OPINION: Has the Whole Ecotourism Industry Shot Itself in the Foot?

  • Len Cordiner
  • 25 January 2009

For the past 20 years work has been underway by governments, NGOs and some industry groups to get suppliers of travel product, especially accommodations and tours, certified as eco-friendly.

More recently the scope of certification has been broadened to include social and cultural issues as well – all part of a movement focusing on sustainability.

Whilst I applaud the intent, efforts and enthusiasm of all the experts involved, I can’t help but feel things haven’t gone so well. It seems to me that key beneficiaries of the message – you! the travellers! – have been left out. As a result, many suppliers are not so sure that the cost of certification will be rewarded by increased patronage.

The result today is a proliferation of certification schemes around the world all trying to push their message down to travel product providers, but none of them having gained any real traction as far as I can see.

In fact in the developing world, where whl.travel is active, it is rare to find an accommodation provider with any form of certification and even rarer to find a traveller using certification as a selection criteria for where they shop.

In my view, not only has certification not had the desired impact, but also the marketing message for the whole sustainable tourism movement needs rethinking.

I recall reading about a survey TUI Travel (Europe’s biggest travel firm) conducted a couple of years ago in which they asked travellers in Europe about green vacations soon to be on offer. The response was actually quite negative. Those surveyed equated a green vacation with doing it tough – hard beds and tasteless food. Green or sustainable holidays were perceived as something only tree huggers would do, not at all fun or enjoyable.

Recently I was moderating a workshop at National Geographic headquarters in Washington with a group of sustainable tourism practitioners, and we were cautioned by a representative of one of the major global airlines to ensure we focused on changing the message to the travelling public. Her view of the message was very much in line with the one reflected in the TUI Travel survey.

Changing the above will require fresh thinking.

First and foremost it will require engaging travellers with a coherent and inviting new vision of what ‘eco’ (now perhaps better known as responsible or sustainable or even slow) tourism is really about.

This done, travellers will need to be engaged in driving change throughout the supply chain by giving feedback to other travellers, much in the same way they are prompting evolution in the hotel industry (including new brands) with their feedback on services. I imagine a slow tourism version of Trip Advisor being what it looks like.

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Len Cordiner

In incubating and running numerous companies over 35 years, Len Cordiner has developed a passion for win-win outcomes. Most recently, he has made harnessing the power of the Internet and new communications tools central to his mission to change paradigms in travel, making it more accessible to all. In this vein, founding the WHL Group, of which Len is the CEO, is his latest and most ambitious global business initiative.
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6 Responses to “OPINION: Has the Whole Ecotourism Industry Shot Itself in the Foot?”

  1. Tomtravel2 says:

    Very well written article. I just posted a blog with a similar theme on Twitter and followed your tweet link here. There are no easy answers and I doubt one size fits all solutions to the issue. I try to live and travel in a “responsible” manner, but the very act of getting on a plane or interacting with another culture may contradict that intention. Keep the open discussion flowing and we may all find a way to the best compromises.

  2. Shaun says:

    I guess the way trends are moving, travellers through the internet are connecting more and more directly with providers. Certification certainly has its place, but is only a piece of the puzzle, especially in developing destinations. Hence I hope things like authentic traveller feedback can be a real driver of ‘responsible’ travel options for other travellers.

  3. I have recently read a post by Justin Francis the co-founder of http://www.responsibletravel.com about Global Certification Schemes:


    As an Ecolodge owner I have felt pressured to jump on the bandwagon of Ecotourism Certification. But we are hesitant to pay fees to outsiders to standardize and sometimes minimize our already outstanding practices.

    Local issues play an important role in what works and what doesn’t for ecological and community practices. Openly sharing best practices in a creative way works much better to promote ecotourism than legislating and standardizing hotels that are actually selling their personalized character.

    My hope is that certifiers can hear these comments and incorporate them into their certification process.

  4. Len Cordiner says:

    Thanks Giulia and Ron for your thoughtful responses. I guess for me its going to be largely about a few things

    1. The message we give to travellers. We have to work much harder at identifying and explaining the benefits the traveller will experience by staying with an accommodation provider working in a more sustainable way. The slow travel or gentle travel model is a great step in this direction.
    2. The travel industry needs to work in much closer collaboration with others making up important parts of the travel experience and whose focus aligns with a more sustainable and inherently more enjoyable experience(e.g. the slow food movement).
    3. We need to engage travellers in telling other travellers about their experience in ways that allow people to select real “slow travel” …and by extension sustainable travel …. options. Its the Trip Advisor for ‘slow travel experiences’.

  5. Ron Mader says:

    Excellent essay, Len

    I agree that the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria misses the point. I was asked a few times to fill out a survey, but the questions have been designed in advance and there\’s little room for comment.

    Are there certification schemes that matter? Not so much that I\’ve seen. I want to want to trust them, but without reader/traveler feedback, what\’s the point?

    Travelers have been left out of the conversation, most of which has taken place behind closed doors. (Please show me the policy-setting workshops that have posted announcements and archives online. And if you want to go one better, show me a tourism policy wiki.) The old command and control thinking is no way to win public buy-in.

    Slow tourism? It\’s one of my personal favorite definitions of the tourism I enjoy most! If you\’re not familiar, check out the Slow Tourism Guides to Melbourne and Sydney. A conversation with the author is online

    It\’s this kind of thoughtful, insightful guidebook much moreso than Australia\’s tourism board or ecotourism society that I find myself trusting and using on the ground.

  6. Giulia says:

    Having been an organic farmer before being a sustainable accommodation owner I can see similarities between what you state and what happened about 15-20 years ago in Italy with organic agriculture.
    Organic was for tree-huggers, it ment sugar-free, brown and sand-tasting, but suddently someone thought that \"green agriculture\" also ment business… so everybody started calling themselves \"green\", \"organic\", \"farm-style\" and there was no control over it, the consumer was confused and thus the interest did not grow. \"Organic\" was more expensive but nobody knew what it really ment, so people tended not to buy organic.
    We needed certification to start putting things right, many problems still exist and people still do not trust organic produce, but things are going better.
    I agree that green/sustainable/eco tourism really needs an impulse, but I also think that until \"green communication\" is not clear and we talk more about \"greenwashing\" than about what sustainable tourism really is and means, it will be difficult to have someone trust us.
    Giulia – Locanda della Valle Nuova (Le Marche – Italy)

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