If you ask me, we’ll never have sustainable tourism until we have a sustainable transport model.
That’s why I’m really looking forward to the discussion titled ‘Sustainable Tourism Certification – the HOW to series?’ that’ll happen on the 9th of May during this year’s Hotel Investment Conference Africa 2013 (HICA: 8 – 10 May at Durban’s Elangeni Hotel).
Moderator Amos Bien (technical director of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council – the GSTC, which is based in Madrid, and which is responsible for the accreditation of sustainable tourism certification schemes around the world) will be talking to Jennifer Seif of Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, Michele de Witt of Howarth HTL, Gillian Sunders of Grant Thornton, and Manay Thadini of HVS South East India.
So yesterday I called Jennifer and asked her whether we aren’t doing a good imitation of sticking our heads in the sand by worrying about sustainable tourism (although I put it more diplomatically than this).
She doesn’t think so. In fact, she said, many companies and organisations have been doing a lot of excellent work – she cited the example of a tour company in Europe helping a conservation project in Africa – but historically they’ve kept it largely to themselves.
Now, though, consumers are becoming more aware, and they’re starting to demand some seriously ethical behaviour.
“Tourism is a cut-throat business, and the operators are always pushing the products for better and better rates – but this is counter-productive because it forces the hoteliers to cut wages, or lay workers off, or make their jobs temporary.”
But it doesn’t have be like that: “I always tell operators that the biggest contribution they can make to sustainability is to pay their staff a living wage
“The costs of sustainability need to be shared all along the value chain.”
And that may mean that the customer has to pay more, too. “But consumers are asking questions these days, and they will pay more if you can satisfy them that the money’s going to the right people and the right causes.”
But how do you know that you’re not just buying a load of corporate green-washing?
Accreditation and certification schemes, of course – although even old Iuvenalis, who lived about 2,000 years ago, saw the problem with that: “Sed,” he asked, “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (‘But who will guard the guardians themselves?’)
Well, said Jennifer – that’s where the GSTC comes in.
“Established in 2010, the GSTC has developed a worldwide, holistic definition of sustainable tourism that incorporates management practices, social and cultural impacts, and environmental performance. The GSTC assures the quality of independent certification programmes so that the industry is able to identify credible, professional certification providers.”
To put things into perspective: in the last ten years alone, more than 150 tourism certification schemes have appeared on the scene.
“Some of them are international – like the Blue Flag programme – some are national; some are run by NGOs, and some are government-led,” said Jennifer.
The result, of course, is that consumers are becoming confused – but Jennifer thinks that the GSTC and a related initiative, the Sustainable Tourism Certification Alliance Africa, will provide a solution to this.
The Alliance is an informal network of organisations which are involved in sustainable tourism certification – standards-owners, certification schemes, tourism boards, and so on – which aims to help schemes in Africa to meet GSTC norms and requirements. It’s also a joint advocacy organisation for its members that works to develop market access for certified tourism products, and it serves as a platform for members to share best practices.
“The tourism industry is following the trend in other sectors here: through the Alliance, people are beginning to harmonise standards, and I think we’ll see a consolidation of schemes in the next five to ten years.
“It’s all about professionalising the certification process, and making sure that schemes follow accepted norms, and that they apply consistent auditing practices.”
Of course the Alliance was created in response to a business imperative: today’s consumer is increasingly savvy – which is why, Jennifer said, “It aims to make accreditation simpler and more transparent.”
Which is great – but none of this answered my question: could we have a sustainable tourism industry if our fossil fuels ran out tomorrow?
And here’s why I think the conversation at HICA is going to be interesting: Jennifer doesn’t think that we’re in danger yet, but she does think that travel patterns are going to change.
“Airline travel will become more and more expensive, but people will continue to fly. They’ll probably visit long-haul destinations less often (although the upside of that is that they’ll probably take longer holidays in those destinations), and they’ll probably start taking more frequent, shorter trips – which is why we in South Africa need to start paying attention to arrivals from our neighbouring countries.”
So it seems what she was saying was this: there’s more to sustainable tourism than the simple idea that we need to ensue that we’ll be able to travel in the future. It’s about the way we treat each other, and the way we treat our world. (Which is about as good as it can get, don’t you think?).