Who is The International Ecotourism Society?

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Organization with questionable history at the center of Community Development Code, Bay Point planning

By Mindy Lucas

An organization whose representative weighed in on county planning meetings concerning the Bay Point development project as recently as May 5 is not a nonprofit organization as it purports to be and, in fact, has a history of troubling allegations, according to documents obtained by The Island News.

The International Ecotourism Society, or TIES, lost its federal tax-exempt status in 2015 after failing to file 990 forms, as required by the IRS for tax-exempt organizations, for three consecutive years, the documents show. TIES’ website currently states it is a nonprofit “dedicated to promoting ecotourism.”

An independent search conducted by The Island News verified the revocation of TIES’ nonprofit status in 2015. In addition, there was no reinstatement date listed.

The documents were provided to both the newspaper and to Beaufort County’s Community Development Department Director Eric Greenway by members of a loose coalition opposed to the Bay Point development, which is being touted as an ecotourism project.

Members of the group, which calls itself “Save Bay Point,” are concerned that the county may be basing its decision to move forward on the advice and counsel of an organization that to date, no one seems to know much about.

“Before decisions are made that are irrevocable, the county needs to ensure all entities involved are 100 percent legitimate, particularly if they claim to be a non-profit and the county is relying on their alleged expertise,” said Mare Deckard, who, along with John Trask III, brought the group’s concerns to the county.

Based on both their findings and documents other groups that have had dealings with TIES provided, the allegations include:

• In 2015, prior to losing its 501 (c) 3 status, the organization’s advisory board resigned due to “grave concerns over TIES transparency, lack of ethical guidance and anomalies in the supervision and management of finances.”

• In 2016, The International Tourism Collective (ITC), or holding company for TIES, had its corporate status revoked and does not appear to be legally registered in the United States as a corporation, the documents state;

• TIES’ Executive Director Jon Bruno served as the organization’s finance manager as recently as 2011, but claims to have been its executive director since 2008 and does not appear to have any background in ecotourism other than his position with the organization;

• A website representing the organization has no staff or contacts listed nor does it provide a physical street address for where the organization’s offices, mailing address or phone number of any kind. In addition, the site makes false claims about partnerships with other tourism boards or organizations that do not recognize TIES, both the documents and the group’s members say;

• An interview with Jon Bruno published earlier this year in Ami Magazine, a resource for international association executives, states that the organization has offices in the United Nations complex. However, the Secretary of State of New York’s office did not have a record of any organization or business for TIES or for Jon Bruno.

The documents go on to detail a split between those who left the organization’s advisory board in 2015 over financial transparency issues and then formed a separate organization called the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN).

From 2009 to 2014, the TIES advisory board requested financial information about the organization’s operations, sustainability and financial health as part of its responsibilities as board members. A full accounting was promised in 2014 by those inside the organization, but only a general overview with little detail and verification was provided, GEN alleges.

“To this day” GEN has not seen any communication from TIES about its present status, nor has the organization addressed the schism and board’s resignation on its website or in social media, GEN stated in a recent letter.

In addition, GEN states that based on their own legal research, it appears that neither TIES nor the ITC is legally registered in the United States as corporations in good standing.

The organization issued a press release in 2015 detailing its departure from TIES and has since posted a “due diligence” warning to others considering organizing an event with TIES, becoming a member or participating in a TIES event. 

Members of GEN have continued to receive “numerous pleas and requests” from individuals hoping GEN might be able to act as an intermediary for those who say they are owed money by TIES for work completed or a refund for courses or events that never happened, the documents show.

But if TIES isn’t a 501 (c) 3, or a nonprofit, just who or what are they and why have county planners pinned their recent approval to move forward on this group’s approval?

To find out, The Island News first tried contacting Jon Bruno, the organization’s executive director. However, multiple calls to a number purported to be Bruno’s and messages sent to a Facebook page showing recent activity and identifying him as TIES’ Executive Director were not returned as of press time.

