Poster (Some rights reserved)

From the archives (2003)

The pros and cons of tourism certification were discussed during the Ethical Marketing of Ecotourism Conference which highlighted three important issues when concerning the eco and social standards in tourism:

1) No Consensus — There is no consensus that ecotourism certification is viable or useful. In fact, there is a move to campaign against certification because of the divisions it creates, particularly in “developed” and “developing” economies.

2) Certification Criticism— While proponents declare there have are benefits for those who are certified, this has yet to be shown in a compelling manner. Those touting certification remain the consultants and certifiers. The most critical comments about certification have come from tour operators who have been on the cutting edge.

3) Poor Communication — Lack of communication undermines the credibility of ecotourism and sustainable tourism certification.

I see we are already beginning to drift into the field of certification as a primary topic. Not surprising given the amount of money donors have given to the non-profit community and consultants to explore this topic. Unfortunately donors need not worry about winning a market, they need to protect their investment in terms of grants or loans and the need to protect their reputations — thus certification, the perfect donor investment! NGOs and consultants are always going to provide the donors with the program they need, and they too are not responsible or at least on the front line for winning a market.

In my view, based on stakeholder meetings in many parts of the world, certification is not a marketing tool — or at least it has not proven itself to be on any continent including Australia, though I know they are working very hard on this. It would be good to hear from the Australians on how that is progressing.

So with that in mind, we can ruminate on why certification has not successfully translated into more tourists, an interesting topic. I would be interested on if it could be, or if certification could be counterproductive to winning an ethical market. But even more importantly, we can ruminate about how to reach an interested market through a wide variety of other means.

I am a member of a steering committee set up by a regional environmental control authority (jointly run by the Israeli Ministry of the Environment and local authorities) to study the development and application of an ecotourism certification system on a pilot basis for the Galilee region, a major internal tourism destination for rural and nature based tourism. In a genuine effort to make sure that the project will represent both bottom-up and top-down initiatives, creating a healthy balance between public and private sector functions, tourism operators are also participating as members of the steering committee. This provides a unique opportunity to promote a process that could lead to real and viable progress.At this point the above regional authority is considering taking on the function of certification body, in one form or another, since it already has most of the infrastructure in place to carry it out. It can adapt and use its business licensing department for the purpose; this includes existing administrative structures and teams of field inspectors who can be given appropriate additional training for the purpose.

The connection between ethical marketing and certification becomes very significant the moment that the certification body is understood to be objective and/or uncorrupted/incorruptible and therefore a reliable measure of the performance by the certified tourism site or operator. In other words the certification provides the tool for separating the real thing from those practicing “greenwashing”.

As far as the marketing side is concerned, it is abundantly clear that, apart from a few individuals who are always willing to try ‘new’ things, the bulk of tourism operators will only invest in certification if it can be demonstrated that it will give them a marketing boost. In other words, the key to success lies in the certification system being directly linked to marketing activism. A way needs to be found whereby the certified operator or site will enjoy a marketing advantage. The ethics of the site will be secured by the work of the certifying body, the ethics of the certifying body will be secured by it being understood to be an uncorrupted organization and, most importantly, the added value of all of this will be communicated to the public through effective marketing strategies and techniques. Without this linkage the effort is unlikely to be successful; the public needs to be brought to a point, beyond cynicism, where they can perceive and enjoy the added value of sustained and continually improving environmental quality. No-one is promising that it will be easy, but we hope to have a successful pilot, demonstration project up and running within a year. I look forward to hearing about useful experiences and ideas that can contribute to this.

I think that much like consultants, certification projects are too many and too useless. Here in Nicaragua alone we have three different certification projects: 1) The Centro America Verde Certification by the GTZ/Fodestur; 2) through the InterAmerican Development Bank proposal to have Costa Rica’s CST implemented throughout Central America, where all national governments have agreed; and 3) INTUR, Nicaragua’s Ministry of Tourism, is making yet another.

Besides the obvious lack of coordination inside Nicaragua, you can compare it to what is happening on a global scale … There is heavy competition and more and more certification companies (that local businesses must pay) with yet another logo or stamp or check to confuse the consumer … if the consumer is even aware!

When we first started designing the COMARCA TURS Nicaragua program, we looked into certification. Its an obvious problem of any marketing program, that is, if we are going to market it as “sustainable tourism” we have to have some assurance that the projects are representative of that … AND provide a service with a quality for the international or national tourist. We looked at everything from NEAP to the CST and decided to stay away from certification. At the end of it all business is business and the market only allows for so many, so the “Coke” and “Pepsi” of Certification will eventually rise above the competition. But when will that be? Sooner is much better than later, but i doubt it. The idea of certification is great but until the consumer can recognize it, its just not worth it.

