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.