Asked what his understanding was of the organization prior to sitting down recently for a meeting with the concerned citizens group, Beaufort County’s Community Development Department Director Eric Greenway, said he didn’t need to have an understanding of who the group was or their background to consider the application.

“We were looking at content and procedures and process,” he said. “And that was what our view and our focus was on, and whether the plan complied with the requirements of the Community Development Code.”

In December, Greenway and other members of the county’s Staff Review Team (SRT) said the Bay Point project did not fit the county’s definition of ecotourism and asked project planners to revise and resubmit plans. 

In a letter dated March 16, sent from Greenway to Art Krebs, of Luckett & Farley, the Kentucky-based architectural and engineering firm working on the Bay Point project, Greenway stated that the county had reviewed the resubmitted plans and found them to be “in compliance with the definition of the Ecotourism use as provided in the Beaufort County Community Development Code (CDC).”

The letter goes on to state, “This decision is based upon the work and confirmation by Mr. Jon Bruno with the International Ecotourism Society that the proposal now complies with their standard and requirements for ecotourism.”

At its May 5 meeting, the SRT gave conceptual approval to the Bay Point project, effectively green lighting it for consideration by the county’s zoning board. The re-submitted application contains a 16-page analysis provided by TIES on TIES letterhead.

Asked if the county was pinning its decision on Bruno’s “work and confirmation,” as it states in his March letter, Greenway took issue stating that the background of those putting the applications together was “not relevant.” He went on to say that he could not use a group’s background as a basis for not moving a project forward.

“As for who does that and who drafts that plan, there are no standards as to the qualifications or the certifications needed to do that under the CDC,” he said. 

At the May 5 meeting, Bruno was invited to speak on the details of the plan’s ecotourism aspects. Landscape architect for the project Josh Tiller stated The International Ecotourism Society had “provided a letter of support.”

After being asked by Greenway to provide some information on who he was and how he became involved with the project, Bruno stated he was the executive director of TIES, the “oldest and largest ecotourism society” founded in 1990. 

He said the organization became involved primarily because it was their definition that was being used in the Community Development Code and that he was there to provide guidance around that definition and whether the project met the definition of ecotourism.

At no point in that introduction or elsewhere in the meeting was it stated that Bruno was acting as a paid consultant for Luckett & Farley, as has since been confirmed.

Bruno was then asked by Greenway if in his “professional opinion” and on the documentation that was submitted, if the project now complied with ecotourism, to which Bruno said, “It does.” 

The county has been using the definition provided by the organization, then known by its original name, The Ecotourism Society, or TES, since at least 2014 when the idea of incorporating the definition into the code was raised at a county natural resources meeting.

Asked if he thought it was troubling that the organization was not a nonprofit or independent organization being asked to assess whether the project meets the criteria of ecotourism and if a caveat should have been added to make it clear TIES was being paid by Luckett & Farley, Greenway said he thought it was “pretty obvious” that TIES was a for-profit entity.

“I don’t state that about anybody that works for the applicants,” he said. “I don’t give the background of anyone.”

He went on to state that again, it didn’t matter who put the application together, he could only consider what was in the application and if it was in compliance with the code.

He went on to say that any concerns that residents have with TIES’ background or allegations that have been brought to light since the May 5 meeting should be brought up with the county’s zoning board.

“There will be an opportunity for folks to do that through the public hearing process,” he said. “My job was to put together and have a plan that complied with the ecotourism statute, definition and requirements of the Community Development Code.”

Reached by phone for comment, Bay Point owners’ representative Art Krebs confirmed that Bruno was paid for services he provided which included the analysis featured in the re-submitted application and that he never understood TIES to be anything other than a for-profit business.

Krebs said they began working with Bruno around the first of 2020 after the county’s staff review team made the determination that the project “wasn’t an ecotourism project.” 

That determination was based on a statement that Bruno had made in a conversation with the county, Krebs said.

“So, we said, let’s go back to them and find out exactly why they said that,” Krebs said. “And that is when we engaged them as far as a conversation.”

