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Greenwashing travel industry

Greenwashing Travel

Different shades of green

Many large industries are using greenwashing techniques to sell themselves these days and the tourism industry is no exception. Knowing the difference between "real" ecotourism and marketing hype can often be confusing. This article attempts to disperse some of the eco-smoke screen and is based on excerpts from Martha Honey's excellent book "Ecotourism and Sustainable Development". A highly recommended read for anyone interested in the controversial issues surrounding ecotourism.

The travel industry's "green" tricks

Although travel writers have no union to represent their interests and fight on their behalf, the travel industry is protected and promoted by a variety of organizations, including the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), The World Tourism Organization (WTO) and The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Clearly, the travel industry has an interest in protecting the world's natural and cultural resources, which are at the core of it's business activities. However it obviously has other concerns as well, some of which run counter to the tenets of sound ecotourism. These travel associations often advocate, for instance, self regulation, expanded tourism markets and a lowering of trade barriers.

In the mid-to late 1990's, industry associations responded to the growth of environmental concerns and the rise of ecotourism. The response was instituting certain changes which when examined closely, often amount to promoting minor cost saving environmental reforms (ecotourism lite) rather than seriously grappling with the principals and practices of ecotourism.

Voluntary green codes of conduct

ASTA's "Ten Commandments on Eco-Tourism" are among a number of voluntary codes of conduct written by various organizations. Widely distributed to travel agents and the traveling public, the "comandments" are printed on green paper and designed to slip into an airline ticket folder. Directed at sensitizing travelers, not the travel agents who belong to ASTA they include such platitudes as: respect the frailty of the earth, always follow designated trails and do not buy products made from endangered plants or animals. Although they urge travelers to patronize those...dedicated to strong principals of conservation, they do not specifically encourage travelers to patronize locally owned or community-based ecotourism ventures. Without further education of both travel agents and the public, ASTA's commandments are not quite enough for ecotourism but they are a start.

Codes such as this have no teeth but allow an organization to claim great sensitivity and responsibility. Few industry efforts demonstrate this more clearly than the WTTC's Green Globe logo program, endorsed by the Earth Council, which was set up to oversee implementation of the 1992 Earth Summit's Agenda 21. The WTTC's president, Geoffrey Lipman, unveiled the Green Globe program at a 1994 Montreal conference titled "building a sustainable world through tourism". Lipman told the delegates that the green globe symbol means that a company is “committed to environmental improvement”. It does not mean that a company has achieved it. I describe this as a diagnostic and self fitness program, not an accreditation program. It offers business benefits, it offers cost saving and commercial positioning. Martha Honey call’s this “putting a green glove on Adam Smith's hidden hand of the market place". Under this scheme, for as little as $200, travel and tourism companies can purchase the right to use the green globe logo in all their publicity and thereby give the impression that they are "going green". In return, the company pledges to work toward more environmentally sound corporate practices as outlined in the United Nation's Agenda 21. To test Litman's description, Worldwide Television News (WTN) in London set up a phony business called "Greenman Travel" and sent an application and $200 to Green Globe. In return, Greenman Travel received a certificate "in recognition of commitment to environmental improvement". The WTTC did not verify Greenman Travel's authenticity or ask why it wanted to join Green Globe. Thus, Green Globe is, in essence, little more than a marketing ploy.

The Dangers of Ecotourism Lite

Much of what is marketed as ecotourism is simply conventional mass tourism wrapped in a thin veneer of green. Ecotourism lite is propelled by travel agents, tour operators, airlines, cruise lines, large hotels and resort chains. It is also promoted by international tourism organizations which promote quick, superficially "green" visits within conventional packages. According to Diane Kelsay, a coordinator of the World Congress on Tourism for the Environment, "we've seen ecotourism used to mean all nature adventure and cultural travel. Someone even published a definition that includes Sunday afternoon drives". Many travel companies use it to call attention to anything they are selling. Perhaps more than any other big player in the tourism industry, the Walt Disney Company tried to cash in on the traveling public's desire to "go green" with an ecotourism lite theme park, Animal Kingdom. Disney spent $800 million dollars to transform 500 acres of central Florida cow pasture into an African savanna, with fake wide-trunk Baobab Trees, a Zulu village and some one thousand real imported animals. This largest of Disney's theme parks is designed to let the American public "go on safari" without leaving the shores of the United States. Although it has won praise from zoo-industry officials, Animal Kingdom opened in mid 1988 amidst protests from animal rights groups and an investigation by the US Department of Agriculture into the deaths of some dozen animals, including representatives of endangered species. Two West African Crowned Cranes were run over by tour vehicles.

A sizable segment of the traveling public wants this type of tourism. In recent years, there has been a gradual trend for many ecotourists to be less intellectually curious, socially responsible, environmentally concerned and politically aware than in the past. Increasing numbers of older, wealthier and "softer" travelers have begun opting for comfort over conservation. Ecotourism lite travelers are, as David Western puts it "entertained by nature, but not unduly concerned with it's preservation". Biologist guides on the Galapagos Islands say that tourists these days, though far greater in number, are overall, less interested in the details of the island's unique ecosystem than they were in the past and want simply a quick historical and ecological overview of the islands. Several naturalist guides have contemplated quitting because they no longer get much professional satisfaction.

These trends reflect the watering down of the true meaning of ecotourism-a movement from real ecotourism toward ecotourism lite. The ultimate goal of ecotourism should be to infuse the entire travel industry with the principals and practices of ecotourism and thereby transform tourism into an environmentally and culturally sensitive activity that contributes to sustainable growth in developing countries. Clearly there is some movement in that direction on the part of many travelers and the mass market. But the movement towards ecotourism lite, towards industry greenwashing through advertising images and cosmetic changes is stronger.

Once some of the world's oldest and most prized nature destinations, including the Galapagos Islands, Nepal and even Monteverde were visited by only the most physically rugged and intellectually curious. Now however, with improved air and ground transportation, better accommodations and extensive publicity, these destinations are being marketed to a mass audience. When poorly planned, unregulated and overhyped, ecotourism lite, like mass tourism or even traditional nature tourism, can typically bring only marginal financial benefits and serious environmental and social consequences. Nowadays, some visitors reach mountain summits via what is marketed as "ecotourism of the future" and their only step uphill is into a helicopter. Helicopter treks fly visitors to high mountain peaks, where they get out, stretch their legs, take photographs and then fly back. Such tours don’t typically do enough to educate the traveler about conservation and do little for local economic development.

The travel industry's efforts to water down ecotourism and sell ecotourism lite in exchange for short-term profits, has led some travel experts to drop the word ecotourism and dismiss the concept as simply a fad. As Bob Harvey puts it, "the word ecotourism became a buzz-word in the early 1990's, but so many people used it in so many different ways that it has become virtually meaningless". This however, is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As a concept and as a set of principals and pratices, ecotourism is still in it's infancy. In identifying what is ecotourism lite and determining where genuine ecotourism is being practiced today, we need also to discover ways in which authentic ecotourism can move from being simply a niche market in the category of nature tourism to becoming a broad set of principals and practices that transform the way we travel and the way the tourism industry functions.

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