Here in Nicaragua, about a year and a half ago, we started a project with local artisans where we set up a walking tour of their village. The nine distinct artisans can be recognized by the logo of COMARCA TURS Nicaragua, which each of the nine have on their workshops. Well, this logo has become recognizable, and now has become marketable. For instance, a local NGO in Esteli, funded by Finland, came to us about eight months ago saying that they strongly agree with our mission statement, and our name and logo is recognized and respected in the country, and that they wanted to be able to use it in their community projects as a “certification”.

As and end result, though we do not directly perform certification, we have become a mark that is. That being said, we mainly work with protected areas and small rural communities, where the infrastructure and service are so limited that these micro-businesses could not afford or pass any type of certification. Our goal is to help them bit by bit improve their businesses so that they can eventually be certified by “coke” or “pepsi”.

As noted in the Directory of Participants I’m one of those notorious consultants, and on top of that, in the controversial field of standards and certification! I’ll not apologize because there’s demonstrable, tangible benefits from well-defined programs in many sectors including tourism. Des Kaplan succinctly summarized the value of certification. Differentiating products that meet accepted criteria (standards) from those that do not (greenwashing) has some relevance to this forum, but at this stage let’s focus on marketing.

As Ignacio Masias and Megan Epler Wood have pointed out, the majority of nature-based tourists are in the middle and high-end markets. These segments as well as many budget tourists (backpackers) expect not only all the elements that define sustainable and eco-tourism, but also safety and quality. The dedicated eco-tourist will not have a fulfilling experience if he or she spends half their time suffering from travelers diarrhea. Food safety is a major concern for many tourists and is of even greater concern to travel agencies and foreign tour operators. A region’s reputation for personal security (the prevalence of criminal activity) is also a major determinant in choosing to go to a particular destination. In the mind of the tourist, quality comes down to how well an operation fulfills his or her expectations. Some depend on an AAA or PADI star rating, but in the ecotourism sector the standards aren’t that well defined. However, it’s not too hard to anticipate the expectations of the particular segment that a lodge or community sees as its market. Right now we’re trying to improve conditions at a community with an excellent reputation for language training, but whose reputation has plunged because so many of its client/visitors encounter bed bugs. So in addition to principals and practices of sustainability and ecotourism, we must also take into account safety and quality in marketing the product.

Most eco-oriented enterprises see their primary target as the tourists themselves and, therefore, concentrate on direct-marketing efforts. While such activities, particularly a presence on the Web, can be productive, it’s just as important to establish linkages, partnerships, relationships, whatever you want to call them with foreign travel agencies and tour operators. There’s also potential for like-minded eco-enterprises to organize cooperatives to not only market their destination, but to negotiate with tour operators and travel agencies.

I’m just tallying the results of a worldwide survey of ecologically responsible travelers. They were asked how they determine prior to their trip whether a potential eco-enterprise meets their criteria for sustainability and safety. Thirty-five percent said the could not make that determination prior to the trip; 23 percent got recommendations from friends and travel agents; 14 percent cited Web chat rooms and forums as reliable sources of information, and 8 percent contacted the destination by phone or e-mail to verify their practices. With all due respect to our travel writers, less than one percent depended on magazine articles.

As has been noted, Australia is at the forefront of the development of accreditation schemes. Australia’s Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program (NEAP) is a joint initiative of the Ecotourism Association of Australia and the Australian Tourism Operators Network and is designed to provide a range of benefits for nature tourism operators, ecotourism operators, consumers, protected area managers and local communities.

It is claimed that NEAP provides benefits to these sectors which include:

(a) providing operators with the opportunity

(i) to develop competitive advantage through effective marketing of nature tourism and ecotourism products; (ii) to determine the degree to which their products meet the standards of nature tourism and/or ecotourism; (iii) to promote products as genuine nature tourism or ecotourism; (iv) to provide a framework within which performance can be continually improved to a standard recognised as best practice;

(b) providing consumers with a recognised means of identifying genuine nature tourism and ecotourism products;

(c) providing protected area managers with criteria which assist in identifying genuine nature tourism and ecotourism products;

(d) helping local communities to determine a mixture of tourism activity that helps to maximise benefits and minimise negative impacts.

My research indicates that these claims are met to varying degrees. From an ethical marketing perspective, there is a specific need for improvement in the use NEAP as a means of consumers identifying genuine nature tourism and ecotourism products. Recently I interviewed over 100 customers of tourism operations which have NEAP accreditation. Not one client indicated that he or she had chosen the tour because of the accreditation of the product. Almost all clients were not even aware of the accreditation scheme.

My work has focused on Australian operations. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that my findings could be extrapolated to other countries. I welcome any feedback on this important area of ethical marketing of ecotourism.

