Over the past several decades tourism has become one of the most popular industries, which resulted in its rapid development due to the number of its customers increasing every year. This has brought about certain environmental problems in response to which a new specialized form of tourism, ecotourism, has emerged (Bramwell 2004). Ecotourism has also appeared because around 70% of the world consumers are preoccupied with environmental issues, which results in their choosing environmentally friendly products and services (Wearing, Cynn & Mcdonald 2003). Currently, tourism is concerned with sustainability which it has placed “at the core of its planning and operational programs” (Willis 2006, p. 8) to meet all the existing environmental standards. Sustainable tourism may be defined as the “management of all resources in such a way that the society can fulfil economic, social and aesthetic needs while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems” (Savage, Huang & Chang, 2004, p. 213). Considering tourism in the context of sustainability, it is worth mentioning that “the fundamental criteria that sustainability in tourism has to fulfill is to preserve the natural and socio-cultural capital of the host community, simultaneously satisfying the subjective and economic needs of both residents and tourists” (Brebbia & Pineda 2006, p. 327). Concerning this, sustainability has acquired basic principles the adherence to which allows evaluating a tourism organization’s being or non-being socially and environmentally conscious. Some of these principles of sustainability are:
- maintaining essential ecological processes;
- preserving biological diversity;
- sustaining use of species and ecosystems, some of which support important industries;
- developing diverse opportunities for non-material use (spiritual, recreational, aesthetic) of natural resources;
- maintaining and improving quality of life; and
- developing a long-term sustainable economy. (Luck & Kirstges 2003, p. 50)
Environmental concerns expressed in these principles of sustainability resulted in the emergence of environmental auditing and the necessity to start certificating products for them to meet “certain environmental and/or social criteria of production” (Mowforth & Munt 2008, p. 202). Environmental auditing helps to regulate the development of tourism, as well as ensures its adherence to definite environmental standards with such processes as eco-labelling and accreditation being of great assistance at this. Eco-labelling and accreditation are regarded as effective means of ensuring that tourism organisations adhere to the principles of sustainability, though the fact that these processes have their drawbacks also cannot be denied.
Eco-labelling is one of the most effective tools used by tourism organizations to improve their environmental performance. Owing to eco-labelling it is possible to find out whether a definite product is or is not environmentally conscious. This process was pioneered by Germany already in 1978 with several countries, not only European ones, starting to adopt it at present. As stated by Ravichandran & Boopathi (2007, p. 17), “eco-labelling is an eye opener where most developing countries have become environmentally conscious to influence the behavior of consumers in choosing environmentally benign products… and induce the manufacturers to bring down the environmental impacts of their products”. This makes eco-labelling beneficial for the society and, simultaneously, increases the manufacturers’ responsibility for the products which they produce. The importance of this lies in the fact that eco-labelled products are then distributed between numerous industries with the tourist one being one of their greatest consumers.
Eco-labelling used separately can hardly be more than a simple marketing tool. For it to become important for the consumers, it has to be a constituent of an eco-label scheme (Buckley 2001). Schemes, according to which eco-labels are organized, “identify for the consumer those products which are environmentally less harmful than other competing goods within the same product category, either because of their composition, how they were made, or both” (Rugman & Verbeke 1998, p. 821). The value of any eco-label depends primarily on the customer preference (Tay 1999), as well as on the consumers’ attitude towards the environment and their ability to differentiate between labelled and unlabelled products (Buckley 2001). If the consumers are not concerned with the environmental problems, then none of the existing industries, including the tourist one, will be able to adhere to the principles of sustainability. This is why raising customers’ awareness about the current environmental situation and convincing them that labelled products are beneficial not only for the environment, but for the customers’ health as well, should be the primary task of every tourist industry employee.
