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Should Sustainable tourism certification for businesses be encouraged? (Original Article here) – The Tourism Space, June 2022

The article above was reposted and appeared in my LinkedIn feed recently.  Having read through it, along with the information that Failte Ireland are planning a “Sustainability” certification scheme based on their VICE model, I felt that a response was called for – particularly as the Green Hospitality Awards Programme is an existing Irish developed and managed private 3rd party environmental and sustainability certification awards programme. (This is me clearly stating where I stand to allow you, the reader, look and assess if my points are biased or avoiding issues covered – I fully support 3rd party environmental certification and recognition programmes as I can demonstrate that they deliver substantial economic and environmental benefits to businesses when implemented properly –  I welcome your feedback)

Before you read my response please read the article from The Tourism Space. So that you can place my comments/observations in context.

Once you start reading the article we immediately find the primary problem – the words.  Within tourism the word “Sustainability” is loosely used as the fiat, the holy grail, with most observers not understanding what it means!  The word “Environmental” is much clearer and most readers will be able to elucidate what it involves.

Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” 

Failte Ireland defined Environmental Sustainability as “Environmental sustainability involves making decisions and taking action that are in the interests of protecting the natural world, with particular emphasis on preserving the capability of the environment to support human life” Most of us will understand this to include Energy (Carbon/Climate Change), Pollution, Waste, Water – and we might even include Biodiversity, protecting nature etc.

So straight away we can see the difference in emphasis – Environmental is focused and quite clear, Sustainability is very wide reaching and includes environmental as one element.

Much is made in the article about adapting certification schemes to local conditions and this is also why from our inception GHP did not adopt the existing international certification standards.  Why not?  Because they were either inflexible, or too broad for the requirements of the Irish market.   We felt, and still do, that many of the “Sustainability” pillars were already covered under Irish and European laws and were/are a distraction from the primary Irish “sustainability” issues – waste…..waste of resources – energy, water, landfill and food waste, excess packaging & plastics, local procurement, biodiversity support, etc. = environmental sustainability . 

GHP believed in 2006, and still believes in 2023, that the most important Sustainability issue facing the Irish Tourism sector are the negative impacts of Climate Change which is driven by excess carbon emissions created through Scope 1,2 & 3 emissions.  Climate Change minimisation/mitigation is all about Environmental Sustainability. 

The greatest existential threat to our sector is increasing costs related to climate change impacts and mitigation efforts – look at food costs along the supply chain to understand this.  Think about what this will mean to Irish Tourism when the real carbon cost of flying is levied on flights!

I have no problem with any business producing ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) plans and reports but if their environmental performance is not in line with our national targets and commitments then all the rest is just pure hot air – hiding their poor environmental performance.  It is easy to talk about all the great social endeavours the business is involved in, whilst burning Oil in inefficient boilers or producing excessive food waste or adding to the worlds single use plastic mountains.

GHP recently secured GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) recognition for one of our awards solely because we can see that the tourism sector is being led down the path of “Sustainability” and we need to be able to offer a service that can deliver this – now we can.  Are we going to be pressing our members to apply for it?  No – it is available but our existing awards, which focus heavily on environmental good practice, are much more beneficial to the business, their bottom lines, and to the environment.

We are also assessing the opportunity to promote ISO14001 for hotels.  To what end?  A coal fired power station could secure ISO14001 – is that environmentally sustainable?

There is a moral high ground being claimed when commentators/industry organisations use the word Sustainable, without defining what they mean.  Please challenge them whenever you see/hear them using this word and be very slow to use it yourself without defining your understanding – what are they talking about, is it Environmental sustainability, Economic sustainability, Social sustainability, Community sustainability, etc.? 

Generally, when Irish Tourism organisations talk about “Sustainability” what they really mean is Economic – what can we do to keep the numbers rising, spread the demand and increase revenues.

(Let me also explain the term Ecotourism, which is a sub-set of Environmental tourism and another much abused term. Ecotourism is defined as tourism that is directed towards exotic, often threatened, natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.  Small scale, outdoors, based in the natural environment.  It includes all the environmental and resource efficiency aspects, but its primary focus is on protecting, preserving, and regenerating nature and biodiversity – GHP does not offer an ecotourism certification.)

So, back to the article and I have a few observations to make

Let’s take the article as a whole – it poses an initial question Should Sustainable tourism certification for businesses be encouraged?  

It concludes, effectively, that there should be only 1 standard applicable to all tourism enterprises – “What would be wonderful in the future would be if there were a single global certification standard for tourism and hospitality enterprises”  whilst  also stating that ….”We too came to the conclusion that creating our own locally-relevant standards, aligned to the global standards, was the best option” when referring to a destination programme the author worked with (Burren Ecotourism) – a slight contradiction here, no?

The article lists 4 Benefits and 6 Caveats towards 3rd party certification and suggests that the best route is for Governments to get engaged and create their own “sustainability” schemes/certification and 4 such programmes are referred to – see below for my observations on these.

Overall, trying hard to interpret the article as an impartial reader, I took the view that independent 3rd party certification programmes should not be encouraged unless they were operated by National Governments or National Tourism Organisations.  In general, this is as far as most readers would go as a number of examples were provided (4) by the author of international government schemes.  Very interested parties, such as GHP, would delve a bit deeper and we found that the “examples” provided were either factually incorrect or not government certification programmes or covered “sustainability”.

But before we go there – a few additional observations….

