Ecotourism: Responsible Travel or Marketing Sham?
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"You have to see it to Belize it" was scrawled across the T-shirts I saw hung on a roadside stall in Belize City a decade ago. Belize's barrier reef -- the second largest in the world -- had just been enlisted as a world heritage site and the country was gearing up for a surge in tourism. Ten years on, Belize now vies with Costa Rica as the ecotourism capital of central America.
Its success reflects a growing trend for travel that puts something back into the environment and local communities. Britain's buoyant green pound is sustaining a green travel market worth Â£409m and it is set to grow by 25 percent a year, according to a recent report by market research analyst Mintel.
Yet there is currently no single internationally accepted standard for green tourism. Holidaymakers have to grapple with over 350 independent eco-labels, most of which are designed as a checklist for the industry, rather than as a searchable tool for travellers. Many assess only on environmental credentials so they don't provide any guarantee of quality, and none are held to account by one internationally accepted accreditation body so you can't compare like with like.
And not all eco-holidays are everything they're cracked up to be. The popular South American ecotourism website planeta.com cites John Noble, editor of Lonely Planet's Mexico guidebook, who said, "What you call 'ecotourism' in Latin America, in Europe we call a 'walk in the country'."
Others take a harsher line, labelling faux ecotourism "greenwashing." And it's hardly something new. During the United Nations' International Year of Ecotourism in 2002, Patricia Barnett of Tourism Concern said the ecotourism label could be "used by anyone at anytime for anything from a small-scale locally-run rainforest lodge where the money goes to support a local community, to a large, luxury, foreign-owned resort which has little community involvement and uses masses of natural resources".
The hijacking of the "eco" label by tourism businesses riding cheaply on the green wave means that nowadays you're unlikely to see the word ecotourism used in British tour operators' brochures. Harold Goodwin, professor of responsible tourism management at Leeds Metropolitan University told me, "Ecotourism has no marketing utility because people just don't believe it anymore."
Greenwashing comes in various guises. In some cases it can be little more than cheeky marketing -- a golf course claiming it is eco because a few swans live on a lake is par for the course in an industry that's obsessed with hype. But there is a more serious side to it, especially at the sharp end of poverty. Tourism Concern has campaigned for the last 15 years against some of the worst offenders, such as the eviction of the Maasai and Samburu people from their lands in east Africa in order to establish what the developers called "conservation and safari tourism."
But ecotourism -- and greenwashing -- are no longer confined to the central American rainforest or the African bush. Just as the green agenda has gone mainstream, from city breaks to summer holidays in the Med, so we start hearing about so-called eco-friendly spas that do little more than sell fair trade bananas in the bistro. This undermines the genuine article.
One of the champions of a more sustainable hotel industry is the hotel chain Scandic, which has refurbished over 10,000 eco-rooms with almost 100 percent recyclable material. Other hotels that are likewise going the extra mile to green up their operations do much more than asking guests to put their towels out for washing; often it involves a fundamental change to the way they run their business, through investing in more efficient technologies that minimise their use of electricity and water.
Is it really green?
So how can you distinguish between the green and the greenwash? Often a hotel's most efficacious environmental practices will go unnoticed to the casual eye of a holidaymaker -- and even the most motivated green traveller is unlikely to inspect a hotel's waste management system after ordering the morning paper.
Given the fact that 26 million holidays are booked through travel agents each year, you might think the travel industry would be the first port of call for guidance on where to book a green holiday. Yet there isn't one high street travel agent in the UK that specialises in eco-travel. Only specialist tour operators offer that kind of service, I was told by a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA).
He was referring to the likes of alternative holiday specialist Sunvil, who for years have sold holidays that tread a more ethical line by taking visitors to places that help put something back into local communities. Sunvil is a member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), which represents about 150 independently owned UK tour operators.
AITO runs its own "responsible tourism" classification, awarding its highest three-star grade to 23 of its members who offer holidays that use locally-owned accommodation and that try to minimise the impact of their holidays on the local environment.
But these small specialist companies only skim the surface of the travel industry. The big four travel companies, who between them serve 46 million customers, are not known for doling out advice on where to go green.
Yet things are beginning to change: Thomson, Portland and Skytours' brochures now flag up their most environmentally friendly hotels with a "green medal" logo; Thomas Cook-owned ski specialist Neilson includes a "responsible tourism award" for hotels it works with that have achieved a "good scoring" on an environmental checklist; but the most significant step is being taken by the Federation of Tour Operators (FTO) -- whose members represent over 60% of package holidays -- which is working on a common environmental standard for its members' hotel suppliers. First Choice, one of the travel giants helping FTO, believes it's a significant development in response to consumer demand for ethical purchasing in general.
Jane Ashton, head of corporate social responsibility at First Choice said: "Travellers are becoming more interested in green products so it's becoming increasingly important to define what being green actually means."
Green travel schemes demystified
One of the largest and best-known certification schemes is Green Globe, and even it was criticised in its early days by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for promoting "confusion rather than clarity" by not distinguishing clearly enough between companies that had simply bought the first level of green commitment from those that had actually achieved certification.
Closer to home, the UK's Green Tourism Business Scheme (GTBS) is leading the way in certifying domestic green accommodation. Its website provides a map search facility for over 1,000 places to stay, from small B&Bs to luxury five-star hotels and visitor centres in England and Scotland.
The scheme requires owners to provide details on over 160 criteria, ranging from energy, waste and local transport, and sends out a qualified environmental auditor to visit each property before awarding them bronze, silver or gold. Owners can only apply for membership if their properties already qualify for one of the UK's quality assurance schemes, such as the AA, Scottish Tourist Board or VisitBritain's "Quality and Tourism".
The Green Tourism Business Scheme is a member of an association of European eco-labels known as the Voluntary Initiative for Sustainability in Tourism, which is trying to provide a common framework for all certification schemes to work to. Other members include The Green Key, which has certified properties in France, Sweden, Greenland and Estonia, and Legambiente, which has certified over 100 places in Italy.
Outside Europe, Australia's Ecotourism Certification program has built up a comprehensive list of certified accommodations and attractions in Australia, while the best known scheme in central America is the Certificate in Sustainable Tourism, which has certified 55 hotels in Costa Rica -- a country that Tourism Concern says "has made pioneering strides to promote sustainability".
Britain's GTBS also assesses the local economic and social benefits of tourism, something that most green travel schemes don't do, according to Polly Pattullo, author of the Ethical Travel Guide. However, the Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA) scheme is showing the world how this can be done in Africa. It assesses travel businesses on fair trade principles, such as whether they provide decent wages and working conditions for their staff, and has certified over 20 South African businesses, including a downtown backpackers' hostel and a luxury lodge in the African bush.
The Fair Trade Labelling Organisation, Tourism Concern and several other European NGOs are looking closely at the scheme to see how fair trade principles can be applied in tourism on a wider scale. Harold Goodwin thinks this has potential: "British people are used to getting fair trade coffee because they buy into the idea that it is good for local producers, yet tourism has the advantage that when you've bought the product, you then go and see it in action."
In other words, seeing is believing. A sentiment those T-shirts in Belize were on to long ago.
Richard Hammond is the editor of greentraveller.co.uk.