How green is my travel?

By Natalia Thomson

An environmentally conscious client wants to book a room in a 600-room "eco-golf" resort in the middle of a rain forest. It makes claims about being a "green," Earth-friendly resort, but is it really?

Since consumer awareness about climate change spiked about four years ago, questions about eco-standards have nagged the industry. Is a resort taking meaningful steps toward sustainability practices, or is it simply "greenwashing," perhaps declaring itself environmentally sensitive because it has installed energy-saving light bulbs?

Media tycoon Ted Turner had hoped, through his United Nations Foundation, to establish universal standards and criteria for sustainability in tourism. To that end, he created a coalition called the Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism Criteria and enticed an impressive group of industry enterprises and organizations to join, including Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, Expedia, Sabre, ASTA and the International Hotel and Restaurant Association.

But two years later, final standards have yet to be released, and for the moment, consumers and agents have to sort through the claims of dozens of companies that will inspect and bless a company as "green" with varying levels of criteria and credibility.

And to add to the confusion, the terms ecotourism, responsible tourism, green tourism, low-impact tourism, pro-poor tourism and sustainable tourism are tossed about without common agreement about what each term really means. (See chart at bottom of page.)

Nonetheless, a growing number of baby boomers, Gen-Xers and millennials continue to seek authentic green experiences in their search for deeper meaning in their vacations.

The first question most agents, hoteliers, tour operators, cruise line executives, destination marketers and car rental agencies want answered is: To what extent does environmental awareness drive bookings?

Travel Weekly Green TravelSome suppliers suggest that consumers of sustainable tourism, particularly those in nature-based and adventure tourism, might be willing to pay a premium to book those who protect environmentally sensitive areas. However, there is also evidence that environmental priorities might have changed somewhat during the economic downturn of the last two years.

David Krantz, Washington coordinator for the Center for Responsible Travel, said that although U.S. travelers tend to see sustainability as one of many factors in planning a vacation, only a small number place it at the very top of their list of priorities.

"Price, safety and convenience tend to come first," Krantz said.

Christine Larson Krushnan, owner of Costa Rica-based Desafio Adventure Co., a winner of the Responsible Tourism Awards, organized by ResponsibleTravel.com, said consumers were looking for value.

"I would like to believe our clients choose us because of our sustainability policies," she said. "But in reality, they first check if we have good client recommendations and fair prices, and then perhaps they'll check if we are green."

Krushnan added: "I don't think there is true demand for sustainable tourism products yet, compared with the demand for affordable tours and accommodation."

In her experience, she said, consumers will often choose a hotel chain because they recognize the brand instead of seeking a locally owned, independent hotel.

"There is still huge demand for the all-inclusive-style vacation," she said. "We have been in the business for over 18 years and recently have seen an increase in client requests for all-inclusive resorts. It is a struggle to convince clients otherwise, especially in a difficult economy when larger resorts are able to drop prices and offer special deals at unbeatable prices because of their economy of scale."

And increasingly, all-inclusives are touting their sustainability practices. Sandals Resorts International, for example, points to its certification by Green Globe, which bases its standards on an environmental travel and tourism agenda endorsed by 182 nations that attended the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Sandals CEO Adam Stewart was interviewed onstage to talk about the company's green activities on World Responsibility Day at the World Travel Market this past November.

Travelquest's director of operations, Stephanie Lee, said she believes green momentum took a back seat when the economic situation worsened.

"There was a disconnect, with travelers thinking that having a green vacation would be more expensive than other vacations," Lee said. "They did not realize they could have an environmentally sustainable and value-for-money vacation."

Billy Connelly, a spokesman for Gap Adventures, said many suppliers are finding savings through sustainable management and might increasingly be able to pass on these savings to consumers.

"It is possible to deliver sustainability and value without raising the prices," Connelly said. "Over the long term, responsibility and efficiency can be very cost-effective paths, but there has to be commitment at the top and through every level in a company."

