Sustainable Tourism Certificates
Sustainable development has become of great importance from the beginning of the 1990s onwards, and by the end of last century it had started to affect tourism directly. Standarization and implementation of sustainability measures is a major issue in this respect in combination with the question of how to verify whether a tourism entity effectively adopted sustainability measures within its management and operations. One of the answers has been the introduction of certification schemes, resulting in a wide array of different sustainability certification programmes. Travel organisations, NGOs and national tourism boards have been pacemakers for the development of STC. For them it serves a series of purposes, such as the certainty of being able to offer sustainable valued services and to comply with national requirements. Individual tourism entities such as hotels or tourism attractions have also shown their desire for accreditation or being granted awards as part of sustainability management programmes. As such STC have served greatly among most tourism stakeholders as a general part ofsustainable development.
In the 1990s different types of certifications on sustainability practices had already been implemented. Some international agreement was reached in the year 2000 leading to the Mohonk Agreement, which was a “proposal for an International Certification Program for Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism.” The Agreement is still a point of reference in the development of many ecotourism and sustainable tourism schemes. According to the World Tourism Organization, an average of 50 tourism firms had already been certified per programme in 2002. These are programmes that seek to categorize and certify each tourism company according to the degree to which its operations comply with a model of sustainability. Online research among many different certification programmes indicates that on a destination level the reasoning behind the implementation of certification mechanisms points to a series of objectives:
STC as a control mechanism for the implementation of sustainable measures;
STC as an evaluation tool to measure levels of implementation and progress made during a certain period of time;
STC as a tool for standardization of sustainable practices, their guidelines and recommendations.
All three objectives – control, evaluation and standardization – seem to have a complementary function. What is not clear cut is the question about who sets the certification standards and who carries out the certification process. National tourism authorities in most countries with high tourism volume are interested in certification processes, but often lack the mechanisms and funding to do so. Travel organisations have started to show an interest in the matter, especially the larger multinational ones such as TUI or Thomas Cook, but they have not always found sufficient response at local levels.
The same holds true for the standardization process, wherein the great interrogative regards by whom these standards are set. Although most parties agree on basic sustainable measures such as recycling, to what level this practice should be implemented still depends on local circumstances.
Right now there are many institutions involved in certification processes and their backgrounds may vary considerably. However, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) set up an initiative of a group of organisations that established a set of basic sustainable tourism certification criteria in 2008. Among their listing of the most important certification programmes in 2011 we can highlight the Costa Rica Tourist Board’s (ICT) Certification of Sustainable Tourism (CST), Rainforest Alliance’s Standard for Tourism Operations or the Sustainable Travel International’s Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program STEP.
What most certification programmes have in common is their reach into ecological, socio-cultural and economic levels. Taking the case of Costa Rica’s CST programme, the implementing body Instituto Costarricense de Turismo – a government authority – distinguishes four areas
Physical-biological parameters; evaluates the interaction between the company and its surrounding natural habitat;
Infrastructure and services; evaluates the management policies and the operational systems within the company and its infrastructure;
External clients; evaluates the interaction of the company with its clients in terms of how much it allows and invites the client to be an active contributor to the company’s policies for sustainability;
Socio-economic environment evaluates the interaction of the company with the local communities and the population in general.
The ICT grants some incentives to those entities with STC recognition, such as discounts on participation at international tourism fairs, for example. Those entities with all 5 levels can even have an own table in the Costa Rica stand for free at any international tourism fair the ICT participates.
The Costa Rican government introduced the STC scheme primarily to be able to implement sustainable measures in the travel sector and to show to the rest of the world that Costa Rica aims to be a frontrunner in this respect.
Criticism on Sustainability Certification Schemes
However some drawbacks of STC schemes have come to the fore. The main criticism makes four major arguments. The first problem area stems from the expense involved in implementing all possible measures to mitigate any negative effects from tourism. The bigger the hotel, the easier it will usually be to comply with the measures proposed by a STC, while small and medium-size hotel owners will find it particularly difficult to satisfy all requirements. This means that small-scale initiatives of the local population, whose participation in sustainable development is so important, simply cannot comply with all the standards set forth by a STC. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) states: “The same structural problems of high costs, complexity, and lack of flexibility to reflect local conditions apply with special force to smaller enterprises. Smaller and medium enterprises (SME) can’t afford expensive programs, need simpler designs, and require latitude to adjust to management and physical limitations. The respondents were unanimous in their view that SMEs need comprehensive support if they are not to be disadvantaged by certification programs.”
