Wed, May 24, 2006 - Page 13 News List

How to leave a smaller footprint?

Can ecotourism be brought from the fringes into the mainstream of an industry that employs one in every 11.5 workers on the planet?

By Leo Hickman  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Bolivia endures one of South America's highest poverty rates. But this isolation has spawned a growing eco-tourism business that has attracted tourists to a place now known as "The Tibet of South America." A view from one of the Andes peaks that tower over La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If you happen to be on a MyTravel flight this summer heading to the sun, watch out for a short film being shown as part of the in-flight entertainment. A cartoon character called Hatch the Turtle will be introducing children on board to the concept of sustainable travel.

It's the idea of the Travel Foundation, a charity largely funded by the UK tourism industry, and it's symptomatic of the trade's current angst that it needs to be doing much more when it comes to improving the often negative environmental and social impact of tourism around the globe.

Travel Weekly, British tourism's trade publi-cation, recently ran an editorial in which it challenged readers to confront this issue -- and fast: "This industry needs to set out where it stands on the environment. Polite notices about putting out towels to clean in hotel rooms don't wash with an increasingly green public... This issue is not going to go away. Tobacco firms knew for 20 years that advertising and smoking bans were inevitable and fought to ensure they came out the best they could. What is travel's strategy to protect itself? We might make people's dreams come true, but there are those who argue travel contributes to future nightmares."

This concern was also reflected last month in Washington DC at the World Travel and Tourism Council summit -- an annual gathering of the industry's great and good. Under one roof were around 100 leaders of the sector's largest companies, including Marriott, Disney Resorts, Emirates, easyJet and Kuoni. Talk in past years has been largely of maintaining economic growth and overcoming the threat terrorism and natural disasters present to tourism. But also on the agenda this year was how this US$1.6 trillion-a-year industry, that employs one in every 11.5 workers on the planet, can keep growing, as it most certainly is, without trashing the very assets -- the pristine beaches, the ancient ruins, the mountains, the centers of culture -- on which it so greatly relies.

Unsurprisingly, there was talk about the increasing demand for ecotourism -- long billed as a panacea for tourism's ills -- and, crucially, whether it can move beyond the industry's fringes and ever be integrated into mainstream tourism.

There was plenty of applause ringing out when this year's Tourism for Tomorrow Awards -- which reward the world's best examples of ecotourism -- were handed out at the summit. This year's worthy winners included the Sierra Gorda biosphere reserve in Mexico, the Campi ya Kanzi walking safaris in Kenya, and Hotel Punta Islita in Costa Rica. But what wasn't discussed amid the backslapping was what exactly is meant by "ecotourism" -- a term that has long been open to abuse and misrepresentation. After all, any destination in the world can proudly boast they cater to ecotourists. There are no defined "rules" and no widely recognized certification scheme -- as there is with, say, Fairtrade coffee or organic food -- that would act to reassure the fast-rising number of tourists keen to reduce their impact when on holiday.

Kerala state in southern India has long been known for its ecotourism, particularly around the backwaters near Cochin. Indeed, it was shortlisted for the best destination award this year at the summit. It didn't win, but the judges' citation noted its efforts and vision for "undertaking a wide variety of projects focusing on conservation, preservation, community development and raising awareness of the importance of responsible tourism development to both communities and visitors."

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