With sustainable travel becoming increasingly popular, how do you know if the travel choices you make are truly responsible, or if they are just falling victim to a cynical marketing ploy by big business? Here is everything you need to know about making eco friendly travel choices before you set off on your gap year.
Responsible travel is not a niche market anymore. The term used to be something quite novel in the travel industry, nothing more than a nice idea, a small concern that many paid lip service to but few actually did anything about. All that has changed.
With 2017 being declared the year of sustainable tourism by the United Nations, green travel is now officially at the top of the agenda in one of the fastest growing industries in the world. The demand for responsible and sustainable travel experiences from travellers is growing, irresponsible attractions such as elephant trekking or swimming with dolphins are becoming less and less popular as awareness is being raised and are even being replaced with more responsible alternatives as the industry realises that is where the tourists – and the money – are going. Accommodation options are all starting to promote their eco friendly credentials, whilst some are even using it as a whole marketing technique and declaring themselves eco hotels.
As eco friendly and responsible travel starts to become more mainstream, travellers are starting to ask themselves ‘is this a truly sustainable way to travel’, and industry operators are asking themselves ‘where is the money going’?
So what is the problem?
All this sounds fantastic. Green travel is becoming more widespread and mainstream and travellers are generally more informed. So what is the problem?
The big problem is greenwashing. As the industry realises just how profitable responsible travel can be, the entire market is being inundated with misleading advertising, false claims and terminology designed to confuse tourists and get them to part with their cash much more readily.
Basically speaking, organisations and companies are claiming they are responsible and sustainable when they are not, and tourists in general do not know how to tell the difference.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is disinformation pushed by an organisations PR and marketing to present an environmentally responsible public image.
Essentially it is where a company, a tour or an accommodation option, or any business involved in the travel industry (and beyond), uses PR, spin and marketing to make out that what they do is environmentally friendly, sustainable or responsible when the reality is that they are not.
These companies want to convince travellers, tourists and potential customers of their envioronmental credentials in the pursuit of sales and profit. They know that there is a high demand for sustainable tourism and they want to cash in on it, but instead of putting the money into actual responsible and sustainable practices, they spend it on green marketing and PR instead.
Corporate greenwashing, especially on a larger international scale is extremely clever and very insidious, and even worse than that, it is so widespread many people can’t tell what is real and what is not.
Greenwashing is rife within the travel industry and you will come across a thousand marketing tactics that are designed to portray a certain image. Jargon terms such as ‘conservation’, ‘organic’ and ‘responsible’ are thrown about with wild abandon, and buzzwords such as ‘sanctuary’ or ‘rehabilitation centre’ used in wildlife tourism to convince tourists that petting lion cubs in captivity, riding an elephant or swimming with a dolphin is a responsible thing to do, or used extensively with many ‘local’ tours to con travellers and tourists into thinking they are giving back to the local community. More often than not, this is all a lie.
How do you tell the difference?
The thing is there are genuinely responsible and ethical tours, activities and other travel industries out there, you just have to know how to separate them from the greenwashed businesses. The trick is to do your research beforehand and know what questions to ask. Look beyond the slick jargon and the PR advertising, make them prove their credentials and statistics.
For activities and tours that involve locals and claim to give back to the community, you need to ask:
- Is the activity empowering local people or exploiting them?
- Are the tours and activities run by locals or by international organisations?
- Do they employ local people or source supplies locally?
- What (if any) percentage of profits goes back to the community or community projects?
For wildlife attractions you need to ask:
- Are they part of any international overwatch organisations such as WAZA that apply strict guidelines?
- Do they uphold internationally recognised standards in their activities or tours?
- Do they allow any riding, touching or interacting with the animals involved?
- Are the animals kept in unsuitable conditions or forced to perform shows?
These are just the start of the questions you should be asking both yourself and the operators themselves.
Genuinely responsible and sustainable organisations and operators will abide by international standards and codes of conduct, they will often be accredited with international organisations where this is relevant and this can be easily checked, and most of all they will be more than happy to answer any and all questions regarding their credentials and operating practices.
Where this doesn’t happen, or they do not answer your questions satisfactorily, then odds are they aren’t exactly bona fide responsible operators, and you should stay well clear.
As the demand for responsible and sustainable travel grows, greenwashing is becoming increasingly prevalent and insidious, and it is up to each and every traveller out there to do their due diligence. Be aware of the issues involved, ask the right questions, do your research, and that way we can all ensure we are supporting truly sustainable tourism and avoiding the unsustainable versions of it.
In time, green travel may become the norm and greenwashing may not even be necessary. Until then, keep asking those questions.
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