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, reports the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.
“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 US$199 ‘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 $350,000 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 S$500,000.”
The Switzerland-based New7wonders foundation have announced the seven winners to be the Amazon rainforest, Vietnam’s Halong Bay, Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, South Korea’s Jeju Island, Indonesia’s Komodo, the Philippines’ Puerto Princesa underground river, and South Africa’s Table Mountain.
The Maldives, the Dead Sea, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon did not make the final seven.
Votes were collected online and via paid SMS voting in the various countries, in collaboration with assorted telecom providers. Final vote counts for the winners were not revealed.
In an announcement aired on YouTube, New7wonders founder and self-described “filmmaker, aviator and adventurer”, Bernard Weber, stated that “once the voting validation process is completed in early 2012, we will work with the confirmed winners to organise the official inauguration events.”
Weber also announced that New7wonders would be launching a competition to determine the greatest cities in the world.
Indonesian and Maldivian tourism authorities withdrew from the competition earlier this year, citing demands for large amounts of money from New7wonders for licensing and event hosting, that had not been explicitly outlined in the original contracts.
Indonesia’s Tourism Minister Jero Wacik claimed in the Jakata Post that the decision was taken “because the organisers – the New7Wonders Foundation – have taken actions that are not professional, consistent and transparent.”
“We have spent around (US$1.1 million) on campaign activities over the past three years,” Wacik told the Jakarta Post, claiming that New7wonders had subsequently demanded a US$10 million licensing fee and a US$35 million fee to host a ceremony celebrating the competition’s winners.
Meanwhile, Maldives State Minister for Tourism Thoyyib Mohamed announced in May that the Maldives was similarly withdrawing “because of the unexpected demands for large sums of money from the New7Wonders organisers. We no longer feel that continued participation is in the economic interests of the Maldives.”
The Tourism Ministry initially paid a US$199 participation fee to New7Wonder’s commerical arm, New Open World Corporation (NOWC), registered to a law firm in the Republic of Panama.
Subsequent requests for money included ‘sponsorship fees’ (‘platinum’ at US$350,000, or two ‘gold’ at US$210,000 each), and funding of a ‘World Tour’ event whereby the Maldives would pay for a delegation of people to visit the country, provide hot air balloon rides, press trips, flights, accommodation and communications.
After complaining, the Maldives was offered a bare-bones ‘protocol visit’, but informed that winners of the previous competition had all hosted a big event.
NOWC also attempted to charge telecom provider Dhiraagu US$1 million for the right to participate in the New7Wonders campaign, a fee that was dropped to half a million when the company complained about the price.
In response to the Maldives’ decision to resign from the campaign, New7wonders spokesman Eamonn Fitzgerald quoted John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’, and insisted that the Maldives remained in the competition “because the authority to withdraw a participant from the campaign is a decision for New7Wonders alone, not for any government agency.”
Following Indonesia’s decision to withdraw, Fitzgerald said that “Despite a series of malicious attacks on New7Wonders by the [Ministry of Culture and Tourism], the public and media opinion consensus in Indonesia is that the MCT should not interfere in the democratic right of the Indonesian people to vote for Komodo Island in the New7Wonders of Nature.”
“The MCT had no authority in this matter as it ceased to be the legitimate New7Wonders representative in Indonesia in February, so the announcement was absurd,” Fitzgerald said, stating that the foundation’s new representative in Indonesia was a group called P2Komodo.
“P2Komodo is an alliance of positive and forward looking members of Indonesian civil society, who are keen to ensure that Komodo Island has a fair chance of participating in the New7Wonders of Nature,” Fitzgerald said.
In the Maldives, New7wonders approached the Maldives Association of Travel and Tour Operators (MATATO), but the arrangement was never cemented.
Secretary General of MATATO, Maleeh Jamal, said at the time that the association had been in contact with New7Wonders and was considering working on the event in the government’s stead.
The studies offered by New7Wonders promised an “enormous return on investment”, Jamal suggested.
“I think US$500,000 for such an award would be quickly recovered. Although the money was a concern, we had a fair chance of winning. A lot of competing destinations, such as Australia and South Africa, are taking this competition very seriously,” Jamal said in May.
The Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation (MMPRC) has issued a statement reaffirming the Maldivian government’s decision to withdraw from the New7Wonders competition.
The statement follows claims by the Geneva-based foundation’s head of communications, Eamonn Fitzgerald, that the Maldives was still in the competition “because the authority to withdraw a participant from the campaign is a decision for New7Wonders alone, not for any government agency.”
The government withdrew from the competition on May 18, after claiming that New7Wonders’ commercial entity, New Open World Corporation (NOWC), had solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars for the country “to compete meaningfully”.
“We no longer feel that continued participation is in the economic interests of the Maldives,” said State Minister for Tourism Thoyyib Mohamed, at the time.
The MMPRC today said that a second statement was necessary “to halt any further misrepresentation by the NOWC regarding the involvement of the Maldives in their competition.”
“After the many attempts by the MMPRC to negotiate and explain our financial situation requesting a reduction of the price to meaningfully compete and stay in the competition, we are again perplexed to learn that the NOWC are considering taking a smaller sum of money from a third party in order to keep the Maldives in the competition,” the MMPRC stated.
Secretary General Maleeh Jamal of the Maldives Association of Travel and Tourism Operators (MATATO) said yesterday that the association had been in contact with New7Wonders and was considering working on the event in the government’s stead, claiming that the competition promised “enormous return on investment”, and that “US$500,000 for such an award would be quickly recovered.”
The MMPRC today stated that “the democratically elected Government of the Maldives is the only legitimate authority to act in the name of the Maldives and its people”, as “NOWC originally sought acceptance and involvement of the Maldives in the competition with a government signature and payment.
“The Cabinet (not the MMPRC) has made the final decision to withdraw from the competition due to their findings. We feel that the continued participation of the Maldives in the NOWC competition is a matter entirely up to the democratically elected government of the country. Any infringement of this sovereign right, including continued disregard for our position on the matter, will leave us with no alternative but to seek legal recourse.”
In a recent opinion column for Minivan News, Fitzgerald argued that the MMPRC’s “unfounded complaints regarding the campaign sponsorship options have to be seen in light [of the] extraordinarily positive numbers.”
Fitzgerald referred to two “independent studies” he claimed estimated the economic benefit to each of the seven wonders as “US$1.012 billion”, and the total benefit to previous winners as “US$5 billion”.
The MMPRC stated that it “does not agree with the business arguments as quoted in the article for Minivannews.com. To imply that you can guarantee a positive response of an advertising campaign or PR stunt that is yet to happen is wholly unethical.
“The NOWC-commissioned reports and estimates cannot guarantee and secure a positive outcome for the Maldives. There are so many variable factors as to why marketing activities are successes or failures ‐ but no two scenarios are identical and so generalisations and assumptions should not be made when spending huge sums of the country’s money.”
The MMPRC highlighted several articles in the government’s contract with NOWC, noting that “the obligation to pay is determined and decided by [the Government of the Maldives] abilities and resources and that NOWC will respect this.”
“In light of our recent economic riots and financial crisis which was broadcast to the world, we feel that NOWC have totally disregarded our situation.”
The MMPRC further claimed that “despite our emails and answer phone messages to Fitzgerald, New7Wonders have refused to respond to our communications. We have also noted that their office premises appear to be empty and their colleagues with whom we previously had regular communications are no longer available.”
Fitzgerald said New7Wonders was reviewing the MMPRC’s statement, and confirmed that “all MMPRC messages to New7Wonders have been duly received and filed by us. As New7Wonders accepted the resignation of the MMPRC on May 17, this agency is no longer New7Wonders’s counterpart in the Maldives, so we have no reason to respond to it.”
He added that New7Wonders would issue a statement regarding the continued participation of the Maldives in the campaign on Thursday May 26.
Tourism authorities in the Maldives have withdrawn the country from the New7Wonders campaign, after claiming the private company behind the competition began demanding increasingly high fees in order for the Maldives to compete meaningfully for the remainder of the competition.