Different shades of green
Krantz said that as more citizens incorporate green practices into their daily lives, the demand for environmentally safe travel will grow because, as consumers, they refuse to leave their responsible home practices behind when on vacation.

Besides, he said, there are different shades of green with respect to the environmentally sensitive traveler.

"On the one hand," he said, "you could have the business traveler who reuses his towel, and on the other, the traveler who checks under the hood for the nitty-gritty."

There are also different shades of greenwashing, according to Erica Harms, executive director of the Tourism Sustainability Council. The most benign is simply a result of lack of knowledge, she said.

"Sustainability is a complex issue, and people confuse the terms," Harms said. "I once stayed at a hotel that was marketing itself as an ecotourism resort when it in fact was actually a nature-based, 600-room property. While the hotel was very environmentally sustainable, ecotourism properties are generally much smaller. It was complete ignorance that led to the promotion."

Of more serious concern, Harms said, are suppliers that apply for environmental certification but fail to follow up once they have earned it.

Krantz provided an example: "Too often, a hotel's housekeepers aren't effectively trained on the towel-exchange policy and believe that they're risking their tip if they don't change the towels."

To prevent marketers from making false or misleading claims, the Federal Trade Commission created "Green Guides" in 1992 for the use of environmental marketing terms. Based on the way the agency presumes consumers are likely to interpret environmental labels, the guides provide examples of how they should be used in marketing.

In October, the FTC proposed revisions to the guides designed to make them easier for companies to understand and use.

The changes to the "Green Guides" included new guidance on marketers' use of product certifications and seals of approval and "renewable energy," "renewable materials" and "carbon offset" claims.

"In recent years, businesses have increasingly used 'green' marketing to capture consumers' attention and move Americans toward a more environmentally friendly future," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things."

The guides caution marketers not to make blanket, general claims that a product is "environmentally friendly" or "ecofriendly." They also provide advice about carbon offset claims and "carbon neutral" claims.

Emily Harley of International Expeditions said that marketing sustainable tourism initiatives was not something the operator did when it was founded 31 years ago with a goal of offering "engaging and authentic tour experiences."

"When we launched International Expeditions, we did not comment on our actions in any kind of advertising, thinking people would be suspicious of our motives about our work," she said. "International Expeditions was formed with the view that it was a conservation/education company that could fund environmental projects through tourism. We felt that if we always conducted our tours the right way, we could help save parts of the Amazon rain forest or tigers in India, as examples, while giving an economic benefit to the local people, who were even more important than we were in protecting their own environment."

Harley said that despite the economic crisis, International Expeditions has stepped up the building of water treatment plants in Amazon rain forest villages, among other initiatives. "This is not part of our advertising, and no one would ever know unless it is by word of mouth," she said.

What to look for

Click on the image for a larger view of what to look for in responsible tour operator policies.Africa-based operator Wilderness Safaris says the biggest area of neglect in terms of sustainability is the lack of follow-through upward through the supply chain. (Click on the image at right for a larger view of what to look for in responsible tour operator policies.)

"For example, very little effort is put into exerting pressure on suppliers to follow sustainability guidelines," said Chris Roche, the company's manager of sustainability.

Krantz observed that the tourism value chain is very complex and long, and in many cases, the average tourist would not be aware of environmentally unsustainable practices that have the most negative impact, such as practices employed during a building's construction phase.

"A tourist would not necessarily know that a wetland had been drained prior to the construction of a hotel or lodge, but this would by far have had the most impact on the environment," he said.

Despite an overabundance of certifying organizations, Krantz suggested that travelers look for some third-party indication of environmental claims.

"If a supplier has had an opportunity to get environmental certification and did not participate, the tourist should draw the line," he said. "Tourists should also check if the supplier has a stated environmental policy. This, however, doesn't mean it is being followed or is necessarily robust."

Connelly suggested that consumers look beyond the product and marketing materials and learn as much as possible about what the supplier or destination is doing and what it has done historically, so they can determine how the company's values align with their own.

