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?'"

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