Together with the problem of labelled/unlabelled products, environmental quality of destination remains the major concern of any tourism customer. Here, however, it should be noted that the notion of eco-label in the tourism industry is often confused with general ecological quality of the tourism destination, to be more exact, the cleanness of air, as well as drinking and bathing water; this is why it is necessary to distinguish between “the environmental or eco-labels which refer to the impact of tourism products on the environment… and the environmental quality or eco-quality labels… that refer to the tourism product’s environmental attributes” (Fennel & Dowling 2003, p. 116). When used in tourism, eco-labels have a significant impact on the demand within this industry, though here, as it has been already mentioned, everything depends on how environmentally conscious the consumers are:
Environmentally knowledgeable tourists will probably only pay attention to eco-labels with detailed and transparent criteria and an effective audit procedure. Tourists with a broad environmental concern but little technical knowledge may pay more attention to a well-known brand name, irrespective of technical back-up… This suggests that enough consumers will pay a premium or give preference to eco-labelled products to make them valuable for retailers and manufacturers. (Buckley 2001, p. 21)
Eco-labels have been used long enough to determine the response of the consumers towards them. This helped to significantly improve the quality of services which the tourism organizations provide their customers with; this, in its turn, allowed them ensure certain level of adherence to the principles of sustainability. Thus, for instance, in 2001 the number of eco-labels in tourism industry exceeded 100 with their highest concentration registered in Europe. These eco-labels serve as a policy instrument able to inform the consumers about the necessity to preserve the environment and provide incentives to call the consumers to action, which enables tourism organisations to use natural resources effectively and reduce their impact on the environment. The emerging eco-labelling organizations, such as Green Globe 21, for example, address “efficient natural resource use through reducing energy and water consumption and solid waste production, among other things” (Newsome, Dowling, & Moore 2005, p. 165). This testifies to the fact that tourism industry adheres to some of the principles of sustainability, namely, efficient use of natural resources (and consequently preserving biodiversity), as well as maintaining quality of life and sustaining use of ecosystems. Since more and more tourism organisations adopt eco-labelling practices, the level of adhering to sustainability principles worldwide is likely to increase tangibly in the next several years. For now it remains clear that eco-labelling has proved to be efficient for increasing the awareness of the tourism industry consumers regarding the necessity of using environmentally friendly products and services on the one hand and helping the tourism organisations to adhere to the principles of sustainability on the other.
Accreditation is another means used in determining the quality of the products and their compliance with the environmental standards. Accreditation can be regarded as “a formal process for the determination of product and service quality” (Weaver 2001, p. 619). Accreditation gives extra advantage for a business in a competitive market. Since tourist industry is highly competitive, tourist operators strive to achieve high level of accreditation which serves as a sign of quality. Taking into account the competition in the tourism industry and ever-increasing number of new tourist operators, the level of accreditation depends on how long a definite tourist organisation has been on the market. To evaluate the readiness of an organisation to move to a higher level of accreditation, numerous accreditation bodies (stewardship councils) have been established. Their primary objective is preserving economic productivity of the land (Robinson 2006). Accreditation is extremely important for any kind of industry because it helps to regulate it. This is of special significance for the tourism industry which is constantly developing and which requires elimination of possible dysfunctions and inconsistencies. This may also lead to identifying common practices in tourism organisations, which can help to set standards for this concrete industry (O’Rourke 2003). Accreditation is considered to be one of the best ways to enhance sustainability of tourism due to its mechanisms allowing numerous tourism organisations to adhere to the principles of sustainability.
Stewardship council is one of the most widely used mechanisms of accreditation which ensures tourism organizations’ adherence to the principles of sustainability. This mechanism belongs to those practices which help to ensure sustainable development of the tourism industry. Stewardship councils “accredit certifiers based on their performance and help ensure that certification is being conducted through objective and transparent mechanisms… [and] allow for better organization and harmonization of policies, procedures, and standard setting among accredited certifiers” (Sanabria 2002, p. 326). They belong to certification programs which serve as awards for those businesses within the tourism industry which are the most environmentally and socially conscious. Certification programs should not be confused with accreditation bodies which establish accreditation standards and academic programs for the service layer (Williams 2000). These standards allow identifying whether the organisations are or are not committed to their customers (both socially and environmentally). In this way, stewardship councils and other accreditation bodies help tourism organisations’ adhere to one of the principles of sustainability, improving the quality of life.