In this respect a STC may turn out to be self-defeating: instead of a friend it turns into a foe of the locals. Are local tourism initiatives really so harmful? No, but the requirements for a STC are complex and their implementation is expensive. For most STC processes, an enterprise has to nominate a person within their organization to handle all sustainability issues, in itself an expensive measure. This person has to receive training at a specialized centre, usually located in a big city. Small local initiatives simply cannot afford these kinds of expenses. Then there is the problem of recycling. In rural areas there are few recycling options and often there are none at all other than the rubbish dump just outside the village. Recycling is a very important practice and any STC will insist on it, but smaller rural tourism initiatives usually have little chance of putting this into practice. There are many more types of obstacles that prevent rural initiatives from participating in STC programmes.
The second problem area that can be encountered involves tourism entities that do not have a STC. This in no way means that a hotel, for example, is not sustainable in practice, while a hotel with a STC is not necessarily fully sustainable as far as construction and operation is concerned. STC are usually awarded with different rating levels (on a scale of 1 to 5 green leaves, frogs or other icon). Receiving a STC at the lowest level allows a hotel to say it has a STC, but it is clear that there is still a lot to be desired to achieve truly sustainable management. Hotels that do not have a STC may be very sustainable in practice, but for political, economic or idealistic reasons they do not want to pursue certification, a process that is quite bureaucratic and possibly “paternalistic”. Another reason may be that a hotel is established on a rented property or on government property (coastal areas, for example), which impedes a STC rating due to the lack of property ownership (bureaucracy!).
Obviously examples of sustainable tourism infrastructures without certification also refers to those areas lacking certification systems. For those competing in international markets it is often seen as a handicap when no direct certification opportunities are at hand. However, this situation may change in the future, especially on the basis of more intensive international cooperation in the field of certifications .
The third problem area refers to the standards or benchmarks used, since without them it is hard to measure the state of affairs or progress made.
The issue on standarization may be lurred into the North-South debate: the characterization of the North as the self-interested, profit-oriented private sector, while the South is pictured as environmentally conscious and concerned, dominated by civil society. There are many critics who are worried that transnational corporations from developed countries will set the agendas of certification programmes and that this may entail a bias toward Northern interests rather than concerns for Southern needs. Especially this last point shows us how complicated the matter is: nowadays short term (and often short sighted) business interests can be found anywhere, regardless which half of the globe the stakeholder is coming from. Each road to sustainable development on either the Asian, African or American continents is different and therefore should be reflected when trying to measure any progress made in this respect. A possible solution would be mutual or unilateral recognition of national certification schemes by international organizations.
The fourth weakness of the STC system is that the most important actor in tourism is not consulted: the tourist. In applying sustainable principles the tourist must be incorporated at all levels. One role a tourist plays is that of polluter, a second role is that of mitigator of his harmful effects, the third one is that of selector (tour operator, destination, infrastructure or transport) and the fourth is that of idealist or active supporter of sustainability principles. In order to incorporate tourists into sustainable certification systems, they should be given a chance to test all experiences against sustainability issues and voice their opinions – a practice that has hardly been adopted so far. Little has been done to inform tourists about the existence of certification programmes, their content and importance. Applied to sustainable tourism, the Mohonk Agreement states that “the development of a certification scheme should be a participatory, multistakeholder, and multisectoral process”. Tourists should be considered as the most important stakeholders and should participate, therefore.
Effects of Sustainability Certification Programmes
Apart from the underlying reasoning, there is the point of the effects of carrying out a STC programme as well as the influences its final results can have.
STC as control mechanism for tourists and tour operators
STC as motivator
STC as marketing tool
Travel organizations are under pressure nowadays. First of all there is the need for sustainable management and product development and then there is the issue of social responsibilities. In many countries legal requirements have been set in these fields and in general there has been a growing awareness propelled by the press and the Internet.
So far these pressures refer mostly to environmental issues and consequently they are transferred to tourist destinations and their tourism infrastructure. Therefore this pressure put on tour operators is often delegated to the tourism infrastructure at the destination whereby tour operators put pressure on local agents at a destination to push local tourism infrastructure to be as sustainable as possible. The first answers to these pressures have been the establishment of Sustainable Tourism Certificates. The most obvious way a tour operator knows if lodging or attractions are sustainably managed is by whether or not they possess a STC. The same holds true for tourists: those who care about the influences and footprints they may leave behind will be interested to know how sustainable tourism infrastructure is at a given destination.
An additional problem is that the certification process appears to tell tourism companies what to do, while it is not always stated clearly what companies are supposed to achieve. Doing the right thing may lead to certification, but we all know that what matters are the results in terms of sustainable development.
The second effect mentioned here concerns the effects of the STC programmes themselves. Implementing a STC is a fairly long affair that should involve all staff of a given tourism enterprise. The different levels STC programmes manage should be turned into company goals for their personnel to reach. The whole certification process should have a motivating effect and create awareness among all those working at a destination, in itself one of the requirements for sound sustainable development.
