Published on Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Will the real Sustainable Tourism certificate please stand up?

If every tourism certification kite mark out there cost nothing and they weren"t displayed on websites and brochures, would anyone bother going through the audit?  Writes Gavin Bate

Sustainable Tourism is indulging in a lot of navel-gazing and heated debate at the moment. Same with that old chestnut of voluntourism and eco-tourism - it seems that, for every opinion, there"s another certification scheme. Academics, campaigners, bloggers, researchers, tour operators, consultants and policy-makers are all fulminating on the trend for doing things right and trying to avoid being labelled commercial, colonial, greedy or uncaring.

You wonder why there can"t be collaboration in a non-competitive atmosphere but, frankly, some stakeholders are too busy with moral one-upmanship. The language is often antagonistic, with the subject drifting into subjectivity because, ultimately, this is largely about opinions - but I suspect that the consumer would like to see a bit more of a love-in than chest-beating.

The consumer wants to have a great holiday without the guilt trip, happy in the knowledge that it is being organised in an equitable way with nobody being exploited and everybody making a fair share from the spoils. And, if your product is generating healthy sustainable income for lots of people without stamping on their rights and your client has a happier experience because of it, then you won"t need a kite mark anyway, which is something like the Fair Trade Volunteering idea. My experience is that your repeat business increases, your reputation improves by word of mouth and you get long-term staff loyalty.

But people are influenced by a certification mark on a website, much as we all are by similar marks - on food packaging, for example. Inevitably they could end up being misused as a marketing tool, so it is fair to say we need to promote good standards and audit processes - for example, in the way that AITO ( does for its members.

However, when you"ve got multiple standards, organisations and audit processes, and an "oil and water" relationship between academia and commerce, then the message is one of disunity and confusion.

As a high-altitude mountaineer, I have to get my teams working safely together towards a single goal.  When we get to stand on mountain-top, and everybody realises that, actually, they couldn"t have done it without each other, it"s always the defining moment of the expedition, and of course vital to its success.

I sit on a number of committees, all discussing similar issues of Sustainable or Responsible Tourism, and the concept of saving time by collaborating seems to be anathema. Unfortunately there are plenty of people who would overcomplicate the debate and, ultimately, just like on an expedition, it"s all about human nature. But at least let"s act inclusively! It"s the least we can do for all the people who we"re trying to sustain.

By Gavin Bate, Director of Adventure Alternative and panel member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) Sustainable Tourism Committee:

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  • Where to begin to response?

    Given the nature of the global tourism industry and lack of International leadership and research in how to address the consumer confusion over the Certification mess, it is difficult to respond to this issue. As the majority of global travelers do not make purchase decisions based on past Green performance, there is little commitment to developing a global certification standard which most destination based suppliers would adopt or pay for. I would suggest that the future of public and private sector supported certifications is not sustainable. Over time, changing conditions as energy shortages, water and food scarcity, climate change impacts, etc, will eventually force tourism destinations to wake up and realize that true tourism sustainability will require a fundamental shift in values, away from 'more is better, to better is better' in terms of maintaining or growing travel related economic benefits without contributing to what is being referred to as the 'harm curve',(taking responsibility for the Full costs of tourism). Destinations coming late to this realization will increase their risks of loss market share. In effect, I see the current certifications like the offering of carbon off-sets or the use of EMS by hotels. Small incremental steps along the pathway we are on to increase awareness of the need to think more about sustainable travel without being serious about taking the big steps to do so. (Look at the heat the EU is getting on efforts to slow the growth of flying based emissions) In the end, it will be up to destination stakeholders who, when forced to wake up and see the big picture, will hopefully have the time and resources needed to adopt their offers; attracting Better Visitors (increased LOS and ADS) while considering how to off set both the global and local 'Full' costs associated with these earnings. That is also just a new beginning. As I have watched the sustainable tourism discussion unfold over the last 25 years, I have become more cynical. Space tourism, deep underwater tourism, Indigenous Tribe tourism: no place is too precious when there is a profit to be had. Our Industry will accept no real limitations to growth until it is forced upon us and all the discussion about the small incremental steps like certifications may make us feel hopeful but we need new leadership to drive better research and policy if are to take actions before we have to.

    By James Holleran, Sunday, March 4, 2012

  • oooo huge topic!

    ok,, as a chef I have to pass on my opinion of sustainable tourism. You have correctly mentioned that this topic is indeed very subjective so please consider my/our view. We believe in local and independent rather than chains, we believe in purchasing locally preferring to spend our money in our local economy before having to source out which we need too to function, we believe in employing local staff. We follow FLOSS Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal and Sustainable as much as possible,, again this is not always possible. We believe that this is and inclusive "our' responsibility to be as sustainable as possible. I mention this here in the tourism sector as we rely upon tourists for our business. We also believe that if the local and independent are not supported the chains will further encroach and the sustainability issue will take a step back. We also believe in this campaign and I hope you will take a look. thank you for listening to my rant :] I cant help being passionate about this part of sustainability and no, this organization are neither big or greedy, their aims are to provide a level platform for the small guys like us and they do not support chains-Hurrah.

    By Megan Turner, Wednesday, February 29, 2012

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