Having worked on environmental and other sustainability issues in Ireland, in Tourism, for almost 20 years I can state quite categorically that there is no single sustainability standard available that is suitable for all tourism and hospitality businesses – as they range from 1 person to ‘000 person businesses, from businesses that have no premises to businesses with major buildings, from businesses with limited knowledge, time and skills to companies employing full-time sustainability managers.

This is why GHP has developed 3 existing programmes and will continue to identify and support the environmental (GREENMark Recognition – for small businesses, Green Hospitality Awards – for larger business/built environment) and sustainability (Green Hospitality Platinum Award – for larger businesses, GSTC Recognised) needs of Irish Tourism.

I have been proposing a holistic approach to “sustainability” within Irish Tourism since I started down this path – for c. 20 years now.  I have called constantly for an industry wide engagement, utilising all the skills and knowledge available to us, without favour or bias, to provide a suite of supports to tourism businesses that will deliver multi-faceted sustainability information, knowledge, certification, recognition, consulting, etc. that can move Irish Tourism towards a more “Sustainable” footing.

Unfortunately, vested interests and blind acceptance that there is only one way forward (The Irish Government and/or its agents) is hindering this wider and inclusive approach, and articles such as this only add fodder to the misinformation regarding 3rd party certification and supports available to tourism and hospitality businesses.  

We have c. 20,000 tourism and hospitality businesses in the sector and no single organisation or body is going to be able to support them in delivering on the environmental, carbon and sustainability commitments and challenges facing them, within the timescales set for us – collaboration and co-operation should be the route forward….but, this is Ireland – you are either in the right camp, or ??????

Fact Checking – Back to the article – Let’s look at some of the statements more closely now.

Scotland’s Green Certification Scheme as a model – This was always a one-off fund of £75,000 available to three 3rd party certification organisations as post-Covid support to part pay for membership/certification to their Environmental standards.  As of 2023 this scheme is closed and it would have assisted no more than 100-200 businesses – we have 20,000 in Ireland in our sector.

The article stated that “a number of national tourism bodies have opted not to go down the independent label route (for businesses) and have instead created their own national tourism standard for sustainability….. In these cases, the DMOs have opted not to recommend independent certification and have taken on the responsibility of setting and managing the standard themselves.”  The Tourism Space name checked 4 National Schemes –   New Zealand’s Tourism Sustainability Commitment, Finland’s Sustainable Travel Finland Programme, Iceland’s Vakinn programme and Slovenia’s Green Scheme for Sustainable Tourism.

This is factually incorrect in the majority of the examples used.

The Slovenia Green Scheme (Which I personally believe is an excellent model for a national tourism organisation to adopt).  Their website specifically states “Destinations are evaluated according to the global Green Destinations Standard, whereas service providers are required to obtain one of the internationally established symbols recognised by the scheme.”  All certifications – destination and business – are delivered by 3rd parties – Slovenia Green Programme is not a direct sustainability certification programme

The Sustainable Travel Finland programme states…” The certificates presented on this page that are already in use by tourism companies in Finland and that support sustainable tourism are directly accepted as part of the Sustainable Travel Finland label”. (25 3rd party programmes) The STF is a framework, not sustainability certification!

With all due respect the Icelandic Vakinn programme is a very basic one and has only 3 hotels with their environmental mark – one of which promotes helicopter flights, very environmentally responsible, and its website doesn’t refer to the Vakinn programme.  The Vakinn programme is primarily a Quality Management programme with an environmental checklist added on – it is not a Sustainability mark

The New Zealand Tourism Sustainability Commitment is exactly that – a commitment/promise – to operate more sustainably with 12 specific areas.  It is not a sustainability certification programme

The reality is that most “National” sustainability schemes accept that there are a number of national and international 3rd party environmental and sustainability programmes available and are happy to direct businesses to them whilst the national tourism organisation focuses on Greening the Destination.  As most businesses reduce their costs far in excess of any fees if they apply the good practice advice, this means the national organisations do not have to incur any cost in developing and/or managing such a programme.  

At this time I am not going to fully address the 6 Caveats against 3rd party certification – I would just ask readers to read them objectively and understand how language is used to skew your perception.  Words such as “Significant”, “Full Cost”, “Long Road”, “Challenge” “Low visibility” “Disillusioned” “Hefty audit fee” “Risk” are littered throughout – what impression are these words meant to convey?  (No mention that environmental performance improvements generally (99% of the time) lead to significant cost savings – I wonder why not?)

Nor do the benefits state the marketing benefits of holding a sustainability or environmental certification – especially for the MICE marketplace.

The article also used statistics to bolster the caveats (negativity) – the article states that “’s 2022 Sustainability research revealed that 62% of respondents don’t actively look for the sustainability efforts of a property before they book” The Benefits section doesn’t state that “’s 2022 Sustainability research revealed that 38% of respondents actively look for the sustainability efforts of a property before they book” I know that if I operated an accommodation business and that 38% (and growing) of my potential market were looking for a “sustainability” mark/certificate and that achieving one would also assist me in reducing my costs I would be beyond stupid not to go get one! (PS:  The Expedia 2023 Traveller Value Index Report states that 90% of consumers are looking for sustainable options when travelling)

So why does the article focus on the perceived negative? Ask the author

At the very least readers should expect industry advisors/commentators to research articles properly before publishing and if they do not wish to be objective to clearly state their position at the beginning of the article.

I welcome any comments or feedback on this comment piece and if you come across additional mainstream publications along these lines, please direct me to them so that I can respond accordingly.