Ecotourists Urged to Walk Lightly on the Earth

NEW YORK, New York, January 29, 2002 (ENS) - The fast growing ecotourism industry might have "devastating consequences" if not managed properly, a top United Nations official said Monday as the UN launched the International Year of Ecotourism at its New York headquarters.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette said that ecotourism is one of the fastest growing segments in the tourism industry and has great potential for economic development.

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UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette (Photo courtesy UN)
Yet Frechette warned that more than any other form of travel, ecotourism jeopardizes the very allure of the environment. The objective must be to enjoy the planet's natural resources while preventing any negative impact, she said. If properly planned, developed and managed, "ecotourism can help improve the living standards of local populations, while supporting the conservation of the natural ecosystems that are so necessary to sustain life on our planet."

The loss of biodiversity and wildlife habitats, the production of waste and polluted effluent in areas that have little or no capacity to absorb them are just some of the environmental problems associated with tourism in sensitive, remote and pristine locations.

While each country and region has its specific characteristics, the Frechette noted, it is still possible to agree on the key principles and guidelines for ecotourism development and management, as identified by the World Tourism Organization, the UN and other international bodies, she said.

The year's main event will be the World Ecotourism Summit, to be held from May 19 to 22 in Québec City, Canada.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), says the Summit could contribute to the goal of overcoming poverty and of changing consumption patterns by giving input into the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held August 26 to September 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The challenge is in taking advantage of the chance for regions in developing countries to make the best use of their natural and available assets, while also protecting often very fragile ecosystems, Toepfer told reporters at UN Headquarters. An uncontrolled influx of tourists could harm both nature and the social stability in an area, he stressed.

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Rio Platano biosphere reserve, Honduras (Photo courtesy Turtle Tours)
Development of sustainable tourism in some of the world's most fragile and beautiful environments received a major boost January 24 with the announcement of $1 million dollars in support of a project linking conservation and tourism at six World Heritage sites.

Aveda, the global cosmetics company, has agreed to give US$500,000 to the project that is jointly managed by UNEP, the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and RARE Center for Tropical Conservation. The new funds will be matched by an equal amount from the United Nations Foundation.

The World Heritage sites that will benefit from the new funding are the Sian Ka'an and El Vizcaino biosphere reserves in Mexico, Tikal National Park in Guatemala, the Rio Platano biosphere reserve in Honduras, and the Komodo and Ujung Kulon national parks in Indonesia.

The project, which uses tourism to help mitigate threats to biodiversity conservation, may become a blue print for initiatives elsewhere so that the demands of tourists can be balanced with the needs and cultural traditions of local people, the landscape and environment.

"Aveda's environmental sustainability efforts focus on the protection of biodiversity," says Dominique Conseil, president of Aveda. "As ecosystems around the world are threatened, so too are indigenous populations. The fight for the defense of biodiversity and the one anthropologists lead for the protection of "ethno-biodiversity" are one and the same. They are about our own survival."

"The global tourism industry is currently generating few tangible benefits for World Heritage sites in developing countries," says Dr. Natarajan Ishwaran, Chief of the Natural Heritage Section at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

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Wildlife researchers set a camera trap for Javan rhino in Indonesia's Ujung Kulon National Park. (Photo courtesy WWF/Indonesia)
"In many cases, site personnel and local stakeholders lack the resources, experience, and training necessary to use tourism as an effective tool for achieving long term biodiversity conservation," said Ishwaran. "This project will create a replicable strategy for addressing these challenges."

Many local managers of World Heritage sites are looking to sustainable tourism as a means of balancing the need for economic development with conservation, by bringing income into cash strapped park budgets and impoverished local communities.

"These are some of the most important places on earth - our world's natural heritage - but to survive, they must be conserved by local people," says Brett Jenks, president of RARE Center for Tropical Conservation. "RARE is working with UNEP and UNESCO to unleash the potential of ecotourism to address the local political, economic, and social challenges to biodiversity conservation."