The Certification of “Real” Ecotourism

How do you tell if a company is certifiable ecotourism operator?
How do you tell if a company is a certifiable ecotourism operator?

By Victoria Schlesinger

Over the past several decades, travelers (also known as consumers) have increasingly voiced their concern for the conservation of the natural and cultural habitats they visit. The market has rushed to satisfy their wants, slapping the term “eco” on anything related to the outdoors.

The term “eco” is now synonymous with outdoor adventure sports, wildlife viewing, and visits to preserved wilderness and infrequently refers to tourism operations committed to sustainable practices.

In practice, it is applied to everything from a walk in a national park to river rafting to staying in a community-operated wilderness lodge that runs on solar power. The term’s dilution has led to skeptical travelers, wondering who to trust when they want to support “real” ecotourism.

If you are a traveler looking to spend your travel dollar on environmentally and socially committed operations, how do you know who is really adhering to sustainable practices? Familiarizing yourself with certification systems is one of the burgeoning means, although they too come amidst a cloud of confusion.


Tourism operators and conservationists recognize the confusion and frustration of consumers and have responded by working on one of the obvious solutions: a certification system, one that gives a stamp of sustainable practice approval so that a traveler can more easily discern who’s really eco-outdoor and who really offers eco-practices-that-support-local-populations-and-conserve-the-environment-long-term.


An approach to certification systems, agreeable and applicable to the many sectors of the travel industry, has yet to be established, and it may be some time before one is, if ever. Operators, NGOs, agencies, and scientists debate over how the myriad situations where ecotourism is desirable can be fairly judged.

There is great concern about who is being asked to partake in defining certification criteria, who is going to certify the certifiers, and about the generally high fees charged to be certified. Some operators feel pressured to choose between spending thousands of dollars on certification (which will grant them an assessment of what they need to change) or spending that same money on sustainable improvements.


Many argue that a single certification system is not desirable, that it is best to let each nation develop a system that reflects their unique needs. While others feel fair certification is impossible to achieve and it’s better to let travelers judge and spread the word. Currently, over 100 certification systems exist, ranging from regional, national, and international scope. Below are a few frequently profiled systems.

Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program (NEAP)logo

NEAP was developed by Australia’s Ecotourism Association and Tourism Operators Network and has been lauded as a model for other certification systems.

NEAP certifies tours, attractions, and accommodations in Australia, awarding them on a three-tiered system of Nature Tourism, Ecotourism, and Advanced Ecotourism. For a list of their accredited operations, you need to become a member and will receive a copy of their ecotourism guide.

United Kingdom

The Green Business Tourism Scheme promotes environmentally conscious tourism in Scotland by awarding a bronze, silver, or gold leaf of certification. To be considered for any level of certification, a project must meet basic environmental regulations; beyond this, levels of achievement are awarded based on how many measures out of 100 a project meets. Accredited operations are listed on their website. website

Costa Rica

Certification for Sustainable Tourism

Costa Rica’s Tourism Institute and National Accreditation Commission established CST to evaluate, reward, and promote sustainable tourism in Costa Rica. They evaluate accommodations in four categories fundamental to sustainability and give a zero through five rating, which reflects the percentage of met established conditions. The higher the score, the higher the achieved percentage; a five indicates 95 percent approval. To find these accommodations and their ratings visit CST’s website.


Sustainability is imperative for all tourism stakeholders and must translate from words to actions. The GSTC offers practical insights and expert guidance to assist tourism destinations and businesses implement effective steps and achieve tangible performance goals.

The STTP uses the GSTC Criteria, the global baseline standards for sustainability in travel and tourism, as the training curriculum framework, and incorporates best practice presentations, business and destination case studies, and in-depth advice and consultation on how to implement sustainability practices for businesses and destinations. Certificate in Global Sustainable Tourism


Ecotel certifies hotels, inns, and resorts around the world, requiring each to pass a detailed inspection and list of criteria that earns them from one to five globe awards. Each globe refers to a different key aspect of environmental responsibility: Environmental Commitment, Solid Waste Management, Energy Efficiency, Water Conservation, and Employee Education & Community Involvement. A hotel is rated in all five categories, and to be certified must pass muster in at least two of the five. See their website for a listing of certified accommodations.

green globe logo 120Green Globe 21
Green Globe 21 certification offers accreditation to companies in all sectors of the tourism industry all over the world — from tour operators to lodges, to airlines. Green Globe 21 encourages many mainstream companies to adopt sustainable tourism practices, and as a result, has less stringent certification requirements.

For example, there is no minimum requirement that companies must meet to use the Green Globe 21 logo other than a commitment to change their practices and meet basic regulatory compliance within a year.

They may use a slightly different Green Globe 21 logo once they have achieved an even greater level of compliance. If you want to patronize a service that is currently practicing sustainable tourism, look for the globe with a checkmark in the middle. While there is a list of participating operators on the site, it is difficult to discern ratings. You can also become a member to receive more information.


The best way to find a certified eco-business is through the certifier’s website or published list; but from a traveler’s perspective, this is currently one of the great downfalls of certification. Less than one percent of tourism businesses are certified, meaning most operations practicing sustainable tourism are not listed with a certification group, so finding a comprehensive list of “real” ecotourism operators is as difficult as ever.

This, however, is where the committed ecotourist comes in and plays a crucial role of fueling the market. Ask operators that you are interested in patronizing if and how they are committed to sustainable tourism. Let them know that you make your choices based on environmental commitment.

If an operator has the first-hand experience with potential customers who are concerned with sustainability, this is the clearest means of demonstrating the burgeoning marketability of “real” ecotourism. Making noise, while it may seem like the old fashioned way, is still one of the best means of instigating change.

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