I was fascinated to read Garry’s post on the lack of recognition of NEAP in his survey. I suppose this begs the question: Should there be more effort and money spent to help consumers be aware of programs like NEAP, or is certification simply not a viable marketing tool at this stage of development of the field of ecotourism? And further, can certification help to position the ecotourism marketplace from its competition, or is it simply not a tool consumers are likely to embrace yet, to make their travel choices? Do our consumers have any real idea at all what it takes to deliver our product? Do they care? Can we make them care through certification?

The question of how to broaden the appeal of our industry and make it lasting is fundamental. Can we work together to reach the marketplace through cooperation? I believe competition is healthy and we should all be working to position ourselves in the marketplace in a way that will meet a variety of different consumer needs. As I said in the beginning, do we all want to be going after the same consumer dream, waterfalls, birds, and jungles? I say no. Competition will help us to work on positioning ourselves with different consumers — and we should do this within our lodges, within our tours, within our regions, and countries in my opinion. It will strengthen our industry.

Another question is, can we build a larger global image for ecotourism that is more inclusive and works for many more projects. Yes, I believe so, and in my view this needs to be done — and I personally feel certification is not the route to achieve this and in fact could undermine us, but I will allow others to weigh in on that too. My view is we need to scrap what we have got and look at a more inclusive marketing image. What should it be?

The questions that Megan raises in her post seems to me to go to heart of the Certification/Marketing paradox. The contradictions are apparent in Megan’s posts and the studies she cites. On the one hand she cites Andy Drums study and the Cultural Creatives survey research which seem to show that travelers will make purchasing decisions based on ecological values. These studies would lead one to believe that certification would be an effective marketing tool. But On the other hand Megan states that, “In my view, based on stakeholder meetings in many parts of the world, certification is not a marketing tool.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is quite simple. The Drum Study and the Cultural Creative surveys clearly show how consumers make purchasing decisions when they are filling out surveys. What Megan found out in stakeholder meetings is how consumers make purchasing decisions when they are purchasing.

Richard Weiss who has shown himself to be a highly successful and perceptive marketer of nature based tourism as well as a tireless fighter for ecologically sound tourism put it best. “Ecological considerations only come into play if everything else is equal. If one program is $5 less they (the traveler) will buy price.” (I’m paraphrasing here from memory. I trust that Richard correct me or expand on the thought if I got it wrong.)

It is just recently that the marketing “experts” have finally recognized what successful marketers have know all along, the fallacy of surveys and focus groups. Successful marketers at all levels have always achieved success via the much more difficult task of observing how consumers actually behave when they are buying and recommending. It is just in the past few years that it has become in vogue for the most advances “experts” to sell marketing advice based on observing the behavior of individual consumers. The samples are usually very small, but the results are easy to measure and invariably valid. They are called profits and losses.

Why are donors reputations protected better by funding something that is of little or no use like certification as opposed to something that at least has a chance of being useful like building a market for eco-tourism. Is there something inherent about these foundations that prevents funding worthwhile projects?

Given the recent discussion of ecotourism certification, TIES and the Ford Foundation, I think it’s time to discuss these issues in a public AND constructive manner. Ford funded the development of the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council, which is modeled after the Forest Stewardship Council (formerly based in Oaxaca, Mexico where I live). Communities in Oaxaca want to know where to sell their “certified” timber! Do we dare repeat the same mistake with tourism?

Does environmental certification of tourism work? In theory, yes! But we need to see some proof in the natural world. If not, let’s ignore certification and pay attention to other topics, such as the impact on wildlife, financing, community relations and oh, yes, ethical marketing.

What I would really like would be if the above parties could be encouraged to take part in a public online discussion. We could use the Ecotourism Certification Workshop, and I would like to ask Marcus Endicott if the green-travel listserv would be an appropriate forum for original or cross-posts. Another virtual forum for discussion is the ECOCLUB bulletin board.

“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.'” – Groucho Marx

One of the cornerstones of the ecotourism market (for better or worse) is that most of us would rather NOT be a part of the same organization. It’s for this reason that membership in associations is difficult to maintain. We see examples with TIES, also with AMTAVE in Mexico. USAID funded several Central America associations in the 90s, but nothing really worked. Many organizations existed on paper only (perhaps leading virtual tours to paper parks!). Seriously, it would be interesting to hear of experiences in other countries.

From a different perspective, the Planeta website offers membership of a sort in our World Travel Directory. We can view the directory in two ways (Remember Black Sheep Inn’s comment about how long it took for them to list their services!). The directory offers promotion: Want to be featured on Planeta? You can pay! The directory also provides a way operators can support the Planeta website. Have you benefited from this site? You can pay!

