Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Avoid guilt trips this travel season

Summer is a-coming in, and for many people, that means a vacation is in the offing. We hear a lot about "green tourism" nowadays, but what does that term really mean?

I recently came across this article on how to avoid greenwashing and make better choices when on the road (or in the air), but the story focuses mainly on the environmental consequences of travel. There is also the social dimension to consider. Particularly when it comes to international travel, the concerns are manifold: Tourism can spur irresponsible land development, hasten the loss of indigenous values, cultures, and species, and encourage prostitution and other forms of exploitation. U.K. charity Tourism Concern does a good job of elucidating the social issues; check out its list of tips here.

One kind of resource for travelers who want to tread lightly on the earth can be found in certification programs that certify accommodations and tour operators as sustainable or green, much in the same way that fair-trade and organic certifications work. But just because a hotel's front desk features a seal with the word "green" or "sustainable" on it doesn't mean you should necessarily trust it. As Michael Conroy points out in his book Branded: How the Certification Revolution Is Transforming Global Corporations, in 2005 approximately 80 programs claimed to certify some aspect of tourism—and some of them required only that the hotel or tour operator pay a fee for the use of the certification logo.

For a cert system to have any weight, it must have publicly available standards and a mechanism for monitoring compliance with those standards. A little research can go a long way toward understanding what you're buying into.

It's a shame that there is no one certification in the travel industry that commands the same credibility and name recognition that fair trade and organic do in the food sector. But there is movement in that direction. In 2000, the Mohonk Conference on Certification of Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism yielded an agreement among travel-industry stakeholders to create a global organization called the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council to accredit tourism-related cert systems.

Rainforest Alliance was charged with taking that effort to the next level, and to that end, it has helped launch the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas, a regional group of certification systems that includes such programs as Costa Rica's Certification for Sustainable Tourism, Guatemala's Green Deal, and U.S.-based Green Seal (which focuses on other industries as well as travel). The intention is for the network to evolve into a successful model that can be replicated in other parts of the world. Let's hope that journey is fruitful.

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