World Legacy Awards Honor Ecotourism

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 24, 2003 (ENS) - Three tourism agencies were honored Wednesday with the first ever World Legacy Awards for their emphasis on environmental responsibility and respecting cultural heritage. Conservation International and National Geographic Traveler magazine teamed up to launch the awards, which were officially presented by Jordan's Queen Noor.

The three winners operate in South Africa, Thailand and Italy, and are considered the best examples in the tourism industry of the ideal balance between nature conservation, the protection of heritage sites, social responsibility and commerce.

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Queen Noor of Jordan (Photo courtesy Government of Jordan)
"These winners are perfect examples of the the travel and tourism industry should operate," said Queen Noor, the 2002 World Legacy Awards Honorary Awards Committee chair. "I am heartened by their example and hope other extraordinary places are similarly inspired."

The World Legacy Awards are the only such awards to focus on environmental and cultural protection in tourism. They are also the only global tourism award to rely on site verification visits using a team of scientific, anthropological and tourism professionals.

"Tourism is like fire - out of control, it can burn down your house, but if you harness that energy, you can cook food with it. Through the World Legacy Awards, we want to make tourism a more positive force in the world," said Costas Christ, senior direction of Conservation International's ecotourism department. "These winners are outstanding examples of responsible tourism that both helps to protect nature and promotes the well being of local peoples."

One winner was named in each of three categories - Nature Travel, Heritage Tourism and Destination Stewardship. Applicants from more than 40 countries on six continents were considered for the awards.

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Wilderness Safaris accomodations at South Africa's Ndumo Game Reserve (Photo courtesy Wilderness Safaris)
The winner of the Nature Travel Award, given to a group making contributions to the conservation of natural areas and biodiversity, is Wilderness Safaris, based in Rivonia, South Africa. Wilderness Safaris manages more than 2.5 million acres of pristine natural habitat in southern Africa, where the company has 36 lodges in six countries.

The group provides tourists with instruction about conservation and sustainable management, works with local communities to promote economic growth and provides a free, weeklong safari for 1,000 underprivileged African children every year.

The winner of the Heritage Tourism Award, given to a group making contributions to cultural heritage and diversity, is ATG Oxford. Though it is based in Oxford, England, the group won for its work in Italy.

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ATG Oxford arranges accommodations in Ferentillo at the Abbey of San Pietro in Valle for travelers on its Unknown Umbria tour. (Photo courtesy ATG Oxford)
ATG Oxford uses ancient pilgrimage and farming paths as a basis for independent or guided walking tours through the Italian hinterland, including Tuscany and Umbria. Traditional farming village people have benefited from increases in business during their usual off season.

ATG Oxford is also instrumental in restoring centuries old works of art and environments, and helps local communities maintain their traditional ways.

The winner of the Destination Stewardship Award, presented to a group protecting the overall natural and cultural heritage of a destination, is the REST Project, honored for its work on one of Thailand's most beautiful tropical islands, Koh Yao Noi in the Phuket region. REST, the Responsible Ecological Social Tours Project, works with local communities to reduce the negative impact of tourism while promoting conservation and increasing the amount of income for participating families.

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Visitors see Thailand with the REST Project (Photo courtesy REST)
Many of the 5,500 inhabitants of the mostly Muslim island have benefited from REST's help in developing a village homestay program, through which tourists lodge with locals, and by learning how to revive traditional fishing methods.

"Tourism today is one of the world's largest industries. When done well, it provides economic opportunity, and protects natural environmental and cultural heritage," said Keith Bellows, editor of "National Geographic Traveler" magazine. "My hope is that our readers - indeed all travelers - will support businesses and organizations which promote the ideals of sustainable tourism. Respnsible tourism greatly influences the very future of tourism. We must protect the places we love for following generations."

Close to 700 million people travel international each year, and that figure is expected to double to 1.4 billion by the year 2020. Travel and tourism is one of the largest industries on Earth, accounting for 11 percent of global gross domestic product.

Because of its enormous size, the travel and tourism industry often wreaks havoc on natural environments and precious cultural sites. Threats include increased development and infrastructure, greater local demand for material, food and water, and the growth of extractive industries.

However, when tourism is well planned, it can benefit local people, help to protect biodiversity and the natural environment, and preserve cultural and historic sites.