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Deconstructing the Sustainable Tourism Eco-certification Program (STEP)

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The Ecotourism Certification Standards series continues with Sustainable Tourism Eco-certification Program (STEP). The STEP program was created by Sustainable Travel International, which is a non-profit organization “dedicated to promoting responsible tourism, supporting sustainable development, and helping travelers and travel providers protect the environments and cultures they visit.”

The voluntary program, which is based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, provides certification for tour operators, accommodations, luxury accommodations, attractions, transportation service providers, cruise line tour operators who provide shore excursions, and community based tourism providers. The required criteria in the STEP standard cover a variety of business practices including but not limited to sustainability policy, waste and water management, energy efficiency and conservation, hazardous substance management, cultural heritage preservation, and economic development.

There are three steps for obtaining a STEP rating:

  1. Self-Assessment – there are eight sections of questions included in the online self-assessment. Each company is provided a Sustainability Planning & Reporting Kit that includes a workbook, policy templates, benchmarking tables and up to 1 hour consultation. Companies are assigned points based on how well their sustainable operations are in line with best practices. The fee is $250.
  2. Application – companies submit the required documentation for STI to review and evaluate. If the documentation is approved, the company receives a 1-star Eco-certification that is valid for 12 months. The fee is based on the number of total full-time employees or the total number of rooms if an accommodation.
  3. Eco-certification – a third-party independent, accredited STEP Lead Auditor will conduct an on-site assessment of the company’s sustainable operations in order to compare, verify, and document compliance. STI’s Evaluation Committee reviews the report in order to determine the Eco-certification star rating. Successful applicants receive a 2-star to 5-star Eco-certification logo that is valid for 24 months. The fee for eco-certification, excluding travel expenses, ranges from $1200 per day to $1800 per day depending on the size of the company.

The classification of the STEP star ratings is:

  • 1-Star Rating – businesses have completed a self-assessment and have completed a second-party desk assessment from STI indicating they have met a minimum set of criteria; however they have not received an on-site audit.
  • 2-Star Rating – businesses are somewhat low-impact. The company received 20-29% of the available points.
  • 3-Star Rating – businesses are somewhat low-impact and may consider environmental and social issues in their operational decisions and programming. The company received 30-64% of the available points.
  • 4-Star Rating – businesses are highly environmental and social-culturally responsible. The company received 65-84% of the available points.
  • 5-Star Rating – industry leaders that have made sustainable development and environmental social-cultural issues a priority, and invest both time and money to maintain sustainable travel practices. It has been verified that the company received 85-100% of the available points.

Every company that has been awarded a STEP Eco-Certification rating must reapply every 24 months in order to maintain the certification.

Click here for more information and a listing of STEP projects. 

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Irene is the founder & president of Greenloons. She is a dual EU citizen who has lived in 5 countries and visited 32 more in Asia, Oceania, Latin America and Europe. Drawing upon her professional and personal experiences to address authentic ecotourism from community, ecological and financial points of view, Irene is a frequent conference speaker, Huffington Post blogger and radio talk show guest. 

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