Who Owns Paradise? Strong Certification Programs Separate Genuine Ecotourism from Greenwashing Fast-Buck Artists

Ecotourism is an idea whose time has come, but it’s too early to declare victory. For the traveling public, the challenge is to find the environmentally and socially responsible companies that can provide a great holiday. And that’s where the concept of certification—eco-labeling—comes in. All tourism certification programs are voluntary, market-driven initiatives, which means companies choose to be certified and consumers pick labeled products.

Certification can be thought of as a three-legged stool, with the first leg measuring health and safety standards (many of which are legally required). The second measures quality and service, which has been the focus of traditional certification programs like that of the Automobile Association of America (AAA). The third and newest leg measures "sustainability" which, when properly done, includes standards for assessing environmental and social impacts of hotels, resorts and travel programs. In the wake of the seminal 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, there’s been a proliferation of eco-labels. Today, there are more than 100 certification programs for the tourism industry, some 60 of which are in Europe. Only seven (including Green Globe and ECOTEL) are global.

Certifying tourism presents real challenges, since each business category needs a distinct set of rules and regulations. Like the traditional certification programs tied to automobile travel, most green labels cover only hotels and lodges. Increasingly, however, tourism certification is also looking at tour operators (Certification for Sustainable Tourism, or CST, in Costa Rica), naturalist guides (The Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program, or NEAP, in Australia), beaches (Blue Flag in Europe, South Africa and the Caribbean), parks (Protected Area Network, or PAN, in Europe), golf courses (Committed to Green in Great Britain) and boats (Smart Voyager in the Galapapos).

And, like ecotourism itself, there are wide variations in the types and rigor of these certification programs. Those geared to the conventional tourism market, like Green Globe, are based on setting up environmental management systems within businesses. They award eco-labels for reducing electricity and water consumption; they don’t set performance standards. Process-based certification measures intent more than outcome. These programs focus only on environmental issues, ignoring social and cultural concerns.

Performance-based certification measures achievement, not intent, and it sets clear environmental and social standards. This may include, for instance, the requirement that more than 90 percent of a hotel’s employees be hired locally. All businesses within these types of certification programs can be easily compared against one another.

The International Year of Ecotourism is helping to consolidate certification programs, which is vital to ensure that sustainable ecotourism doesn’t get lost in a sea of greenwashing.

MARTHA HONEY directs the Institute for Policy Studies" Ecotourism and Sustainable Development Program. Her 1999 study is available online at www.ips-dc.org.