Though I am reluctant to admit this, the directory also serves as a type of certification. Operations are Planeta-approved! There is a formal application and the directory is updated on a regular basis. Who do I want to feature? Certainly the eco-friendly/people-friendly businesses. Certainly NOT those that are destructive. How am I to judge? To say I have limited resources is quite the understatement. Nevertheless, I think the operations featured in the directory are great. My basic unwritten rule for the directory is that I feel comfortable in sending family there … or feel comfortable in going there myself.

Examples: Golf courses that displace local populations? NOT a candidate for the directory. Captive dolphin pens or eco-archaeological amusement parks? Again, no. Planeta’s readership are seeking eco-friendly/people-friendly operations. Some readers are more demanding than others, and that’s fine. There’s something for everyone.

I’ll conclude with a tougher question — what responsibilities do the operations in the directory have? The directory states “Management does reserve the right to refuse service.” Is being eco-friendly/people-friendly enough to merit a listing in the directory?

When I see a drive towards certification it indicates to me that our leadership is at best, somewhat disconnected from our clientele and the realities faced by the average ecotourism operator. It’s most certainly in contradiction to what our clientele have taught us over the last decade. Perhaps it’s just a difference of perspective between those who do it on a day to day basis and those who talk about it and study it.

Postings such as that from Gary Price on July 3rd: “As an ecotour owner/operation, I have never been asked if I have advanced ecotourism accreditation by a consumer” and “recently I interviewed over 100 customers of tourism operations which have NEAP accreditation. Not one client indicated that he or she had chosen the tour because of the accreditation of the product” — mirror precisely what tens of thousands of ecotourists comprising some 90,000 bed nights over the past decade have taught us.

Our clients and those of every successful operator I know have made it abundantly clear that the overwhelming majority of nature and adventure focused travelers base their buying decisions upon known industry standards such as reputation, comfort, facilities, service, location and range of activities whilst those who formulate their buying decisions upon factors such as composting toilets, solar power, corporate values and eco-type certifications, are in such small numbers that they are hardly worth mentioning in the context of a serious marketing effort.

If we can accept the above as being accurate and discount wishful thinking, idealism and even flat out stupidity, why do we see such a drive to present a certification system to a populace that isn’t really interested beyond the abstract? Could it be as was stated by Florida-based consultant Ray Ashton; “It appears that those people on the fringe of the business are the ones who beat the drum, the drive for major evaluation programs come from those who generate funds for themselves, e.g. societies, consultants or firms that would be evaluators.”

With regards to consultants and other such parasites, I think that Michael Kaye put it best; “The money for them is not in operating ecotourism operations but in consulting to ecotourism operators. Their goal is not that their clients’ businesses succeed and prosper but rather that their clients win the coveted Five Golden Piojos Certification”.

If we are looking to improve the success rate of ecotourism ventures should we not discuss what actually works, what produces bodies in beds, what produces a positive and self sustaining balance sheet and in doing so, what assigns a value to the natural resource being utilized, benefits local communities and at least attains the capacity to achieve ecotourism’s basic goals. At the very least we should recognize what doesn’t work, we should recognize and avoid those who would feed from and perpetuate ecotourism’s cycle of failure and who almost without exception, place their bets using the resources of others and at the end of the day will just go on to their next IRS deductible or otherwise funded project.

I indicated in a previous posting that no Australian ecotourism companies’ clients to whom I had spoken had chosen a tour based on NEAP accreditation. This research finding indicates that, as part of an ethical marketing approach, accreditation at this stage is a dismal failure. In my research I also interviewed 10 operators, admittedly a small number but perhaps their responses contribute further to the accreditation / certification debate.

Most operators saw accreditation having a dual purpose — as a marketing tool and as a means of establishing / maintaining standards in the industry. As stated previously, the former purpose appears to be failing. The latter purpose, however, appears to be gaining momentum within the industry, especially amongst operators who are keen to adhere to the key principles of ecotourism. In the words of one operator, ‘NEAP helps to control the cowboys’. The fact that NEAP is moving away from reliance on self-assessment through an auditing process will, in my opinion, help to improve the product quality. A further development to assist with this product improvement in Australia is a guide certification program, with guides being trained in interpretation techniques. In the future, maybe companies which advertise that they only employ certified guides will occupy positions of competitive advantage within the ecotourism market, a positive result of ethical practices and marketing.

Could Gary — or others familiar with NEAP — clarify some questions. Gary says that NEAP is moving towards “auditing” as opposed to “self assessment” I don’t see what the point is:

(A.) Can NEAP actually fine, cancel an operating license or otherwise penalized operations that don’t measure up? Does it want to be able to do so?

