Global sustainable tourism criteria & accreditation: Holy Grail or folly?

By Justin Francis, co-founder and executive director of Responsible Travel

At first thought a global sustainable tourism criteria or accreditation scheme might seem like a good idea - all organisations marketing sustainable tourism would need to comply with it, and tourists would know at a glance from a logo that the vacation met certain criteria. Eco-labels have worked elsewhere so why not in tourism? Here, I will argue that in practical terms there is unlikely to ever be a global accreditation scheme, and that - while tourism accreditation schemes can be useful - such schemes are limited in what they can achieve in creating change. In fact, a global scheme could indeed be detrimental.

Responsible tourism is not an easy concept to explain. The impacts of tourism are complex and span cultural, economic and environmental issues. Although I was told repeatedly in 2000 that calling our business "Responsible Travel" would put off tourists, more recently claims suggest that responsible and sustainable tourism have real marketing value. Naturally, fears have grown around 'greenwashing' - people exaggerating their claims to attract more business. As a result some have called for a global criteria or accreditation scheme.

The hope would be to simplify the issues and the choices for tourists through use of a logo granted when organisations meet a checklist of criteria. There are several reasons why this might be problematic, if not undesirable.

Local relevance
Firstly, tourism's impacts are very different in each place. For example, water conservation and access to fresh water is a big issue in Kenya, but not in Ireland.  Poverty reduction through tourism is key in Peru, but not in Geneva. The cultural impacts of huge numbers of cruise ship passengers visiting small Alaskan towns is significant, but irrelevant in Antarctica. On a micro level, tourists taking parking places reserved for the local community might be a big issue at one end of town, but academic to those at the other end of town with more parking.

In reality there tend to be just two or three big issues facing tourism in any one place, and they are different everywhere. Compared to these big issues other concerns are relatively minor. A global set of sustainable tourism criteria or accreditation scheme with long checklists of criteria does not recognise these differences. It does not force you to think about and address the big issues in that destination - instead it leads you to attempt to tick off lots of less important (but probably easier) things.

It could be argued that applying a top down global accreditation scheme or criteria is in fact the antithesis of responsible tourism, which seeks to work bottom up to involve local people in deciding what type of tourism suits them and to recognise that every place and every community is different. It also goes against what we are seeing emerge from the market - lots more locally relevant accreditation schemes. A global scheme would be reductive; it would reduce destinations down to one common level rather than acknowledging what makes them different.

The unique role of tourists as ‘involved consumers’…
There are several additional reasons why the impacts of tourism are far more complex than those served by eco-labels in food, fisheries and timber production. When you buy a tin of tuna with a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo you can be confident that it is from sustainably managed fish stocks. However, when you book a fully accredited, 100 percent sustainable place to stay, can you be confident that all the economic, cultural and environmental impacts have been managed?

The answer is 'no'. If the tourist decides to get drunk and be offensive to local people; use masses of water for baths, damage the coral whilst snorkelling, litter the national park; buy souvenirs made from endangered species or stay in the hotel and spend no money within the local community then immediately the vacation is no longer 100 percent sustainable. The fact is that the consumer (tourist) is part of the impacts of tourism, in a way that the person who buys a tin of tuna or Fair Trade tea from a supermarket is not.

In short the impacts of tourism are totally different based of the type of tourist. A small group of cultural tourists have totally different impacts to a large group on an stag party. Furthermore the impacts of tourism in the same place changes across different times of the year. They are different during Ramadan than before or after; they are different during the harvest when local people need to be in the fields not serving in the hotel; they are different during the dry season when access to water is at a premium.

Added complexity...
No tourism accreditation scheme or set of criteria can address the complexity of the different impacts from different types of tourists across different times of year, or the fact that even before this, tourism (with its cultural, economic and environmental impacts) is already more complicated than other sectors served by eco-labels. I have not even begun to address the issue that just one vacation might encompass nine restaurants, three hotels, two local tour guides, one national park, local transport, six producers of food, three different towns and four excursions. Are we really going to try to accredit each element of this? I am reminded that it took Tesco over 18 months and over £100,000 to examine the cradle to grave impacts of a tin of baked beans...

