Can tourism ever be sustainable? The Rainforest Alliance says, "Yes!"

beach at Tulum, Mexico
© K Martinko

This post is part of a series about the Maya Ka'an tourism project in Yucatan, Mexico. This project, which aims to create sustainable, community-based tourism for the benefit of indigenous Mayans, is backed by the Meso-American Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI) and NGOs Rainforest Alliance and Amigos de Sian Ka'an.

Would you ever stop flying on airplanes for environmental reasons? I’m going to guess you’re thinking “no.” Despite the fact that we humans probably shouldn’t be flying on airplanes as much as we do, it’s unlikely to stop. The ability to move around the planet quickly is a freedom most people are unwilling to relinquish.

A few people have chosen to stop flying, such as Wall Street Journal meteorologist Eric Holthaus, who said on Twitter he’d never fly again following an IPCC report on climate change. While Holthaus’ conviction is admirable, there would be widespread negative repercussions if the majority of people decided to stop travelling internationally.

An incredible 235 million people worldwide rely on tourism for their income, generating 9.2 percent of the global GDP. Without it, many would be forced to leave their homes and communities to seek employment elsewhere. Tourism gives local residents a reason to protect their natural surroundings. Without it, environmental degradation in the form of deforestation and poaching can become serious.

Enter the Rainforest Alliance. This NGO, which was founded in 1987 to mitigate the environmental impact of large industries, has been working to ‘green’ various tourism initiatives for the past 14 years. It is on a mission to show that travel can be sustainable, and that committing to sustainability pays off, even in the tourism sector. The Rainforest Alliance offers varying degrees of assistance to businesses that want to reduce their impact.

In order to become ‘Rainforest Alliance Certified,’ businesses must pass an audit that assesses the three main pillars of sustainability that the organization applies to all its certifications – environmental protection, social equity, and economic viability. If a business has 70 percent compliance, it is certified as sustainable and is given permission to use the green frog seal.

© Rainforest Alliance

According to Federico Solano, value chain manager for sustainable tourism, the certification does not require businesses to commit to annual increases in compliance because it usually happens anyways; business owners realize that the value of their brand increases the greener they become.

This certification process has been in place for the past 8 years and over 600 hotels and local tour operators have been certified as sustainable since then.

For smaller travel businesses that may not have the infrastructure or administrative procedures to pass an audit, nor perhaps the finances to pay for annual recertification fees and audits, there is an option to sign sourcing agreements. With these, the Rainforest Alliance helps businesses to analyze their supply chain and establish a “responsible purchasing program,” with priority usually given to local suppliers.

Once the sourcing agreement is signed, companies can use the Rainforest Alliance logo, but not its ‘certified’ seal or ‘verified’ mark (which are considered equal). They also become members of a group called ‘Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability’ (TOPS).

© Rainforest Alliance

The Rainforest Alliance provides consulting services, helping tour companies to improve their general management and business practices. As Solano told me, the organization likes consulting for sustainable tourism because it develops and keeps skills within a country, instead of outsourcing management.

The Rainforest Alliance was hired to be a consultant for the Maya Ka’an tourism project that I visited last week in Mexico. It is a member of the Meso-American Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), a coalition of NGOs that has been working to combine conservation with tourism since 2006. MARTI has had great success implementing sustainable conservation programs in hotels and diving companies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Rainforest Alliance is now providing marketing and networking assistance to a fellow member of MARTI, Amigos de Sian Ka'an, which is behind the development of Maya Ka’an. Together, they hope to attract travellers who want a unique experience in the Yucatan and care about supporting local initiatives.

I’m sure they will be successful, since an increasing number of people want community experiences and vacations that benefit local residents. Particularly in Europe, there’s growing demand for “la tourisme solidaire,” trips that include volunteer work – a sort of secular mission trip. Since global tourism shows no signs of slowing, the Rainforest Alliance believes that the best thing we can do is to teach businesses how to be responsible and to encourage travellers to seek out sustainable options.

If you’re planning a trip, check out SustainableTrip.org and visit the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable tourism site to see their list of TOPS members.

Tags: Caribbean | Latin America | Sustainable Development | Tourism | Vacation

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