Customer-Driven «Green» Tourism:
Power without Responsibility?

By George K. Sammy, Ph.D., R.Eng., MAPETT
February 2001

The Author is Managing Director of Ecoengineering Consultants Ltd in St. Augustine - Trinidad, providing consulting services in a wide range of environmental specializations.

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Green Tourism
  3. «Green» Classification
  4. Environmental Management Systems
  5. Dialogue

1. Introduction

In its efforts to diversify the nation´s economy, the Government of Trinidad & Tobago has identified tourism as an area of potential growth. In this respect, we may consider ourselves fortunate that several of our Caribbean neighbours have many years experience in the Tourism Industry. Barbados and Jamaica, for example, have been established tourist destinations for many decades. Even in the relatively new eco-tourism thrust, Belize and Dominica have more experience than we do. Thus, the opportunity presents itself for us to learn from the experience of our neighbours. In particular, we can identify problems which they have experienced, and study how they sought to solve those problems.

This paper discusses the issue of Customer-driven Green Tourism, which is increasingly becoming an issue in neighbouring Caribbean islands. There are those who would consider Green Tourism to be a benefit to our countries, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the demands of the Green Movement are posing significant problems to the owners and operators of tourist plant. Specifically, questions have been raised about:

Each of these issues will be addressed in this paper, but first there is a brief introduction of the concept of «Green Tourism».

2. Green Tourism

2.1 Customer Discretion

Of all industries, Tourism is the one in which the customer has absolute discretion. The tourist may choose one destination or another, or none at all; applying any criteria he sees fit. Destinations and individual facilities must therefore seek to provide a product which will satisfy the requirements of a suitably large number of customers, or they will face financial ruin. After all, in this industry the Customer is Always Right!

2.2 Environmental Concerns

There has been a growing trend of environmental consciousness among tourists, particularly those from Europe. This has led to two trends:

The Ecotourist is one who has a keen interest in nature, and seeks a vacation which will maximize the naturalist experience. Ecotourism is the fastest-growing segment of the tourist industry, and Ecotourists tend to spend more at their destination (per person, per day) than other types of tourist (Final Report on the Feasibility Study for the Bloody Nature Project, Tobago, prepared by Ecoengineering-Ecologistics, 1997). In addition, many facets of nature can be used as the basis for an ecotourism industry: mainland rain forests, island rain forests, coral reefs, marine turtle nesting, etc. It is therefore not surprising that many Caribbean countries (Belize, Dominica, Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, to name a few) have opted to develop a strong Ecotourism component to their overall tourism product.

Green Tourists, in contrast, may not have as strong an interest in nature as Ecotourists. However, they consider it important that the facilities which they use are designed and operated in such a way that adverse impacts on the environment are eliminated (or, at least, minimized). This is clearly a laudable approach, so why does it create a problem? Hotel operators in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) can attest to the fact that enquiries received from European travel agents and tour operators now frequently include the question: «Is your hotel classified as environmentally friendly?». Implicit in this question is the assumption that there are accepted criteria for such classification; whereas in our region such criteria are not readily available. In the absence of ratings within the region, it appears that many potential tourists rely on environmental groups in their own countries to determine which facilities are «green», and which are not.

3. «Green» Classification

3.1 Criteria

Criteria for rating the «environment-friendliness» of any facility usually relate to:

Operational practices cover a wide range of environmental concerns. External lighting of the facility and the nature and timing of sound emissions can affect neighbouring residents or wildlife in adjacent areas. The frequency of washing linen affects the water demand at the facility, as well as the volume of waste water that is generated. Similarly, the nature of detergents used will influence the type of impact which is experienced in receiving water bodies. In like manner, composting of part of the solid waste would reduce the load being placed on landfills.

In all cases, the diversity of the Caribbean region makes it very difficult to define a universally-applicable «best approach». For example, some facilities may reduce demand on the public electricity supply by the use of solar water heaters or on-site generation via windmills or solar cells. This may not be a practical approach in other locations. Likewise, the use of treated waste water for irrigation of lawns and plants is very effective in dry islands like Barbados or the Bahamas. However, in places like Dominica or Trinidad & Tobago, irrigation during the rainy season has proved unmanageable.