(B.) If I’m right in assuming that NEAP can’t do anything beyond deny its stamp of approval — of which we have established that consumers take no notice of anyway — what is it that they hope to achieve?

(C.) If consumers take no notice of an operations certification, why will they all of a sudden start doing so with regards to guides?

(D.) What is it exactly that these “cowboys” are doing that needs controlling” and why would they care what NEAP thinks?

(E.) If the consumers don’t take any notice of what NEAP thinks and I feel pretty sure that the “cowboys” couldn’t care less, who is it that NEAP is actually talking to beyond perhaps the agencies and society that fund this sort of silliness?

(E.) Who are the members of NEAP? Are they ecotourism operators or are they the type of people Ray Ashton described when he said; “It appears that those people on the fringe of the business are the ones who beat the drum, the drive for major evaluation programs come from those who generate funds for themselves, e.g. societies, consultants or firms that would be evaluators”?

The problems we are looking at in ecotourism / adventure tourism are NOT all that different to the problems in the hospitality / hotel industry 100 years ago in the US. Independent hotels / inns / motels all over the country, confusing the consumer with spotty services and poor facilities. So, Statler decided to create a brand “A Bed and A Bath, A Buck and a Half”. 50 years later (roughly) Kemmons Wilson came along and created Holiday Inns. Both were successful attempts to develop a brand — in which the service / product (the 10 P’s) was “certified” under one brand. How were they successful – well, follow the dollars.

Services have been “rated” in the past with some success. The Michelin Guide is a “rating”, as is the AAA (or the AA for non-US folks). At its core, even brands such as “Hyatt” and “Hilton” are “certification” of sorts. As Megan points out, while services are intangible, and are harder to sell, there are successful, proven strategies in differentiating and selling services.

It is my belief that at the end of the day, the true worth of any of these schemes is not only the scheme itself, but more importantly the consumer following the scheme develops. (The more discriminating the scheme, the better the cachet — if promoted appropriately — e.g. the Michelin Guide 3 Star Restaurants). If the scheme is unable to win the support, respect and following of the buying public (consumer), it will be of very little value to any entity on the supply chain. Certification for the sake of certification is doomed to fail — the costs will exceed the income, and once the foundations move on to the next thing, heaven help you!

The very fact that we have to have a conference on “ethical marketing of ecotourism” is testimony to the confusion that exists at all levels of the supply chain. So, what is “ethical” and who is going to “certify” that it is ethical? And who will watch the watchers?

I would say the measure of success needs to include Profit and Returns on Investment. And I include in ROI a return on the conservation and social investments in the business (the Triple Bottom Line). This needs to be the primary consideration — as every business person knows, profits drive sustainability. Unless the Profit element exists, the “ecotourism” world will forever be subjected to the vagaries of the foundation and non-profit world. More “heads in beds” do not necessarily relate to more profit / returns. I would argue that the CUSTOMER is the best evaluator of any attempt at “certification” — whether as a brand or as some form of “eco-rating”.

At present, ecotourism is at a crossroads, as mentioned at the beginning of our conference. It is still not recognized by the consumer as a reason to purchase. I think we all agree that certification programs will not achieve this goal. So, larger branding initiatives are crucial.

As the web environment continues to grow such designs will be more and more effective for both branding and sales. Such strategies will be highly cost effective in future and help countries such as Nicaragua, for example, to improve their image and sell product to the FIT market (which according to surveys is something like 50% of our market or more and growing with the net), as they are unlikely to receive clients from major tour operators until their image is improved.

In my view, a larger message must be communicated to the traveling public by each region or group of products seeking to gain market share, one that is absolutely honest and ethical, while at the same time asks consumers to think more about the impacts of their choices. All good marketing embraces this branding approach — we are just adding an ethical component — and it is really not contradictory to the goal of bodies in beds, it is just a different process.

Can we change consumer purchasing decisions, so they are more equivalent to their survey responses? We all know now that most consumers have heard of ecotourism, and tend to think it is something positive for the world. But, travelers are still groping to make sustainable travel choices. particularly when they lack travel experience in a specific destination. This is is a great challenge! Of course we can change this level of knowledge among a highly knowledgeable consumer population! And it is fundamental to success for each lodge, for countries, for communities, and for all.

The entire history of marketing, ratings and certification clearly shows that consumers do not care about something because it is rated. All products and services in a sane world not distorted by dumb money from foundations are rated because consumers care. If consumers do not care, and some foundation with more money than brains is not willing to fund certification, products and services will not be rated. Yet the certificationites expect us to swallow that people care about good food because of the Michelin Guide.

First get consumers to care (or capitalize on what they already care about), then worry about rating and certification. Doing it any other way is not only putting the cart before the horse, it is putting the wheel before the cart, the spoke before the wheels. It is one of relatively few unbreakable marketing laws: First consumers care. Then ratings and certification. Only large grants from foundations could cause normally intelligent well-intentioned people to not see this self-evident truth.

I’d like to think that the survey Peter Hutchison quoted is right, and that many people ARE willing to pay more for vacations that are environmentally and socially responsible. But most of these qualities are very hard to quantify or draw a box around — as Peter says, there are many shades of gray, not black-and-white lines where you can say that everything that falls inside the box is ecotourism and those outside the box not. So I tend to fall into the camp of those skeptical of certification, (I also hesitate to make a black and white distinction here); not because I think all certifiers are evil (I think many are very well intended, like Beatrice), but rather because I think it’s a nearly impossible task to sort through these shades of gray, and therefore any system will undoubtedly certify ‘bad’ places and leave out ‘good ones’.

Getting back to Ethical Marketing, I also keep asking myself what makes ecotourism marketing different from marketing tourism? If we assume, as many have asserted, that the public in general doesn’t care whether a place is ecotourism or not (in making their buying decisions), then the implication is that operators should market themselves in exactly the same way as successful non-eco tourism operators. And if we go that route, not only are we not educating the public, I think we are selling out the basic principles of ecotourism. For if in our marketing efforts we don’t inform the public how our operations are protecting the environment or supporting local communities, then how can anyone tell when community and environment ARE in fact being served? Isn’t this in effect giving up on the idea of educating the public, to ‘go along with market reality’? Is this really a smart — or the only viable marketing strategy or is it a sell-out?

I think Peter Hutchison said it very well — “Ecotourism is broadly about protecting ‘something’, and hopefully educating ‘someone’ about what is being protected and why. And getting more people to do it so more of the planet is protected and more people can make a fairer living. If not, then to me it is just another marketing scam and the spin will just make us dizzy.”

Despite having worked in management and as a Guide in both the Adventure and Ecotourism sectors, I had the gall to change sides and work (both as a volunteer and as a consultant) on developing standards for an industry I felt passionate about. I feel passionate about ecotourism because I think it provides the potential (despite the fact that it is not often translated into reality) of a win:win:win — letting economic prosperity or poverty alleviation take place while retaining environmental and cultural heritage. Why did I throw my lot in with developing standards? Well, tourism promises a good time, but ecotourism promises not only a good time BUT also a better world. If we promise so much we must deliver. A standard — such as certification- help ensure that there is a relevant and appropriate baseline of best practice.

What this baseline can be utilised for is wide-ranging — and after being involved with certification for so long, the one thing I am certain about is that market recognition by the consumer is not one of them — its presently nonexistent and unlikely to develop significantly without a significant change in marketing tactics or funding. My biggest regret is that we ever sold NEAP with that unrealistic promise — because the EAA didn’t and is unlikely to deliver.

I believe one of the greatest successes of NEAP — and hopefully of EcoGuide Program — is the fact that operators and guides use the standard as a blueprint for development. They often don’t go the whole hog or are unable to afford formalising the certification process — but nonetheless their operation or guiding improves. I count that as a major success (even though its hard to measure and perhaps due to sleeper effect). Certification does have a place — a very valuable place — but increasing market share or putting bodies in beds immediately is not a promise that can be kept.

I personally think the move by the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (Rainforest Alliance) and the links with TIES/ Ford to try and develop a global body to accredit certification programs represents the best chance ecotourism product has to gain consumer recognition and hopefully preferential consumer choice (i.e. bodies in beds or bums on seats) — so I am surprised at the sentiments pervading this conference.

The reason is simply the plethora of symbols and logos current in the world marketplace can only lead to consumer confusion — and the desperate need for a concerted education /information/marketing push for one brand or label. In Australia, despite having the worlds first ecotourism certification program we have managed since 1996 to go out of the way to confuse the consumer with initially releasing two logos for two levels in the program, releasing 3 new labels for the original two levels and a new third category (nature tourism) in 2000 with the launch of NEAPII — and rebranding in IYE with a suite of four logos (representing the three levels in NEAP plus and overarching group label for the program).

That means there are nine logos out there in the marketplace and on brochures at present! I know — I did a review of North Qld brochures with a group of students at James Cook University this week — and Masters students in tourism were confused as to what meant what — so God help the consumer! I suppose the irony of the new logos is that they all look almost identical- unless you get a magnifying glass and read the small print- thus amalgamates nature tourism (which only has to prove it attempts to minimise harm in the environment) with genuine ecotourism — product that not only minimises impacts but strives to maximise the positives it can provide in terms of returns to the environment and community. The consumer will at least, in the long run as the older logos get phased out — have basically only one logo to cope with — but how are operators of genuine or specialist ecotourism product going to react to being amalgamated for expediency with basic nature tourism product?

