In the recent decades of globalization the tourism industry has been quickly expanding, meaning many roles are growing in importance, not only for tourists, but also workers in tourism facilities as well as civil planners, managers, tour wholesalers and operators, and local host communities. As the industry increases in size and scale, so too do the impacts of tourism–both the negative and the potential for positive.
In 2005, tourism’s estimated contribution to emissions was approximately 5%. According to Dr. Murray Simpson, a Senior Research Associate at Oxford’s University Centre for the Environment and scientific coordinator of the seminar, “Measured as warming effect these emissions could represent up to [14%] of global warming effect.” Last year, the number of international travelers was up to a registered 898 million arrivals, and that number is continuing to grow. (Source)
So what does all this mean for you as the tourist? Well, as anything in life, your choices have consequences. By making wise choices as a consumer of tourism facilities/services, you can help sustainability continue to increase as a defining principle of the tourism market.
Sustainable tourism is also referred to as ecotourism, a term often thrown around with vague definition. Let me start by narrowing down the definition to its proper context. For a detailed explanation of the term, see TheGreenRocket.com’s article on defining ecotourism. Basically, there are three main principles of ecotourism:
- practice sustainability (either conserving or improving existing conditions)
- provide visitors with an interpretative educational experience (stimulating their ecological conscience) and,
- involve the local community (generating personal, material and social benefits).
Some common mis-classifications of ecotourism include wild “nature” adventures that have negative impacts on the environment, participating in an excursion from a resort or cruise ships, or other experiences with nature that do nothing for the surrounding environment, community or the visitor’s own appreciation for the natural setting.
At the moment, the tourism industry has already seen a shift to a “greener” paradigm. More accommodation facilities are using energy efficiency, tour operators and wholesalers are more aware of the impact of their excursions, and management strategies are becoming more conservation oriented. However, there is still a lack of widespread international standards on “eco-friendly” services. As a result, many operators of hotels and tours have made minimal-to-no efforts and are still able to call themselves “green”. For more information on why these standards pose a challenge to consumer decision making, as well as the three resources also mentioned below, see “Article Name” on NeutralExistence.com.
Some things to keep in mind when seeing a company boast a green certification is to check whether it is certified by governmental approved United Nations associated organization, or certification programs that are internationally reputable. This is because some of the international “green” certifications merely require a self-checklist and a membership fee–so anyone could really say they’re “certified green” without real verification.
An easy way to tell is to visit the link to the certification that the site is associated with and check out their process and requirements. An example to go by is Green Globe, an internationally recognized certifier that requires bi-annual onsite assessments (and more frequent ones for companies in areas with particularly vulnerable ecosystems), meaning that for a company to achieve the silver “certified member” status they must actually be assessed on their sustainability strategies and whether they meet international standards.
Another example of a sort of certification program is an alliance of different ecotourism operators with strict membership policies. The International Association of Antartica Tour Operators is a great example of this, with different levels of memberships and strict policy guidelines on each, requiring reports and assessments for members. As the Polar Biome is one of the more delicate ecological regions, regulated tour operations such as the members of this site are particularly important.
Alternatively, there are websites or organizations that list responsible businesses. Like the certification process, if you use one of these resources ensure you look into the site’s background: do they editorially select these businesses or does it seem more of a pay-to-list-your-business-here system with no verification of sustainable practices? You can usually tell by whom the site listing the operators associates itself with and how it presents itself. Is it profit oriented or an organization? Does it provide information about how it chooses its operators to list?
The Rainforest Alliance’s Eco-Index of Sustainable Tourism is definitely worth checking out for as an example of a great resource for listing ecotourism businesses. The site lists companies in Latin America and the Caribbean which have been deemed environmentally and socially friendly by reputable environmental organizations and/or ecotourism certification programs. The Rainforest Alliance is also featured on The International Ecotourism Society’s list of reputable internet resources for this purpose.
You can also assess a company yourself if you are willing to go to the effort to look into its policies. Tiger Trail in Laos is one example of a company that is clearly and openly involved in sustainable practices and giving back to or/and involving the community.
GSE Ecotours is another good example of a true ecotourism operator; not only do they also involve local communities but they provide full details on their sustainability policy that you as a consumer can hold them to when you are participating in their services.
There are also sites that are not so open about responsible practices in their initial presentation, but it is always worth contacting them if you are still interested, as they may offer more sustainable practices than you think. Ubud Alila Spa in Bali, for example, is a resort that practices extensive sustainability policies at all levels of operation, although they are not listed as such on the site. They do list a Green Globe certification, but for those not familiar with Green Globe’s policies, this may not mean much. Either way, if you ask them about their sustainability policy, however, you will be sent extensive and impressive details–everything from their own waste treatment, to community service/involvement, to energy efficiency. You can also find mentions of their green merit from major news companies and reputable tourism review in their news section, including being featured in a documentary about ecotourism in Asia.
If you don’t have the time or desire to pre-plan all elements of your trip, you can similarly ask questions to a tour operator or accommodation facility right in person. You may not necessarily need to speak with a manager or environmental director–an important indicator of responsible businesses is how much they involve staff members in up keeping environmental standards. After all, while it may be the management who track the waste or energy use, it is the staff as a part of the daily operation that generate and use it. Some questions you can pose to staff members are what some of their routine tasks are in reducing the company’s waste, or how and/or if they are trained in environmental awareness.
Of course, in some cases regular staff members may not feel comfortable or be permitted to speak about policies on behalf of the company, so you may need to speak with a higher-up after all. Some questions to ask management are:
- How they give back to the local community?
- What do they do to monitor their contribution to waste and manage it?
- What kind of energy efficiency they practice?
- How do they promote environmental awareness to their guests?
You’d be amazed at how even questions as simple as “Do you recycle?” may narrow down your selection process rapidly.
Also, look out for and take advantage of resources such as the United Nation’s newest environmental initiative, the “Green Passport”. It is an interactive website that provides many tips similar to the ones I’ve just outlined and can be a valuable resource to planning your next trip responsibly.
By putting forth just a little bit of effort and in some cases, a little more money, you can make a world of difference not only in confronting global challenges, but also in your own experience on the trip. Companies that are dedicated to the task of improving the environment and surrounding communities are going to be keen on up keeping a reputation and in turn will find it easy to be dedicated to their guests. Either way, you will be more likely to build a better appreciation for nature by giving back to it in your travels. (Promoting environmental awareness for guests to build a better appreciation of the environment is also one of the principles of ecotourism!) As the head of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) recently stated, the tourism industry will play a key role to come in confronting the challenges of climate change–so make your consumer decisions count!
Creative Commons Attribution: “Malasag Eco-Tourism Village, Cagayan de Oro“, Flickr, Bing Ramos