Disorder in Sustainable Tourism Certification – What are businesses using tourism labels for?

Worldwide there are about 100 – 180 sustainable tourism labels. These labels are a response by tourism sector to address impacts of tourism. Tourism is currently crippled by COVID19. International arrivals were down 65% in June 2020 compared to same time in 2019. The pandemic disrupted what had become a given for tourism. Growth. Over the last decade, tourism has grown by 59% from 940 million arrivals in 2010 to 1.5 billion in 2019.  The UNWTO had projected tourism arrivals for 2020 at about 1.6 billion.

Tourism growth has not been without concerns. As tourism grew, so did discussions on impact of tourism on people and planet.  Among other things, these discussions gave birth to sustainable tourism labels through certification and several other recognition systems. The labels are a quest by tourism to influence practice through differentiation of “good tourism” from “not so good tourism” or sustainable tourism from irresponsible and other tourism models. However, the tides turned soon upon their inception, and until now, the differentiation to separate chaff from wheat targets the proliferating numbers of certification programs.

Critics see these labels as more of checklists than audit schemes. That notwithstanding, the number of green labels continue to grow with varying indicators for best practices. Since inception in 1987, certification in tourism has been a tumultuous affair with only 1% of tourism businesses subscribing to labels. Other recognition systems, specifically awards, have taken over sustainability certification labels. The numbers far exceed certification labels. In these awards, everyone is leading and best. Today it difficult to tell the true meaning of the words ‘best’ and “leading’ in the tourism industry.

Other debates on labels are about harmonization of indicators for sustainable practice. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), has made efforts to regulate sustainable tourism certification programs. But being voluntary and costly to join, has hindered its efficiency leading to new concerns of it being an elite program. It has also been observed that many of the labels are revenue streams for managing organizations therefore these companies are unable to effectively police subscribers or awardees. “The question of the best eco label may not be answered. Based on the diversity of tourism, the diversity of the eco labels has developed as well,” says Herbert Hamele, founding member of GSTC.

These debates notwithstanding, it would be expected that with increasing number of labels, there would be as many sustainability reports in the public domain to prove significance of sustainable practices. On the contrary, what is in the public domain are press releases when labels/ awards are issued followed by paid media articles that do little to share the impacts of having the label.

So, what are businesses/ companies using the labels for? STTA Consulting run a poll survey to find answers to this troubling question after our efforts to find reports proved frustrating. Respondents had four choices on the use of labels by businesses. They responded as follows:

  • Marketing advantage 58.3%
  • Premium pricing 8.3%
  • Attract social funds- 16.7%
  • Change travel trends- 16.7%

These results show an interesting trend in transition of label use. In the 1990s, labels were used primarily for premium pricing. This approach was informed by the school of thought that being green was costly, so businesses with labels had earned a right to charge more because they were investing more to be responsible. As number of labels increased, use of labels for premium pricing waned. It is not clear whether this change in trend is from loss of trust, greenwashing, confusion in the market from many labels or businesses ingenuity to optimize labels. Today, it appears labels are used for marketing advantage. It is now common to see special booths for businesses with a specific label at travel and tourism shows. It is also common for labels to offer group marketing opportunities for members and special promotion of members products. It can be observed that the focal point of labels is shifting from businesses to label companies.

There are different views on labels and their use by businesses. Emilie Hagedoorn observes that while it is disturbing that there are few tourism sustainability reports in the public domain, it may be the case that these schemes / check lists do not require businesses to share reports publicly. Lucy Atieno a tourism researcher and Head of Training & Knowledge Management at STTA Consulting suggests that the lack of reports could be an indicator that the businesses have nothing to report because checklists don’t contribute to change in organizational values.  I believe the lack of reporting is due to misunderstanding labels. Businesses don’t know how to link labels to quality management systems hence they are unable to link labels to organizational long-term business strategy.

It is time to revisit the motivation behind tourism labels and return credibility to tourism sustainability labels. While they are widely accepted by the industry, a changeover is necessary from current labels that have failed to guide companies on process of sustainability reporting, and therefore end up masking trackable evidence of sustainability impact. Reporting and public sharing of sustainability reports should be mandatory in certification because being sustainable is to be accountable to society.

Judy Kepher Gona


November 2020