Conscientious consumers might look for the organic label when buying milk and the Fair Trade logo when purchasing coffee, but finding a certified ecotourism operation for your next vacation isn't so straightforward. By some estimates, there are nearly 100 different certification programs globally, all with different logos. As a result, even experienced ecotravelers don’t recognize certification labels when they see them, leading the ecotourism industry to question whether the schemes are attracting tourists.
Now, industry leaders are working on a scheme that might help vacationers distinguish which ecotourism certifications represent truly green practices. In October they'll gather in Barcelona to finalize a set of global baseline criteria in an attempt to standardize ecotourism accreditation. Critics, however, are pooh-poohing existing certification systems and expressing doubts that the new plan will boost business for the sustainable travel industry.
Certification schemes measure the "greenness" of tourism products such as hotels, guided tours, attractions and transportation. The programs are designed to help travelers discern the less scrupulous businesses from those that truly take significant steps to lighten their environmental footprint. Certifiers establish criteria in categories for everything from energy conservation to community impact. Businesses that want to be accredited must meet the criteria, often by installing certain equipment, changing their purchasing habits and adopting new practices like measuring water consumption and training employees on sustainability. Businesses pay annual dues -- anywhere from $200 to $2,500 -- to receive accreditation, and sometimes extra fees for auditor visits, which can run about $1,200 per day.
Certifiers' websites, when travelers do find their way to them, range from slightly helpful to confusing. Most programs operate in a single country or region, and have only a handful to a few dozen members. "It's really hard to find a full selection of places on any one of them," says Rachel Lubin, an environmentally conscious traveler who has attempted to plan trips through certification organizations. "I felt like I was missing out on the good places," she says. "It's easier to look through traditional outlets and then figure out which places are sustainable."
The new global baseline criteria probably won't help streamline travelers' searchers for sustainable tourism operations as the scheme doesn't aim to unify logos. But the criteria could at least provide assurance to travelers that their certifier requires businesses to meet internationally-recognized standards.
Whether certifiers will actually adopt the criteria remains to be seen. Founders of the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council have been working for nearly a decade to set up a global program to certify the certifiers, and just recently said they have enough support to launch their scheme early next year.
"I think a new layer of bureaucracy will add costs and it will be quite some time before it adds benefit," says Xavier Font, a tourism expert at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, referring to the various efforts to create global standards. Adding to the bureaucracy, tourism boards such as Visit Britain in the UK have agreed on their own initiative to certify their certifiers.
The goal of the global baseline criteria isn't to create a new international certification scheme, but to establish core standards that regional certifiers can adapt for their particular regions, says Christina Cavaliere, a spokesperson for The International Ecotourism Society, or TIES, the industry's oldest organized group, established in 1990.
"Certification schemes need to be individually inclusive of the environment and culture in which they are operating," she says. "So the certification program that is working for Costa Rica may not necessarily be the best tool for Sweden."
Even so, some experts suggest establishing one global brand that travelers everywhere can identify. Proponents point to the success of the Fair Trade label, an increasingly recognized marker worldwide that ensures products such as coffee or chocolate were produced with certain labor standards.
But critics of global branding schemes say tourism is more complex than coffee. Green Globe, a certification organization, attempted to create an international accreditation scheme, but critics say their membership fell short. "All of the efforts for a global brand have not worked," says Font. "A lot of money has been spent on Green Globe and a lot of that money has seen no return," he says.
Tourism operators certainly expect to see returns on their certification investments. They expect more sustainable operations, better employees, lower energy costs and, above all, more business. Accredited businesses are reaping some of these benefits, but they say they're not attracting tourists in the way certifiers promised.
The problem, say experts, is marketing. Many certifiers don't advertise to travelers. "They don't do much in terms of promotion, which I don't think I understood at the outset," says Ella Grace Quincy, who owns Old Country House Bed and Breakfast in Worcestershire, England, and has been accredited by two ecotourism certifiers and says very little business has come from them.
Instead, certifiers rely on regional tourism boards which, for the most part, have made paltry attempts to steer travelers to certified businesses. "It's a resource issue," says Andrea Nicholas, a spokesperson for British accreditation program Green Tourism Business Scheme. "Most [certifiers] can't afford to market on their own," she says, "and that's one reason why we rely on tourism boards."
Despite the shortcomings of the industry, there are some regional successes. The Green Tourism Business Scheme has certified more than 1,700 businesses in the UK -- double their membership just two and a half years ago. Travelers can search its website by region or type of business and come up with a decent list of destinations. In early August the group will complete a new site that offers direct booking and green travel tips.
Some tour operators find value in certification even if doesn't directly bring new business. "I think it's worth going through the certification process to show people you are serious," says Ronda Green, a zoologist who runs Araucaria Ecotours in Australia, and is certified by Ecotourism Australia. Green says her business has always followed sustainable practices, but that going through the certification process taught her the importance of lowering the wattage in flashlights used when walking through animal habitats and other valuable tips. "How much certification has helped our business? I couldn't put a figure to it," she says. "We've had maybe a few people say they came through Ecotourism Australia."
Story by Emily Waltz. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.