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The Challenge of Tourism Certification

Archived feature: 2007

Understanding tourism certification is a bit tricky and when it comes to defining what constitutes ecotourism, sustainable tourism, conscious travel or responsible travel, there is little consensus.

When it comes to developing global accreditation schemes, there’s a growing demand to ‘stop the steamroller.’ Indigenous peoples, tour operators and others say that many programs do not deserve support.

Tourism succeeds when it fosters mutually beneficial relationships among locals and visitors. We are tempted to look at this as a product — hotel, restaurant, park — rather than a process that values multiple players and the way they learn to collaborate.


Assuming you wanted to know which are the ‘best’ ecolodges or ecotourism services, the question must follow: How is one to judge? Even if they agree on the big picture, conservation groups and tour agencies have decidedly different interpretations of what constitutes ecotourism or responsible travel. And if they agree on the basic criteria, they weigh the components differently.

Some have suggested the creation of such a third-party organization, such as the firms that certify organic coffee for the world market. However, keep in mind that tourism is not only a commodity — it is also a social process, one that is exceedingly difficult to measure or regulate successfully. Honey can be certified, but tourism?


What is being measured? An eco lodge next to a river that measures water consumption in each room. There is plenty of water in this rainforest, and yet consumption is measured in a case in which the resource is unlimited. Does this inspire trust in the lodge?


In order to implement regional or global certification and accreditation, is it worth devaluing local knowledge and authority? For those interested in tourism which alleviates poverty or strengthens local autonomy, certification has shown no tangible benefits.

Priority needs to be given to improving information, communication and collaboration. Locals and visitors are seeking creative ways to interact, to learn from one another. More than a label, they are heading to the recommendations and testimonies of friends. Prioritizing certification without adequate communication and collaboration is akin to putting a band-aid on a deep wound on the wrong limb.


There are a number of serious problems with certifying and accrediting ecotourism and sustainable travel, starting with the lack of consumer demand.

Critics say that accreditation is necessary due to the ‘marigold’ effect of ever-increasing number of certification schemes. But who can guarantee that the same won’t occur with multiplying accreditation programs?

Another serious shortcoming is that most stakeholders have been left out of the process, including indigenous people, community representatives and owners of travel businesses. When invited to participate, many of these leaders opt out, reminding organizers they have other priorities.

In fact, some leading tour operators believe certification and accreditation schemes are a scam that creates a cottage industry for consultants.


Much more effective are industry awards.


The January 2006 issue of Green Hotelier Magazine included an essay by Xavier Font in which he explains how sustainable tourism certification programs were under the spotlight at a consultative meeting sponsored and convened by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“There is still little quantifiable data available on the ability of these schemes to promote change. Consumer recognition is low, and industry intermediaries are only beginning to consider certification as a tool for due-diligence and preliminary selections of suppliers. Without an effective strategy for increasing demand from businesses that wish to be certified, there will be insufficient certified products to educate consumers or to enable tour operators to fill their catalogues. As it would be misleading to promote certification as a way of directly increasing occupancy and sales, it was felt that other marketing strategies should be used … The majority agreed to prepare a business plan for a body to deliver mainly quality assurance and marketing benefits to certification programs. However, the UN World Tourism Organization does not believe the time is right and UNEP (as meeting conveners) abstained.”

Professionals agree we should work toward higher standards in conservation and tourism, yet many experts question whether the rush toward ecotourism certification is worth the price.


Critical voices are rarely heard in official meetings geared to champion certification.

Either critics are not invited or increasingly they choose not to come to meetings. One travel operator told me, “Certification is the elephant at the table. We have to find a way of focusing on issues that matter more.”


Institutional funders have not understood that certification is a such a hornet’s nest and have continued to finance projects with little public support. According to sustainable development consultant Megan Epler Wood: “It has been suggested by the new InterAmerican Bank MIF project for a Sustainable Tourism Certification System that certification for sustainability of tourism will increase competitiveness and market access of small and medium sized enterprises in Latin America. However a thorough review of existing reports on this topic shows that there are no market demand studies available to justify this assumption. Stakeholders from Central and South America, East Africa and the Arctic nations during the International Year of Ecotourism were in consensus that certification does not enhance business.”


The lack of meaningful public conversation has led to poor awareness of most certification programs. Item. Australia’s NEAP program is respected by professionals, but poorly known by the public. Part of the problem seems to be the fact that it took more than five years to consider marketing NEAP.

In a 2003 survey of 100 customers of tourism operations which have ‘NEAP accreditation’, not one client indicated that they had chosen the tour because of the accreditation of the product. In short, certification of ecotourism is not a market-driven option.