The decision was made during Tuesday’s cabinet session after weeks of deliberation between the Ministry of Tourism Arts and Culture, the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) and industry stakeholders.
State Minister for Tourism Thoyyib Mohamed announced at a press conference on Wednesday morning that the Maldives was withdrawing from the competition “because of the unexpected demands for large sums of money from the New7Wonders organisers. We no longer feel that continued participation is in the economic interests of the Maldives.”
The Maldives has only invested US$12,000 over the lifespan of the campaign, mostly significantly on banners and voting terminals at Male’ International Airport, Thoyyib said.
Minivan News understands that the company behind New7Wonders, the ‘New Open World Corporation’ (NOWC), initially levied a US$199 participation fee upon signing of the initial contract in early 2009.
However, once the Maldives was announced as a finalist, NOWC began soliciting additional fees and expenses not clearly articulated in the original contract, which tourism authorities estimate will cost the Maldives upwards of half a million dollars.
Requests have so fair included ‘sponsorship fees’ (‘platinum’ at US$350,000, or two ‘gold’ at US$210,000 each), and funding of a ‘World Tour’ event whereby the Maldives would pay for a delegation of people to visit the country, provide hot air balloon rides, press trips, flights, accommodation and communications. According to tourism authorities, these services would amount to a total cost to the country’s economy of over US$500,000.
Minivan News understands that NOWC also attempted to charge telecom provider Dhiraagu US$1 million for the right to participate in the New7Wonders campaign – approximately US$3 for every citizen in the Maldives – a fee that was dropped to half a million when the telco complained about the price.
When tourism authorities expressed concern about the skyrocketing cost of participating in the competition, billed as a global democratic selection of the new seven wonders, NOWC expressed sympathy for the Maldives’ economic situation and instructed it to solicit money from the resort industry.
“We require sponsorship if you are going to benefit from a full World Tour visit,” a company representative said in correspondence obtained by Minivan News. “We believe it is perfectly within the financial means of the leading resorts, when combined, to afford this sponsor fee (especially considering the extraordinary image, economic and marketing benefit it brings to the Maldives and therefore to their businesses).”
The correspondence reveals that should the Maldives be unable to provide the money demanded by NOWC, it would be offered an alternative “protocol visit to your capital city, lasting one day. This visit includes the presentation of a certificate to the appropriate authority and a short press conference. The N7W team arrives in the morning and leaves the same day.”
New7Wonders emphasised however that “during our first campaign (for the man-made wonders) all the seven winners had very strong and exciting World Tour visits.”
In the terms and conditions on the organisation’s website concerning participating candidates, NOWC “ultimately decides whether a nominee, candidate or wonder is able to participate and or retain its status in the New7Wonders campaigns.”
Vague terms such as ‘non-compliance’ “may result in the temporary suspension of the participating nominee, candidate or wonder from that country. Persistent or un-remedied non-compliance may result in the permanent elimination of a nominee, candidate or wonder.”
“Essentially we’re paying a license fee for the right to throw a party, at our own cost, for an unproven return,” a senior tourism official told Minivan News, suggesting that claims a billion people were voting in the competition did not add up, as the Maldives had fluctuated wildly between 19th and 2nd and the tally was not transparent.
Furthermore, “any media that drops its price 50 percent at the first complaint is totally unprofessional, and in a mature media market this is considered highly unusual and poor practice. It means they haven’t justified the original cost,” the source said.
The Maldives is not the only country to have been stung by surprise demands for sponsorship cash, not clearly outlined in the contract. NOWC reportedly demanded US$10 million in licensing fees from tourism authorities in Indonesia, which had fielded the Komodo national park as a wonder, and required that it foot an estimated US$35 million bill to host the World Tour event.
In February this year, the Jakarta Post reported the country’s Tourism Minister Jero Wacik as stating that the Ministry had received a letter on December 29, 2010 claiming that NOWC would “suspend” Komodo from the list of finalists if it refused to pay the US$10 million license fee.
“It’s not fair and irrational,” Wacik said. “I refuse to be extorted by anyone, including this NGO. I thought these are about votes, if the world votes for it, then it will win, what does that have to do with hosting the event?”
