Interviewed by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance
Ecuador’s Pacific waters hold one of the planet’s most amazing natural sites: the Galapagos Islands, sometimes called the Enchanted Islands. They are home to an exceptional collection of wildlife that includes the world’s smallest penguins, giant tortoises, sea lions, and both marine and terrestrial iguanas — a rare and enchanting ecosystem that attracted approximately 120,000 tourists in 2008 alone.
Concerned that growing pressure from tourism could damage the Galapagos, the Ecuadorian nonprofit organization Conservación y Desarrollo (CyD), with support from the international conservation organization the Rainforest Alliance, developed the Smart Voyager tourism certification program in 2000. According to Mauricio Ferro, Executive Co-Director of CyD, the program was born out of a philosophy to promote practical and effective sustainability that minimizes the negative impacts of tourism and maximizes the positive ones.
Smart Voyager has certified 30 percent of the tourism businesses in the Galapagos and has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee as an example that should be followed at other World Heritage Sites. The program is now expanding to Latin American nations.
Perhaps Smart Voyager’s most important accomplishment is that it has demonstrated the potential that tourism certification programs have for effecting meaningful change in the industry and the environment.
Question: What has been the key to Smart Voyager’s success in Ecuador?
I believe that our accomplishments are due, at least in part, to the credibility that we have gained with the tourism industry. People believe in Conservación y Desarrollo and in our 18 years of experience, the support that we’ve received from the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas, and from other key players on the national and international levels that have made commitments supporting Smart Voyager’s initiatives. Our seal has the support of the Ecuador Hotel Federation, the Ecuadorian Ecotourism Association, the Galapagos Chamber of Tourism, Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism and prestigious universities. On an international level, we have the support of the Rainforest Alliance, the Argentine Standards and Certification Institute, Fundación Natura in Colombia, Honduras’ Institute for Cooperation and Self-Development, the Inter-American Tropical Research Foundation in Guatemala, Natura Cert in Chile, Plan 21 in Argentina and even finance institutions such as Root Capital.
This reputation is also due to the results that we have achieved by basing our work on a concept of real and practical sustainability. We promote practical sustainability that is executed with simple means, simple but doable things that effect change and have measurable results.
The rest of the credit goes to our hard-working clients, every one of the business owners, tour operators, and tourism chambers that don’t just comply with the sustainable tourism standards because they are requirements for certification, but because they are committed to our philosophy, to achieving measurable change, and to becoming examples for others.
Q: How have you gotten that kind of commitment from businesses?
Ferro: People in the tourism industry want to improve nowadays. That desire is what makes the difference between working for a certification seal and making a serious commitment.
At the same time, the businesses are responding to the status that they gain by participating in a certification program and having the support and recognition of the government, which has called our certification an exemplary initiative for the country, and UNESCO, which has cited it as an example that should be followed at other World Heritage Sites. We also have the valuable support of the Eco-Index of Sustainable Tourism, which has gotten the word out about the efforts and achievements of Smart Voyager Certified businesses. That kind of stimulation makes them become more deeply involved.
Q: What do you think has drawn UNESCO’s attention to Smart Voyager’s work in the Galapagos?
Ferro: From the start, the program and the community adopted an attitude to work for real change that was quickly reflected by results. Smart Voyager and Galapagos demonstrated and proved to the world that sustainable tourism is possible.
Sustainability has become a way of life for the people of Galapagos. There is a close and harmonic relationship between business owners and the community that is exemplary. For example, the tour operators finance the recycling of the island’s garbage and oil from the boats. Sustainable tourism there has become a development platform with a multiplying effect that has spawned research projects, education, agriculture, sustainable business, job creation, and more.
Q: Smart Voyager is expanding its work in Latin America and is now active in Honduras and Nicaragua. What is your goal in moving beyond Ecuador’s borders?
Ferro: We are also making progress toward operating in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Peru. Our mission is to take Smart Voyager’s philosophical principles as far as we can. All those countries have their own natural treasures and we want to be a tool that they can utilize to manage their resources sustainability. We are convinced that they will respond well, as has happened in Ecuador.
Q: Do the current political situations in countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua put your work at risk?
Ferro: It is hard to be sure, but I don’t see it that way. Certification of businesses is a voluntary and independent process that is a concern of business owners. We go these places because there is a need for, and an expressed desire to adopt sustainability.
Q: What other countries to you plan to expand into?
Ferro: We have a goal to certify companies in the United States and Europe, which present big challenges. They are both very different markets from Latin America in terms of culture, practices, processes, and, of course, size! It would be taking on a major task, but the satisfaction of the positive results that we could generate would also be enormous.
Q: The current global economy has deeply affected tourism. How does this challenge your goal to increase certification’s reach and to attract more businesses?
Ferro: Without a doubt, the current economic situation is tough, especially on the “economies of survival” that we have in Latin America, where local and regional tourists lack the economic resources to choose, and business owners lack the money needed to invest in clean resources. Clearly we need to consider financial mechanisms for sustainability.
The region also needs more political, legal, and institutional support to make it easier for everyone to adopt sustainable practices. For example, little is gained by recycling if there is no infrastructure — that is, if everything is going to end up in the same landfill.
There also remains a lot of extremely important work to be done in educating consumers, who actually have a great deal of interest in certified services and products. We need to teach them the difference between a sustainable business or product and an unsustainable one. We need to tell them what lies behind a certification seal in order to inspire a committed and stable demand, which in turn will oblige us to create a greater supply of sustainable options.
Q: From an industry perspective, what’s the motivation for adopting sustainability?
Ferro: There is growing interest in taking care of the environment and being sustainable — in fact, I would say that our work is a response to what society wants today. Various studies demonstrate that about 65 percent of European and North American tourists seek sustainable options for their trips. Sustainability is more attractive since nature has proven to be “green gold.” There are big hotel chains, airlines, and even embassies that are interested in getting certified. We are getting more and more political and state support and commitments. Sustainability is here to stay — there’s no turning back.
Q: What would you say is Smart Voyager’s most ambitious goal?
Ferro: We want to certify at least 50 to 60 percent of Ecuador’s tourism operations, and then do the same in other countries. We would also like to give more support to the businesses that we certify — create a network of certified operations, regional circuits, improve marketing. Smart Voyager is really just taking its first steps.