Apart from stewardship councils and administrative bodies, there also exist numerous organisations and programs which contribute into tourism industry sustainability. One of the brightest examples is the Australian Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program (NEAP) which was launched in 1996 and which is one of the few global organisations promoting not only ecotourism but heritage eco-cultural tourism as well (Moli 2003). By 2001, this program had certified more than 300 products and around 50 individual guides, which means that it proved its efficiency in less than a five-year term (Chester & Crabtree 2002). The program is open to innovations and is constantly developing (in 2001, for instance, it started including one more category, nature tourism). Its two basic objectives are as follows:
The first objective is to provide nature and ecotourism businesses with the means to gain knowledge of best practice principles and to encourage continual improvement of their product. The second is to provide both primary consumers – the tourists – and secondary consumers – protected area managers, tour wholesalers, and local communities – with a means of recognizing operators of genuine nature tourism and ecotourism products. (Chester & Crabtree 2002, p. 161)
This shows that NEAP raises tourism industry consumers’ awareness of the necessity to preserve the environment and use only those products and services which have high level of accreditation. Therefore, by promoting nature tourism, NEAP allows tourism organisations maintain basic ecological processes and preserve ecosystems and species which can be used in other industries. In addition, the program induces the businesses to manufacture products of better quality. This occurs due to the program’s encouraging “continuous improvement of certified ecotourism products through the revision and toughening of criteria every three years” (Chester & Crabtree 2002, p. 166). Owing to this, NEAP ensures the tourism organisations’ adherence to one more principle of sustainability, the improvement of the quality of life. Finally, by setting standards and accrediting certificates, NEAP selects those tourism organisations which can stand competition and become reliable suppliers of services; in this way, the program contributes into the development of long-term sustainable economy.
Drawbacks of Eco-Labelling and Accreditation
Despite all the benefits of eco-labelling and accreditation for tourism sustainability, they have their disadvantages with most of the researchers agreeing in this idea. Eco-labels, for example, lack environmental regulation. Buckley (2000, p. 183) believes that they “need broad coverage and penetration in relevant market sectors, well-defined and transparent entry criteria, independent audit, and penalties for non-compliance”. Only then will it be possible to regard eco-labelling as an environmental management tool able to affect decisions of the customers and guide their choices. Moreover, eco-labels rarely focus on local environmental issues this is why it is impossible to state exactly why specific non-labelled products are worse than the labelled ones. This testifies to the fact that eco-labels cannot serve as universal indicators of quality because they may lead to discrimination and decrease of competition within the industry, as well as to distortion of the existing environmental policies.
As far as flaws of accreditation are concerned, lack of uniformity is the most significant one. The existing accreditation bodies, though they promote tourism sustainability, still do not establish brand recognition, which is rather confusing for the consumers. The situation is even more complicated with the bodies awarding certificates to the organisations following environmentally friendly policies. The matter is that there are no definite criteria according to which “best practices” used by the organisations are identified, which often results in awarding logos to the organisations for the practices which are not even required to be used to achieve a higher performance level. Though the advantages of eco-labelling and accreditation are more numerous, their flaws should also be carefully evaluated and taken into account by the tourism organisations wishing to adopt eco-labelling or accreditation schemes.
After careful consideration of eco-labelling and accreditation it has been discovered that they indeed are quite effective in promoting sustainability in tourism industry. The examples which have been provided perfectly illustrate how eco-labels and accreditation ensure the adherence of tourism organisations to some of the principles of sustainability. Thus, in case with eco-labelling, the mechanisms of this process help tourist industry adhere to such sustainability principles as efficient use of natural resources, preservation of biodiversity, and improving the quality of life. In case with accreditation, the relevant mechanisms help to maintain ecological processes, preserve species and ecosystems for them to be used in other industries, make the life better through improving the quality of products and services, etc. However, the drawbacks of eco-labelling and accreditation create certain implications for tourism industry management, such as inability to establish clear brand recognition, decreasing competitiveness, and setting trade barriers. Since tourism industry never stops developing, there is an urgent need to either eliminate the flaws of the existing means to ensure tourism sustainability or to design new ones which would help to adhere to a bigger number of principles of sustainability making tourism more profitable and attractive for the consumers. Nevertheless, if the alternative means of ensuring tourism sustainability are discovered, eco-labelling and accreditation should not be ignored due to their benefits for tourism industry being incalculable.
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