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Published on Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tripadvisor - yet another shade of green tourism

Tripadvisor "Gamechanger" may lead to game playing

In an interview this week with Tripadvisor, they informed us that, now they had reached over 3,000 hotels in their Green Leaders program in the US and over 2,000 in the latest 18 countries roll-out in Europe - it was only "Weeks" before green would be a searchable facility on their site for European accommodations.

There has been much debate about the value of the Green Leaders programme and whether it will add to the green tourism movement, to the benefit of destinations and tourists - or potentially commodify and debase the experience. Finally Responsible Tourism guru Harold Goodwin branded the initiative a "Gamechanger" 

Tripadvisor make it clear; they say that both tourists and hotels can only benefit from the transparency that they offer. They also say that a graded entry on Tripadvisor is free, and that the scheme has the support of many tourism organizations.

They also say that the GreenLeaders programme has been developed in consultation with lots of different partners - including the Carbon Trust, the UK Green Building Council, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the International Tourism Partnership to name but a few.

But are these statements factual or disingenuous?

Firstly it is right to say that, where tourism is related the support is less that 100% although the ITP, for instance (whose membership includes most of the world's big hotel chains), broadly support it, but, then, their membership largely operates their own green schemes and their own CSR programmes.

Smaller groups and individual businesses are largely unaided and obviously much more individualistic - which, after all, is part of the point.

It is clear that the gold standard for green certification is any scheme that is transparent, provides third party verification and accedes or betters the GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Certification). All this, at least, provides a level playing field for all tourism businesses around the world.

This is important because sustainable certification is important, embodying both values of economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability which travelers can buy in to - and levels of environmental responsibility that both reduce costs and minimize emissions - which are important to us all.

The fact is that green tourism (or Sustainable Tourism) may be the only way that the $1.4trillion, 1million plus job-providing global tourism industry can survive healthily in an emission-controlled, development-conscious, possibly sustainable planet.

It is one of the few ways that the global tourism industry can keep its act in order and minimize the chances of self-destruction through over high emissions and bad social/cultural practices.

Anybody who takes the tourism industry knows its potential for global good and evil and certification is a way to endorse good practice for everybody's benefit.

But only if certification is believed, and that is clearly the job of a third party auditor - in the same way that business accounts are audited before being passed.

Moreover, in a good certification scheme there is a massive benefit - the agency and the auditor/inspector deliver another and possibly more important function - advising the business how to better their current sustainable situation.

The fact is that Tripadvisor Green Leaders as a marketing platform is great, as a certification system, it comes way down the scale - and on a global basis, the organization is only using its massive web footprint (a stated 260 million unique users a month) to muddy the already muddy waters. There are over 140 certification schemes around the world of which no more than 20 qualify as being credible.

Now there is one more scheme behind which possible greenwashers can operate.

Tripadvisor provides for an inspection visit only on a random basis or in case of traveler complaint- you could call this  'Light Touch' accreditation - more or less the same level as global banking controls prior to the recent crash.

And given the many reported instances of the Tripadvisor system being skewed by false reviews - how much more likely will that be with a higher-value, more sensitive issue such as sustainability.

Does Tripadvisor really believe that their travelers, however committed and honest they are, are qualified or interested enough to inspect the "Back of House' issues such as boilers, or waste management that are critical to sustainability?

It is much easier to understand why Tripadvisor has made this ill-judged excursion into sustainability.

Although Tripadvisor makes a much-vaunted claim for 260 million unique users a month, it has a couple of major issues with its customer franchise and must still be extremely keen to monetise its users. (which also provides reviews and engages with sustainable tourism) is rated by Alexa at 100 places higher than Tripadvisor and has a much stronger financial position (a historic price/earnings of 31 compared with Tripadvisor's 71). This doesn't mean that the company is at all fragile but it certainly means that much more is expected of it. Hence, perhaps the recent bunch of acquisitions, made presumably with the leverage of Tripadvisor's shares high p/e.

And hence, possibly, the speed with which Tripadvisor have instituted the high value Green Leaders programme - without the support of any of the accreditation agencies or the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

Instead they have opted for their own approach which appears to be backed up by SGS (Swiss company, Société Générale de Surveillance) and whilst SGS do not appear to have any great amount of experience in tourism except for large exhibition centres,they have a substantial reputation in Inspection, Testing, Certification and Verification.

Given that such an enormous organisation will clearly have high charges - it is unlikely that they will be called in to investigate any but the largest possible infringement.

From the point of view of any tourism business, attraction, operator, hotel, B&B or guesthouse, the best option is to take advantage of one of the major certification agencies offering third-party inspection, auditing and advice which will almost certainly assist them in reducing their energy bills sufficiently to repay the cost of the certification AND provide a level of support and credibility that only a specialist agency can.

Maybe Tripadvisor could then talk to the certification agencies and the GSTC, possibly even the accreditation organizations such as the International Centre for Responsible Tourism, before making a leap into the dark with the benefit of its currently high user profile.

Valere Tjolle @ValereTjolle [email protected]

Latest sustainable tourism offer: A Past, Present and Future Full of Opportunities HERE

The Tourism & Greenwash Report HERE


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  • GreenLeaders

    Dear Valere, Thanks for an interesting article on the TripAdvisor GreenLeaders programme. Just to clarify a couple of points, TripAdvisor did indeed consult the us - International Tourism Partnership (ITP) - on the development of the GreenLeaders programme over several meetings and robust discussions where we brought a range of questions and concerns to the table. We feel those concerns were taken on board and the rationale behind GreenLeaders clearly explained. No scheme, certified, audited or other, will have 100% support. We all have different needs and objectives. ITP remains firmly convinced, however, of the value of bringing sustainability issues clearly to the fore and putting them in front of the consumer. TripAdvisor"s reach is huge and the GreenLeaders initiative has significant potential to support all our efforts and drive positive change. Fran Hughes Head of Programmes International Tourism Partnership

    By Fran Hughes, Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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