What Responsible Tourism is Not

The word Sustainable is now everywhere, it has grown beyond its literal, grammatical meaning and is tagged onto a huge number of entities, some deserving, some not.

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In the world of travel and tourism we also find the word sustainable. Though often it is expanded and perhaps made more specific by use of the word ‘Responsible’.

Again, the word ‘Responsible’ is tagged onto many things. It is now an established term in the industry but is, in our opinion, often mis-used as a pure marketing ploy. We are genuinely passionate about acting Responsibly as an organisation. This is not an add-on for us, it is an all-permeating ethos.

Perhaps you will therefore grant us leave to express, in fairly blunt terms, what we feel about certain schemes that are used by certain organisations in order to claim use of the word ‘Responsible’ in association with their services.

Responsible Tourism is many things, but it is not….

  • Simply throwing a lump of money at a community with no background research, establishment of a working relationship or long-term plan and goal.
  • An outside organisation, company or group telling the local community what it is that needs to be done. It should be listening.
  • Setting up a ‘fund’ from which local individuals may or may not be able to apply for a pay-out from.
  • Swamping an area with volunteer labour, displacing local jobs.
  • Constructing a building or facility with no provision for the costs of its ongoing use.
  • Offering cheap deals by squeezing local people on their wages.
  • Using a ‘volunteering project’ simply as another box to tick on an adventure travel itinerary.
  • Inventing a white-elephant project to tick the box above.
  • Paying too much or too little for anything.
  • Reaping the benefits of what a country has to offer without sharing the rewards fairly with it.
  • Hiding possible negative or difficult aspects of a trip from prospective clients.
  • Just using the cheapest provider when you outsource certain services

Are You Being Fooled by the Greenwash?

Even before ‘greenwashing’ had made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, it had been sneakily adopted by the cynical and irresponsible in every industry, not least tourism. Many tour operators, travel agents, hotels and lodges are guilty of adopting the word ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’, but simply donating money to ‘green’ causes, choosing to recycle or any other lip-service does not a sustainable organisation make.

Similar to agriculture, transport and energy, tourism is regarded as a climate-sensitive industry with many tourism and leisure organisations dependent on the climate and the health of the local environment in order to operate. Can tourism and travel ever be truly ‘green’? Tourism often involves air travel and other carbon-intensive activities that would suggest not.

This blog is in response to Justin Francis’ (Chief Executive and Co-Founder of www.responsibletravel.com) outrage at the claims made in Travel Weekly Magazine. The magazine congratulates Las Vegas hotels for their green attributes:

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“Las Vegas Strip, that legendary bastion of glitz and neon, is actually a model community when it comes to sustainable environmental practices.” – Travel Weekly USA, October 10th.

The article then goes on to say: “Today, agents can sell most cruises as responsible, some even as eco friendly.  Perhaps no major line has been more active than Royal Caribbean in promoting its image as a green company.” –  Travel Weekly USA, September 26th.

The problem seems to be that the award schemes that these organisations sign up for reward incremental performances.  By showing relative annual improvements, these organisations are apparently worthy of a Gold Rating in sustainable performance. Many hotels in Vegas have the same environmental outputs (energy, waste and water) as a small town, whilst cruise ships have a notoriously bad history when it comes to staff welfare. Consumers will see these ratings and will be led to believe that these establishments are at the pinnacle of sustainable practice. This is dangerous for sustainable tourism, allowing the greenwashers to win. Of course incremental improvements should be celebrated, but in order to be meaningful, sustainability should really be measured in the absolute sense.

Adventure Alternative have put together a list of questions that you can use to help you to look beyond the greenwashing, the glitzy marketing and the price.This guide by no means covers everything; it is intended to be a pragmatic user guide rather than an overwhelming and head-melting mass of questions. We categorised the points so that you can choose to focus on the areas that are of most importance to you and your travel companions. You can likely answer many of the queries by snooping around on websites or perusing brochures, but don’t hesitate to call up and ask tricky and invasive questions.

Photo: Alamy

We are also planning to produce a further list of questions aimed specifically at trips involving volunteering or charity work. This is an area of tourism where recent history has uncovered a huge amount of cynical ‘box-ticking’ exercises by providers. Many incidences have left both participants and potential beneficiaries equally let down by the poor methods of project identification and administration.

By demonstrating that consumers are taking an interest in sustainability, the industry will be forced to comply to consumer demand and up the sustainability game. You have a lot of power! Your choices as a consumer can significantly impact upon the development of communities and the conservation of culture and natural resources.