Tourism leaders are meeting in Brisbane today to discuss the future of eco-tourism, urging the federal government to invest in the fledgling sector. But exposing the rorts in promoting eco-friendly destinations would be a better start.

One of the worst to emerge since environmental awareness finally pinged into globe-trotting consciousness is the ease in which tourism businesses boast their eco-awareness simply by putting a plastic-coated sign in the bathroom requesting guests to use their towels more than once. My personal favourite, an unfortunately common one, is when a run-down resort replaces its hot energy consuming light globes with the cool efficient variety then announces that it has become an eco-resort. I call them eco-rorts.

The United Nations Foundation’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) states: “The business volume that tourism is generating today equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, food products or automobiles.” Obviously that’s a lot of revenue and where there’s money to be made, expediency often overtakes honesty.

What is lacking is a universally accepted sustainable, environmental best practice licensing system. Like the organic or bio-dynamic agriculture certification processes, there are many and they vary from country to country, region to region. The NASAA aligns itself via accreditation with the USDA Organic, AQIS, IFOAM and JAS, all subjected to varying countries of origin standards. The process for attaining biodynamic certification is an arduous one, at least the consumer benefits from knowing that strict controls have been put in place. Not so with the tourism and travel industry. Instead we have a scatter-gunned approach. Effectively, anyone can claim eco-friendliness or awareness without having to prove it.

In 2009 the United Nations Foundation published a report that addresses the present existing anomalies: “If not run properly, tourism can be a damaging industry: Rapid development can overwhelm natural areas with pollution, disturbing wildlife and once-isolated cultures.” This of course states the bleeding obvious.

The report goes on to say: “However, certification can address the impacts of tourism by ensuring that tourism businesses comply with standards to protect wildlife and indigenous communities.” Which I assume means the UN understands there are problems but they don’t have the power to do anything about it.

As of 2009 a new quango has been established, called The Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC), which describes itself as “an initiative of the UN Foundation, UNEP, the UN World Tourism Organisation, the Rainforest Alliance and others”; using: “the global baseline criteria to develop an accreditation standard for sustainable tourism certification programs. The STSC will be the umbrella under which the certification programs will sit.”

In other words, there is a problem with universal certification and we’ve called in a lot of other organisations run mostly by career bureaucrats to address it. Once the certification standards are set, one presumes that another set of operatives will be contracted to monitor the process.

Imagine this scenario: Indonesian STSC apparatchik from Jakarta visits Bali, checks out the latest recently converted eco-resorts lining Kuta and Legian beaches, notices that the overloaded septic systems still flow into the water, there is still no recycling of plastic or hard waste, rubbish removal is sporadic and public transport is still non-existent. Apparatchik politely explains to hotel owners that little has been done to address sustainable tourism issues other than replacing guest room light globes with energy efficient light globes. Level one stage to certification of sustainable tourism has nevertheless been granted with notice given to improve.

Inspector returns to Jakarta. Hotel owners proclaim that certification of sustainable tourism has been awarded but leave out the meagre stage status or the notice to improve in order to gain full certification. Some money has been exchanged in the process. Plastic-coated signs reading “the management is proud to announce that our hotel has been accredited STSC Sustainable Tourism status” are placed prominently in guest rooms and public spaces for everyone’s edification.

Warm feelings of compliance are shared by susceptible guests though no one truly understands what the sign actually means. What’s important is that something positive about environmental awareness is perceived to have been done. The illusion of sustainable tourism remains illusory and no one is the wiser.

For a business purported to be worth billions of dollars in Australia alone, it’s high time that accreditation for sustainable tourism be internationally defined, recognised and policed. Too many eco-rorts rip-offs will continue to plague what are otherwise genuine operators trying to do the right thing.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey