Interview with Ronald Sanabria, Director of Sustainable Tourism Division, Rainforest Alliance

by Jessica Webb, Rainforest Alliance

“For a conservation NGO like the Rainforest Alliance, it is very important to have independent verification that the businesses we promote as being sustainable are truly sustainable.”

Throughout Latin America, the Rainforest Alliance is conserving natural resources and supporting local populations by working with community organizations and small — and medium-sized tourism businesses. By providing training and technical assistance, the Rainforest Alliance helps these businesses adopt the environmentally and socially sustainable practices required to gain sustainable tourism certification.

To further encourage sustainable tourism in the Western Hemisphere, the Rainforest Alliance helped launch the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council initiative and serves as the technical secretariat for the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas. We talked with Ronald Sanabria, Director of Sustainable Tourism at the Rainforest Alliance, about the importance of tourism certification, how tourists can plan responsible vacations, and what organizations and governments are doing to develop tourism certification standards.

Question: What is sustainable tourism certification?

Sanabria: There are three different types of certification. First-party certification is when hotel owners claim that their businesses are certified. Second-party certification is when a tourism industry association says that a tourism business meets their criteria. The most common and credible is third-party certification, in which the certifier is an independent party.

Q: How can tourists know whether or not a business is sustainable, and how can they find sustainable destinations?

Sanabria: In most cases, the use of a logo or seal is granted to a certified business to indicate that it fulfills certain sustainability criteria. Tourists can look for this seal to know that this business fulfills sustainability requirements.

The Rainforest Alliance has developed an important tool to help tourists find sustainable destinations — the Eco-Index of Sustainable Tourism. It’s a database of certified tourism businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eco-Index staff verify that each business is in fact sustainable before it is added to the database. This reassures travelers that they are choosing responsible vacations and are indirectly contributing to environmental conservation and the social well-being of local residents in the places they visit.

Q: Why is certification important?

Sanabria: It is one of the many tools that can be used to combat a business’ false claims of being “eco” or “responsible” without going through a thorough assessment of whether or not their business truly complies with a set of sustainability criteria. Certification is a way for businesses to prove that their claims of sustainability have been verified by an independent third party.

For a conservation NGO like the Rainforest Alliance, it is very important to have independent verification that the businesses we promote as being sustainable are truly sustainable. As we get more requests from the public for recommendations about where they should stay on vacation, and as we become more engaged in marketing sustainable products as part of our mission, we need these tools to help us to be diligent about the fact that the businesses that we are promoting to consumers and buyers are really practicing sustainability.

Q: How do hotel or business owners benefit from being certified?

Sanabria: The main reason to become certified is that the business becomes more efficient, which is a long-term benefit. By participating in a certification program, business owners “put their house in order” by implementing practices such as responsible waste and water management, energy conservation, and many more activities that might be seen as an expense in the short-term, but are really an investment in improving the businesses’ productivity and efficiency.

Businesses that are interested in expanding into new sustainable market niches can use certification as a complementary tool when marketing their business to “green” travelers and buyers. You can see this through the increasing number of companies that use certification logos on their Web sites and in brochures.

Certification is also a proactive way for businesses to respond to public scrutiny and criticism. In many cases, businesses are being cornered by groups voicing concerns about unsustainable tourism development, and those concerns are being heard by industry and consumers.

Interestingly, certification is being used as an incentive, giving businesses special benefits. For example, in Barbados, hotels that have gotten certified by the Green Globe program enjoy a tax break equivalent to 150 percent of their investment in getting certified. Businesses that are certified in Australia have longer concessions in order to operate near protected areas, as opposed to an uncertified tour operation. So certification is also a voluntary mechanism to prove to your governments and other authorities that your business is committed to sustainable tourism.

Q: Is there a common set of sustainable tourism certification standards, similar to the Forest Stewardship Council’s set of standards for sustainable forestry certification?

Sanabria: The Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council is a proposed international organization that will grant accreditation to all of the different certification programs. This initiative is trying to address the fact that there isn’t a mechanism in place to prove the credibility and transparency of certification programs. As a business, you can opt to get certified, but you don’t really know whether or not that certification program is conducting its certifications transparently. So it can be difficult for businesses to choose a program that has the recognition they are looking for. As a consumer, if you want to choose certified products when you book your trips, you don’t really know which programs are credible or not and which you can trust. As a conservation NGO, we could support certified businesses, but there isn’t really a way for us to be sure that these businesses are being audited in a transparent way. The Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council aims to do two things: increase the credibility of certification programs, and increase their market exposure.

The Rainforest Alliance has coordinated the specific activities to help launch the Council, such as coordinating a feasibility study, a business plan, and forming a steering committee. We hope to be able to raise the funds to officially launch the council in 2007.

Q: Is there any coordination between all of the different sustainable tourism certifiers?

Sanabria: There are a lot of initiatives trying to address the same problems in different countries without communicating with other initiatives that are dealing with the exact same issues. It becomes even more cumbersome when we deal with certification, because many of these initiatives are targeting the same consumers and buyers. This is a huge waste of resources and time.

The Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas is a response to this challenge. It is a regional platform that currently involves 75 organizations representing 25 different countries. It aims to become the continental reference point for sustainable tourism certification in the Western Hemisphere, address the lack of communication among certification initiatives, and implement joint marketing activities that will put certified businesses in the Americas on the global tourism map.

The Rainforest Alliance has been involved in the Network since 2003, when we were granted with the role of technical secretariat. This means that the Alliance is in charge of organizing technical activities for Network members, as well as marketing and communication for certification programs.

One of the Network’s main achievements to date has been to define criteria that are common to all of the programs, regardless of which country they are based. These baseline criteria are trying to identify the basic things that any certified business has to fulfill in any country involved in the Network. The criteria have helped promote more cohesive messaging in the tourism marketplace, benefited emerging certification programs so they do not have to start from scratch, and improved communication among different initiatives.

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