Greener tourism? It's a jungle out there

Even experts say it's no easy task to separate the charlatans from the sincere. Mark Rowe tries to see the wood for the trees

Interested in making your holiday greener and more sustainable, ensuring that local people get a fair cut of the money you've handed over, and that no rivers are being dried up or forests felled to accommodate your trip? Congratulations – for being in a well-meaning minority.

A recent survey by the travel trade body, Abta, found that just 20 per cent of travel agents have ever been asked for such holidays or asked questions about sustainability, though they did report a "feeling" that interest in sustainability was growing. Despite apocalyptic warnings about climate change, water scarcity, pollution, and peak oil, there isn't exactly a stampede to the travel industry's door demanding it play its part.

"The industry feels there isn't a huge demand out there," says Sue Hurdle, chief executive of the independent charity The Travel Foundation. "They don't have a lot of people banging on the door asking for greener holidays."

Others are more specific, such as Professor Harold Goodwin, of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT), an independent academic research centre. "There is a big shift in values and approach – it's not just travel, it's a general consumer trend," he says. "If you're worried about where your pork comes from at home, why wouldn't you worry about that when on holiday?"

For those of us who are bothered, working out when the travel industry is doing its bit, and when it isn't, and separating good operators from charlatans peddling greenwash, is a bewildering and frustrating experience. England alone usually has around 20 certification schemes or logos on the go at any one time, split into two categories: awards, where hotels and operators are judged independently; and certification schemes, where they generally pay to be included. It also helps to know what the industry is aiming for. We're not talking about genuine eco-tourism – which remains a niche and narrow market – but on what the industry prefers to call "sustainable", or "responsible" tourism.

"Many people make the mistake of thinking that when anyone describes a business or activity as being 'green' that they are environmentally friendly," says Jason Freezer, destinations manager for Visit England. "Being green, sustainable, or responsible is about ensuring economic viability, social inclusion and contributing to the natural environment. A sustainable business is doing its most to enhance its own success financially, while contributing to the local economy and minimising or negating the damage it might do to its environment or community."

In an attempt to make sense of this, Visit England asked the ICRT to validate the various schemes, and it currently endorses three: the Green Tourism Business Scheme – the largest sustainability certification programme of its kind in the world with more than 2,000 members in Britain; the Peak District Environmental Quality Mark; and BS8901, which sets a British Standard for sustainable event management. "By checking out the schemes, we can ensure that consumers can have confidence in what they are booking, understanding that these places are genuine sustainable operations, and we could be confident that any business in an approved scheme could be promoted without any accusations of greenwash," says Mr Freezer.

The picture is little clearer beyond the UK. A handful of respected, robust schemes exist, but their reach, or the aspiration from the mainstream global travel industry to be recognised by them, appears far from universal. The awards and schemes that the ICRT believes you can trust include Virgin Holiday Responsible Tourism Awards, which are backed by Responsibletravel.com, the ICRT itself, and Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society. It relies on travellers and the industry to nominate candidates, and focuses on evidence of change, while requiring judges to conduct independent reference checks.

There are many others that you will stumble across as you look into the credentials of your holiday, operator, airline or hotel. Yet many in-house hotel group schemes appear particularly opaque and seem to be a case of mutual back-slapping. There are other more high-profile schemes – such as Green Globe, which uses scientists from Earth Check, whose origins lie in Australian government funding for a scientific and strategic research organisation specifically for tourism.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council is working for a single standard through a campaign entitled "Travel Forever", which might theoretically harmonise standards. Prof Goodwin, though, is sceptical. "It's nonsense on stilts," he said. "What matters in one place may not be the issue in another. You still won't be able to work out what the certificate means. The criteria for many awards and certificates are jealously guarded. Most standards have 30 or 40 points to meet, and no one standard will tell you if the operator is doing a good job."

The key to establishing just what a hotel is up to, suggests Prof Goodwin, is to use its certificates or awards as an opening gambit. "Get into a conversation with people who work there," he suggests. "Where did the eggs come from that you had for breakfast? If the waiter or room cleaner doesn't know about the green certificate that the hotel has got, then that tells you something."

Hurdle agrees. "Sustainability generally includes the things we like doing on holiday – 80 per cent of us like to explore the local area, 60 per cent of us like to try new food and buy local crafts. It's about a mutually enriching experience, it's just that we haven't yet got round to labelling it as sustainable."

The day when the travel industry acts with one voice on doing more than asking you to place the towels that you want renewed in the bath is some way off. And what about those towels? Does it make a difference?

"The towels question is a depressing one," says Prof Goodwin. "It's something that both the charlatans and the good guys can do. You can say that hotels only do it because it saves them money, and that's fair comment, particularly if they are not doing anything else. But you can use the towel issue as a reason to ask staff 'OK, you're saving water and detergent on the towels, but what else are you doing?'"

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?