New 7 Wonders of Nature Controversy

It turns out that the current New 7 Wonders of Nature competition reeks of controversy.

Until recently I’ve been ignoring the buzz around voting for the New 7 Wonders of Nature. The noise has been getting louder and louder in recent weeks, so I wasn’t surprised to see that the competition ends in just over a month. I have visited eight of the final 28 candidates and they’re all great destinations. As a Canadian, I have a soft spot for the Bay of Fundy making it to the winners list. However, at the same time I can’t help but feel the entire process is a bit of a joke.

Iguassu Falls in Argentina

Iguassu Falls, Argentina - A New 7 Wonders of Nature Finalist

Back in 2007 when the New 7 Wonders were announced it was exciting. It wasn’t without controversy though. You see, the Pyramids of Egypt – the sole remaining Ancient Wonder of the World – didn’t make that final list. Egyptian officials said the competition was absurd, so the New 7 Wonders organization made amends by giving the Pyramids an ‘honourary’ title.

It wasn’t long after those winners were announced that the dark side of the New Open World Corporation, who runs the competition, became apparent. I worked for a tour company at the time and we had tours to the Pyramids in Egypt, plus to all of the destinations that won titles as New 7 Wonders of the World. How exciting! Well it only took the New Open World Corporation a month or so to get their lawyers on us and demand us to stop using the ‘New 7 Wonders’ label in any way whatsoever unless we paid them for use of their trademark.

Christ the Redeemer Statue

Christ the Redeemer, Brazil - One of the New Wonders of the World

So much for helping to boost tourism to Chichen Itza in Mexico, the Colosseum in Italy, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall in China, Machu Picchu in Peru and Petra in Jordan. The tourism boards and destination marketing organizations can do that themselves, I suppose. Yet strangely, after such a seemingly prestigious win in 2007, none of these tourism boards prominently mention their ‘New 7 Wonders’ win on their websites.

Shortly after that competition ended, the New Open World Corporation announced a new competition for the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Fast forward two years to 2009. After hundreds of entries paid their $200 entry fee for being listed as a possible New 7th Wonder of Nature, the voting widdled things down to 28 possible winners. There were supposed to be only 21 finalists announced on July 21, 2009 but New Open World Corporation decided to change the rules so that there would be 28 finalists. No big deal, right? More competition is a good thing!

Except that if we fast forward again to 2011, we start to see the seedy side of what the New 7 Wonders of Nature is all about. Turns out that $200 entry fee was just a drop in the bucket.

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador - Land Iguana

A Land Iguana in the Galapagos - One of the New 7 Wonders of Nature Finalists

Indonesia’s Komodo Island entry created controversy when they revealed that New Open World Corporation was demanding $10million in licensing fees, plus $47million to host a World Tour finale for the competition. Apparently the $944,000 they budgeted to promoting and marketing their efforts in the competition wasn’t enough. Tourism officials in Indonesia had never signed any agreement that hinted at such additional, exorbitant costs. When they tried to contact New Open World Corporation by mail, everything bounced back as undeliverable. The disagreements continued for months and Indonesia withdrew Komodo Island National Park from the competition in mid-August. However, faced with such pressure the New Open World Corporation backed down and Komodo remains as a finalist.

Now let’s add the Maldives Islands to the controversy.

The Maldives also pulled the plug on their bid to become a New 7th Wonder of Nature in May 2011, citing unexpected, unrealistic demands and rising costs from New Open World Corporation.

Picnic Island in Vaavu Atoll, Maldives

The Maldives Islands - Another Finalist in the New 7 Wonders of Nature Competition

In 2009 they paid their $200 entry fee and the agreement had no specifics about incurring future additional fees or financial obligations. But surprise – it’s 2011 now and New Open World Corporation has sent them numerous requests for money including:

  • $350,000 for a platinum level sponsorship licensing fee,
  • two $210,000 requests for gold level licensing fees,
  • a $1million license fee to put the New 7 Wonders of Nature logo on planes,
  • a $1million license fee for their national telecom operator to participate for allowing phone voting and,
  • a request for a ‘World Tour’ stop in the Maldives for the New 7 Wonders delegates to party and enjoy the country at a cost of $500,000.