It was at that point that Bruno offered to review the project plan and documentation, Krebs said.

“He did an analysis and study and came back and said ‘Yes, this is an ecotourism project,’” he said.

In addition to the analysis and conservation plan included in the re-submitted application, Bruno helped craft details of other “programs and structures” that would be enacted if approval to move forward is given on the development, Krebs said.

And Bruno assisted with workshops and meetings that were formed to receive community feedback as required by the county, Krebs said.

Unaware the group was still listing its nonprofit status on its website, Krebs also said he was unaware of allegations made concerning TIES by other groups. He went on to say that he had no issues when working with TIES for the services they provided and in fact, “learned a lot that was factual about ecotourism.”

“I’m really pleased that at the end of the day somebody confirmed that our project was ecotourism and from the entity that owns that definition,” Krebs said. “Whoever selected that definition at the county is beyond me. We’re just going by what the county requirements are and that had to be one.”

A Questionable Conservation Plan

Meanwhile, the 16-page analysis from TIES included in the re-submitted application which includes a species conservation outline, has also raised concerns among local conservation organizations.

In a statement sent from the Coastal Conservation League to The Island News, the league stated:

“Adding to the already long list of concerns arising from the proposed resort on Bay Point Island, it’s troubling that the developers are working with an organization of questionable credibility to help them appear more eco-friendly instead of cooperating with local organizations that have intimate knowledge of the community, island, and wildlife. What is even more concerning is that county leaders appear to be deferring to the International Ecotourism Society, whose dubious motives could impact the fragile barrier island forever.”

The league also sent a letter to Art Krebs on April 22 and copied planning staff and Josh Tiller. The letter outlined its concerns with the project and made recommendations for how to improve its conservation plan. The league said, outside of an initial reply from Krebs thanking them for their letter, they have yet to hear if any of their recommendations are being considered.

In addition, while shorebirds and the Audubon are specifically mentioned in the TIES analysis, the Hilton Head Audubon said its counsel was not taken. 

“While Hilton Head Audubon has attempted to advise the developers and their consultant on how to best protect shorebirds, seabirds, and other wildlife on Bay Point Island, to date these discussions have not been productive,” said John Bloomfield President of the Hilton Head Audubon in an emailed statement.

“Regardless of the outcome of the proposed resort project, we believe this nationally recognized Important Bird Area should be monitored with ongoing avian population surveys to determine the value of the island to vulnerable species and to understand any impacts to them over time,” he said.

GEN, whose 14 board members and their expertise in ecotourism are listed on its website, stated in a letter included in the documents provided to the county, that one does not certify a project by using a definition of ecotourism but rather a set of accepted standards. 

“We are not saying that the project in question is not going to be a viable ecotourism company,” it stated. “Rather that it is not viable or credible to ask or receive the necessary criteria, assessment and ongoing monitoring from any objective NGO.”

The letter goes on to state that these are private companies whose mission and focus is on certifying destinations, hotels, etc. for “sustainability” or “good practices.” 

“There are no organizations globally who are capable of ‘certifying’ whether a proposed project will be a valid ecotourism business,” the letter further states.

It is alarming that any permits or considerations for construction would be granted, it states, without having completed a “credible and professionally researched” Environmental Impact Statement.

The group who submitted the documents to the county has also submitted their findings to the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office. In June, that office passed along the documents to Ed Pappas, chair of the Beaufort County Planning Commission.

Both Mare Deckard and John Trask III continue to question who is TIES, if it’s just Jon Bruno acting alone or if there are others working for the organization or funding the organization. 

Trask said, he thought Bruno had, in effect, hijacked what was once a legitimate organization.

“I think Jon Bruno is an opportunist who picked up the mantle of TIES after the legitimate organization’s leaders left with valid concerns over financial transparency and other serious matters,” he said.

The Zoning Board of Appeals will hold its public meeting July 23. 

A few of the documents made available for this report can be viewed here:

TIES documents

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