Christina Cullen from the Rainforest Alliance sheds some light on these terms and tells us how we can travel responsibly.
With yet another British summer threatening to turn into a wet disappointment, more and more holiday-makers are venturing further afield. This, along with the fact that tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, means that its impacts on the environment, including pollution, deforestation, inefficient energy use and cultural exploitation can be huge.
However, tourism is an important source of income for many communities located in extremely bio-diverse and fragile areas. Individuals that once turned to poaching or clear-cutting to support themselves have realised that they can earn a better living by conserving their natural surroundings and promoting their homes as sustainable tourism destinations.
The Rainforest Alliance offers training to tourism businesses — including hotels and lodges — that provides them with the tools and techniques they need to run efficiently and sustainably. Businesses that have completed our program earn the right to use the Rainforest Alliance Verified™ mark on promotional materials.
Travellers can also do their bit by making sure they choose holidays that support the sustainability of the environment and the communities in the locations that they are visiting. The Rainforest Alliance’s SustainableTrip.org is the perfect resource to help the savvy traveller looking for sustainable holiday options in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The site features hotels, tour operators, and other businesses in 19 Latin America and Caribbean countries that are either verified by the Rainforest Alliance, certified by third-party programmes or recommended by reputable organisations. SustainableTrip.org is also full of great tips and advice for the discerning traveller, and really is the ‘go to’ place for anyone thinking of visiting Latin America in 2013 and wanting to take their environmental responsibilities seriously.
So what exactly is the difference between sustainable, eco and green tourism?
Going further than “green”
What does “green” really mean? Usually, nothing! Unfortunately, the word “green” has been used so often and loosely in recent years that it has become diluted. Some have used the term “greenwashing” to describe a PR tactic in which a business deceptively promotes the perception that their policies are environmentally friendly. The term was first coined by researchers in the 1980s in a study that described the hotel industry’s practice of placing green placards in each room that encouraged guests to reuse their towels. The study found that the hotels ultimately made little to no effort to actually conserve resources or reduce waste; they just wanted to appear green in order to increase profits.
To be clear, not every hotel that uses the word “green” is automatically guilty of greenwashing. Most environmentally friendly hotels have information on their website about their “green” initiatives, so you can easily learn about the concrete measures they are taking to conserve natural resources, protect plants and wildlife, and contribute to the well-being of local communities.
Putting the “eco” in ecotourism
Ecotourism is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.” The key principles of ecotourism include minimising impact, protecting biodiversity, building environmental awareness, and respecting local culture. Typically, the primary attractions for ecotourists are flora, fauna and cultural heritage.
Sustainable tourism: the total package
Sustainable tourism businesses support the environmental conservation, social development, and economic health of the areas in which they work. Sustainable tourism and ecotourism are similar concepts and share many of the same principles, but sustainable tourism is broader; it covers all types of travel and destinations, from luxury to backpacking, and bustling cities to remote rainforests. Examples of sustainable business practices include conserving water and energy, supporting community conservation projects, recycling and treating wastes, hiring staff from the local community, paying them just wages and providing training, and sourcing locally produced products for restaurants and gift shops. Sustainable tourism businesses take concrete actions to enhance the well-being of local communities and make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage.
What’s a traveller to do?
Even though “sustainable tourism” and “ecotourism” are more meaningful terms than “green tourism,” the responsible traveller shouldn’t just take these claims at face value. No matter what a hotel or tour operator says about their green credentials, always investigate further. Be sure to ask, “What is this business doing to preserve the environment and support the local community?” If you want to be one hundred percent sure that a tourism business is doing what it claims, opt for those that have been certified or verified for sustainability by an independent, third-party organisation.
If you’re heading to Latin America or the Caribbean and looking for a sustainable hotel or tour operator, the Rainforest Alliance has already done the legwork for you. All of the businesses featured on SustainableTrip.org have been thoroughly vetted to ensure that they are truly sustainable–and each business has a “Making a Difference” section on their profile so you can read all about their sustainability initiatives.