Simplicity isn't the answer

In short, it is wrong to try to pretend that we can confidently say whether a vacation is sustainable or not based on a check-list of global criteria. Of course you might say that imperfect as any global scheme might be it would be better to at least try.

This is where I disagree.  The idea that we must try to reduce and simplify down the complex impacts of tourism into a simple logo (gold, silver or bronze?) is based on the premise that we do not want the tourist to have to think too much. In fact we want the opposite. The tourist needs to be aware of the issues in the place they are visiting, and to think about their own impacts. Krippendorf in his book The Vacationmaker said it best; he talked about the need for "rebellious tourists" questioning their vacations more actively. Does a codified and largely meaningless logo from an accreditation scheme achieve this? It does not - in fact it achieves the opposite - which is why I believe that a global accreditation scheme for tourism would be damaging to the responsible tourism movement.

At Responsible Travel we've always published something we call a 'making a difference statement' on every vacation page. Here we ask the tourism provider to think about the big issues in their destination, and to explain how they have addressed them. They must all meet a minimum standard, but of course some far exceed this. The tourist can read these stories, get informed about the issues in the destinations and how they are being addressed. It gets them thinking about their role, and their impacts, before they travel. They can also read about other travelers' experiences, and their views on what the tourism provider is doing to address tourism's impacts. Every review is sent back to the tourism provider - creating constant feedback about ways to improve (even the best accreditation schemes only make annual inspections).

Tourism accreditation kite marks do not sell vacations
Finally, one last myth. It is said that a global sustainable tourism kite-mark would gain recognition quickly and generate significant additional bookings for those who had achieved it, thus creating a market driven incentive. We market over 700 accommodations; many of them have been accredited in some way. They tend to come to us after being disappointed that their new logo did not generate new bookings - and why would it? We find tourists are far most interested in the infectious stories in our making a difference sections - such as the local guide whose family have lived in the village for four generations offering a village tour and opportunity to learn to cook local dishes with his family - than in any logo.

Many other market sectors have understood this and try to re-connect the buyer of a product with the producer through storytelling - just look at Fair Trade teas or coffees, the back of The Body Shop products, Waitrose and Marks & Spencers advertising and in store promotional materials. This is how to sell responsible tourism, not by sticking a label on it.

On accreditation
You might think I am against tourism accreditation full stop. I am not. I think it plays a valuable part in helping raise standards in the supply chain and can work quite well with hotels, particularly those in similar destinations with similar types of tourists who face common problems. The Federation of Tour Operators Travelife scheme adopted by TUI and Thomas Cook and others is a good example of this and I believe it to have been successful in raising standards. I am in favour of good local accreditation schemes focussed on the big local issues.

Having said that Professor Harold Goodwin at the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metroplitan University argues that:

"The case for certification has not been made, a great deal of money has been spent on it over the last ten years but there is still little or no evidence that it delivers for the businesses that have to pay for it. The labels are opaque; consumers do not know what the businesses have achieved. The labels are process based; the business gets rewarded for introducing low flow showers, not for reducing water consumption per bed night. The certification schemes cannot tell us what they have achieved, how much water has been saved, or waste recycled.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria are comprehensive but no grading based on them can tell the consumer how high or low the average fossil fuel consumption is per bed night. Consumers are increasingly looking for a meaningful way of reducing their negative and increasing their positive impacts – labels do not offer that. They are too opaque; they lack meaning and local significance, we have no evidence that they affect consumer choice'.

In summary
I believe the most important thing is to be having tourists asking more informed questions of their vacations and themselves, and for those in the tourism industry to be thinking about the key big issues in their destination rather than one size fits all checklists of global criteria. This is far more important than any attempt to create a global accreditation scheme or criteria, which in fact may be detrimental to both the encouragement of rebellious tourists and the identification of the biggest issues to address in each destination.

Justin Francis
June 2009
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