and Conclusions
Communities that obtain income from ecotourism develop environmental awareness about their own unique ecosystems. In a study funded by the International Labour Organization in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, a participant noted that the ecotourism activity has reinforced a process of ethnic awareness. Ecuador has pursued this study with the creation of a database of all community-based tourism operations.

Community-based ecotourism requires political organization. Said one participant: “The emergence of community-based ecotourism projects is directly linked to the political organization of indigenous and social movements. These projects offer an alternative to fight against poverty, injustice, discrimination and environmental destruction.” Successful community-based ecotourism requires a level of specialization that goes beyond “good intentions.” Another participant commented about working with communities on ecotourism:
“It’s not enough to have specialization in biology or anthropology, the process is long and requires a better understanding of the tourism market and community dynamics.”
Obstacles to community-based ecotourism often include the lack of a legal framework, promotion and marketing and interference from traditional industries that can destroy the local environment.

Communities that live in the areas of high biodiversity where community-based ecotourism could be successful often do not have the financial resources to get the training and supplies, infrastructure and vehicles to be successful.

Multinational development projects often exclude local peoples. For example, one participant pointed out that in the development of Mesoamerica’s Plan Puebla Panama, ecotourism development favors large hotel corporations and not the indigenous federations or small scale initiatives.

Unregulated community tourism may pose environmental harm while providing social benefits. Said one participant: “I’ve seen a dolphin-watching operation in north Bali, where the local community have democratically worked out a system for sharing the economic benefits: no one can have more than four people on their boat, so everyone gets to work. The result is 50 boats and one pod of dolphins. The best thing that could happen for these dolphins is for a multinational company to come along, put one or two big boats in the water, employ all the locals and to do marketing. There may be some unemployed, some of the profits might go elsewhere, but the dolphins would be a lot safer.”

Some local ecotourism ventures might complain that working with tour operators and travel agents means sharing revenues with “outsiders.”, but as a participant stated: “As in other commercial sectors there are middle men who bring buyers and sellers together. This is a legitimate value-added service.”

For Aboriginal or indigenous communities, ecotourism represents a development opportunity that can bring many economic, environmental, cultural, social and political benefits. Said one participant: “The key for Indigenous communities to achieve these benefits is active involvement in, and genuine control over, ecotourism initiatives within their traditional territory. To achieve involvement and control, Indigenous communities must be much more than token players receiving fringe employment or craft sales benefits.”

Active involvement and control of ecotourism products and services by Indigenous communities will not only benefit Indigenous peoples. One participant wrote: “A vibrant and successful Indigenous ecotourism sector will greatly strengthen ecotourism as a global industry. The richness and diversity of Indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge is an incredible resource for the ecotourism industry.”

The following are general recommendations that emerged during the Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Web Conference:

Ecotourism should balance top-down and bottom-up development strategies.
Effective standards are the result of a consensus building process among all affected interests.

Policy makers need to learn more about ecotourism as practiced in the field, not only as designed in the office or classroom.

National development policies need to be harmonized to favor ecotourism planning; at the very least, national policies should not undermine ecotourism development.

Priority should be given in the training of local people and park managers and to monitoring the delivery of services and products to insure they meet expectations.

An umbrella organization of multi-sector ecotourism enterprises and public authorities should be created to develop and market a particular region. Membership in this organization should not be priced out of the reach of small local operators.

Accessible financing (grants, inexpensive long-term loans) is needed for ecotourism projects and must include ways to measure whether these monies are being used effectively.

Internet communication provides a low-cost and efficient mechanism for both promotion and development; it needs to be complemented with other communication strategies.

Information needs to be accurate; access to timely and useful information needs to be improved for all stakeholders.

Media professionals need to provide better insights into ecotourism without losing the human dimension.

Conference Archive
– This archive was automatically updated throughout the event and until late 2019 was accessible to the public.
– This conference center page provides a short synthesis of the aims and deadlines of the conference. It also provides links to an index of messages posted during the event and the list of questions we asked participants to answer. The center also includes tips on online conferencing and troubleshooting assistance.

United Nations environment Programme
– This site provides the information about UNEP ecotourism studies, including backgrounders on the IYE objectives, and UNEP’s partners and activities. The site links to summary reports from preparatory conferences and includes a number of documents in PDF format.

World Tourism Organization
– This website included updated news on international, regional and national activities in the framework of the International year of Ecotourism 2002 and related activities, including links to final reports from various preparatory conferences, and press releases, as well as information about WTO publications. This page now contains the complete final report and an evaluation of the web-conference.

IYE 2002

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