Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator from
Colorado, was getting frustrated with the travel industry.
Wirth had been
asked by media mogul Ted Turner in 1997 to head the United Nations
Foundation, a nonprofit group that Turner had founded, and funded,
to help support various U.N. initiatives. Preserving World Heritage
sites is one of the foundations missions, and getting the travel
industry involved was one of Wirths goals.
But it wasnt
lawmaker has spent a good part of his political life negotiating
social issues, including environmental protection, but he had been
wrestling -- unsuccessfully, he said -- with ways to get the travel
industry involved in his efforts with the U.N.
Getting an organized effort
under way was very difficult, he said, recalling his early
He found his lack
of success to be both baffling and humbling. He thought travel
companies would quickly see that supporting the sites would be an
act of enlightened self-interest.
He wasnt just
after money. Wirth had envisioned having airlines, when flying into
major diving sites, talking about how to protect the coral, what
constitutes good behavior and taking responsibility for protecting
resources. But he said he found his overtures rebuffed.
I had no leverage
with these companies, other than persuasion, he said. I can
remember going to meetings and conventions of hotels and airlines
and meeting with major companies, but it just wasnt the right
All that changed
over a dinner in 2004 when Wirth sat down with Turner and Expedia
Chairman Barry Diller.
dinner, Diller promised to put the weight of Expedia behind a joint
effort with the foundation to convince others in the industry to
educate travelers and make financial contributions and policy
decisions that aid preservation.
dinner gave the foundation something that Wirth had been seeking
for years: a high-profile partner in travel.
The way to do
this has turned out to be to go through a player in the industry,
and that is what working with Barry Diller and Expedia has
accomplished, Wirth said.
True to its word,
and soon after its spin-off from InterActiveCorp in August 2005,
Expedia committed itself to a public campaign that includes several
objectives, including promoting education
about World Heritage sites on its various travel Web sites;
donating profits from designated trips to World Heritage sites to
Unescos Friends of World Heritage initiative; matching donations up
to a total of $50,000 toward developing locally owned tourism
enterprises at World Heritage sites; enabling its employees to work
to help develop sustainable, locally owned tourism enterprises at
World Heritage sites; and further engaging the travel industry in
the U.N. Foundation effort.
Were not going to
solve anything overnight, Wirth said. But I hope this will be a
positive effort, because we are going to see tourism all over the
world increase, and if it is not managed well, people could
overwhelm these sites, and that could be disastrous.
Wirth said his
years of effort to interest the travel industry in World Heritage
site protection began shortly after Turner named him president of
the $1 billion charitable foundation.
In November and
December he toured Asia on behalf of the foundation to investigate
the circumstances in the region and said he saw firsthand that when
eager tourists and sensitive World Heritage sites intersect, the
outcome is not always beneficial for the sites.
particularly concerned by what he saw at the ancient Angkor temples
It was appalling
to see the many tour buses stacked up there, and the massive
numbers of people, he said. The golden egg is getting covered up in
buses and tourists, and my concern is that they are destroying the
numbers are hard to come by for Angkor Wat or other popular tourist
sites in Cambodia, where tourism is resurging following years of
political upheaval in the country.
government estimates in 2004 put foreign visitors to the nation at
just over a million, with an estimated 57% (nearly 600,000
visitors) believed to have toured the Angkor Wat temples during
Tourism is hardly
the only factor threatening these sites. At Angkor, pollution, heavy
traffic and weak security conspire with high tourist volume to
place the 12th-century temples and shrines at risk. Many more of
the 812 World Heritage sites are at risk due to poverty,
environmental damage, war and social unrest.
program director for biodiversity and protection related to the
foundations World Heritage site activities, said the foundations
staff began working with Expedia more than a year and a half ago to
encourage other tourism providers to do the same and to help
generate financial help for preservation efforts.
Wirth said that
for the first time since he began making contacts in the industry,
remaining challenge, he said, is helping companies understand that
with increased commercial tourism in sensitive areas, and with the
flow of money that it generates, companies need to reinvest back
into these communities and care for these resources in order for
this tourism to be sustainable.
Wirth is not just
talking about financial contributions. His thrust has been that
systemic changes need to be made in how tourism operators approach
these places, to minimize impact and bring economic benefit back to
the local community.
stated difficulties in getting the industry on board with the
foundation, many travel companies have heard the call and have
undertaken their own independent conservation efforts.
was the first travel company to sign a partnership agreement with
the U.N. Foundation, the Travelers Conservation Foundation, a
nonprofit association formed in 1999 by U.S. Tour Operators
Association members, signed a letter of intent with the U.N.
Foundation in August 2004 to jointly promote sustainable tourism
and join in efforts to protect World Heritage sites.
Soon after the
agreement, TCF merged with the National Tourism Foundation,
becoming Tourism Cares for Tomorrow.
According to the
U.N. Foundation and Tourism Cares, little more has been done with
the partnership. Both sides said they consider it open-ended,
however, and acknowledged that they still share common
Tourism Cares has independently continued to restore and care for
cultural and historic treasures upon which the travel industry
relies, including some World Heritage Sites such as Sri Lanka
Wildlife Preserve and Mesa Verde National Park.
Bruce Beckham, executive director of Tourism Cares, the association
awarded $250,000 in grants last year and expects to award another
$250,000 to $300,000 this year by utilizing gifts from a range of
industry firms. Agents, tour operators, hoteliers and travel
insurers are listed as top givers at Tourism Cares Web
example, Beckham said that USTOA members raised nearly $500,000,
including matching funds, for work on the interior of the ferry
building at Ellis Island in New York.
This year, 400 to
500 volunteers expect to move into tent cities and military
barracks for a weekend in March to help with clean-up efforts in
and around the tourist sites of Biloxi, Miss.
counts its total economic impact since 1999, including matching
funds, at $1.5 million.
With all that on
his mind, Beckham said he was surprised Wirth felt frustration with
that Expedias efforts are commendable. The only thing I take
exception to is his statement that the industry never stepped up,
he said. They have.
American Express, meanwhile, is
the founding sponsor of the World Monuments Fund initiative known
as the World Monuments Watch, and in that leadership role the
company granted $10 million in two five-year, $5 million
commitments, through 2005.
It expects to
announce soon a further pledge to the Watch, a project that focuses
on restoring and preserving sites identified as the worlds 100 most
endangered. A new list is prepared every two years, and some sites
are on the U.N.s list of World Heritage Sites.
vice president of American Express philanthropic program, said that
as people in the travel industry, we could just say we want to save
what people see [as tourists], but we know how much these monuments
mean to their local communities ... its a recognition of their
importance as symbols, and we think this program has increased
owned tour operators have made substantial contributions to
conservation efforts. The Tauck Foundation has given over $1
million in grants to U.S. national parks and at least $690,000 to
support various individual sites.
Kent founder Geoffrey Kent and Vice Chairman Jorie Butler Kent
founded two separate conservation foundations. Lindblad Expeditions
and Collette Vacations also make major ongoing contributions to
brought some of the industrys previous conservation efforts to his
attention, Wirth, who calls himself an occasional traveler and
conservationist, said many of the industrys efforts were unknown to
This is a good
start, he said. Twenty-five years ago no one was having this
conversation. It is evolving rapidly.
But, Im afraid
the challenge is much bigger than we even see, he added.
How do you get
the Cambodian travel industry to understand that stacking up buses
pell-mell in front of Angkor Wat is not the best way to do
business? We have to learn how to teach them that they have got to
reinvest in the site and protect it, for the good of
reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].
Cogswell and Nadine Godwin contributed to this