Tourism, like other sectors, is experiencing a boom in green certifications. Globally, there are 150 certificates assessing the sustainability of tourism activities such as hotels, resorts, restaurants and tour operators, but there is currently no single internationally recognised certification body. This fragmented situation makes it harder for travellers to understand the level of sustainability of these businesses.

What is sustainable tourism

Before listing the parameters taken into account by green certification bodies, it’s important to understand the peculiarities of sustainable tourism. “To me it’s a particularly considerate kind of tourism, that respects both local communities and territories, and minimizes negative environmental impacts,” explains Teresa Agovino, Sustainable Tourism Consultant for the UNWTO (World Tourism Organisation), the UN agency that deals with the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. “One way to make it more sustainable is delocalising it, i.e. promoting so-called secondary destinations that are not usually flooded by tourists. Likewise, it’s important to deseasonalize, or to make a destination attractive throughout the year, and not in one season only.

Mitigating the negative effects of tourism also means reducing the climate-changing gas emissions of a business, limiting water consumption and food waste, producing less waste and safeguarding the ecosystems biodiversity. “But let’s not forget about workers’ rights and the impacts on the most vulnerable groups,” urges Agovino. “One in ten workers is employed in the third sector, and it’s crucial to protect indigenous communities, minorities and to make all services accessible to people with disabilities”.

The most popular green certifications for tourism

One of the most accredited international certification bodies is Green Globe, which has been working on sustainable tourism for more than 30 years. Its evaluation includes 44 sustainability criteria supported by over 380 compliance indicators, applicable to geographical area and other factors. Travel Life, on the other hand, includes 163 assessment criteria and, from 2023, requires operators to measure emissions from energy and water consumption and waste generation. In addition to the environmental macro-area, the certification verifies if workers’ rights and the cultural heritage of local communities are respected.

Equally renowned is Biosphere, an organisation which, through its extensive certification system, inspects various activities: from amusement parks to mobility, from large events to low-impact camping. The Biosphere certification process was devised by the Responsible Tourism Institute, an international organisation founded with the mission of promoting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda in tourism.

But who guarantees the reliability of these certifications? This is where the accreditation bodies come into play, independent organisations that assess the conformity of the certifications through specific requirements. Founded by the World Tourism Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is the only accreditation body recognised by the UN. Recently, it has also become a certification body, a development which has caused a conflict of interest.

Democratising sustainability: the Faroo start-up

Tour operators invest thousands of euros to obtain these certifications and this, according to Teresa Agovino, hinders the democratisation of sustainability in the sector. This led to the foundation of Faroo, the sustainable tourism start-up that allows even small entrepreneurs to assess the social and environmental impacts of their business for free and choose which strategies to adopt. “I created a free assessment and certification standard based on my experience in the field and on all the international standards,” says Agovino, founder of Faroo. “It has been recognised by the United Nations and is being validated by the Bureau Veritas certification body.

Currently, even the most virtuous travellers have a hard time making their way among the hundreds of green certifications that tourism activities are equipping themselves with. What is certain is that tourism, one of the sectors which are most vulnerable to the climate crisis, is reinventing itself, certification after certification.

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