The Charlatans of Ecotourism

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The El Mirador archeological site, located north of Guatemala and the Mayan biosphere reserve, is about to become a site over-exploited by mass tourism under the pretense of preserving its wealth. In Baja California, Mexico, complex tourism projects like the imposing Sea of Cortes project are flourishing, and replacing the wild and rich biodiversity of the coast with concrete.

[…] Honduras is also practicing “ecotourism” along one of the most beautiful stretches of the Caribbean coastline at the entrance of the Jeanette Kawas National Park. Since 1880, the area has been home to the Garifunas, an ethnic group of Creole and African descent.

[…] Very conveniently in the name of “national interest,” the Honduras Tourism Institute seized 300 hectares of coast without compensating the Garifunas. In 2004, it sold this same strip of land for 19 million dollars to a private company formed to develop the area into the Micos Beach and Golf Resort. The name has offended more than one Garifuna: “Micos means monkey in our language, but there have never been any monkeys around here. The only monkeys they can see on the beach are us, the Garifunas!” explains the young Alex Podilla, head of Pélican Café, an organization that promotes Garifuna culture. So, there are no monkeys, but there is a 25 hectare golf course, 2,000 hotel rooms, 170 villas, a convention center, a marina, etc. While the main attraction will be the national park where the promoters claim, without further details, “a number of activities” are to take place, “Garifuna music and dance also have a lot of appeal.” Have the lairs of sexual tourism already been prepared?

In all three of these projects— El Mirador, Mar de Cortès, and Micos Beach—nature is being exploited and sold, just as the magnificent bay of Acapulco was 40 years ago. The methods used have hardly changed: corrupt authorities, secret information, ludicrous compensation (if any) for land and systematic denial of social and ecological consequences. These are the same promoters and investors (known as “coyotes of tourism” for the low prices they pay for land) as those from the beginning and who are now prowling for the last surviving gems on the planet.

This is a long way from the ethical commitments made by the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and nations on this matter through the Quebec Declaration in May 2002 and the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, and light years away from what ecotourism ought to mean. Under the pretense of conservation (real or not), the concept leads to an ever faster privatization of natural resources than that which could occur under normal tourism development practices. Some projects include environmental improvements, but demand guarantees on land ownership that squeeze out local populations.

Local communities lose their livelihoods through the loss of their land, fishing rights, or water source. Federal areas such as beaches, riverbanks and forests end up in the hands of the private sector by a disturbingly illicit sleight of hand. In fact, these projects reserve the last whales, the last “ceibas” (tree symbol of Guatemala) or the Garifunas lagoon for the rich, who have contributed the most to their destruction. People now expect to have to pay, and pay big, to enjoy the little enclaves of nature as it once was. El Mirador relies on European tourism (more cultured), while Mar de Cortés and Micos Beach are tailored to Americans.

Surprisingly, there has not been much protest about misleading applications of the term “ecotourism.” It still has a good image and is expanding. Some international development agencies view it as a panacea. In Central America and Mexico, UN agencies, financing organizations, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), World Bank, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and European Union have projects in the pipeline for local communities. The organizations argue that this policy helps to create a local economy, promote professional training, and raise awareness among local people of the wealth of their own natural and cultural heritage. This seems to be a near perfect recipe for maximizing an area’s heritage without destroying it.

In the 1990s even such organizations as the IDB or the NGO Conservation International—criticized for some of the policies they promoted in the region—funded small tourism ventures that were entirely community-run and allowed local people to truly preserve the area thanks to income generated by tourism.

According to Diego Masera, head of American tourism at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), “the participation of the community is the driving force of the conservation process and no tourism initiative should be carried out without the population.” However, for governments, the “community” factor, meaning the creation and management of the project by the local population, gives rise to a new issue. An organized community that is aware of the value of its natural resources is less likely to sell their land at low prices or to let its spring or waterfall be privatized.

[…] A fair tourism label would guarantee not only that the area is preserved, but that it is run by local people and a percentage of its profits is reinvested in public services. In France, members of the ATES (a French organization for fair tourism) have asked Fair Trade Labelling Organizations (FLO), which monitors the chain of fair trade, to work on this issue. It is in the best interest of these organizations that have now become tour organizers, to make use of transparency and to publicize their actions of solidarity and ethics when other agencies limit themselves to a basic code of conduct while nevertheless using the attractive term “responsible tourism” for publicity.

However, certification remains complicated, onerous, and costly.

[…] With or without certification, ecotourism must stop deceiving tourists. It is not an all-purpose solution that will work in any situation: you cannot protect the populations who live near archaeological sites or in tropical forests by turning them all into tour guides under the pretext of protecting them or promoting social development. The Chiapas government is dangerously undermining the future by counting so quickly and so poorly on “ecotourism.” Fair trade has not resolved the crisis in local coffee markets and “nominal” ecotourism will not do much to eliminate poverty.

Les charlatans du tourisme vert

Anne Vigna

Le Monde Diplomatique, July 2006

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