The travel and tourism industry has generated a plethora of labels and certification schemes as businesses and destinations seek market advantage. Greenwashing is rife in the sector. Ecotourism was extremely successful, emerging in the 1980s, it spread rapidly and it is still extensively used to suggest a superior product, a better experience and one which was eco-friendly. A quick search on Google finds 9,350,000 hits. It is a seductive idea and attractive to academics, too. Google Scholar finds 291,000 references.
In 1994, Baroness Chalker, then Minister of State for Overseas Development & Africa in the British government, was healthily sceptical. We won a three-year grant at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology to look for ecotourism on the ground in three national parks in India, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe. At the national park level, we failed to find it. Our research reports are published and available online – look for ‘Tourism, Conservation and Sustainable Development’ on Google. Research conduct by the World Tourism Organization around the millennium found the value of ecotourism, in practice, to be in niche marketing,
Ecotourists use the same planes, jeeps, accommodation as the mainstream tourists, consuming the same food and beverage. They may be less likely to buy wildlife-based souvenirs and have a more expert guide, but they are just as likely to join the pack of jeeps crowding a lion or tiger with the same negative impacts on hunting, eating and breeding. The ecotourist pays the same merit priced entrance fee, rarely, if ever, contributing anything to the maintenance of the national park, its habitat or wildlife. Our research revealed that the national government often subsidised the cost of the tourist or ecotourist visit.
In 2004 Responsible Travel launched Responsible Tourism Awards, presented each year at WTM, London. The concept was simple, invite businesses and destination to enter, sharing with the judges both what they do to take responsibility for making tourism better and the impact of their efforts. Each year we see examples of how tourism can contribute to making a better world. Alongside the presentation of the Awards the judges give their reasons for recognising particular initiatives and the efforts made by individual business and by destinations. We tell a short story, based closely on what the applicant tells us. If an applicant were to mislead the judges by presenting false information we would withdraw the Award potentially damaging them. In 18 years we have not needed to do this.
This year we launched a new International Centre for Responsible Tourism, China based in the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation. Prof. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, Chief Executive Officer at the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) in Hamburg is also on the Board. This year we recognised six Chinese businesses, you can see them here and hear the reasons they were recognised.
The 2021 Global Responsible Tourism Awards are now closed and the best will be recognised at WTM, London on November 1st. There are now regional awards in Africa, India and Latin America, in 2022 we plan to add East Asia, to include Chiba, and working with Travel Tomorrow to launch an annual regional award for Europe.
Through the awards we aim to encourage others to replicate proven approaches to using tourism to make better places for people to live in and to visit, in that order. The awards contribute to overcoming “tall poppy syndrome” which I posted about here six weeks ago. We hope that by recognising businesses and destinations which have made a difference, used tourism to make better places, businesses and destinations will be encouraged to tell credible stories backed by evidence of the positive impacts they are making by taking responsibility.
“The stories we tell about travel and tourism are an important part of marketing, promotion and sales. Products are being redesigned to increase the experiential content and there is increasing focus on the customer journey, the consumer’s experience of the agent or operator as well as of the destination.” For WTM Virtual in November last year I interviewed JoAnna Haugen of Rooted about the ways in which narrative is essential in the storytelling process of any travel experience. The interview focused on how this can make for better guest and host experiences, creating a better world of tourism for all.