The ecological pillar of sustainable development requires that international eco-accreditation bodies help local communities broaden the emphasis of “local” environmental and health-related problems and embrace a more thoroughgoing account of wider environmental problems, which do not always coincide with the local ones.
The third effect concerns the tourism destinations’ use of STC as a sales and marketing tool. Showing publicly how sustainable their management levels are and how they care for the environment may form part of the overall image a destination as a whole or parts of it (hotels, attractions) want to create. We shall explain this issue below.
STC as Marketing Tool
So far the implementation of STC at grassroots levels is clear cut, as well as its importance for anysustainable development. The question arises however as to whether STCs are good marketing tools or not. Any emphasis on good sustainable practices may sound like something positive, but first indications show that this is not necessarily the case. Let us see how the various relations between STCs and stakeholders work.
Tourists are the main stakeholders in the tourism process and therefore should be listened to. One of the problems arising from the confrontation of tourists with STCs is that tourists first of all want to enjoy themselves during their holidays and in this sense “doing eco” does not necessarily reflect this. Hotels with an eco-label may smack of boredom and seriousness, while tourists are looking more for fun hotels – especially in the case of travelling with children. A “serious” hotel manages a long list of things that are not permitted (noise, bright clothing, smoking, use of plastic water bottles, etc.) and obligations such as separating litter for recycling, taking home used batteries or reduced use of water. It seems that the greater part of tourists prefer no hassle during their holidays, since that is exactly they try to escape from.
Another point is that of pricing. A three star hotel may decide to try to get the maximum level of a STC. This means that the hotel has to cover a number of extra expenses, which may be earned back in the long run (as is the case with solar energy, for example), but any hotel owner would like to see early returns on extra investments and is tempted therefore to increase prices. Although this hotel may have gained high scores in the STC process, it still remains a three star hotel and the question is to what extent tourists are prepared to pay more for something that is not quite tangible at first sight. Any establishment with a STC may suffer from the image conveyed by the certifications that suggests higher rates, and many tourists may reconsider their use. Remember that at a given hotel water may be solar heated, but for a tourist all hot water feels the same regardless of the way it is heated. In general, most sustainable management measures taken by a company are mostly invisible to the public. We have to keep in mind that wrongly or poorly done sustainable management will be evident, but when done correctly any outcomes are difficult to observe.
In marketing terms this means that a STC is often regarded by the public as an “extra” with additional costs, in spite of the fact that this was never the intention of any of the other stakeholders involved. Most tourists still do not know what a STC is, and many people within the tourism branch think, that implementing STC programmes without educating tourists first sounds like putting the cart before the horse.
The obvious question arises, whether the STC process was introduced for tourists or as support forsustainable development. Many hotel owners seem to think of STC in terms of having a direct impact on sales. Luuc van Wezel, owner of the hotel Villas Gaia in Costa Rica with a third level STC rating (3 green leaves) and vice-president of the local Chamber of Tourism CATUOSA: “I am not thinking of going for the 4th STC level: I haven’t seen any results from the STC so far.”
Again it is important to realize that most tourists do not ask for a STC and from a marketing point of view there is no clear demand. As Ron Mader – founder of planeta.com – puts it: If we address solely the marketing value of certified tourism services and products, then the evidence shows that value is minimal as long as the STC is not market-driven.
A similar point of view was heard from Justin Francis, managing director of the UK-based Responsibletravel.com, who commented recently at a LinkedIn groups discussion: “…….the debate has highlighted that ethics alone will not get you much business – as many people who’ve had their businesses accredited have found out as they wait for the sales to come in……People buy experiences, engaging stories about destinations, activites, local community and their hosts – but not a label. Use certification to improve your standards – but not as a marketing tool.”
Another issue tour operators struggle with is the fact that some destinations are actively involved in sustainability certification processes (as in the case of Costa Rica), while others are not. When one destination or hotel is publicized as having highly sustainable management and another hotel does not, how can it be explained to the public that the latter hotel may be sustainable, but this cannot be shown because of the absence of certification mechanisms in that area? Any travel organisation likes to present its catalogue with destinations with the same characteristics and standards, but in the case of STC, that is still not possible. Hence most travel organisations are still not openly publishing where a STC applies.
We mentioned a series of problem areas concerning STC marketing effects on tourists: STC results are not very tangible or visible, they may mean higher prices to the public, they have a ring of seriousness or some limitation to holiday fun. Additionally travel organisations struggle with the fact that some destinations may use a STC while others do not, which puts travel organisations in the uneasy position of using them as marketing tools. The problems mentioned here are clear and some of the marketing problems encountered may be solved with time.
