Oliver Hillel

The Science of Sustainable Travel

Until 2000, biologist Oliver Hillel was the on-the-ground point man for ecotourism at Conservation International, managing 35 projects in 17 tropical countries. But now he’s taken on a truly international challenge as the United Nations Environment Programme’s Paris-based tourism coordinator. Managing the just-concluded World Ecotourism Summit was just one item on a complicated agenda that also includes protecting World Heritage Sites, encouraging voluntary sustainability initiatives among tour operators, promoting governmental ecotourism projects and building global awareness of tourism’s many impacts.

E: What are the key ingredients for successful ecotourism?

Oliver Hillel: There are a couple of globally acceptable definitions. But for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), there are three components 1) It makes a positive contribution to the conservation of natural resources, with biodiversity foremost among them; 2) It offers alternative livelihoods for the traditional, indigenous or local communities that are the stewards of their ecosystems; and, 3) It has a very strong component of environmental education for hosts and guests.

What would you like to see accomplished, strategically, during this International Year of Ecotourism?

Ultimately, I don’t think we will achieve a universally accepted definition of ecotourism. But certainly the year will be held to increase awareness among the different stakeholders of the issues. I think this improved level of information about ecotourism—its limitations, risks and challenges, as well as its advantages—is a very important outcome of the year. Ecotourism has been around for about 15 years, so I hope people will exchange the lessons learned, many of them the hard way. They will learn what to avoid and what to apply in terms of improving ecotourism’s environmental and social performance.

Some people see IYE as an occasion to celebrate gains, because the industry has grown so much, but you see it going beyond that?

I see it definitely going beyond that. I wouldn’t use the term "celebrate." I see it more like a term review, or a plan for improved performance. The rapid growth phase of ecotourism is, in any case, over. In the 1980s and up to the middle of the 1990s, you saw a very steep increase in the number of tour-operating agencies and destinations. There are certain limitations that probably led to this peak, so it will be more like a stable market niche now.

Costa Rica and Australia are often mentioned as leaders in developing infrastructure for ecotourism. What other countries have really worked hard on this?

You certainly mentioned two leaders in ecotourism. I would add Canada, Brazil and Peru. I think coordinating the international year has helped me see that many countries understand the basic concepts of ecotourism. Even though they may not call it that, they have achieved remarkable progress. In Europe there are a number of projects around sustainable tourism and protected areas. France, for instance, has a network of small and medium-sized rural inns that cooperate with local authorities in the regional parks. There are also the experiences of some countries in Asia, Africa and South America that can be shared widely. Some of the community concession mechanisms used in Africa, Tunisia, Botswana or even Namibia can be regionally valuable. It’s uncertain how much a country like Laos could learn from Costa Rica, because of cultural and political differences, but maybe Laos could learn from Thailand, if you see what I mean.

Is it possible to develop a single international set of certifications for ecotourism operations, which may vary widely and may work on a lot of disparate assumptions?

Good question. Such universal certifications are a valid expectation of the customer. From UNEP’s point of view, we don’t believe it is possible to create a single eco-label or a set of practical standards that can be applied uniformly throughout the world, and also throughout the various components of an ecotourism product. What we are trying to look at instead is an accreditation body. So you have a lot of different labels, but there is a set of principles that brings them together on a global level. It would be a body that basically certifies the certifiers.

I don’t see this as feasible by the end of the year, but one of the most interesting projects to come out of the IYE is led by the Rainforest Alliance, which receives input from UNEP, the World Tourism Organization and a variety of other groups. It’s called the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council and is somewhat based on the successful model of the Forest Stewardship Council.

If I were an ecotourist choosing an operator, most likely I’d go on the basis of how pretty the pictures were. But what advice would you give to prospective ecotourists to chose a responsible operator?

I would start by asking everyone in my family or group what aspects of ecotourism are really important for them. When you know what’s important, you need to learn about the trips offered, and the guidelines and practical principles. The American Society of Travel Agents and TIES have guidelines like that. UNEP’s website lists a number of those principles also. It is important to ask travel providers what concrete steps they are taking to fulfill their stated goals. Only 12 percent of global tourism actually involves tour operators. The vast majority is what we call frequent independent travelers. People book their own hotels, which they learn about from a friend—or, increasingly, from the web. So this is a big opportunity for small and medium enterprises who are really making a difference to communicate with consumers.