What Is Sustainable Tourism?

Certification: How It Works, Who to Trust
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Sustainable Tourism Defined
A turtle hatchling near North Island safari lodge in the Seychelles (courtesy Andrew Howard/North Island Lodge)

While GSTC is the arbiter of all things sustainable tourism, it doesn't certify your hotels and airlines and adventure outfitters as sustainable. It merely certifies the certifiers. For example, you just discovered an eco-lodge that boasts certification from LEED or Rainforest Alliance or its home country of, say, Costa Rica. But how do you know those certifiers aren't just greenwashing groups looking to cash in on your consciousness? You don't. So you click on that certifier's link or call or email them and determine whether they have GSTC's blessing. In this case, they do, so you're off to a good start.

At last count, according to GSTC's Harms, the number of sustainable-tourism certifiers has more than doubled since 2008, from 60 to 127. Chief among them is Sustainable Travel International (STI), a U.S.-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit that's trying to do for its industry what LEED certification has done for green building. "Most programs focus on environmental sustainability rather than cultural or economic sustainability," says Brian Mullis, STI's director. "Our goal is to address all of those aspects, and to educate our clients on how to be sustainable from the top down and the bottom up. If everyone—not just management—understands a company's sustainability policy, then it's easier to put that policy into practice."

STI offers three levels of approval. There's first-party certification, which essentially means a tourism provider (hotel, shop, guide service, etc.) fills out forms that let STI determine their sustainability. If they pass, they get one star. Second-party certification gets the provider up to three stars and requires a review of water and power bills and other data from an operation. "We know what the energy use of a 25-room boutique hotel should look like," says Mullis. The top certification entails an independent, trained auditor doing a boots-on-the-ground inspection at the client's expense, which might include interviews with employees about their pay and hours, an examination of souvenirs to be sure they're not imported from some other continent, or a close look at the origins of construction materials.

As for other certifiers, insiders gave us this short, but by no means definitive or complete, list of legitimate operations: Blue Flag Programme, Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism, EarthCheck, Energy Star, Green Globe, Green Key, Green Seal, Rainforest Alliance, Smart Voyager. For a complete list, go to GSTC's accreditation page.


Published: 22 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 1 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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