Ten Habits of Award Winning Sustainable Tourism Businesses in East Africa – STTA Investigates
The tourism industry is awash with awards. It is equally awash with “green-washers”. Green-washers are those businesses that make false claims about their engagement in sustainable tourism practice. In most instances, third parties have not verified their claims. This behavior by ‘green-washers is called and green-washing”. As a result, it is increasingly becoming a challenge for conscious travelers to determine which awards are genuine and for conscious businesses to select partners who are committed to sustainability
Peter Gash the Managing Director of Lady Elliot Island Eco-Resort, Queensland, in an interview with Sustainability leaders, an online forum that seeks opinions of sustainable tourism leaders, states the following about award chasing businesses but who have no purpose.
“Operators need to be a bit careful with who they partner with (in terms of choice of certification or award scheme). It is best to choose one or two certification systems to work with and stay with them. Some people collect them (awards) like trophies on the wall. We just treat it as a measure of how we are doing and where we are going (https://lnkd.in/d54KhzM)
Awards and certification are desirable for benchmarking and measuring performance but businesses must choose carefully. Some award managing organisations are event managers; their ultimate goal is to look good (get publicity) and attract more exhibitors to their events by incorporating an award. Others are running the awards and certification as income generators. Their goal is to certify as many as possible so as to achieve their financial goals. In both these instances, the objective is not to encourage change practices. The push is now for businesses to take responsibility instead of letting awards and certification drive their agenda. In the end, “good deeds” will show, prevail, and/or ascend with or without awards.
The list of Kenya’s award winning tourism businesses is a mixed basket. It has high-end lodges/camps operated by established or renowned tourism personalities, families, or companies, community lodges and large hotels based at the Coast. This picture may mislead one to believe that being sustainable has to do with economic prowess and connections. The converse argument would be that those who engage in sustainable tourism endure. So, what is the true picture?
In a survey conducted by STTA, we established that one way to separate award chasers from those engaging in sustainability wit a purpose, is to look at the habits of the award winners. The investigation involved reviewing what award winning businesses are doing in terms of sustainability, how are they doing it, for whom do they do it, why are they engaged in sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism was used to mean tourism that cares for People, Planet, Profit, and has a Purpose. STTA added the fourth P (Purpose) to the conventional 3ps to come up with 4Ps.
Here is what STTA found out about 10-habits of award winning sustainable tourism businesses:
- The top management of the organisation is deeply, if not directly involved in the sustainability agenda of the company. Where there is commitment by top management, size is not a hindrance to embracing sustainable tourism or ‘doing good” and it is likely that business will directly invests its resources in its sustainability initiatives. The top management engagement translates to allocation of resources for sustainability programs and long-term commitment. Sometimes the management uses its own resources to create awareness in the organisation and to move the sustainability agenda forward. This is particularly the case in single-unit businesses where the founder is the sole decision maker. Most directors of award winning tourism businesses serve in other conservation and tourism organisations and have membership in several other organisations that support planet and community.
- The business is the single or largest and first investor in its sustainable tourism initiatives; but also discloses resources received from other sources. The worst form of “green-washing” is where the business totally uses external funds to support its sustainability initiatives or where its direct contribution to sustainability is less the 50% of the cost of investment in sustainability. The common approaches by tourism businesses in Kenya towards raising resources for sustainability is to mix organisational contributions, with travelers philanthropy as well as donations from grant giving organisations. Both the direct investment and donations are clearly shown in sustainability reports and other publicity material of the organisation. Safarilink is the best example of a business that funds its sustainability initiatives 100% from internal funds.
- The business constantly evaluates its practices through participation in awards and certification programs. Emphasis here should be on the balance between participation in awards and certification programs, and the choice of certification programs. It is important to note that most awards do not have systems for third party verification hence the judgement of performance is based on what the applicants say about themselves. Authentic award winning tourism businesses participate in awards and certification that provide for third party evaluation of claims. They also do so regularly therefore opening themselves for scrutiny from different quarters. The best example here is Porini Camps. They are the most awarded camps in Kenya. They participate in a wide range of award schemes and have also demonstrated growth through the higher levels of recognition received in the recent years including being Gold eco-rated
- The business is committed to long-term programs that are aimed at causing positive change. Apart from being long-term, the programs also need to be integrated to increase their viability, sustainability, and scale of transformation. Serena beach hotel has been running a turtle conservation project for 23 years. Their commitments to this project are many and varied and continue to evolve. Some of their commitments involved paying a marine biologist to support the set-up of the project; paying fishermen for protecting nests; paying fishermen for every egg that is protected to maturity; training fishermen on sustainable fishing, engaging neighbouring hotels, procuring refrigerators for the fishermen, training its own staff and offering lessons to hotel guests on turtle nest management and hatching. What started as a conservation project, has evolved to include transformation of local livelihoods, provided income for households, and educated hotel guests. This is a not a feel good project, but a do-good project. Some businesses constantly chose short-term initiatives that do not allow for proper evaluation of impact.
