Certification of travel products assures sustainability
By Kari Roberg and Christine Vogt, Ph.D.
Travel, at its best, enriches us as individuals as it enriches communities across the globe. The number of people discovering the joys of travel continues to grow year after year, with more than one billion people now traveling around the world. These one billion travelers can have very positive impacts on their destinations, including supporting jobs and local businesses and preserving cultural sites. However, travel can also have negative impacts on destinations, such as degradation of natural resources, increased waste in communities, and limited economic impact. Travelers interested in contributing to the well-being of the destinations they visit can find assurance that they are choosing sustainably minded businesses by looking to certification programs.
Certification is an official recognition of having met a certain level of achievement. In the case of sustainable tourism, in order to meet certification requirements, businesses must meet a set of standards in environmental, sociocultural and economic practices. These may include using renewable energy, recycling, choosing local suppliers for equipment or services, and actively encouraging customers’ respect for the culture and customs of the area. In order to become certified, businesses may have to go through an inspection process, interviews and/or paperwork. A rating system, or levels of certification, help consumers differentiate between companies highly engaged in sustainable practices and those less engaged. Certification can help mitigate greenwashing. Once certified, a logo is generally provided to businesses for use on marketing pieces to inform consumers and the industry supply chain of their commitment to sustainability.
Arizona State University’s Center for Sustainable Tourism recently partnered with Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA) to study the sustainability practices of small tourism businesses in Alaska and company motives for becoming certified with Adventure Green Alaska, Alaska’s only sustainable tourism certification program. Study results showed businesses certified with Adventure Green Alaska were internally motivated by core company values and viewed sustainable tourism strategies as good for society and the environment. Businesses not certified were less likely to respond to the survey (which can indicate less interest in the survey topic), and those responding had implemented fewer sustainability practices. External factors, such as consumer interest, marketing benefits, and competitive advantage, are likely to be higher motivators for these companies to pursue certification.
Various destinations around the world maintain “green hotels” or “sustainable tourism certification” program. In Arizona, for example, the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association (AzLTA), in collaboration with Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, manages the Certified Green Lodging program to recognize sustainability practices of Arizona’s lodging properties. Both organizations are currently enhancing the program to further measure and monitor sustainability practices, share best practices among participants, and chart the progress of businesses. Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix has demonstrated its commitment to sustainability and achieved Certified Green status with practices such as using water harvesting technology, energy-efficient thermostats and swimming pool technology, which reduces evaporation. AzLTA is conducting site visits of lodging establishments to gain a behind-the-scenes understanding of green operations and to learn of new initiatives to incorporate into their sustainability standards. By touring Hotel Congress in Tucson, for example, they learned of seemingly small changes that make a huge impact, such as using reusable coasters at the bar instead of napkins underneath drinks.
Certification programs initiated by organizations such as AzLTA and ATIA help to move the needle forward in the adoption and growth of sustainability practices in lodging and tourism enterprises. In addition to aiding businesses to implement sustainable practices, certification programs aid tour operators and travel agents in choosing businesses to include on travel itineraries and recommend to clients. Certification provides assurance to the tourism supply chain and travelers that they are choosing businesses committed to sustainability and the betterment of destinations.
It is consumers (travelers) who ultimately are the key to encouraging further adoption of sustainable practices in the tourism industry. Travelers can encourage businesses currently involved to deepen their commitment to sustainability. More importantly, consumer interest can help businesses currently uninvolved in sustainable practices to see the possibility of competitive advantage and entice them to consider sustainability. Businesses that do not currently identify sustainability as a core value will need the will of the consumer to influence changes in business practices. The future of tourism is sustainable management of businesses and consumer commitment to sustainability. Destinations, we must remember, are people’s homes, and respect is of utmost importance.
Christine Vogt is professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University (ASU). She also directs the Center for Sustainable Tourism at ASU where she works with communities and tourism offices to create sustainability strategies.
Kari Roberg researched business involvement with sustainable tourism practices and certification programs while a graduate student at ASU’s Center for Sustainable Tourism in the School of Community Resources and Development. Originally from Chicago, she has fifteen years experience in the tourism industry and has a lifelong passion for green living. She currently works as Research Manager at the Arizona Office of Tourism.