Not all is that negative. So far we have talked about tourists in general, but obviously the market shows a number of subdivisions. Among others we can mention that there are growing numbers of tourists showing higher levels of environmental awareness and an interest in sustainability issues, which in turn has opened up opportunities for niche markets. To mention a few, there is eco-tourism, community based tourism, rural tourism, new-age tourism, agricultural tourism, and so forth. What they have in common is that those tourists that are interested in these market segments are supposed to have an interest in sustainability matters, too.
Marketing of STC in specific niche markets seems to be a positive effort from all points of view, because of the tourists’ involvement in sustainability matters. However, these niche markets are still small, although no concrete figures are available. Under postmodern tendencies, as pointed out further on, individualism in tourism is growing and with it the niche markets.
Sustainability and tourism marketing
Apart from niche markets there is another tendency that has to be taken into account. Times are changing and from the 1970s on, new rumblings are being heard that coincide with accelerated globalisation movements leading to what is now known as post-modernism. It has been most noticeable among Western societies and among others it has led to what is called cultural pluralism, which in essence means that people have started to lose their own feelings of belonging to a place by embracing many expressions of different cultures in one way or another. Nationality, ethnicity, gender or class are no longer cornerstones people can build their identity on. This in turn has resulted in an egocentric preoccupation with the self, with consumerist behaviour as important example.
Growing individualism has led to an increase in individual travel rather than mass group tourism. It may not be a surprise therefore to note an increasing interest among tourists in holiday experiences that are exclusive and authentic, since post-modern tendencies have prompted a search for historical roots, idealistic authenticity, longer lasting values or eternal truths, often drawing explicitly upon the spiritual traditions of the East. It is within this framework of increasing ecological and socio-cultural awareness that sustainable development and its certification processes are starting to receive a much wider audience.
These gradual changes taking place among Western societies and increasingly in South America and Asia favour individualism in tourism and moreover the search for authenticity. Rather than looking for the (often intangible) sustainability traits of a tourism destination, tourists tend to mix the idea of sustainability with their own concepts: things that are real, typical and authentic. This phenomenon is related to what is known as post-modern nostalgia. The ring of boredom which was mentioned earlier refers to genuine phenomena that have to be respected: in the opinion of many tourists this implies, among others, locally grown food, served by local people in a local setting. In their quest to live true experiences and to find something of themselves during their holiday, many tourists look for an authenticity that they believe may be found with anything labeled sustainable. Basically this is a delusion, but for marketing purposes travel organisations or hotel owners for example may leave tourists with this impression. The point is an interesting one when viewed from the STC standpoint. Does a STC mean a tourism enterprise is authentic or has something authentic about it? Since in part we are dealing withsymbol related authenticity (“engaging stories”) and depends on whether or not a tourist has a personal authentic experience, this may be answered affirmatively – with certain restrictions, especially in those cases that a tourism entity was only granted a partial certificate – one or two levels only for example.
When we look again at some of the problem areas concerning STC and marketing campaigns, we can see that a large part of the problem lies in the understanding of sustainability and not so much in its certification programmes. Sustainability measures have been introduced necessarily, but without involving the most important stakeholder in tourism – the tourist. Not only this is a handicap when implementing sustainability measures, it also means there is a generalized lack of support from the public. It is unsurprising therefore that sustainable tourism certifications have received little support from tourists in general and consequently have had little impact in advertising campaigns. As outlined above, the mentioning of a STC may even have a negative influence on sales for the establishment concerned
What we have to keep in mind is, that so often marketing refers to commodification, while neither sustainablity nor STC are commodities, although the latter is under pressure to be converted into one. Increasingly the accreditation process is lurred into a commercial field of giving and taking, which may explain the vast number of accrediting agents that exists nowadays and also the development of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council as counterbalance. Additionally, there is a widespread agreement that the proliferation of ecolabelling schemes in tourism has generated many different attempts which, in turn, has created confusion on the part of tourists; this fragmentation can make it difficult for any programme to function effectively .
In post-modern times tourists do know the kind of experience they are looking for and how real and authentic these experiences are supposed to be. When a tourist thinks that a STC means that he will get locally grown food served by local people with some authentic local music in the background, he will buy sustainability-certified holiday arrangements. When talking about marketing, every entity active in tourism individually can adapt their publicity to these aspects that suggest authenticity, while sustainability management is kept back and mentioned in the small print or at “the back of the pack”. The lack of proper information about sustainability in general to tourists can be partly absorbed in the short term by consciously mixing the concepts of sustainability and authenticity.
Another point to mention is the case of STC being used by a national tourism board as part of a international advertising campaign. The image a country such as Costa Rica emanates of caring for the planet – “No Artificial Ingredients” – can serve as a platform for the use of STC in their campaigns without running into the forementioned specific problem areas, while the mutual recognition of national certification schemes by international ones may further enhance a growing understanding of sustainable development in general.
Senior Consultant Tourism and Sustaianbility