Conscientious consumers might look for a Fair Trade logo when they buy coffee or an organic label when buying milk. Still, when it comes to ecotourism certificates, the situation is a little more complex.
Tourism is a widespread industry with both positive and negative environmental, social and economic impacts. Ways in which to minimize its negative impact include educating visitors, focusing on conservation and benefiting host populations.
Awarding businesses that comply with such goals can give them credibility and certification can be a tool for this.
Developing common minimum standards
Quality certification has existed in tourism for decades, whereas environmental certification came later and socio-cultural aspects have only been added fairly recently.
More than 60 environmental tourism certification programs were developed between 1992 and 2002, according to a study commissioned by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Awareness began to grow that widely varying standards caused consumer confusion. In 2000 a meeting took place at the Mohonk Mountain House, a sustainable tourism hotel in the mountains of New York. The purpose of the meeting was to develop a common language and common minimum standards.
Following an informal consensus reached in Mohonk, a feasibility study was undertaken by the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC). The founders of STSC have been working for over a decade to set up a global program that will certify the certifiers because there are so many of them worldwide.
What is happening as a consequence of various studies and activities is that tourism certification programs are now taking into account all aspects of sustainability, including environmental, cultural, social and economic factors.
Many programs work in parallel with government health and safety regulations, as well as quality ratings.
Why is there a need for certification?
A conventional, large city hotel can be as socially and environmentally responsible as a small lodge and a small lodge can be just as unsustainable and irresponsible as a large hotel.
There is a growing need for sustainability standards that are internationally recognized and yet locally adapted. Certain businesses present themselves as “green” and yet they don’t comply with generally accepted standards.
For businesses that are really trying to comply with ecotourism standards, those that use terms like “ecological,” “sustainable” and “responsible” falsely and make empty claims affect the credibility of the whole industry. Certification sets standards that distinguish genuinely sustainable tourism businesses.
Businesses find that going through the certification process is educational and helps them to improve. To be accredited, businesses must meet certain criteria, often having to adopt new practices like measuring water consumption, changing their purchasing habits and installing certain equipment.
They usually have to pay anywhere from $200 to $2,500 to receive accreditation, and sometimes pay extra fees for auditor visits.
Well-known certification schemes
Some certification schemes well known in the tourism industry include:
Green Globe 21 is a global implementation program applicable to tourism businesses, activities and destinations worldwide. Its programs include benchmarking followed by certification and it has various offices and information in different languages.
International Organization for Standardization (ISO) – certifies mainly bigger tour operators and hotels for quality or environmental assurance. The ISO 14001 specifies requirements for an effective environmental management system (EMS).
The ISO 2600 gives guidance on how businesses and organizations can operate in a socially responsible way.
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) maintains recent sustainability criteria for destinations, tour operators and hotels. It is a non-profit organization with a diverse and global membership, which includes NGOs, leading travel companies, tour operators, hotels and communities, all striving to achieve best practices in sustainable tourism.
Green Destinations is a non-profit foundation for sustainable tourism. Expert organizations, companies,and academic organizations across the globe partner to benefit destination representatives and stakeholders.
Together with them, they try to make their places better and more sustainable. Destinations around the world join the organization to assess their sustainability performance and apply for a certificate that gives them global recognition.
Biosphere Tourism offers biosphere certification for tourism destinations. It is committed to ensuring continuous improvement according to the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations. This means achieving a balance between combating climate change, protecting the environment, and benefiting communities socially, culturally and economically.
In 2019 the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) released a new tourism industry report entitled The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics. It highlights not only the latest consumer, destination, and business data in the context of responsible tourism but also describes impact tourism programs that contribute to destination conservation and resiliency.
The long term growth of tourism is not likely to stop and we need to transform the way we travel to become more sustainable. Travelers are increasingly showing a desire to make environmentally and socially responsible choices.
This demand is pushing companies and destinations to rise to the occasion and they are becoming more aware of the value of certification.