“There’s no participation by anyone who can even remotely claim to represent tourists,” says Bill Hinchberger, editor & publisher of BrazilMax. “Many of the participants at the meeting that created the Brazilian Sustainable Tourism Council (Conselho Brasiliero de Turismo Sustentável) spent much of their time dissing tourists. Now, many tourists deserve to be dissed, but not by certification groups that need to attract their support.”

“Even responsible tourists are unlikely to pay attention to certification. And if they don’t, there’s no point to this exercise,” added Hinchberger.”This is partly a marketing problem, but marketing seems to be at most an afterthought in all the certification schemes I’ve seen.


How are travelers choosing their trips? More and more are using search engines, such as Google and Bing. And those listings can be purchased by web operators (ethical or not) who pay for listings alongside ‘ecotourism’ or ‘nature lodge.’ Keep an eye on Google Marketing. While this is far from perfect, it’s more popular than any certification scheme. And now Google is offering a green certification program.

Other websites provide complementary certification via reader feedback. Check out the rankings on Trip Advisor.


For responsible travel or ecotourism to succeed, travelers must be aware of their own demands. What is the best example of ecotourism — a rustic, community lodge or a foreign-owned, eco-friendly green hotel?

Too often architects and consultants promote high technical standards and luxurious eco-lodges because they have a personal stake to certify businesses which pay them well.

What is the best example of an eco-friendly market? Do the products all need to be organic or are social issues taken into consideration?

Finally, do the best and brightest want to be compared? Quoting Groucho Marx: “I sent the club a wire stating, ‘Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.'”


At risk are many stakeholders — particularly rural and indigenous guides — who do not have the financial resources to participate in established guide training programs. Typically, programs are not offered in the field, but in the capital city.

Those who might benefit from ecotourism, namely farmers and residents of rural areas that lie next to or even coincide with protected areas are never the focal point of evaluation, promotion, let alone certification.

Worse, if the program is offered in the field, the organizer — be it an NGO or government office — rarely attempts to promote who has received the training. The result? Trained guides look for work in other fields or migrate to where other jobs are available.


One of the threads that emerged during the 2005 Ecotourism Emerging Industry Forum focused on non-governmental organizations or NGOs. Critiques were to the point: “It is really not advisable to use an NGO structure to manage ecotourism.”

Another participant wrote: “I was told by one NGO representative that social impacts resulting from a community ecotourism project they supported were not their concern, ‘as long as the community was conserving their land.'”

The discussion of NGOs leads me to a few questions, starting with whether NGOs working toward ecotourism require certification. And if that proves tricky, how about evaluation?

My feeling is that there are many fine examples of NGO work, but it remains a challenge to differentiate among the players, from those who are the best and those who call themselves the BEST. Do we trust a center for excellence or … a Center of Excellence?

Missing far too often is genuine communication and dialogue that flows as easily bottom-up as it is bottom-down.


In an editorial on ECOCLUB, publisher Antonis Petropoulos points out that “ecotourism is not a movement for certifying tourism, but a movement to change it.”

Petropoulos explains: “Genuine ecotourism operators, especially indigenous community efforts, do not really demand, and can not afford high-flying certifiers and their certificates. They have other, more pressing needs. Not to mention that in the world of genuine ecotourism, the best certifiers are not those who are paid, but those who pay: the TOURISTS! The eye of the ecotourist, can be as accurate and sometimes more honest than that of a certifier.”


2003 meetings in Brazil and Venezuela focused on current ecotourism certifications schemes. The Brazil meeting showcased only proponents of certification. The Venezuela meeting was organized by private industry and was more balanced, including a critique of top-down certification efforts, Stop the Steamroller.

In 2004 a panel discussion on certification was conducted at the IATOS trade fair in Chicago. No critics were included in the panel.

In March 2003, the Rainforest Alliance released its report on developing a Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council. While labeled a feasibility study, it became obvious that the architects of the study had a predetermined agenda which would proceed with financing from the Interamerican Development Bank. Having participated in the initial stage, I was disappointed not to see comments of any critics included in the final report, a 2.5MB PDF which has been removed from the RA website. Of major concern is that indigenous people were mentioned nowhere in the initial report. It’s been difficult to treat Rainforest Alliance seriously since 2003.

In June and July 2004 Indigenous Tourism Rights International hosted an online conference for Indigenous Peoples concerned about tourism certification. This report concludes that current efforts have not been respectful of indigenous people.


Under what conditions does certification improve business practices?
Who benefits from tourism certification?
How well do certification programs include social web tools including comments from visitors and locals?
Should tourism consultants, NGOs, government agencies and academics be certified?
Who certifies the certifiers?

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