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Tourism and Poverty

Reflections on the World Bank

By Ron Mader

Ambitious does not begin to describe the World Bank's mission: ridding the world of poverty.

Tourism is a major service industry and rural communities and cities alike depend on tourism revenues to fuel the economy and generate employment. But the World Bank has been slow to develop and implement pro-poor tourism strategies and even slower in communicating what it has done.

Travelers interested in visiting rural villages and supporting ecotourism should ask the pertinent question: how is this work funded? A follow-up question needs to be addressed to the World Bank (as well as to other development agencies): how are you supporting ecotourism and responsible travel?

In July 2002 I participated in a review of a document commissioned by the World Bank about ecotourism opportunities in Oaxaca, Mexico. The report—“Oaxaca Ecotourism Study,” supported financing forestry projects that include an ecotourism component. The document was prepared in secret, the study is not available online, nor has there been a reference to the work on the World Bank website.

I am not criticizing the loan, just the lack of imagination. If the information were made public at all stages of development, the bank-funded initiatives would stand a greater chance of success. Transparency creates opportunities. How do you create synergies when the the principal actors (aka “stakeholders”) are not informed?

In February 2003 I moderated a World Bank forum on “What is Responsible Tourism? What is Sustainable Tourism?” The seminar was coordinated by the Educational Travel Conference and included presentations by Malia Asfour, John Henderson, Eleanor Sterling, Kim Whytock, Mark Woodward, and me.

The organizers (Carol Reed and Alicia Stevens) said the presentations were being videotaped (cameras were buzzing overhead) for inclusion in a CD. Also, they promised to prepare a summary document which would be posted on the World Bank website. Six months later, I’ve seen nothing: no documentation, no post-forum dialogues.

During the online Financing Sustainable Tourism Conference I recently hosted one of the participants proposed that we create a directory of failed sustainable tourism projects. That idea did not go over well when I repeated it at the World Bank.

But surely knowing what hasn't worked would be useful. Supposedly, of 100 internationally-funded projects in Ecuador, 95 have failed. I'd like to know why—not to cast blame, but so that we might learn something from the mistakes.

We should all join the World Bank in its challenge to rid the world of poverty! Tourism alone will not be the cure-all, but readers of Transitions Abroad demonstrate time after time that they support those organizations and companies that contribute to the economic and environmental well-being of communities around the globe.

As for getting better information from the World Bank, we can contact them and ask them to show what they are funding. As these details become more accessible, so will the chances that ecotourism and responsible travel will have greater support from the traveling public.


Defining Ecotourism & Responsible Tourism

The term "ecotourism" seems to have a different definition for everyone. While the details vary, most definitions of ecotourism boil down to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria:

  1. It provides for conservation measures;
  2. It includes meaningful community participation;
  3. It is profitable and can sustain itself.

These three components of ecotourism are difficult to accomplish individually, let alone as a package. Moreover, they are difficult to measure or quantify. Assuming you wanted to know which are the "best ecotourism destinations," the question must follow: How is one to judge?

Membership in groups such as The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) requires only the payment of a membership fee. Members sign a pledge stating that they will be a "responsible traveler or travel-related professional who conserves natural environments and sustains the well-being of local people."

While this ethic sounds good and this self-regulatory system boasts the best of intentions, it lacks any system of double-checking information and no "teeth." If projects are to be considered ecotourism, they must include local participation and they must assist conservation efforts. This is not to say that tourism services that don't include these components are bad. They simply are not ecotourism.

We need to pay special attention to the consequences of ecotourism—some of which are negative impacts to both local cultures and the environment. One of the best interactive and thoughtful pages on the Web was developed by Dave Schaller. Check out and play Amazon Interactive, an "Ecotourism Simulation Game" in which you manage a nascent ecotourism project in Ecuador.

“Responsible tourism” calls attention to the fact that much of tourism simply is not responsible. Locals are exploited. Natural or cultural resources are treated with disrespect.

For travelers, responsible travel is simply treating others with the same respect you would ask for in your own community. While the tourism industry has long touted "destinations," in fact we are simply entering someone else's home.

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