Labels and certificates convey little; they lack meaning for travellers and holidaymakers
The travel and tourism sector has generated a plethora of labels, all intended to convey that this form of tourism, this business or destination, is superior to its competitors. New ones are coined, it seems almost monthly, most recently regenerative tourism, “net positive”, and there are groups of businesses, individuals and destinations coming together to declare a climate emergency.
There is a confusing array of labels and claims, some nobly aspirational declaring a commitment to align their plans with the need to cut global emissions in half by 2030. 135 destinations and businesses are currently committed to reducing the carbon emissions from their business by 50% in 9 years. That is ambitious and backed by plans this year to create three Climate Action Blueprints – for Tour Operators, Accommodation Providers and Destinations so that anyone in travel and tourism can deliver a Climate Action Plan.
One hopes that they will be successful.
If each business and destination has measured the carbon impact of their current activities and can identify ways to reduce those emissions by 50% over the next nine years, they can deliver on the commitment. However, for most, that will be very, very difficult. Our sector is so often dependent on transport, infrastructure, food chains and accommodation which we do not manage.
At the other end of the spectrum is the greenwashing so rife in our sector. Back in the early 1990s, ecotourism was being used extensively in marketing. It immediately suggested a better product, offering a better experience. A quick search on Google finds 9,350,000 hits. It is a seductive idea and attractive to academics, too. Google Scholar finds 291,000 references.
In 1994, Baroness Chalker, then Minister of State for Overseas Development & Africa in the British government, was healthily sceptical. We won a three-year grant at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology to look for ecotourism on the ground in three national parks in India, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe. At the national park level, we failed to find it. Our research reports are published and available online – look for ‘Tourism, Conservation and Sustainable Development’ on Google. Research conduct by the World Tourism Organization around the millennium found the value of ecotourism, in practice, to be in niche marketing,
Ecotourists use the same planes, jeeps, accommodation as the mainstream tourists, consuming the same food and beverage. They may be less likely to buy wildlife-based souvenirs and have a more expert guide, but they are just as likely to join the pack of jeeps crowding a lion or tiger with the same negative impacts on hunting, eating and breeding. The ecotourist pays the same merit priced entrance fee, rarely, if ever, contributing anything to the maintenance of the national park, its habitat or wildlife. Our research revealed that the national government often subsidised the cost of the tourist or ecotourist visit.
The ecotourism slogan “Leave only footprints, take only photographs” is revealing. It is silent about making any contribution either to the costs of conserving land for wildlife or the opportunity costs to the local communities of their exclusion and, in many cases, forced removal from their ancestral lands. They were relocated so that the tourism industry could use their land for consumptive hunting and photo-safaris. Our industry, and our clients, don’t pay enough for the experiences that motivate them to travel.
This is just one example of the divergence between the promise in the feel-good label used in marketing the experience, service or product and the reality of the social, economic and environmental impacts in the destination. Travellers and holidaymakers are becoming more sophisticated consumers, learning to look beyond the greenwashing.
Responsible Tourism was not designed to be a consumer-facing label, although it has been very successful for Responsible Travel.
Neither does certification deliver transparency or accountability.
Storage in reservoirs supplying water to 3.7 million people in the Cape Town metropolitan area dropped to about 20% of capacity in May 2018. Potential visors were considering whether or not to go to Cape Town that year, in the middle of a water crisis, visitors did not want to add to the problem. I encouraged people to go; tourism employs over 150,000 people in the city, many of them from the townships. The next question was obvious, where should I stay, which hotels were most successfully reducing water consumption. It was, and is, not possible to find the answer. Nor does certification tell the traveller anything about employment practices, carbon emissions or local sourcing.
The certificates communicate little more than the labels. The certificates are opaque, and they are confusing. How is a purchaser to understand the GST-Member; GSTC-Approved; GSTC Accredited? The issues vary from place to place; conserving water is not important everywhere. The labels are process-driven, telling us little about how much they achieve. Rahman, Park & Chi of Washington State University have published a paper in the Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management on the Consequences of ‘Greenwashing:’ Consumers’ Reactions to Hotels’ Green Initiatives, concluding that “hotels need to be watchful so that consumers do not become sceptical. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that managers do everything possible to give customers no room for doubt.”
“Each time a traveller or holidaymaker checks into a certified hotel and goes to the room to find the thermostat set at 15C, all the lights and the TV on, and a bit of card stuck in the key card light switch, more damage is done to certification. When you turn the thermostat up or off, switch off all the lights and the TV, and put the towels back on the rail as you leave in the morning only to find, on returning to your room, the aircon back on, a freezing room with lights blazing and fresh towels, consumer confidence in certification is undermined.”
The consumer has no effective redress, the hotel does not award itself the certificate and makes no particular sustainability claim. The consumer has no contractual relationship with the certification agency. The consumer has been miss-sold but has no redress.
As Justin Francis has pointed out: “When you buy organic certified food you know no pesticides have been used. When you buy Fair Trade coffee you know the farmer has been paid a little extra. When you book a sustainable tourism-certified hotel under existing schemes, you don’t know whether they use a ‘reasonable’ or ‘sustainable’ amount of water or energy; in fact figures are rarely even made available.”
We need certification plus to facilitate consumer choice.
Accommodation and transport providers and tour operators need to publish their operational performance, and the certifiers can audit that performance and sign off on the evidence, thereby taking real responsibility for their certificates. Metered electricity consumption would quickly reveal the real performance of the hotel – and whether or not the room key light switches were being overridden. We need to know what the business has achieved that makes them worthy of the certification, and we need to know how they compare with others. Then when travelling to a water-scarce region, I could choose to stay in one of the hotels with the lowest water consumption per bed night or the one with the best employment conditions. Then certification would carry real meaning. More
Because the business would be declaring what it was doing, if it was misselling, compensation could be sought.
There are examples of Responsible Tourism businesses and destinations, which carry various marketing labels, and no label or certificate is a barrier to being recognised on the Platform for Change. No business or destination can effectively take responsibility for everything. Local issues which can tourism can address have to be identified, action taken and the results reported.
When we judge the WTM Responsible Tourism Awards, we focus on the specifics of what the business or destination is doing to take responsibility and the evidence that they are able to present. We award for the reasons we give in the citation. A quick Google search for Responsible Tourism returns 324,000,000 hits. It is important that we distinguish those who are walking the talk from those that are greenwashing.
This platform seeks to present as many proven solutions as possible. This is a Platform for Change designed to encourage replication. We want to showcase solutions that businesses and destinations have developed and proven and which can be replicated and adapted in order that collectively we can accelerate change.
A credible, proven solution will have the following characteristics:
- A clearly defined problem or opportunity to make tourism better for host communities and their natural and cultural environment.
- A tried and tested solution that
- is presented in enough detail that it can be adapted and replicated.
- It is proven by transparency about the extent of the responsibility taken and the sharing of demonstrable evidence of the initiative’s impact.
The traveller or holidaymaker should be able to experience the difference and hold the business to account if the accommodation, transport, tour or attraction has been missold.