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?'"

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable
science

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
news

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
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

    IT Administrator - Graduate

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

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week