Needless to say, the Maldives refused and New Open World Corporation accepted their resignation from the competition. But in both cases, the listings were not removed, New Open World Corporation simply said they accepted that the committees that registered Komodo and the Maldives were no longer valid, and that they would entertain finding new ‘Official Supporting Committees’ for each entry. In other words – they would seek money from other businesses or individuals in Indonesia and the Maldives.

Sound sketchy? It sure does. I’ve been involved in many award applications in the travel industry and have never had to pay an extra penny after the initial application process. So then what exactly is the New 7 Wonders Foundation and New Open World Corporation?

Kayaking in Milford Sound

Sailing Kayaks in Milford Sound, NZ - Another Finalist for New 7 Wonders of Nature

The New Open World Corporation is a corporation associated with the non-profit New 7 Wonders Foundation, which is based in Zurich. The foundation is run by Bernard Weber, a Swiss-Canadian who is a self-proclaimed film-maker and adventurer. Mr. Weber is obviously a savvy businessman who has found a way to profit from the global tourism industry, albeit in a shady fashion. Here are a few troubling points about the ‘New 7 Wonders’ campaigns:

  • The New 7 Wonders homepage flaunts a ‘partnership’ with the United Nations, which has mislead some people to believe that the UNESCO World Heritage Site programme supports these competitions. That is not correct. UNESCO does not approve of, nor does it have any association with, these competitions.
  • The rankings and totals on the New 7 Wonders voting website  lack any form of transparency.
  • Curiously, the application contract that many entrants signed came from a law firm in Panama, not Switzerland.
  • There is no physical location or mailing address easily available for contacting the New 7 Wonders Foundation.
  • Where the money goes is a mystery. After accounting for all costs in running the competition and organization, only 50% of surplus revenues from the millions of dollars received, goes towards the efforts of the non-profit organization.

Kind of makes you wonder about the ethics and real purpose behind these New 7 Wonders competitions doesn’t it? Whether you call it extortion or licensing fees, if you imagine that most of the 28 finalists have given in to at least some of the New 7 Wonders monetary requests, plus invested plenty of their own funding towards promoting their entries and creating voting campaigns, there is easily more than $100million in tourism money surrounding this competition.

Is it worth it? These are largely popular destinations that already attract large numbers of tourists from around the world. They’re in guidebooks, they’re already on the backpacker circuit and travel blogger radar. Will the Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef really benefit from a surge in tourism if they are named one of nature’s New 7 Wonders? If they do win, will they even be able to afford to promote the new title after they pay new unknown, likely exorbitant, licensing fees?

Grand Canyon, Sunrise near Bright Angel

The Grand Canyon, A Finalist for the New 7 Wonders of Nature

Recently, representatives from 11 of the finalist destinations visited JeJu Island, in South Korea (one of the Natural Wonder finalists). It is probably safe to assume most of those countries paid at least some of their World Tour fees and licensing fees. When the final votes come in next month, I wonder how many of the 7 winners will come from those 11 countries? We’ll find out on November 11th. Oh, and by the way, it doesn’t look like they’ve found anyone willing to pay that $47million price tag to host the finale event yet.

Perhaps one unnamed tourism official in the Maldives summed up this competition best:

“Essentially we’re paying a license fee for the right to throw a party, at our own cost, for an unproven return.”

Measuring ROI when it comes to tourism and travel marketing initiatives isn’t an exact science, but it seems that the only one guaranteed to benefit from this competition is Bernard Weber and New Open World Corporation – hopefully I’m wrong.

Tourism is big business – exciting business. As fun as these competitions are, I encourage you to take a minute to think of the countries and people in the world that don’t have the million-dollar budgets to promote their natural wonders, or the people who don’t have access to computers to even cast a vote. There is a much bigger natural world out there to discover than the eventual 7 winners of this competition.

About Red Hunt

A former journalist and business analyst that now works in the world of travel marketing. Based in Toronto, Red Hunt has travelled to more than 40 countries over the past 10 years. You can follow Red on Twitter @redhunttravel.