NEAP is constantly evolving and changing — sometimes for the better — sometimes not. But a brave attempt was made by past committee and management team of the EAA and early pioneers of NEAP to set standards -and try to ensure that they were available and accessible as a tool for all to learn from.

I have enjoyed immensely the turns that this conference has taken, for example, asking ourselves to question the outcomes of the conference itself. To me, this is progress.

I think that one of the most important topics of conversation during the conference was certification and international donors NOT doing enough for the promotion of NGOs, therefore not enough “culos en camas”. So lets offer them a challenge and accept Ron’s offer of using Planeta for decentralized communication, education and promotion.

Action Plan Recommendation: Encourage stakeholder dialogues – Neither Ron nor TIES nor ANY other institution has any time and resources to work in each country. But if those of us with an interest can work toward developing local dialogues.

I think we should become stewards of Planeta in our own countries. To do this, however, i think that we each need to have a personal stake invested into it. That is, we MUST be tied to those decisions we make even though Planeta works a lot on trust! I think that if Planeta had a “board” of some type with a representative of each country … I think that could be a good start! I also think that we can be inclusive, instead of exclusive and on planeta we can even provide reasons WHY each place is planeta approved, and at the places do consumer evaluations. I think this is all very important for transparency.

I would love to see this type of transparency in the donor world! So I guess my question is — can this conference be the start of an ethical marketing movement for eco/sustainable/responsible tourism? I’d like to see us all work toward that common goal.

My heart is in small-scale tourism projects. Consequently, I see certification as a threat and certainly with no opportunity. It is the method by which the status quo (rich taking from poor) will be enforced. If there is a consensus, I feel that we should oppose this as a group.

Tourism and the travel industry in general is a hybrid beast. Most of what we offers falls in the “service” category, but some pieces are more like “products” in the conventional sense. While almost all of the basic rules of marketing products also apply to marketing services, there are three important qualities of services that set them apart. Services are characterized by being: (1) intangible, (2) perishable, and (3) closely associated with the person delivering the service.

An ecotourism EXPERIENCE is intangible. You can’t try it and then return it if you don’t like it, the way you could return the t-shirt I sold you to remember the experience. The ecotourism experience is perishable — if you don’t show up for the trip, that slot is lost unless I can sell it at the last moment. If nobody shows up, I have to enjoy the sunset all by myself. But the interesting piece is the close association of the service with the persons delivering the service. There’s the rub between tourism and certification.

I may never have a product that captures the imagination and the pocketbook like Nike or Classic Coke. But I can develop a superlative tourism experience and then market that package. If it’s nature-based tourism experience I’m selling, then perhaps the most important feature is the quality of the relationship between the traveler/guest/customer and the people with whom this person interacts. Ecotourists consistently report that it’s the guides who make the experience great. Great customer service in the lodging and food services can extend this quality bubble to cover the entire on-site system.

Marketing this “quality relationship” means promoting the specialness of the people involved. Customers typically value services for what they do, or what they do better. Since the customer can’t try the experience on and return it if it doesn’t “fit” their needs, we can do extra things like (1) offer a guarantee — money back if you are not satisfied, (2) ensure that every person with whom the customer will interact is trained to offer the same great level of service, and (3) enable the personnel to customize the experience to suit the desires of the particular customer.

And that’s where I see some of the problems with certification.

Certification ensures homogeneity. Superlative customer service will have to differentiate itself by rising above the certification. In my earlier posting, I gave examples from both the product (SAE ratings on motor oil) and the service (PADI certification). (I apologize if I confused some people when I didn’t spell out PADI — it’s the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, a group many of us probably used in learning the skills we needed for SCUBA diving.) Certifications create a “least common denominator” effect. Customers assume that a “certified” operation is better than anyone who didn’t make the grade, but the certification gives us no evidence to conclude anything more, except that all certified groups are equal.

The Australian experience with NEAP and NEAP II and the growing number of sub-certifications, and now maybe shrinking number of certifications if I understand the message posted earlier, concerns me. Certification seems to be a service that hasn’t found a market. We have lots of examples of those here in the wreckage of the virtual world of Silicon Valley. Clever ideas, in search of demand.

Am I correct in understanding Mark Howell’s comments from Belize that their most effective certification tool is word-of-mouth advertising from satisfied customers? Richard Tuck’s proposed action plan seems to take that approach as well. (Funny: As a doubting John, I always want to delve beneath the icons to explore the criteria and methods used in any fancy evaluation scheme, but I’d feel pretty comfortable using a service that Ron gives a “five-planet” rating on I feel comfortable using Ron’s criteria because I see them as a projection of my own.)

