A campaign to find the world's most popular natural wonders, promoted as a contribution to environmental protection, has been attacked as little more than a moneymaking exercise.
There have been accusations that several of the more obscure places on the "New7Wonders of Nature" list, announced earlier this month, owe their ranking less to their beauty than to the readiness of tourism or marketing organisations to stump up cash – including taxpayers' money – in their support.
Tourism authorities in the Maldives and Indonesia, which both withdrew their backing for the project earlier this year, have cited concerns over voting methods and "hidden" costs, while Unesco – the agency of the United Nations dedicated to protecting natural and man-made sites – has repeatedly distanced itself from the project.
A provisional list of seven wonders – including little-known islands in South Korea and the Philippines – was published on November 11. People had been encouraged to vote for free online or by paid text message to help compile it from a shortlist of 28. That shortlist had itself been whittled down from an original list of more than 400 submitted since the launch of the project in 2007 by the Zurich-based New7Wonders Foundation (N7W).
Each of the 28 finalists had to be represented by an "official supporting committee (OSC)", which was charged an initial $US199 ($A195) "administration fee". The government-funded Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) – which submitted the islands as a candidate – claims that organisers later demanded up to $US350,000 in "sponsorship fees" and hundreds of thousands more to organise an extravagant "world tour" event. The cost to the country's economy would have been more than $US500,000.
Organisers also allegedly tried to charge a local telecommunications company, Dhiraagu, $US1 million for the right to take part in the campaign, a fee that was reduced to $US500,000 when Dhiraagu complained. Despite pulling out, the Maldives was kept on the voting lists by organisers, but was not chosen as one of the winners.
Tourism authorities in Indonesia claim that organisers requested $10 million in licensing and sponsorship fees, and $US35 million to organise an event. A letter was reportedly sent to the country's tourism ministry saying that Indonesia's entry – Komodo Island – would be suspended from the shortlist unless the licensing fee was paid. N7W denies this. Indonesian authorities pulled out, threatening legal action, while organisers sought, successfully, to find a new OSC for Komodo. Last week Komodo was named as one of the seven winning entries.
N7W describes itself as a not-for-profit organisation, but the company behind it – the New Open World Corporation (NOWC) – is a commercial business. All licensing and sponsorship money is paid to NOWC and correspondence sent to entrants uses the address of a Panama-based law firm. There are no contact details for either company on the N7W website.
Simon Hawkins, director of the Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation, said: "In principle it isn't a bad idea, but there is no transparency."
Having spoken to other tourism authorities – including representatives from Indonesia – he said: "There's no rate card – it just seems to be a case of getting what they can. The competition is a complete waste of time and taxpayers' money. Pulling out was the best thing we ever did. Since we withdrew, visitor numbers have risen by 20 per cent year on year."
Mr Hawkins also claimed that the voting system, which allows people to vote multiple times, was undemocratic and open to abuse, and said that no breakdown of numbers had been published. "It's no coincidence that every country that held a promotional event has come in the top seven," he added.
Jeju Island, an outpost of South Korea, staged an N7W event in April; this month it was named one of the seven provisional winners.
A spokesman for Tourism Australia said the organisation had paid a $US199 fee for the rights to use "New 7 Wonders" branding in its PR, social media and marketing activities to promote Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef as contenders.
Tourism Australia declined the sponsorship opportunities and were not pressured by the organisers, the spokesman said. Neither Uluru or the Great Barrier Reef made the list.
Katherine Webster, director of the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience, which supported the Irish attraction, said the soft drinks company 7up had approached her, offering sponsorship, until the cliffs became one of the 28 finalists, but then backed out. She said N7W then contacted her, suggesting that she should find a new sponsor. She refused, and says no public money was paid directly to NOWC – although PR resources were dedicated to the campaign.
Eamonn Fitzgerald, a spokesman for N7W, rejected claims that the competition lacked transparency or that fees were "hidden". He said the campaign was delivered "without taxpayer subsidies", but added that "OSCs may be funded by governments".
He confirmed that varying amounts of sponsorship had been provided on behalf of the finalists, and that each of the winners would be staging events next year. However, he declined to discuss "the nature of confidential contracts" or to reveal how much had been paid to NOWC.
He said the voting system was a widely used format, and likened it to that of television shows such as The X Factor. He added that voting was independently audited, but declined to supply a breakdown of numbers.
A previous N7W campaign to uncover the most popular man-made attractions, which concluded in 2007, garnered an estimated 100 million votes, according to Mr Fitzgerald, but the latest one had exceeded that number, with a large proportion of votes cast by text message. Although voting online was free, charges applied for text messaging, of which a proportion went to NOWC. Mr Fitzgerald said that once operating costs had been deducted, half of any surplus revenue would go to N7W.
N7W recently announced another project, to find the world's most popular cities.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Iguazu Falls, Brazil and Argentina
Jeju Island, South Korea
The Amazon, South America
Puerto Princesa, The Philippines
Table Mountain, South Africa
Photos: The new seven wonders of nature
- The Telegraph, London
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