The problems we are looking at in ecotourism / adventure tourism
are NOT all that different to the problems in the hospitality
/ hotel industry 100 years ago in the US. Independent hotels
/ inns / motels all over the country, confusing the consumer
with spotty services and poor facilities. So, Statler decided
to create a brand "A Bed and A Bath, A Buck and a Half". 50
years later (roughly) Kemmons Wilson came along and created
Holiday Inns. Both were successful attempts to develop a brand
-- in which the service / product (the 10 P's) was "certified"
under one brand. How were they successful - well, follow the
Services have been "rated" in the past with some success.
The Michelin Guide is a "rating", as is the AAA (or the AA for
non-US folks). At its core, even brands such as "Hyatt" and
"Hilton" are "certification" of sorts. As Megan points out,
while services are intangible, and are harder to sell, there
are successful, proven strategies in differentiating and selling
It is my belief that at the end of the day, the true worth
of any of these schemes is not only the scheme itself, but more
importantly the consumer following the scheme develops. (The
more discriminating the scheme, the better the cachet -- if
promoted appropriately -- e.g. the Michelin Guide 3 Star Restaurants).
If the scheme is unable to win the support, respect and following
of the buying public (consumer), it will be of very little value
to any entity on the supply chain. Certification for the sake
of certification is doomed to fail -- the costs will exceed
the income, and once the foundations move on to the next thing,
heaven help you!
The very fact that we have to have a conference on "ethical
marketing of ecotourism" is testimony to the confusion that
exists at all levels of the supply chain. So, what is "ethical"
and who is going to "certify" that it is ethical? And who will
watch the watchers?
I would say the measure of success needs to include Profit
and Returns on Investment. And I include in ROI a return on
the conservation and social investments in the business (the
Triple Bottom Line). This needs to be the primary consideration
-- as every business person knows, profits drive sustainability.
Unless the Profit element exists, the "ecotourism" world will
forever be subjected to the vagaries of the foundation and non-profit
world. More "heads in beds" do not necessarily relate to more
profit / returns. I would argue that the CUSTOMER is the best
evaluator of any attempt at "certification" -- whether as a
brand or as some form of "eco-rating".
At present, ecotourism is at a crossroads, as mentioned at
the beginning of our conference. It is still not recognized
by the consumer as a reason to purchase. I think we all agree
that certification programs will not achieve this goal. So,
larger branding initiatives are crucial.
As the web environment continues to grow such designs will
be more and more effective for both branding and sales. Such
strategies will be highly cost effective in future and help
countries such as Nicaragua, for example, to improve their image
and sell product to the FIT market (which according to surveys
is something like 50% of our market or more and growing with
the net), as they are unlikely to receive clients from major
tour operators until their image is improved.
In my view, a larger message must be communicated to the traveling
public by each region or group of products seeking to gain market
share, one that is absolutely honest and ethical, while at the
same time asks consumers to think more about the impacts of
their choices. All good marketing embraces this branding approach
-- we are just adding an ethical component -- and it is really
not contradictory to the goal of bodies in beds, it is just
a different process.
Can we change consumer purchasing decisions, so they are more
equivalent to their survey responses? We all know now that most
consumers have heard of ecotourism, and tend to think it is
something positive for the world. But, travelers are still groping
to make sustainable travel choices. particularly when they lack
travel experience in a specific destination. This is is a great
challenge! Of course we can change this level of knowledge among
a highly knowledgeable consumer population! And it is fundamental
to success for each lodge, for countries, for communities, and
The entire history of marketing, ratings and certification
clearly shows that consumers do not care about something because
it is rated. All products and services in a sane world not distorted
by dumb money from foundations are rated because consumers care.
If consumers do not care, and some foundation with more money
than brains is not willing to fund certification, products and
services will not be rated. Yet the certificationites expect
us to swallow that people care about good food because of the
First get consumers to care (or capitalize on what they already
care about), then worry about rating and certification. Doing
it any other way is not only putting the cart before the horse,
it is putting the wheel before the cart, the spoke before the
wheels. It is one of relatively few unbreakable marketing laws:
First consumers care. Then ratings and certification. Only large
grants from foundations could cause normally intelligent well-intentioned
people to not see this self-evident truth.
I'd like to think that the survey Peter Hutchison quoted is
right, and that many people ARE willing to pay more for vacations
that are environmentally and socially responsible. But most
of these qualities are very hard to quantify or draw a box around
-- as Peter says, there are many shades of gray, not black-and-white
lines where you can say that everything that falls inside the
box is ecotourism and those outside the box not. So I tend to
fall into the camp of those skeptical of certification, (I also
hesitate to make a black and white distinction here); not because
I think all certifiers are evil (I think many are very well
intended, like Beatrice), but rather because I think it's a
nearly impossible task to sort through these shades of gray,
and therefore any system will undoubtedly certify 'bad' places
and leave out 'good ones'.
