What Travelers Need to Know About Eco-friendly Vacations

Confronted with a myriad of different resorts, hotels, and lodges claiming to be “green,” it can be very confusing to know which eco-friendly vacations are really true.

These days, more and more travelers are making the effort to be conscientious when it comes to choosing their vacation accommodations.  People are doing their research and looking for eco-friendly, sustainable hotels that do not negatively impact the environment or local communities. Confronted with a myriad of different resorts, hotels, and lodges claiming to be “green,” it can be very confusing to know which ones really are taking steps to protect the environment and be a force for good in their communities. One way to be absolutely sure that a hotel is sustainable is checking to see if they’re certified or verified by an independent, third-party program.

Certification and verification programs audit hotels – some also audit tour operators, restaurants, transportation companies, and tourist attractions – using an extensive set of environmental, social, and economic criteria. Businesses that meet a minimum level of compliance with these criteria become verified or certified and earn the right to use the program’s logo so that travelers know they are sustainable.

So what do these certification programs do, anyway? We’ll give you a brief rundown on the major certification programs currently operating in Latin America and the Caribbean, so you can make the most informed decisions when researching for your next vacation.

  • Global Sustainable Tourism Council – Before we get into the certification programs themselves, let’s talk about legitimacy. In recent years, a multitude of certification programs have been cropping up, again raising the question: how do you know which ones are legitimate? How do you know they’re not just certifying any hotel that pays a fee, regardless of sustainability? The recently founded Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) provides some guidance through the jungle of certification programs. This international initiative, comprised of renowned sustainability experts, has created a set of minimum sustainability criteria which certification programs must comply with in order to obtain GSTC accreditation. So GSTC is a sort of “certifier of certifiers” – they accredit certification programs to ensure that their criteria meet identified baseline standards.
  • Rainforest Alliance VerificationTM – The Rainforest Alliance was among the founding members of the GSTC. Verification is an effective way to evaluate and improve businesses’ commitment to sustainability, measuring their progress and helping to prepare them to become certified. Also, in countries where no certification program exists, verification offers businesses a benchmark — which helps them determine where they stand — and demonstrates their achievements to others. Once a business is Rainforest Alliance Verified, it needs to become certified within two years by a certification program, if one is available where the business is located.
  • Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) – Costa Rica Certificación para la Sostenibilidad Turística, or Certification for Sustainable Tourism in English, provides certification services to hotels and tour operators in Costa Rica.  CST is regulated by the Costa Rican National Accreditation Commission and consists of a scale of 5 “levels” of sustainable tourism achievement.
  • Green Globe – Green Globe Certification provides certification, training & education, and marketing services in 83 countries worldwide. The Green Globe Standards are based on Agenda 21 and principles for Sustainable Development endorsed by 182 Governments at the United Nations Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. 
  • Green Seal – Green Seal is a non-profit organization founded in 1989. Their program certifies a wide range of products and services in the United States, including hotels and restaurants.
  • GREAT Green Deal – GREAT is an acronym that stands for Green, Responsible, Exclusive and Amazing Tourism. GREAT Green Deal provides certifications for hotels, restaurants, tour operators, transportation businesses and community-based tourism projects. While they are based in Guatemala, they provide certification services to countries in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean.
  • Mexican Regulation NMX-AA-133-SCFI-2006 – This Mexican government regulation allows for the certification of sustainable tourism businesses. The regulation is enforced by the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), the national government agency responsible for developing environmental policy and legislation.
  • Smart Voyager – The Smart Voyager program was created by the conservation organization Conservación y Desarrollo (C&D) in 1998 and was launched to the public in 2000. Though based in Ecuador, the program has expanded to include hotels and tourist operations throughout Latin America. They certify tourism operations of all sizes from large resorts to ecolodges.
  • Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program (STEP) – STEP is a comprehensive sustainable tourism certification program offered by Sustainable Travel International. Companies in all sectors of the travel and tourism industry and communities can be certified through STEP.
Now that you know about some of the world’s major certification program, you’re well on your way to becoming a sustainable travel expert! Use your newfound knowledge when you plan your next vacation and you’ll never be duped by green-washers again.
Learn more about eco-certification.