Published on Tuesday, February 28, 2012
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 (http://www.aito.com) 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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