Getting back to Ethical Marketing, I also keep asking myself
what makes ecotourism marketing different from marketing tourism?
If we assume, as many have asserted, that the public in general
doesn't care whether a place is ecotourism or not (in making
their buying decisions), then the implication is that operators
should market themselves in exactly the same way as successful
non-eco tourism operators. And if we go that route, not only
are we not educating the public, I think we are selling out
the basic principles of ecotourism. For if in our marketing
efforts we don't inform the public how our operations are protecting
the environment or supporting local communities, then how can
anyone tell when community and environment ARE in fact being
served? Isn't this in effect giving up on the idea of educating
the public, to 'go along with market reality'? Is this really
a smart -- or the only viable marketing strategy or is it a
I think Peter Hutchison said it very well -- "Ecotourism is
broadly about protecting 'something', and hopefully educating
'someone' about what is being protected and why. And getting
more people to do it so more of the planet is protected and
more people can make a fairer living. If not, then to me it
is just another marketing scam and the spin will just make us
Despite having worked in management and as a Guide in both
the Adventure and Ecotourism sectors, I had the gall to change
sides and work (both as a volunteer and as a consultant) on
developing standards for an industry I felt passionate about.
I feel passionate about ecotourism because I think it provides
the potential (despite the fact that it is not often translated
into reality) of a win:win:win -- letting economic prosperity
or poverty alleviation take place while retaining environmental
and cultural heritage. Why did I throw my lot in with developing
standards? Well, tourism promises a good time, but ecotourism
promises not only a good time BUT also a better world. If we
promise so much we must deliver. A standard -- such as certification-
help ensure that there is a relevant and appropriate baseline
of best practice.
What this baseline can be utilised for is wide-ranging --
and after being involved with certification for so long, the
one thing I am certain about is that market recognition by the
consumer is not one of them -- its presently nonexistent and
unlikely to develop significantly without a significant change
in marketing tactics or funding. My biggest regret is that we
ever sold NEAP with that unrealistic promise -- because the
EAA didn't and is unlikely to deliver.
I believe one of the greatest successes of NEAP -- and hopefully
of EcoGuide Program -- is the fact that operators and guides
use the standard as a blueprint for development. They often
don't go the whole hog or are unable to afford formalising the
certification process -- but nonetheless their operation or
guiding improves. I count that as a major success (even though
its hard to measure and perhaps due to sleeper effect). Certification
does have a place -- a very valuable place -- but increasing
market share or putting bodies in beds immediately is not a
promise that can be kept.
I personally think the move by the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship
Council (Rainforest Alliance) and the links with TIES/ Ford
to try and develop a global body to accredit certification programs
represents the best chance ecotourism product has to gain consumer
recognition and hopefully preferential consumer choice (i.e.
bodies in beds or bums on seats) -- so I am surprised at the
sentiments pervading this conference.
The reason is simply the plethora of symbols and logos current
in the world marketplace can only lead to consumer confusion
-- and the desperate need for a concerted education /information/marketing
push for one brand or label. In Australia, despite having the
worlds first ecotourism certification program we have managed
since 1996 to go out of the way to confuse the consumer with
initially releasing two logos for two levels in the program,
releasing 3 new labels for the original two levels and a new
third category (nature tourism) in 2000 with the launch of NEAPII
-- and rebranding in IYE with a suite of four logos (representing
the three levels in NEAP plus and overarching group label for
That means there are nine logos out there in the marketplace
and on brochures at present! I know -- I did a review of North
Qld brochures with a group of students at James Cook University
this week -- and Masters students in tourism were confused as
to what meant what -- so God help the consumer! I suppose the
irony of the new logos is that they all look almost identical-
unless you get a magnifying glass and read the small print-
thus amalgamates nature tourism (which only has to prove it
attempts to minimise harm in the environment) with genuine ecotourism
-- product that not only minimises impacts but strives to maximise
the positives it can provide in terms of returns to the environment
and community. The consumer will at least, in the long run as
the older logos get phased out -- have basically only one logo
to cope with -- but how are operators of genuine or specialist
ecotourism product going to react to being amalgamated for expediency
with basic nature tourism product?
NEAP is constantly evolving and changing -- sometimes for
the better -- sometimes not. But a brave attempt was made by
past committee and management team of the EAA and early pioneers
of NEAP to set standards -and try to ensure that they were available
and accessible as a tool for all to learn from.
