Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria Announced

scuba divingA coalition of environmental organizations and travel businesses is forming a global sustainability standard for tourism.

More travelers are desiring sustainable vacations and more destinations are seeking to lessen the impacts of rising visitor numbers. But tourists who want to leave a lighter footprint must currently choose among some 300 different sustainable tourism standards, members of the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria said Monday at the launch of their criteria at the World Conservation Union (IUCN) World Congress in Barcelona. 

The partnership - a collection of 27 organizations from the tourism industry and environmental community - said the unified standard provides a resource that could become as widely recognized as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label for wood products or the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED designation for green buildings.

"There is mass confusion about what is sustainable tourism," said Tensie Whelan, executive director of the Rainforest Alliance, which organized the partnership alongside the United Nations Foundation and various United Nations agencies. "This body will help to make this information available...and ensure that it is indeed reliable."

Sustainable tourism has grown in popularity in recent years and now accounts for an estimated 1 percent of all tourism operations. In early 2007, this rising interest led concerned environmental groups and several major travel providers-including Choice Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, Travelocity, Expedia, Inc., and the American Hotel & Lodging Association-to come together to develop the sustainability standard.

The criteria require that tourism operations conduct their business without having an adverse impact on a destination's habitats, local communities, or cultural heritage. If widely adopted, the standard could further expand efforts to green the supply chain of hotels and resorts as well as lessen the impact on wildlife and local communities, organizers said.

The partnership will suggest specific indicators for a sustainable tourism operation-for example, the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions a hotel must reduce. But unlike other standards such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic label that applies blanket rules for food production, what is considered to be a "sustainable" tourism operation would vary depending on a location's unique environmental or cultural challenges.

The actual requirements will be established by local organizations or governments based on certain local or regional specifics. "This develops the use of local standards-not like the FSC...it's a locally based financial system," Whelan said.

While the standard would be uneven across the world, the architects of the guidelines said they wanted to avoid more rigid criteria that may discourage businesses from applying. "We don't want the bar to be set so high that it's a barrier to entry," said Kate Dodson, the U.N. Foundation's deputy director of sustainable development. "It's how they start [that is important]."

On the environmental side, the criteria require businesses to measure and reduce their energy consumption, water use, waste generation, and greenhouse gas emissions. To address social impacts, a "code of conduct" would be necessary for activities in indigenous and local communities, which the communities would need to approve. Certifiers would also have to ensure that the businesses "respect" cultural heritage and wildlife populations.

Tourism, directly or indirectly, provides roughly 8 percent of world employment and generates trillions of dollars worldwide. Yet the rapid growth in the industry - the World Tourism Organization predicts 1.1 billion people will be traveling in 2010 and 1.6 billion by 2020 - has led to rising environmental concerns including habitat degradation, resource over-consumption, and pollution. Tourism accounts for an estimated 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Tourism also introduces foreign visitors to traditionally sheltered areas, which may threaten the ability for indigenous and tribal communities to protect their cultural heritage.

"Can tourism ever be truly sustainable? I don't think so because of the way it is carried out," said Chris Thompson, head of responsible tourism at the Federation of Tourism Operators and a member of the partnership. "All we can do is mitigate it to make it as sustainable as possible."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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