With the advent of words such as green, environmentally friendly, sustainable and eco as powerful marketing slogans, it should come as no surprise that many organizations within the tourism industry have adopted these terms to attract consumers. There are financially lucrative reasons for marketing hotels and vacation activities in this manner since surveys have indicated that consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product when they are aware that an organization is environmentally conscious.  Enter eco certifications.

Unfortunately, a lack of understanding of the term ecotourism has resulted in a confused consumer left on their own to distinguish between authentic “eco-sailing tours” of Hawaii or “eco-treks” through China or “eco-safaris” through South Africa from those ecotour activities which are engaging in greenwashing practices. Sadly, the system of greenwashing, or the misleading advertising by companies that stealthy promote their operations as reducing carbon emissions and efficiently using scarce resources only the name of profiteering, is rampant in the tourism industry. However, the great informant to consumers is ecotourism certification.

Value of Eco Certifications

Certification provides much-needed knowledge and transparency because award criteria as well as independent assessment and reauthorization processes not only help educate the consumer about the various social, economic, cultural and environmental issues of a specific country but also provide the consumer with a basis of comparison against other travel suppliers.

True ecotourism focuses on the discovery of a natural or wildlife habitat in a manner that maximizes local economic and social goals while reducing the possibility of environmental degradation. It is through ecotourism certifications that consumers can be assured that the ecotour operator is supporting local communities, emphasizing environmental education, sustaining conservation efforts, efficiently utilizing scarce resources, minimizing tourist waste, and respecting local cultural traditions.

Ecotour operators and green accommodation providers undergo self-assessments, on-site visits, and training during the evaluation process which typically covers several criteria including:

  • Sustainable management systems
  • Customer satisfaction policies
  • Local design and construction requirements
  • Quality interpretation of natural surroundings and local culture
  • Community development and fair trade policies
  • Local employment practices
  • Protection of archeological sites and artifacts, and
  • Conservation and energy use policies

Lack of Universal Eco Certification

At this time, there is no singular international ecotourism certification due to regional interpretations of what constitutes a natural or wildlife habitat, what amounts to environmental degradation and what characterizes local prosperity. In fact, there are more than 25 ecotourism certifications at last count including Australia’s ECO Certification, Costa Rica’s Certificate for Sustainable Tourism, South America’s Smart Voyager, the U.S.’s Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program, and Green Globe.

However, a set of 37 voluntary standards that have come to be known as the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria have been developed and serve as the foundation for most certification standards. These criteria represent the minimum that any tourism business should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources while ensuring that ecotourism meets its potential as a tool for poverty alleviation. In addition, a (three) page reference guide has been developed to serve as another consumer awareness tool.

So, the next time you are planning a vacation, seek out information about that region’s tourism certification standard and support certified travel industry suppliers that operate under ethical environmental standards for sustainability and conservation, rather than marketing tactics. You’ll end up affecting more than just the environment!

Note: This article was originally written by me in February for publication by The Ecolutionist.

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