I have enjoyed immensely the turns that this conference has
taken, for example, asking ourselves to question the outcomes
of the conference itself. To me, this is progress.
I think that one of the most important topics of conversation
during the conference was certification and international donors
NOT doing enough for the promotion of NGOs, therefore not enough
"culos en camas". So lets offer them a challenge and accept
Ron's offer of using Planeta
for decentralized communication, education and promotion.
Action Plan Recommendation: Encourage stakeholder dialogues
- Neither Ron nor TIES nor ANY other institution has any time
and resources to work in each country. But if those of us with
an interest can work toward developing local dialogues.
I think we should become stewards of Planeta in our own countries.
To do this, however, i think that we each need to have a personal
stake invested into it. That is, we MUST be tied to those decisions
we make even though Planeta works a lot on trust! I think that
if Planeta had a "board" of some type with a representative
of each country ... I think that could be a good start! I also
think that we can be inclusive, instead of exclusive and on
planeta we can even provide reasons WHY each place is planeta
approved, and at the places do consumer evaluations. I think
this is all very important for transparency.
I would love to see this type of transparency in the donor
world! So I guess my question is -- can this conference be the
start of an ethical marketing movement for eco/sustainable/responsible
tourism? I'd like to see us all work toward that common goal.
My heart is in small-scale tourism projects. Consequently,
I see certification as a threat and certainly with no opportunity.
It is the method by which the status quo (rich taking from poor)
will be enforced. If there is a consensus, I feel that we should
oppose this as a group.
Tourism and the travel industry in general is a hybrid beast.
Most of what we offers falls in the "service" category, but
some pieces are more like "products" in the conventional sense.
While almost all of the basic rules of marketing products also
apply to marketing services, there are three important qualities
of services that set them apart. Services are characterized
by being: (1) intangible, (2) perishable, and (3) closely associated
with the person delivering the service.
An ecotourism EXPERIENCE is intangible. You can't try it and
then return it if you don't like it, the way you could return
the t-shirt I sold you to remember the experience. The ecotourism
experience is perishable -- if you don't show up for the trip,
that slot is lost unless I can sell it at the last moment. If
nobody shows up, I have to enjoy the sunset all by myself. But
the interesting piece is the close association of the service
with the persons delivering the service. There's the rub between
tourism and certification.
I may never have a product that captures the imagination and
the pocketbook like Nike or Classic Coke. But I can develop
a superlative tourism experience and then market that package.
If it's nature-based tourism experience I'm selling, then perhaps
the most important feature is the quality of the relationship
between the traveler/guest/customer and the people with whom
this person interacts. Ecotourists consistently report that
it's the guides who make the experience great. Great customer
service in the lodging and food services can extend this quality
bubble to cover the entire on-site system.
Marketing this "quality relationship" means promoting the
specialness of the people involved. Customers typically value
services for what they do, or what they do better. Since the
customer can't try the experience on and return it if it doesn't
"fit" their needs, we can do extra things like (1) offer a guarantee
-- money back if you are not satisfied, (2) ensure that every
person with whom the customer will interact is trained to offer
the same great level of service, and (3) enable the personnel
to customize the experience to suit the desires of the particular
And that's where I see some of the problems with certification.
Certification ensures homogeneity. Superlative customer service
will have to differentiate itself by rising above the certification.
In my earlier posting, I gave examples from both the product
(SAE ratings on motor oil) and the service (PADI certification).
(I apologize if I confused some people when I didn't spell out
PADI -- it's the Professional Association of Diving Instructors,
a group many of us probably used in learning the skills we needed
for SCUBA diving.) Certifications create a "least common denominator"
effect. Customers assume that a "certified" operation is better
than anyone who didn't make the grade, but the certification
gives us no evidence to conclude anything more, except that
all certified groups are equal.
The Australian experience with NEAP and NEAP II and the growing
number of sub-certifications, and now maybe shrinking number
of certifications if I understand the message posted earlier,
concerns me. Certification seems to be a service that hasn't
found a market. We have lots of examples of those here in the
wreckage of the virtual world of Silicon Valley. Clever ideas,
in search of demand.