As for the Michelin and AAA (or AA) ratings: As I presume many of the participants in this forum might do, I deliberately use the hotel star ratings to AVOID using facilities with 4 or 5 stars. I was in Lima, Peru, last month leading an evaluation team. For security reasons, the USAID members of the group had to stay in a 5-star. The rest of the team used a great hotel only 4 blocks away at less than 1/3 the price. My breakfasts every morning were in an open-air patio with warblers, doves, and other avian visitors. The folks in the Marriott would come over to our hotel for meetings because it was a kinder-gentler experience.

The best role I see for the big foundations and the members of the “big international non-governmental organization” (BINGO) crowd is to create demand for sustainable tourism among the traveling public. Too often the BINGO’s own marketing is designed to drive customers to projects it supports or to use travel services that contribute support to its general fund. While those are useful to the BINGO, they don’t advance the broader goal of sustainable tourism. We need an educational movement to advance sustainability.

I am well aware that a sector within the tourism industry has little or no use for certification. But there are other industry people who feel that certification can be a useful tool, both for helping a business to measure and improve its performance and for tourists trying to select environmentally and socially responsible tour operators and lodge owners.

It is correct that tourism is a far more complex industry than bananas or wood or coffee to certify because it is multifaceted and includes a mix of service and products. But certification programs within the tourism industry are not new — the AAA and five star programs designed to measure quality, service and price have been around for nearly a century and are now well established tools, almost universally used by the industry, governments and the public. (In Costa Rica, for instance, all accommodations are legally required to receive a star rating in order to be licensed.) But this kind of recognition took time and hard work to build.

The newer ‘green’ certification programs add another dimension to these more traditional rating systems — they contain environmental and social criteria. Most are relatively new, having been started within the last decade. They have not yet had the time to develop the ‘attraction’ of, say, five star program. And most have suffered from insufficient marketing budgets and strategies. But this does not mean that the concept itself is flawed. As Glenn Jampol, owner of Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn which has received one of the top rankings — ‘four leaves’ – under the Costa Rican’s CST (Certification for Sustainable Tourism) program puts it, the goal should be to make CST’s ‘leaves’ as much in demand as AAA’s stars.

In addition, it is inaccurate to describe ‘green’ certification programs as only backed by consultants, academics, and NGOs who are doing so for personal gain. Like Costa Rica, an increasing number of other governments view certification as an important tool for helping to distinguish sustainable tourism from the greenwashing scams and ‘eco-lite’ varieties, and to protect their market niche. Some dozen governments in Latin America are currently supporting efforts to develop ‘green’ certification programs. The European Union has supported and helped finance tourism certification programs, as had the Australian government.

Certification is not a panacea, but it is increasingly recognized by those involved in trying to promote sustainable tourism as an important tool. Certification is also certainly not all that TIES is or should be doing. We are continuing to do conferences, training courses, publications, and public speaking. Most recently, I have been speaking about the impacts of ‘perfect storm’ — a combination of economic recession, terrorism, the war on terrorism, and SARS — on tourism-dependent poor countries and on ecotourism and community-based projects.

So there is a lot we are trying to do. And as we move forward, we will continue to welcome input, critiques and assistance from Planeta, from the public and from our members.

The meeting of the “non-profits in travel” and the travel suppliers that cater to them, is a display of peacockery from the most pretentious green-washers of all — the conservation organizations and the institutions of higher learning. The very guardians of our environment, involved in fund-raising travel programs promote large luxury group tours and then, disingenuously preach to the travel suppliers not fortunate enough to be among the chosen few.

Considering the track record of these conservation organizations, with their lack of transparency, numerous failures with developing and managing ecotourism projects, frequent irregularities, and actual damage to the environment, why is the onus of certification on the private sector of small nature and adventure tourism businesses? Disregarding the mainstream travel industry, which is unaffected by certification, I seriously doubt that the actual or potential damage to the environment from nature travel operators even remotely compares with what has transpired with many prestigious conservation organizations. Besides nature operators risk their own investments and not the privileged donations and government grants, which should merit greater accountability.

Read the glossy brochures, describing the fascinating itineraries of these large educational group tours, marveling of meaningful contacts with local residents. Meaningful contacts would be more aptly described as the overwhelming intrusion by a gawking herd.

The brochure pictures always deceivingly depict just a few tour members involved in activities and never the whole stampede. In a coma, I could design and operate a superior travel experience in the sierra and I’ll wager a $1,000 that our resident guides, without degrees in ornithology, can locate and identify more bird species than any field guidebook author or scientist. Of course, this is no surprise when you have a lifetime of experience in an area.


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