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Reflections on the World Ecotourism Summit
by Ron Mader


Publication date: 2002, updated 2012

International Year of Ecotourism

FLICKR ALBUM: International Year of Ecotourism

CANADA -- Quebec City hosted the World Ecotourism Summit between May 19 and 22, 2002.

The event was the culmination of 18 preparatory organized by the Summit organizers -- the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).


I attended the Summit to present results from the Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Web Conference which took place a month before. The online conference allowed stakeholders who had not been able to attend the previous regional conferences to voice their comments and present case studies.

A summary document was prepared within two weeks, delivered to the forum for comments and presented at the Summit. Personally speaking, it was a satisfying way of bridging the virtual and natural worlds.

The Summit attracted more than one thousand participants from 132 countries, making the event the largest of its kind.

A draft of the Quebec Declaration was presented to participants at the start of the event. It established a preliminary agenda and a set of recommendations for the development of ecotourism activities for presentation at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, August/September 2002. Click here for Planeta's editorial.


The declaration was written by the Summit organizers using the documents from the preparatory conferences as a guide. Specific suggestions were accepted through the last hour of the Summit. More than 160 written comments were received and incorporated in the second draft. After that, oral comments were invited on the final day. Almost 70 percent of the first draft text was re-written and completely re-structured in order to incorporate comments.

"With the formal declaration, governments now have a document which they can adopt," said Mark Wilhun, President of US-Based Emerald Planet Conservation Consulting. "It gives policy makers a template when considering formulating an official tourism policy. Particularly encouraging was the reiteration 'that funding for the conservation and management of biodiversity and culturally rich protected areas has been documented to be inadequate worldwide.'"

"The Ecotourism Summit evidenced substantial support for establishing an ecotourism policy at the national and local levels," said Donald Hawkins, a professor at the Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management George Washington University. "What's needed now are strategies and action plans to involve the private sector in the implementation process."


Individuals and organizations representing indigenous people were among the most vocal critics of the International Year of Ecotourism. One of the results of the discussion was the addition to the Declaration that stressed "ecotourism must recognize and respect the land rights of indigenous and local communities, including their protected, sensitive and sacred sites."

The final version did not appease some of the critics, who believe that "First Nations" deserve a role greater than mere stakeholders in the process. Some activists suggested that if the consultation were not improved, representatives should engage in active non-cooperation.

Others were more pro-active. During one of the meetings of indigenous peoples, one participant remarked that it's time not only to rethink tourism, but to redo it.

"I had the opportunity to view first-hand the efforts by Indigenous leaders present to bring forward the concerns and perspectives of indigenous communities for the benefit of Indigenous peoples and for the benefit of ecotourism and the planet," said Rick MacLeod Farley, a development economist working with community economic development for Aboriginal people in Northern Canada. "These efforts were treated by some of the organizers with hostility and rudeness, and in other cases with good intentions. The process for dealing with the input was flawed, and the impact on the final WES declaration was much less than appropriate."

"The Summit Organizers twice received a delegation of indigenous people participants during the event," recounts Gabor Vereczi, a program officer at the World Tourism Organization. "They submitted written comments on the Quebec Declaration draft, and we paid special attention to incorporate those issues in the final text."


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 entertainment 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. On other nights, entertainment and meals were scheduled in the conference center.


One of the more surreal aspects of the Summit was the tug-of-war between Quebec and Canada. Speakers from the province continually referred to Quebec as a nation state, much to the consternation of other Canadian nationals and to the confusion of international visitors.

"The Quebec government calls their provincial parks 'national parks,'" said Canadian researcher Elizabeth Halpenny. "Is this another indicator of Quebec nationalism? Maybe so, although many Quebec parks staff also take pride in saying that their provincial parks are selected and managed to a high 'national' standard and that is why they are called Quebec's National Parks."

"I was outraged," said Canadian tourism expert Richard Tuck, who works in Nicaragua. "The fact that I had to continually explain the 'nation' vs 'province' idea to the international guests made me ashamed to be Canadian. At a time when nations gathered together to form a united front, the idea of separation being brought in by everyone from the Quebec Provincial Government to the Summit's hostess was in bad taste."


Contrasting to many tourism trade fairs, the Summit attracted only a few booths for the exhibit hall. Ecotourism was not promoted by the tourism ministries. Instead, Mexico was represented in a booth prepared by SEMARNAT, the environmental secretariat. Venezuela was represented by representatives of a commercial enterprise.

In the event itself, there was little presence from industry leaders. There was a marked contrast between the number of ground-level operators at the IATOS Conference held three months earlier in Chicago and those at the Summit.

"I found that this Ecotourism Summit was very much geared for Government and NGO bantering," said Bruce Poon Tip, President of Canada-based G.A.P Adventures. "The private sector at this conference was treated like the ugly stepchild hidden away in the back."

"I still see there is big divorce between the government, for-profit organizations and the NGOs," said Eduardo Nycander, Director of Peru's Rainforest Expeditions. "Ecotourism will never be successful if there are not strategic alliances among these three stakeholders."

"It was a whore's ball for us consultant pimps," said Willuhn. "It helped us try to move existing proposals to the contract stage with existing clients; develop new contacts particularly with what I call supra-governmental organizations -- UNESCO and the Inter-American Development Bank and targeted U.S.-based NGOs."

Multinational banks, foundations and conservation groups presented case studies of how ecotourism projects have been funded in the past few years. The efforts appear to be isolated, and often without in-house support. For many development organizations and conservation groups, tourism is still considered a low priority. Few of the presentations on ecotourism financing said much as to what will be done in the future. [Editor's Note -- None of the ecotourism financing presentations are available on the official World Ecotourism Summit website.]


So what did the World Ecotourism Summit accomplish?

Oliver Hillel
UNEP Tourism Program Coordinator, France

"The summit signaled that ecotourism, in practice, can contribute to poverty alleviation and environmental protection."

Richard Denman
The Tourism Company, UK

"Much of the benefit of the IYE and the Summit occurred through the preparatory conferences (including the web event), and should not be judged on Quebec alone."

Mark Willuhn
Emerald Planet, United States

"The conference was well designed for networking with the large central area where people tended to congregate. For us consultant pimps, an ideal set-up. One of the most worthwhile activities was participating in a UNESCO discussion on the pros and cons and management of World Heritage sites. I assume there were many of these invitation only meetings going on throughout the conference."

Bruce Poon Tip
G.A.P Adventures, Canada

"I think the Summit accomplished the groundwork for something positive. I see that the people who organized it worked extremely hard, and their intentions were of the highest standard. It set the tone for future Summits. Everyone had their say during the event."

Rick MacLeod Farley

"I came away from the WES gathering excited by the positive energy and the passion and commitment of countless people. However, I also came away with the realization that there is a tremendous 'divide' between the international agencies and the indigenous leadership. The buzzword in the research and at the conferences is that 'local people' need 'capacity building.' With all due sincere respect, I would like to suggest that there is also a need for 'capacity building' within the international agencies themselves. "


Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning website.


g IYE+5 Survey: International Year of Ecotourism
g International Year of Ecotourism Resource Guide
g Reflections on the International Year of Ecotourism
g Reflections on the Quebec Ecotourism Summit
g Sustainable Development of Ecotourism Web Conference


g International Year of Ecotourism


g How is your conference green?
g Toward Effective Communication in Responsible Travel and Ecotourism



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