Sustainability certification in tourism: pursue or avoid?

Sustainability certification in tourism has both benefits and downsides. Learn if you should pursue or avoid certification as a tour operator.
Sustainability certification in tourism: pursue or avoid?

Certification for sustainable tour operators

There are many sustainability certification schemes available and over the years there has been a lot of discussion. To what extent are they reliable, transparent, valuable and what’s in it for you as a tour operator? In this article, we discuss the benefits and downsides of sustainability certification for tour operators. And whether it’s something for you to pursue or to avoid.

Sustainability criteria

Certification schemes are developed to assess and monitor the sustainability practices of tour operators. Certification is a voluntarily process where an independent third-party checks and verifies whether there is full compliance to the criteria. The criteria of sustainability schemes vary between programs, but typically include the three following factors:

1. Environmental sustainability

Including reducing carbon emissions, protecting nature and wildlife, and minimising waste and pollution.

2. Social responsibility

Including respect for local cultures and traditions, and supporting local communities through employment and economic development.

3. Economic viability

Including fair wages and working conditions for employees, and supporting local businesses and suppliers.

GSTC recognition

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) establishes and manages global standards for sustainable travel and tourism. Schemes that are recognised or accredited by GSTC comply with their international standard. The GSTC criteria provide assurance, transparency, and credibility for certification schemes in the tourism industry.

Find all GSTC recognised standards for tour operators here

Benefits of sustainability certification

Sustainability certification has several benefits that helps you improve your sustainable business performance. According to us at the Good Tourism Institute, there are four general benefits when it comes to sustainability certification.

1. Clear framework for sustainability practices

Sustainability certification provides you with a clear framework for sustainable tourism practices. It outlines specific criteria that must be met to achieve certification. By following the certification framework, you can ensure your practices are comprehensive. And thereby also aligned with recognised sustainability standards.

The criteria show what’s possible in the tourism industry and what’s required to be a sustainable tour operator. It provides guidance and training to comply with the criteria. And it serves as a very practical structured approach in implementing sustainability.

2. It serves as a benchmarking tool

By achieving sustainability certification, tour operators demonstrate they meet or exceed the criteria. Certification involves an evaluation of the tour operator’s performance against the set of criteria. And this provides a basis for ongoing monitoring and improvement of sustainability practices.

By achieving certification, you contribute to the overall benchmarking of sustainability within the industry. And thereby also support the development of more sustainable tourism practices over time.

Tourism sustainability certifications (compilation)

Compilation of sustainability certification schemes in tourism

3. Easier access to sustainable travel for consumers

Tour operators who achieved certification show they prioritise sustainability in their operations. And by presenting their certificate in their online communication, they prove this to their consumers. A certification label can help consumers to quickly identify sustainable tour operators.

Additionally, sustainability certification can also help raise consumer awareness. For example, about the importance of sustainable tourism. As a certified tour operator, you contribute to educating your consumers about the impact of their travel choices.

4. Third-party verification

This is an essential component. As third-party verification helps ensure the certification process is completed correctly. And that sustainability claims are backed-up with sufficient documented evidence. The independent third-party auditor makes sure that the tour operators truly comply with the set criteria.

Third-party verification adds another layer of transparency and credibility to the certification. It also serves as an additional pair of eyes. Providing detailed feedback and recommendations for further improvement.

Downsides of sustainability certification

Besides the benefits, there are also several downsides of certification. They provide significant reason to not pursue certification. According to us at the Good Tourism Institute, there are four main downsides of sustainability certification.

1. Certification standards have a limited scope

Certification standards consist of many sustainability criteria. However, they still have a limited scope. It’s simply not possible for a standard to cover all sustainable aspects of a tourism business. It’s impossible to report on all aspects and also very difficult to audit. Therefore, sustainability standards limit to a certain set of most important sustainability criteria.

This can provide a clear framework for tour operators to improve their sustainability practices. But it can also lead to a narrow focus that may not address all aspects of sustainability. Thereby, it also allows for loopholes where tour operators are not fully sustainable. But who can still achieve certification if it’s not part of the scope of the standard.

2. It confines implementation beyond certification

Sustainability certification schemes obviously focus on compliance with their sustainability criteria. They aim to support tour operators to meet their baseline requirements. However, by doing this, they (unintentionally) advise against innovation or experimentation. Achieving a certification makes tour operators feel they’ve achieved the highest level possible.

Basically, certification discourages tour operators from thinking creatively. And from pursuing innovative sustainability initiatives that may not fit in the framework. Sustainability should be about implementing practices that truly add value to your business, your consumers, and the destinations you’re travelling to. It’s not a one size fits all concept.

“Certification schemes (unintentionally) advise against innovation and experimentation in sustainable tourism development”

3. It’s requiring a significant time investment

A certification process is very time-consuming. It requires reporting on many different sustainability criteria. And validating sustainability practices through extensive documentation. Overall, it takes quite some time and money investment to achieve a certification. Smaller tour operators often don’t have the resources to invest time and money in the certification process.

And if you’re new to sustainability, it takes a lot of time to start from scratch. You’ll be busy creating policies and guidelines for your business you haven’t used yet, just to achieve the certification. It slows down your certification process. Also, you lose the creative part where you focus how sustainability adds value to your business.

4. Consumers don’t understand certifications

This might be the main issue with certification. While certification does make it easier to access and recognise sustainable tour operators, too many consumers don’t understand the certification schemes. They don’t know what they mean and what tour operators have implemented to achieve this. Therefore, having a specific certification logo on your website does not fully convince your consumer.

For the consumer, any certification is perceived pretty much the same. In the end, consumers look for their desired travel experience. They might care about it being sustainable, but it’s not their top priority. There is still a large say-do gap when it comes to sustainable travel booking behaviour. Unfortunately, certification is not going to close this alone.

Certification as a marketing tool

There are also tour operators who pursue sustainability certification primarily as a marketing tool. Rather than as a genuine commitment to sustainability. This can lead to greenwashing, where companies are making misleading claims about their sustainability practices.

Pursue or avoid sustainability certification?

So overall, sustainability certification can be a valuable tool for tour operators. The mentioned benefits are there. Pursuing certification provides you with a clear framework to implement sustainability. It’s a good benchmarking tool, it raises awareness among consumers. And offers a third-party verification of your sustainability practices.

However, looking at the downsides of certification, it’s clear that certification limits the creative, innovative side of sustainable tourism. Certification does not help you here, because as we mentioned, sustainability is not a one size fits all. It must be implemented in a way it fits your business, niche market, target group, destinations, and USPs.

“The only way certification is truly beneficial is as a cherry on top, to verify existing sustainability practices of a successful tour operator”.

Sustainability certification as cherry on top

Certification can serve as a cherry on top. As additional verification of your sustainability claims towards consumers, partners, and other stakeholders. But it should always be perceived as tool for structured implementation and benchmarking. And not only for marketing or as final achievement in terms of sustainability.

If implemented well and thoroughly, sustainability can truly add value to your business. It helps you make profit from positive impact. But only if you focus on innovation, creativity and how your business can make a positive impact in the destinations you’re travelling to. Certification can only serve as supporting tool in the process.

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