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6 Mar, 2012

European NGOs Sift Through Tourism “Label Jungle” to Verify Trust, Transparency

A group of European NGOs specialising in the travel & tourism industry have closely scrutinised 20 labels being used worldwide as symbols of certification for sustainability and environmental responsibility. The objective was to help travellers and the travel trade make better informed decisions by differentiating “between what is reliable and what is dubious.”

Appropriately entitled, “Sustainability in Tourism: A Guide Through the Label Jungle,” the guidebook notes that although “fair travel” has become just an important factor in holiday planning as “fair trade” is in shopping, the key question is: “What is it that makes travelling ‘fair’?”

According to a media release on the guidebook, “Currently, tourism boasts more than 100 quality labels worldwide. The small stickers with green leaves, radiant suns or blue flags are displayed at hotel entrances, tourism offices or at the entrance gates to camping sites. They designate providers, beaches, nature reserves, indeed entire regions. The great variety of quality labels admittedly causes confusion among the general public.”

To address this problem, tourism experts active in Working Group on Tourism & Development (arbeitskreis tourismus & entwicklung – akte), ECOTRANS e.V., Church Development Service (Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst – EED) – Tourism Watch, and Naturefriends International (NFI) worked together on developing the guidebook as a tool for comparing the main characteristics and quality features of 20 of the more prominent sustainability labels in tourism.

The guidebook “will help visitors and the travel trade select holiday options that are designed to respect human rights, that go easy on the environment and are of palpable use to the local population in the regions visited.” It will help travellers  “actively contribute to the sustainable development of tourism from the moment you book your holiday.”

Some of the labels included in the scrutiny are: Green Globe, CSR Tourism, Green Key, Earth Check, Green Tourism Business Scheme, Ecotourism Australia, Green Leaf Foundation, Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, Smart Voyager, amongst others.

According to Heinz Fuchs from EED Tourism Watch, the labels which were closely scrutinised included those for accommodation providers, travel formats and tour operators, and especially sustainability labels in popular European holiday countries.

“The more carefully a quality label considers environmental, social, economic and cultural aspects, the more information it provides on the sustainability impact of a travel format at global and local level and hence on how highly it can be recommended”, says Christine Plüss from akte in Basel.

Adds Herbert Hamele von ECOTRANS: “By providing higher-quality information we wish to encourage tourists to take account of quality labels and to give preference to tourism providers who live up to their social responsibility. We hope that our catchy brochure will help consumers to achieve this objective.”

According to the guidebook, “Trustworthy quality labels can be important decision-making aids, because you will learn very little about sustainability from tourism product advertising. It is true that a growing number of tourism products are equipped with labels, but truly insightful information on their significance is scarce. Tourism labels come in highly diverse qualities, and it is not always easy to differentiate between what is reliable and what is dubious.”

Two key criteria that were used in the scrutiny are the level of transparency and data verification process, both of which are critical contributors to the credibility of the label.

In terms of transparency, the guidebook says, “To enable travellers and other interest groups to get an idea of a label, they need to get access to the certification criteria. Publication of the full text of a quality label’s effective standards is considered good practice. If the text is only accessible in part or against a fee, the label is less transparent.”

In terms of the verification procedure, the guidebook says, “The credibility of a label depends largely on the type of inspection the enterprises are subjected to. Most reliable is an inspection on the spot by independent experts which includes a tour of the enterprise and an examination of the pertinent documents. For cost reasons, some label organisations perform their own check-ups, others carry out “desk-top reviews” based on documents submitted and on spot-checks. In these cases there is no guarantee that the outcome of the inspection will be truly reliable.”

The guide was compiled with the assistance of the European Union, Austrian Development Cooperation (OEZA) and the Austrian Life Ministry. It can be downloaded free in English here. http://www.nfi.at/dmdocuments/labelguide_en.pdf

For other languages, pls contact: Karin Chladek, Naturfreunde Internationale (NFI), karin.chladek@nf-int.org. Tel. +43-1 892 3877-22, Diefenbachgasse 36/9, 1150 Wien, Österreich