- The business has a clear purpose for engagement in sustainability initiatives. A clear purpose is derived from organisation values for the 3ps (people, planet & profit). The purpose should be clearly documented through a policy or plans or scheduled activities. It should be known to the staff members and to business partners. Staff members need to be given a chance to engage. Finally, it should show evidence of implementation through reports and other forms of communication. When a business has a clear purpose for engagement, there will never be a shortage of opportunities to engage. They go out of their way to ‘do good’’. Two businesses that stand out in terms on purpose are Safarilink and Lets Go Travel. Despite Kenya not having a certification program for tour operators and airlines, these companies have been pioneers in sustainability initiatives in their fields. Safarilink Aviation has designed ingenious ways of engaging with People and Planet projects. They have recognised destinations where they fly-into as the beneficiaries (for whom) of their sustainability initiatives. For example, for every ticket sold to Diani, they contribute a percentage of ticket cost to Colobus Conservation to save the Colobus monkey that is threatened by human development in Diani. They equally contribute to Lewa Conservancy for every ticket sold to Nanyuki. They have done this for more then 5 years. In addition, they have health and education programs, not to mention the carbon offset initiative with Mt Kenya Trust. Why would an airline do this, unless its business values recognise people and planet?
- The business publicly declares its belief, engagement, and support for sustainable tourism. This can be done through printed material, reports that are shared publicly and through on-line platforms and participating in activities and programs that promote sustainable tourism. It is an investment of time and treasure (money) to create awareness and share experiences with business partners, clients, and the public. Lets Go Travel is the champion of this public display of commitment to sustainable tourism. They participate in all events that promote sustainable tourism. The exhibit and every opportunity and share printed materials that publicly show their support and commitment to sustainability. Their sustainability reports are supported by figures to show the level of investment and impact. They are the first tour operator to join Ecotourism Kenya when it was founded. They are among 10 tour operators in Kenya pioneering the Travelife program for tour operators. They have won the Eco-warrior Award. Lets Go Travel is a member of several conservation organisations, including Friends of Nairobi Aboretum, Nature Kenya, East African Wildlife Society, Ecotourism Kenya, Laikipia Wildlife Forum, among others. Their people projects include feeding the needy, and the “keep her in school” project that provides teenage girls in selected schools in Nanyuki with sanitary towels.
- The business fosters long-term relationships with guests that go beyond selling a holiday package. In some cases the relationships flourishes into long-term partnerships that result in repeat visits and new customers through the ‘snowballing effect’. They do this by creating memorable experiences for their guests anchored on their sustainability initiatives. In most instances these businesses have well developed, well managed travellers philanthropy programmes that enable guests to support projects of their choice. In best practice scenarios, the request to support is offered after the guests have experienced and not before. Where traveller’s philanthropy is not handled properly, it can be repulsive to guests, be seen as intrusive, or become a “guilt trap” as some guests have described their experiences. Example of tourism businesses with well-established travellers philanthropy programs include &Beyond, Asilia and Cheli & Peacock. These tourism businesses have well-established foundations that support their community and conservation work. They also have systems for directly supporting the foundations.
- The business has a dedicated person or persons or teams responsible for sustainable tourism programs or special projects. The aim of having these focal persons or focal points (e.g. committee) is to ensure that someone takes responsibility for identification, implementation, documentation, reporting, evaluation, and communication of the initiatives. In most cases, the focal persons or teams have other “primary duties” and only attend to sustainability as a secondary duty. This approach seemed to work for a number of operators. Sometimes the dedicated person was the Managing Director, a director, or founder of the business. Examples of leading sustainable tourism businesses that have dedicated teams include Cheli & Peacock, Serena Hotels, Asilia, &Beyond, Sasaab and Turtle Bay Beach Club.
- The business has broad networks that encourage learning and sharing lessons. Most the award winning tourism businesses have membership in several conservation organisations and groups. Through these networks, they add their voices to advocacy campaigns and demonstrate commitment to a course. The favourite national organisations are East Africa Wildlife Society (EAWLS) and Nature Kenya. In addition to the national organisations, these businesses support other region based organisations like FONNAP, Laikipia Wildlife Forum, Watamu Ocean Trust, and many more. As a requirement, all award winning sustainable tourism businesses are members of Ecotourism Kenya. These networks enhance identity of the businesses and provide direct opportunities for giving back to the planet.
- The business complies with statutory regulations and is up-to-date at all times as a minimum operation standard. Some significant legislation that tourism businesses need to comply with include Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Audits (EA), tourism licensing requirements, labour laws like issuing staff with employment contracts, allowing staff to join unions, paying wages in line with or above living wage. All eco-rated facilities must be compliant before being rated.
By Judy Kepher-Gona