"The nonnegotiable criteria relate to how a company 'walks the talk,'" Connelly said. "Consumers understand that it is not only what a company says about its social and environmental responsibility but also what the company does. They verify through a variety of resources, from friends and colleagues to news and reviews, to formal recognition and available public feedback."

Other telltale signs can be obvious: for instance, the sale of wildlife merchandise from an endangered species or the presence of a golf course in dry or tropical areas. "Tropical regions are the most biodiverse on our planet, so if there's a golf course in the tropics, it's likely this biodiversity was replaced," Connelly said.

Andrea Nicholas, a leading practitioner in sustainable tourism certification and co-founder of the Green Tourism Business Scheme, cited several "eco-fibs" of which she said suppliers are occasionally guilty. Among these are: claiming low-energy use just because the property uses low-voltage light bulbs; using recyclable as opposed to recycled goods; and claiming to minimize waste while offering guests packaged items such as bottled water and single-portion packages of cereal.

Wilderness Safaris' Roche highlighted four areas that he said need to be considered when evaluating the sustainability of a supplier: operational sustainability, biodiversity conservation, community engagement and cultural appropriateness. He suggested that environmentally conscious consumers should ask several questions: How energy- and water-hungry are the facilities? What is the source of the water supply? What about recycling?

Consumers, Roche said, should also check if a particular company makes any contribution to local conservation of biodiversity and whether it has genuine engagement with the local community through joint-venture business, revenue sharing or community-centric employment.

Finally, he said, are the properties designed in a way that is sympathetic to the environment and cognizant of the local culture and architecture? Do the properties' activities promote exposure to local culture and tradition?

Harley also suggested looking for certification that supports a travel company's commitment to sustainability.

"We use a company, Travelife, that reviews the sustainability efforts of hotels and lodges we use and offers them a range of help, advice and tools to aid in all missions to be more environmentally sensitive," Harley said.

Connelly advised that consumers can find examples of excellent sustainable tours by visiting a variety of websites, such as TourismForTomorrow.com, which has been vetting sustainable tourism through a system of global review for nearly 10 years, or by looking for Responsible Travel awards that recognize smaller, locally based products.

Ideas from SNV report "The Market for Responsible Tourism Products," 2010

Defining 'responsible tourism'  

  • Community-based tourism: Where businesses are owned and operated by local residents.
  • Ecotourism: Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.
  • Pro-poor tourism: Tourism that results in increased net benefit for poor people.
  • Responsible tourism: Tourism that maximizes benefits to local communities, minimizes negative social or environmental impact and helps local people conserve fragile cultures, habitats or species.
  • Sustainable tourism: Tourism that meets the needs of tourist and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future.
  • Volunteer (also known as voluntourism) and educational tourism: Holidays that incorporate unpaid volunteer and not-for-credit learning activities in the host community as part of the vacation experience.
  • Adventure tourism: A form of nature-based tourism that incorporates an element of risk, higher levels of physical exertion and often the need for specialized skill.
  • Nature-based tourism: Any form of tourism that relies primarily on the natural environment for its attractions or settings.

Responsible community tourism should:  

  1. Be operated with the involvement and consent of local communities.
  2. Give a fair share of profits back to the local community.
  3. Involve communities rather than individuals, because working with individuals can disrupt social structures.
  4. Be environmentally sustainable. Local people must be involved if conservation projects are to succeed.
  5. Respect traditional culture and social structures.
  6. Have mechanisms to help communities cope with the impact of Western tourists.
  7. Keep groups small to minimize cultural and environmental impact.
  8. Brief tourists before the trip on appropriate behavior.
  9. Not pressure local people to perform inappropriate ceremonies.
  10. Leave communities alone if they don't want tourism.

Eco-credential questions  

  • Does the tour operator or supplier employ local residents and pay a fair wage?
  • Does the tour operator or supplier support local, community-based tourism initiatives?
  • Does the tour operator or supplier practice "leave no trace" principles when in remote areas?
  • Is the tour operator or supplier registered with any membership organization that requires responsible operations?
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