In Tourism (And Beyond), Talking About Sustainability Is Dead. Tell A Story Instead

Planet People Peace Conference In Costa Rica Photo

The Planet, People, Peace conference in Limon, Costa Rica. Photos: Paula Alvarado.

You would think that attending a conference on sustainable tourism in Costa Rica would be a bit bland: yes, they're very green, we know. But just because this Central American country has been a pioneer in the so called eco-tourism industry for over 25 years, they seem to be ahead of the curve, and the talks from the Planet, People, Peace conference TreeHugger has been invited to cover have actually been quite good.A conclusion from the first day of the event, yesterday, was that the tourism industry seems to be maturing along with other segments of the 'green' movement. Just as saying that a restaurant is using organic ingredients for its food is no longer news or noteworthy, hotels showing off their big certification stamps at their doors is not good enough anymore.

This was the argument made in a talk about communication given by Alexi Khajavi and Dierdre Campbell, director of Global Strategy at Mercury CSC and general director of the Tartan Group, respectively.

Alexi Khajavi, director of Global Strategy at Mercury CSC Photo

Alexi Khajavi, director of Global Strategy at Mercury CSC.

"The traveler has advanced past looking for green travel products in the stage of purchase to having to have those experiences and sustainability practices embedded into the business and the experience themselves," explained Khajavi. "Sustainability is still a component of the criteria, part of the story, but not the story itself. People don't travel for sustainability, they expect it to be sustainable but they travel for the authenticity of the destination or the place and for the experience."

Although he's talking about tourism, it seems the point is relevant for other industries as well as part of a shift occurring in the environmental movement: products or services are not worthy just because they're green. They have to be useful, smart, unique, beautiful and green.

It's fair to note that Khajavi refers to a new type of traveler, so-called 'geo traveler' and 'flashpacker', who's wealthy but attracted by simplicity, mixing elements of an upscale life with experiences more associated with backpacking. But it really seems to apply to knowledgeable travelers in general.

Telling Stories

Deirdre Campbell, general director of the Tartan Group Photo
Deirdre Campbell, general director of the Tartan Group.

Another interesting point made in the talk by Dierdre Campbell was that operators and managers of sustainable businesses have to put their focus in telling stories instead of selling their services, and that every single person in the organization has to be a storyteller.

This is so true for every industry as well: What's more interesting, reading that a pair of pants is made from sustainable fabrics or knowing that it was made from a fabric produced by artisans and tailored by a family that has been in the business for three generations? And how much are you going to believe an organization or company's story if the waiter at the hotel's restaurant has no clue about their organic food and looks cranky because he's underpaid?

Certifications Still Work, Just Not For Selling

Jorge Lopez, head of sustainability of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute Photo
Alberto Lopez, head of sustainability of the Costa Rican Tourism Institute.

Despite certification stamps are not the most important thing in the world in communicating sustainable products or services, they still play an important role in greening the industry. So showed a presentation by Alberto Lopez, head of Sustainability at the Costa Rican Tourism Institute.

This organization promotes the Certification for Sustainable Tourism, a stamp launched in 1997 that notes the level of commitment with sustainable practices in hotels, operators and providers. So far, 232 companies have been audited and awarded the stamp (impressively, they represent 24% of all declared touristic businesses).

According to Lopez, hotels and organizations that have been through the certification process have reduced their trash generation, electricity and water consumption, and increased their recycling practices and compost production, among other indicators, while making visitors happier.

Since it's free to obtain and the Tourism Institute provides a series of benefits to companies that get it (preference to use wildlife areas and museums for operators, better credit conditions, tax incentives, lower water and electricity rates, among others), it seems it's a rare case of a stamp that actually serves to green the industry rather than making money.

Costa Rica's Ups And Downs

Costa Rica's marketing efforts in marketing itself as a sustainable destination are very evident everywhere we've been, and hotels and operators seem eager to talk about it and show it in stamps asking you to save energy below the interruptors, refillable shampoo containers in the bathrooms, and little signs asking you if you want your sheets changed in beds, just to name a few details.

However, a point was raised in the conference about how the country needs to pay more attention to supporting sustainability for its inhabitats (better treating grey waters in San Jose, for example) and promoting more social equality (corruption problems have also been an issue).

"The country needs to continuously do a better job of ensuring their product is sustainable, its employees are well paid, well trained, that everything is being protected. That is a huge job and it doesn't come down to one tourism department or secretariat, but also other ministries of education, labor, environment. As the tourism industry, we need to do a much better job calling on other ministries and other departments of government to help us," agreed Alexi Khajavi.

Organized by the National Chamber of Ecotourism, the Planet, People, Peace conference is taking place until October 4 at the lush Earth University campus.

More On Costa Rica And Sustainable Tourism
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