In preparing this paper, enquiries were made to determine what criteria were used by international environmental groups in rating the «green» status of tourist facilities in our region. Unfortunately, no definitive answers were received. However, there was a clear suggestion that the criteria are applied uniformly across the region, without considering the diversity of the region.

3.2 Rating

Having decided on a set of criteria, the second question relates to the actual process of rating. Simply put, there are concerns about the information being used to rate facilities. These concerns relate to:

As with the criteria, we were unable to ascertain the sources of information being used to rate specific facilities. It is doubtful if this information comes from «Official Sources», because few (if any) of our governments collect and publish data on this type. We are also unaware of any International Environmental Groups which actually visit our region to collect such information. This leaves two sources: local environmental groups and surveys/questionnaires sent directly to owners/operators of tourist facilities.

The first concern is that the information used in rating facilities should be accurate. Regardless of whether the source of the information is a local environmental group or a questionnaire/survey, the information must be validated. It would be foolhardy to assume that neither of these sources of information would bias the information to serve some ulterior purpose. In like manner, it is important that the information be kept up-to-date. Tourist facilities seldom remain in a fixed form over a long period. In the quest to satisfy their customers, frequent changes are made. Some of these changes would affect the «green» rating of the facility.

3.3 Transparency of the Process

Several owners/operators have complained that the present system of «green» ratings lacks transparency. Owners/operators of tourist facilities wish to know how the ratings are being done, and by whom. It is a fact that tourists (and by extension, travel agents and tour operators) consider these ratings (among other criteria) in deciding which facilities to use. The owners/operators feel that they should have access to the rating criteria (to make changes which would improve their rating), as well as the information used in rating (to ensure that it is accurate and current). The enquiries made in preparation of this paper suggest that such transparency is lacking.

3.4 Lack of Recourse

Because of the lack of transparency, owners/operators of tourist facilities feel that they have no meaningful recourse if they are disadvantaged by the present rating system. If they do not know how the ratings are being arrived at, they cannot correct errors. Even where they learn «through the grape vine» that they have been given an undeserved poor rating, they are unsure where their complaint should be directed.

4. Environmental Management Systems

4.1 Benefits of EMS

The implementation of Environmental Management Systems (EMS) represents one approach to addressing some of the problems indicated above. These tools permit the facility operator to devise an Environmental Policy which recognizes the uniqueness of his facility as well as his country. By their very nature, these systems also address local regulations and standards. Finally, the EMS relies on progressive improvement toward the goals, so that the operator is not faced with a «pass/fail» choice, but rather one of management by objectives.

4.2 Cost Implications

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the cost of implementing an EMS, per se, is not necessarily prohibitive. However, the cost of certification can be significant. In the circumstances, the following suggestions are made to bring the EMS within the reach of small and medium operators in the tourism sector:

  1. The OECS Region should invest in the preparation of a Handbook on EMS, specifically designed for the needs of the Tourism Industry. This is not intended to «re-invent the wheel», but rather should be tailored to exclude many details which are included in general texts but which are not directly relevant to the Tourism Industry.
     
  2. The OECS Region should also provide broad-based training to operators in the Tourism Industry to ensure that the nature, objectives and procedures of EMSs are generally understood.
     
  3. The OECS should support initiatives by regional organizations to become registered as EMS Certifiers. For example, the Trinidad & Tobago Bureau of Standards has indicated that they will shortly seek such registration with the International Standards Organization. Having such a registered organization within Caricom (in contrast to bringing certifiers in from the metropolitan countries) will certainly lower the cost of certification.
     
  4. The OECS should explore whether economies can be gained by grouping facilities for the purpose of EMS certification. The concept of «grouping» is different from the «generic EMS» which has been discussed in some quarters, in that it would involve the selection of facilities which have features in common, and are similarly located.

5. Dialogue

In suggesting an approach to solving the problems high-lighted above, several factors were considered:

The suggestion, therefore, is that the tourism industry in the Caribbean Region should engage the international environmental groups in a meaningful dialogue on the subject of «green» rating of individual facilities. This dialogue should be aimed at ensuring that ratings are based on criteria which are acceptable in the Caribbean and on data which is accurate and current. It should also seek to build the necessary transparency into the system. It is our opinion that an industry grouping, such as the Caribbean Tourism Organization, would be more likely to succeed in this endeavour than a governmental organization.

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