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Certification makes greens see red

Posted by at 02:15 on Wednesday 28 October 2009

How do you make a group of greenies see red? Ask them how they feel about certification. At The Travel Foundation's Forum meeting last week, entitled ‘Be seen to be green - Can certification work for you?’,  it felt very much as if, for most people working in the tourist industry, the answer was still clearly no, it can’t. Or at least, not yet. The good news for green travellers is, however, that we can make them work for us, just as long as we know which ones to look at, and how to find the businesses which have been awarded them. 


The Forum started on an inspiring note, led by Dr. Ruth Nussbaum, Director of Proforest and expert adviser to international forest management schemes on creating successful accreditation schemes. Her main tip to anyone wanting to create a green certification scheme for tourism was to work through each and every detail of a scheme with all the individuals who need and want to be involved, “even if this means going out to a remote rural area to talk to a farmer with a tiny piece of land, because he too must be meaningfully involved”. She continued, “There is a tendency to collect information from documents, but most frequently you only get the real information in the field. It may take years for you to reach a decision on what is the right certification for tourism, but it is worth the wait". 


It quickly became clear throughout the afternoon that Dr. Nussbaum’s advice was a thorny issue...


The tourism experts on the panel, including Chris Thompson of Travelife (a new certification scheme set up by the Federation of Tour Operators - see greentraveller's article on the launch of Travelife) and Justin Francis of responsibletravel.com, were adamant that tourism is different from other commodities such as trees, sugar, coffee or chocolate, as the supply chain is a lot more complex. It was claimed that certification schemes “cannot guarantee any tourism experience is sustainable…because the tourist is part of the impacts. If the tourist decides to get drunk and be offensive to local people or use masses of water for baths, this holiday is no longer sustainable”. Consumer feedback, it was suggested, helps provide information on whether a holiday is genuinely responsible. However, Tricia Barnett of Tourism Concernwas quick to take this last point to task saying, “A tourist cannot report back on the supply chain as it is often invisible. What can they know about water equity in a destination and local communities’ access to water?”


As a green traveller, I'd like to know that there have been experts out there in the field, looking at every green aspect of a business before deciding whether it is green or not. Certification can only help this process and, when writing about green tourism businesses in the past, I have found the resources of several international schemes to be of great use. When I visit an eco-accommodation to write about it, truly green owners will always talk happily about their geothermally heated pool, reed bed filtration system, food hampers from local farm shops, local cycling routes, or solar powered saunas. Then we can write about them, so that you don’t have to waste time on holiday interviewing the owner about how often they water their golf course. But then again, you will be pushed to find a golf course in a water-deprived destination on greentraveller. But I don’t claim to be a water waste expert either, so I am grateful for the people who have gone out there and done the technical ground work before me. 


So which certification schemes do we know and like at greentraveller? Well, I used EU Flower when researching my book, Ecoescape Ireland, a scheme which is recognised by Ireland’s National Tourism Development Authority, Failte Ireland, for tourist accommodation. I have visited the majority of businesses in Ireland which have been awarded the EU Flower, and have seen that the changes they are required to make in order to get the award are in no way tokenistic. The EU Flower is also gaining popularity in France. In the UK, the Green Tourism Business Scheme has hundreds of carefully audited businesses on its books, and Travelife's listings are also a good source of information on which mainstream hotels are starting to do their bit. Further afield, Nature's Best provides a useful guide to low impact holidays in Sweden, Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa is trailblazing certification in fair tourism, and the Certificate of Sustainable Tourism in Costa Rica has led the way in certifying green accommodation in Central America.


With about a hundred accommodation certification schemes worldwide alone, this area is a mine field. Each one wants to be better than the next, and sometimes it feels as if there is a bit of reinventing the wheel and not enough of them all coming together to really make one or two of them work. Surely this would save a lot of time and money, not to mention avoiding confusion for consumers and tourism providers who are being sold different certification schemes left, right and centre. 


The debate in this area will go on for years but,  in the meantime, people are still booking holidays and trying to do so with green principles. Few are going to wait for all the bureaucracy to fall into place, or for stakeholders to agree. So, in the meantime, greentraveller will try and make your job easier by highlighting the accessible ones and recommending businesses which are happy to show off their green flags and work they have put into achieving an accredited business.

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