Am I correct in understanding Mark Howell's comments from
Belize that their most effective certification tool is word-of-mouth
advertising from satisfied customers? Richard Tuck's proposed
action plan seems to take that approach as well. (Funny: As
a doubting John, I always want to delve beneath the icons to
explore the criteria and methods used in any fancy evaluation
scheme, but I'd feel pretty comfortable using a service that
Ron gives a "five-planet" rating on Planeta.com. I feel comfortable
using Ron's criteria because I see them as a projection of my
As for the Michelin and AAA (or AA) ratings: As I presume
many of the participants in this forum might do, I deliberately
use the hotel star ratings to AVOID using facilities with 4
or 5 stars. I was in Lima, Peru, last month leading an evaluation
team. For security reasons, the USAID members of the group had
to stay in a 5-star. The rest of the team used a great hotel
only 4 blocks away at less than 1/3 the price. My breakfasts
every morning were in an open-air patio with warblers, doves,
and other avian visitors. The folks in the Marriott would come
over to our hotel for meetings because it was a kinder-gentler
The best role I see for the big foundations and the members
of the "big international non-governmental organization" (BINGO)
crowd is to create demand for sustainable tourism among the
traveling public. Too often the BINGO's own marketing is designed
to drive customers to projects it supports or to use travel
services that contribute support to its general fund. While
those are useful to the BINGO, they don't advance the broader
goal of sustainable tourism. We need an educational movement
to advance sustainability.
I am well aware that a sector within the tourism industry
has little or no use for certification. But there are other
industry people who feel that certification can be a useful
tool, both for helping a business to measure and improve its
performance and for tourists trying to select environmentally
and socially responsible tour operators and lodge owners.
It is correct that tourism is a far more complex industry
than bananas or wood or coffee to certify because it is multifaceted
and includes a mix of service and products. But certification
programs within the tourism industry are not new -- the AAA
and five star programs designed to measure quality, service
and price have been around for nearly a century and are now
well established tools, almost universally used by the industry,
governments and the public. (In Costa Rica, for instance, all
accommodations are legally required to receive a star rating
in order to be licensed.) But this kind of recognition took
time and hard work to build.
The newer 'green' certification programs add another dimension
to these more traditional rating systems -- they contain environmental
and social criteria. Most are relatively new, having been started
within the last decade. They have not yet had the time to develop
the 'attraction' of, say, five star program. And most have suffered
from insufficient marketing budgets and strategies. But this
does not mean that the concept itself is flawed. As Glenn Jampol,
owner of Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn which has received one
of the top rankings -- 'four leaves' - under the Costa Rican's
CST (Certification for Sustainable Tourism) program puts it,
the goal should be to make CST's 'leaves' as much in demand
as AAA's stars.
In addition, it is inaccurate to describe 'green' certification
programs as only backed by consultants, academics, and NGOs
who are doing so for personal gain. Like Costa Rica, an increasing
number of other governments view certification as an important
tool for helping to distinguish sustainable tourism from the
greenwashing scams and 'eco-lite' varieties, and to protect
their market niche. Some dozen governments in Latin America
are currently supporting efforts to develop 'green' certification
programs. The European Union has supported and helped finance
tourism certification programs, as had the Australian government.
Certification is not a panacea, but it is increasingly recognized
by those involved in trying to promote sustainable tourism as
an important tool. Certification is also certainly not all that
TIES is or should be doing. We are continuing to do conferences,
training courses, publications, and public speaking. Most recently,
I have been speaking about the impacts of 'perfect storm' --
a combination of economic recession, terrorism, the war on terrorism,
and SARS -- on tourism-dependent poor countries and on ecotourism
and community-based projects.
So there is a lot we are trying to do. And as we move forward,
we will continue to welcome input, critiques and assistance
from Planeta, from the public and from our members.
The meeting of the "non-profits in travel" and the travel
suppliers that cater to them, is a display of peacockery from
the most pretentious green-washers of all -- the conservation
organizations and the institutions of higher learning. The very
guardians of our environment, involved in fund-raising travel
programs promote large luxury group tours and then, disingenuously
preach to the travel suppliers not fortunate enough to be among
the chosen few.
Considering the track record of these conservation organizations,
with their lack of transparency, numerous failures with developing
and managing ecotourism projects, frequent irregularities, and
actual damage to the environment, why is the onus of certification
on the private sector of small nature and adventure tourism
businesses? Disregarding the mainstream travel industry, which
is unaffected by certification, I seriously doubt that the actual
or potential damage to the environment from nature travel operators
even remotely compares with what has transpired with many prestigious
conservation organizations. Besides nature operators risk their
own investments and not the privileged donations and government
grants, which should merit greater accountability.
Read the glossy brochures, describing the fascinating itineraries
of these large educational group tours, marveling of meaningful
contacts with local residents. Meaningful contacts would be
more aptly described as the overwhelming intrusion by a gawking
The brochure pictures always deceivingly depict just a few
tour members involved in activities and never the whole stampede.
In a coma, I could design and operate a superior travel experience
in the sierra and I'll wager a $1,000 that our resident guides,
without degrees in ornithology, can locate and identify more
bird species than any field guidebook author or scientist. Of
course, this is no surprise when you have a lifetime of experience
in an area.