A guest post by Ryan Davila
Ecotourism is commonly defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). Simplifying this definition, ecotourism exists at the intersection of conservation efforts and sustainable development. While the idea of ecotourism sounds promising, there are many instances of ecotourism operators not delivering on the stated goals of the industry, creating concern that ecotourism is doing more harm than good on both conservation and sustainable development fronts.
In order to combat these potential negative impacts and identify those businesses that are living up to the promises of the industry, many international organizations, national governments, and non-governmental organizations have implemented ecotourism certification programs. Certification programs are defined as “a voluntary procedure that assesses, audits and gives written assurance that a facility, product, process or service meets specific standards. It awards a marketable logo to those that meet or exceed baseline standards set by the certification program” (definition by Martha Honey). The key word that I want to emphasize in this definition is the word “voluntary.” Explaining further, only the ecotourism operators that want to go through the certification process will be assessed.
The first programs were developed in 1985 and most focused on the environmental impacts. Many of these initial programs existed at the international level, meaning that these certification programs certified ecotourism operators all over the world. Fast forward to the present day, there are now roughly 200 ecotourism certification programs in existence. These programs are very diverse and, as mentioned, exist at virtually all geographic scales, ranging from international to local, and can include a variety of criteria and standards used to evaluate ecotourism operators. Although most, now include criteria that assess the socioeconomic impacts in addition to the environmental impacts of ecotourism.
Today, certification programs and certified ecotourism operators can be found all over the world in virtually every country (and to make is easy on you, you can find information on most online). Some of the most common certification programs to look for include, but are not limited to: Green Globe, Green Key, Rainforest Alliance, Green Leaf, and TravelLife. If there are multiple certification programs available in a specific destination (which there usually are since an operator can apply for as many certification programs as desired as long as the operator is within the geographic scope of the project), it’s a good idea to see which operators are certified by multiple certification programs. This is not to say that these highly certified operators are the best in the destination, just that they are more likely to be dedicated to accomplishing the goals of ecotourism.
As ecotourism continues to grow and become more and more popular, it is important that we, as ecotourists, begin paying more attention to the impact that we have on both the communities and the natural areas that we visit during our expeditions. If we research certification programs and choose ecotourism operators that are certified at our destinations, we starting on the right path to becoming more conscious travelers.
*If you desire more information on ecotourism certification, please visit The International Ecotourism Society website (http://www.ecotourism.org/) or the DESTINET website (http://destinet.eu/who-who/market-solutions/certificates/fol442810).*