In response, New7Wonders founder Bernard Weber, a Swiss-born Canadian who describes himself as a “filmmaker, aviator and adventurer”, accused the Indonesian Ministry of Culture and Tourism of “reacting with malicious misinformation, invented financial commitments and prejudicial action to cover up for an apparent lack of moral responsibility and duty. In my view, with this behaviour, the Ministry has also reduced the chances for Indonesia to host other major global events that create goodwill in the world, such as the Olympics or the World Cup.”
He then announced that New7Wonders was revoking Indonesia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism from its status as ‘Official Supporting Committee’ for Komodo, claiming that “last week strengthened the case for us to withdraw from Indonesia completely. If we depended on the Ministry, then today we would be forced to announce a complete pull-out.”
Although the New7Wonders site contains a link ‘United Nations Partnership’, the UN’s World Heritage body UNESCO in 2007 disavowed participation in the first New7Wonders campaign, claiming it was “a private initiative by Bernard Weber” with whom the organisation had decided “not to collaborate”.
“There is no comparison between Mr Weber’s mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The list of the 7 New Wonders of the World will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the Internet and not the entire world. This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public,” UNESCO stated.
After the world’s sole remaining ancient wonder of the world, the Pyramids of Giza, failed to garner enough votes in Weber’s first New7Wonders campaign, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouq Hosni criticised the project as “absurd” and described its creator as “a man concerned primarily with self-promotion”. The pyramids were subsequently made an ‘honorary’ wonder of the world.
The fate of the money apparently now being paid to NOWC by tourism authorities all over the world is unclear, although New7Wonders claims on its site that funds from the first campaign “have been entirely used to fund the running and campaign costs. The mission is thus to create a surplus during the current New7Wonders of Nature campaign which ends in 2011.”
Funds beyond that, the site states, are used “to set up and run the global New7Wonders voting platform, to run the first campaign that chose the Official New 7 Wonders of the World, to run the current campaign electing the Official New7Wonders of Nature, to run the New7Wonders organisation, [and] to create a surplus for distribution.”
Fifty percent of its surplus net revenues, the site states, are pledged “ to the main New7Wonders Foundation cause: the promotion of Global Memory, specifically the documentation and 3D virtual recording of all New7Wonders.”
Minivan News confirmed that a ‘New7Wonders Foundation’ is registered in the Swiss canton of Zurich as a charitable foundation, however the New7Wonders own website describes it as “a major, global-scale proof of a business concept based on mass virtual online dynamics creating concrete economic positive outcomes in the real world”, and the contract signed with the Maldives gives NOWC’s address as a law firm in the Republic of Panama.
Responding to enquiries from Minivan News, New7Wonders Spokesperson Eamonn Fitzgerald said the Maldives remained in the competition despite the government’s decision.
“We accept the resignation of the Ministry [of Tourism] as Official Supporting Committee (OSC), and we plan in due course to replace them therefore with a new OSC,” he said.
“As we enter the final months of the campaign we clearly see the difference between those who are ready for the unique opportunity of participating in the New7Wonders of Nature — such as the people and workers of the Maldives, who remain strong and active supporters — and those who are not able to step up to the challenge for whatever reason. New7Wonders always listens to the people, the voters, first, and therefore I can confirm to all the fans of the Maldives from all over the world, who are actively campaigning and voting, that they will be able to continue doing so.”
Fitzgerald further denied New7Wonders had requested sponsorship from the Maldivian government.
“We have offered the opportunity for Maldivian companies to come on board as sponsors, in the same way as other global events and campaigns are sponsored,” he claimed.
Asked whether the organisation was a charitable foundation or a commercial enterprise, Fitzgerald claimed it was both.
“At the heart of New7Wonders is the officially Swiss-registered not-for-profit Foundation, the New7Wonders Foundation. As with other Foundations, who cannot themselves by statute operate commercially, New7Wonders has formally transferred the commercial operation to its licensing company, New Open World Corporation, which then runs the commercial aspects.”
Addendum: This story has been updated to include a response from NOWC, received subsequent to publication.