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Reflections from the World Bank

Photo: World Bank

From the archives (2003)

If we consider tourism’s potential in encouraging job creation, it would seem this ought to be a natural course of action for any development bank working toward poverty alleviation.

After all, tourism is a major service industry. Rural communities and cities alike depend on tourism revenues to fuel the economy and generate employment. That said, the World Bank has been slow to develop a strategy that incorporates tourism to combat poverty … and it has been even slower in communicating what it has done in the field.

What responsible travelers should ask
Travelers may feel that they have little to gain from a dialogue with a development bank. True enough … wading through policy documents and bank-speak is not everyone’s cup of tea.

But if we ask responsible travelers to survey prospective operators, then we should the travelers interested in visiting rural villages and supporting community tourism to ask the World Bank and other development agencies some pertinent questions:

  • How does the institution support relevant to ecotourism and responsible travel?
  • What tourism projects are funded?
  • What are the results?
  • What details are provided on the Web … where?… and in what language(s)?

Letter from Oaxaca
In July 2002 I participated in a review of a study commissioned by the World Bank about ecotourism opportunities in Oaxaca, Mexico. The report — Oaxaca Ecotourism Study (Reference Contract #7118160) — supported financing forestry projects that include an ecotourism component. All well and good!

That said, the document was prepared without public consultation, the study is not available online, nor has there been a single reference to the work on the World Bank website.

I am not critiquing the loan or the report — just the lack of communication, which creates unnecessary risks in project implementation.

If the information were public from contract bidding through field research and interviews and leading to the publication, this and similar bank-funded initiatives would stand a greater chance of success. But how do you create synergies when the principal players (aka ‘stakeholders’) are not informed?

What is responsible travel?
In February 2003, I had the privilege of moderating an event at the World Bank. The “What is Responsible Tourism? What is Sustainable Tourism?” seminar was coordinated by the Educational Travel Conference.

The organizers (Carol Reed and Alicia Stevens) said the presentations were being videotaped (cameras were buzzing overhead) for inclusion in a CD as well as online the World Bank website — along the lines of Thinking Outside the Box/Changing the Box discussion which linked participatory conservation to governance reform.

What was developed was an index of powerpoint presentations and no summary of the discussion. For a year that page disappeared from the Web and yielded a 404 Error message. The good news is that the index is back online.

If we measure the “What is Responsible Tourism?” seminar by results, we find no immediate post-forum dialogues, nor a change in policy.

In the 2003 panel, it was difficult to critique the bank’s lack of transparency and public dialogue during the meeting. “We know about stakeholders,” said one official. My response: “But what do stakeholders know about you?”

I do not mean to single out the World Bank for criticism. We see only a handful of organizations participating in public online forums. During the online Financing Sustainable Tourism Conference, one of the participants proposed the creation of a directory of failed sustainable tourism projects. Knowing what hasn’t worked would be good to know.

I’m not interested in casting blame, but if we don’t admit errors, we’ve learned nothing from our mistakes and the vicious cycle of project funding and project failure begins anew.<

Who do we need to listen?
An older gentleman from the World Bank took part in the seminar and appeared a bit perturbed. Exasperated with the idea that there is little consensus about investment policies, he asked “Who do we need to listen?” This is a powerful question and deserving of reflection.

For the Bank, the answer lies in listening to informed constituents. And for the constituents to be informed, the bank needs to be more communicative. Transparency creates more opportunities than obstacles.

The World Bank website ought to have a single reference page that tracks loans directly or indirectly related to tourism. Questions should be posted and answered in a public forum. My recommendation — tourism needs to be included in the bank’s section on “hot” development topics.

Second, the bank needs to solicit feedback from stakeholders in a more creative manner. Local participation cannot be defined as locals attending a meeting organized by outsiders.

Taking the challenge
We should take the World Bank up on its challenge — let’s rid the world of poverty!

Tourism alone will not be the cure-all, but visitors to the Planeta website demonstrate time after time they support services contributing to the economic and environmental well-being of communities around the globe.

Also, write or email the World Bank and insist that provide more detailed information about what they are funding. Ask for project evaluations. Find a way to visit the projects first-hand and support the work in the field. There is no need for an us-versus-them mentality, when we could collaborate in a constructive fashion.

It is time to strengthen the constituencies in favor of sustainability and responsible travel. This is the best way to improve the odds that investment in tourism services will pay off as an effective strategy to alleviate poverty.

Ron Mader is the ecotourism and responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad magazine the host of the award-winning Planeta.com website. A version of this article was published in the November/December 2003 issue of Transitions Abroad.

World Bank

This essay has been summarized online CSRWire, Development Gateway, Eldis, Social Funds and the Mexican Conservation Learning Network (IMAC).


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