Friday, 22 Mar 2002

NAIROBI, Kenya

Some two hundred people are gathered in a conference room in downtown Nairobi to talk ecotourism. Nearly all are from rural communities in Kenya, but others from Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Botswana, Ghana, and Zanzibar. There are delegations of Maasai and Samburu elders as well as warriors and women. There are representatives from the Gudigwa Khwe Bushman people in southern Africa, the Mjikenda coastal communities of East Africa, and the Ashanti of West Africa.

Participants at the African regional ecotourism meeting.

I am attending the Africa regional preparatory meeting of the International Year of Ecotourism, one in a series of six meetings to be held around the world, leading up to the U.N. World Ecotourism Summit taking place in Quebec, Canada in May. Conservation International (the organization I work for) has partnered with UNEP, the International Ecotourism Society, Rainforest Alliance, and a host of local and national community groups, tourism associations, and environmental organizations, in supporting these regional meetings. The goal is to review ecotourism, learn from positive and negative examples, and set a regional agenda to be carried by local delegates to the World Ecotourism Summit.

The task of a achieving a global ecotourism dialogue is both daunting and urgent. Tourism, even after Sept. 11, remains one of the biggest industries worldwide. The World Tourism Organization reports that tourism related activities accounted for the primary source of international trade receipts in 2000. Add to that statistics showing that nature and adventure tourism are the fastest growing sectors of the industry, and it is enough to make one pause for thought.

At Conservation International, we have identified 25 global biodiversity “hotspots” — places that contain the Earth’s greatest number of species under the greatest threat of extinction. These hotspots represent less than 1.4 percent of the Earth’s land surface, yet contain more than 60 percent of the world’s terrestrial species. In almost every hotspot, tourism is growing. These same areas also have some of the poorest populations on Earth — people who struggle to meet basic needs for survival. So, in the world’s greatest biodiversity areas, we find the last frontier for many animals and plants under threat of extinction, a make-or-break world of survival for millions of humans, and the growth of tourism.

The result is that we are at a crossroads. Left to it’s own devices, without standards or principles to guide it, mass tourism can have devastating consequences. Science magazine has reported that Woolong Nature Reserve in China, set aside as a safe haven for Giant Pandas 30 years ago, has less intact panda habitat today inside park borders than outside, the result of uncontrolled tourism growth. In Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, researchers directly linked uncontrolled mass tourism in the 1980s and 1990s to a decline in cheetah reproductive rates. On Monday, I described the impact mass tourism had on Samburu Game Reserve in the late 1970s. And Cancun’s development in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula has resulted in a huge loss of biodiversity in the area, in addition to dislocating and marginalizing indigenous peoples.

These are the issues that gave rise to ecotourism. Within tourism’s monolithic and scary growth there is an opportunity to be seized. An opportunity that calls for tourism to be guided by ethical principles of sustainability and cultural sensitivity, that demands tourism respect the Earth and its inhabitants, and calls upon tourism to “protect nature and sustain the well being of local peoples.” It is the basis upon which ecotourism stands as a set of principles to be applied to the widest segment of the world tourism industry as possible.

Will ecotourism save the world? Not in my view. Will it deliver all that it promises? Not necessarily. But one thing is certain: There has been enough initial successes with ecotourism in all corners of the globe during the last decade to make it a means to conserve nature and alleviate poverty. A number of these successes are found right here in Kenya, and the Kenyan people are determined to build on them.

Around the room, Africans are debating ecotourism’s practicality in different settings, sharing success stories, analyzing problems, and setting the agenda for future ecotourism development. In the process, they are helping to bring ecotourism to the next level — to a place where the principles of ecotourism can influence a wide spectrum of the tourism industry to play a more direct and meaningful role in nature conservation, environmental sustainability, and community development. There is no time to waste.