Groups see site preservation as a tourism foundation

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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 happening.

The former 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. Foundation.

Getting an organized effort under way was very difficult, he said, recalling his early efforts.

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 way.

All that changed over a dinner in 2004 when Wirth sat down with Turner and Expedia Chairman Barry Diller.

During the 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.

That single 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, The Grand Canyon, a World Heritage site, is one of the various sites promoted via a campaign between Expedia and the U.N. Foundation. TW.com photo by Kimberly Scholzincluding 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.

A firsthand tour

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.

He was particularly concerned by what he saw at the ancient Angkor temples in Cambodia.

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 place.

Precise tourism 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.

But Cambodia 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 their trip.

Tourism is hardly the only factor threatening these sites. The Angkor Wat temples are one of many sites that are on both the World Monuments Watch List and also the World Heritage List.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.

Erika Harms, 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, hes encouraged.

The principal 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.

A different drummer

Despite Wirths 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.

Although Expedia 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 objectives.

Meanwhile, 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.

According to 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 site.

In another 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.

TCF/Tourism Cares 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 the industry.

Beckham agreed 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.

World Heritage sites the Sphinx and Pyramid at Giza in Egypt. 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.

Connie Higginson, 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 international understanding.

Other privately 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.

Abercrombie & 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 conservation projects.

When TravelWeekly.com 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 him.

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 everyone.

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].

David Cogswell and Nadine Godwin contributed to this report.

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