Institutional funders have not understood that certification
is a such a hornet's nest and have continued to finance projects
with little public support. According to sustainable development
Epler Wood: "It has been suggested by the new InterAmerican
Bank MIF project for a Sustainable
Tourism Certification System that certification for sustainability
of tourism will increase competitiveness and market access of
small and medium sized enterprises in Latin America. However
a thorough review of existing reports on this topic shows that
there are no market demand studies available to justify this
assumption. Stakeholders from Central and South America, East
Africa and the Arctic nations during the International
Year of Ecotourism were in consensus that certification
does not enhance business."
The lack of meaningful public conversation
has led to poor awareness of most certification programs. Item.
program is respected by professionals, but poorly known by the
public. Part of the problem seems to be the fact that it took
more than five years to consider marketing NEAP.
In a 2003 survey
of 100 customers of tourism operations which have 'NEAP accreditation',
not one client indicated that they had chosen the tour because
of the accreditation of the product. In short, certification
of ecotourism is not a market-driven option.
DISSING THE TOURISTS
"There's no participation by anyone who can even remotely
claim to represent tourists,"
says Bill Hinchberger, editor & publisher of BrazilMax.
"Many of the participants at the meeting that created the
Brazilian Sustainable Tourism Council (Conselho Brasiliero de
Turismo Sustentável) spent much of their time dissing
tourists. Now, many tourists deserve to be dissed, but not by
certification groups that need to attract their support."
"Even responsible tourists are unlikely to pay attention
to certification. And if they don't, there's no point to this
exercise," added Hinchberger."This is partly a marketing
problem, but marketing seems to be at most an afterthought in
all the certification schemes I've seen.
How are travelers choosing their trips? More and more are using
engines, such as Google and Bing. And those listings can
be purchased by web operators (ethical or not) who pay for listings
alongside 'ecotourism' or 'nature lodge.' Keep an eye on Google
Marketing. While this is far from perfect, it's more popular
than any certification scheme. And now Google is offering a
Other websites provide complementary certification via reader
feedback. Check out the rankings on Trip
For responsible travel or ecotourism to succeed, travelers
must be aware of their own demands. What is the best example
of ecotourism -- a rustic, community lodge or a foreign-owned,
Too often architects and consultants promote high technical
standards and luxurious eco-lodges because they have a personal
stake to certify businesses which pay them well.
What is the best example of an eco-friendly market? Do the
products all need to be organic or are social issues taken into
Finally, do the best and brightest want to be compared? Quoting
Groucho Marx: "I sent the club a wire stating, 'Please
accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that
will have me as a member.'"
At risk are many stakeholders
-- particularly rural and indigenous guides -- who do not have
the financial resources to participate in established guide
training programs. Typically, programs are not offered in the
field, but in the capital city.
Those who might benefit from ecotourism, namely farmers and
residents of rural areas that lie next to or even coincide with
protected areas are never the focal point of evaluation, promotion,
let alone certification.
Worse, if the program is offered in the field, the organizer
-- be it an NGO or government office -- rarely attempts to promote
who has received the training. The result? Trained guides look
for work in other fields or migrate
to where other jobs are available.
One of the threads that emerged during the 2005 Ecotourism
Emerging Industry Forum focused on non-governmental organizations
or NGOs. Critiques were to the point: "It is really not
advisable to use an NGO structure to manage ecotourism."
Another participant wrote: "I was told by one NGO representative
that social impacts resulting from a community ecotourism project
they supported were not their concern, 'as long as the community
was conserving their land.'"
The discussion of NGOs leads me to a few questions, starting
with whether NGOs working toward ecotourism require certification.
And if that proves tricky, how about evaluation?
My feeling is that there are many fine examples of NGO work,
but it remains a challenge to differentiate among the players,
from those who are the best and those who call themselves the
BEST. Do we trust a center for excellence or ... a Center of
Missing far too often is genuine communication and dialogue
that flows as easily bottom-up as it is bottom-down.
In an editorial
on ECOCLUB, publisher Antonis Petropoulos points out that "ecotourism
is not a movement for certifying tourism, but a movement to
Petropoulos explains: "Genuine ecotourism operators, especially
indigenous community efforts, do not really demand, and can
not afford high-flying certifiers and their certificates. They
have other, more pressing needs. Not to mention that in the
world of genuine ecotourism, the best certifiers are not those
who are paid, but those who pay: the TOURISTS! The eye of the
ecotourist, can be as accurate and sometimes more honest than
that of a certifier."