Is Certification really the way to go? An Assessment

The agony of choice

Tourism destinations and businesses increasingly turn to sustainability certification to strike the balance between safeguarding their natural and cultural resources and developing a long-term tourism strategy. While the demand for certification is rising, so is the availability of certification schemes, often leaving destinations and businesses clueless on which one to adopt.

In addition to this abundance of options, it remains challenging to identify which scheme would be the most effective in a given context. Generally, most certification schemes have a rather narrow understanding of sustainability, only covering the environmental aspect of the complex concept.

How effective are the schemes really?

Determining sustainability

The criteria represent the core of a certification scheme. These criteria ensure that tangible impact mitigation offers are taken by the destination or business. So who decides on these criteria? To be effective, they need scientifically grounded and practically applicable. Luckily, in the meanwhile, there exists a well established and scientifically grounded international baseline for the criteria a sustainability certification needs to contain. The most complete international standard for sustainability in tourism is the GSTC standard. Crucial is, that a certification scheme covers all relevant aspects of sustainability, namely its dimensions planet, people and prosperity. Al these dimensions can be further linked to relevant targets set in the SDG’s and the latest findings from sustainability literature.

Measuring sustainability

So now we have a criteria catalogue, but we need to be able to measure to what extent a destination fulfils these criteria. This is where indicators come in. Developing good indicators, however, is easier said than done. An effective indicator should not only be science-based but also practically feasible, being applicable in different contexts, which often is not that easy. Moreover, indicator selection will always be a value-driven process. While stakeholder involvement can enhance the applicability, it could lead to a trade-off in theoretical justification.

Working towards sustainability

A criteria catalogue in itself does not change the world. It needs to be applied in an analytical, responsible, transparent and independent way. This means a destination of business needs to have certain management processes and systems in place to assure that it continuously improves its sustainability impacts. International standards such as the ISO 14001 management standard provide a guideline on central requirements for the certification process.

Collectively moving forward

One central challenge the tourism industry is facing when working towards sustainability is the complexity of its actor-network. Especially in the Alps, this is mostly locally or destination-based. Hence, good coordination and governance principles such as transparency, participation and consensus orientation are crucial to collectively move forward.

So which scheme to adopt now?

This question needs to be answered very context-specific. However, some general findings were made that can guide the decision-making process. When aiming at a comprehensive sustainability standard, covering all three dimensions of sustainability, globally recognized standards might represent the most promising alternative. At the same time, collaboration with local tourism stakeholders is important to ensure context-specific ambitions.

Want to know more?

You can download the full Master thesis here. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me, Clara, directly.

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