Tag: community based tourism

Sustainable tourism certifications can help with these beautiful destinations

Sustainable tourism certifications are designed to voluntarily assess and monitor the environmental and social impacts of tourism organizations or destinations that facilitate tourism activities. Accreditation is done by certification bodies according to many criteria regarding business practices, social policy (i.e. human rights, fair labour, and child protection), environmental impact (i.e. CO2 emissions, water, waste, biodiversity, animal welfare), supply chain and procurement, business partners, and more.  To the consumer, these labels indicate that a baseline of generally accepted requirements for sustainable tourism is met and that the company is committed to a sustainable approach to the environment and the local community in a particular destination. But do sustainable tourism schemes truly work as intended?

Conventional Tourism

Conventional tourism has a negative impact on the globe. A 2018 study by Nature Climate Change reported that over 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions were traced back to the tourism industry. Wracked with carbon emissions, environmental and habitat damagecareless infrastructure development, and human rights violations, tourism is not often a champion of environmentalism. Furthermore, rarely does the money from tourism traffic filter down to individual people in tourism destinations. Many of the big players in tourism get wealthy, while small, independently-owned companies and individuals can be pushed out of popular destinations by increasing property values.

When the tourism industry in a destination becomes saturated with corporate interests, economic insecurity and growing wealth inequalities among local people in popular destinations, especially in the global South, can be the result. Rapid infrastructure development may contribute to environmental damage of fragile habitats, increased resource use can damage surrounding ecosystems and limit local access to critical resources including food and water, and the commodification of culture can compromise the authenticity and local community’s agency over their cultural practices. Furthermore, tourism is growing. In 1960, there were about 70 million international tourist arrivals. Today, there are almost 1.5 billion. This movement is immense and unlikely to wane.

Despite many ill environmental and social effects of conventional tourism, the benefits of truly sustainable tourism approaches are plenty. Tourism can strengthen communities with increasing tourist capital and economic opportunitiesreduce wealth inequality, incentivize investments in local infrastructure, including health care and education, facilitate cross-cultural exchange, and improve the visibility of important heritage sites, natural landscapes, and fragile ecosystems. The large numbers of travelers represent an opportunity to direct growing tourism into environmental and socially beneficial efforts. Thus, the question becomes even more potent in an increasingly global, and environmentally strained world: is there an avenue for tourism that can capitalize on the benefits of increasing tourist traffic, while minimizing the industry’s damages?

The Solution?

A movement towards more sustainable tourism, or ecotourism, can be part of this solution. Raising awareness about the impact of tourism and bringing stakeholders together is one way to achieve this through Sustainable Tourism Certifications. Over the past three decades, many initiatives have taken shape, with different sets of standards and resulting in many different schemes. Because the certification process is voluntary and because of the abundance of labels that are emerging, sustainable tourism certifications are often criticized and viewed as greenwashing (misleading labeling or unjustified claims of sustainable practices). Therefore, complete transparency of practices, measures, and results is the most important condition for a process toward sustainable development of an organization or destination.

When these schemes involve a number of stakeholders, including customers, small businesses, corporate interests, and local service providers, and consider the environmental impact of the effort as a whole entity, they can be incredibly valuable, sustainable, and regenerative economically and environmentally. These efforts could contribute to the achievement of many of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, including minimizing poverty, hunger, and gender inequalities, and improving education, work opportunities, safe industry and infrastructure, and responsible consumption.

Sustainable tourism certification schemes explained

The leading international organization in the field of tourism is UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization). They promote responsible, sustainable, and accessible tourism as a driver of economic growth and inclusive development. About 15 years ago, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) was formed by 32 tourism industry partners, including UNWTO and Solimar International, to foster universal sustainable tourism practices. They developed a method for accrediting certifying bodies and certification programs, with the aim that these programs are objective and transparent. In essence, the GSTC provides the standards and the stamp of approval of the certification programs themselves, rather than getting involved in the direct certification of businesses or destinations; that is the job of the numerous sustainable tourism certifications adopting GSTC criteria.

For example, Green Destinations is one GSTC-accredited certification body for destinations. They support global destinations and tourism organizations with their sustainable tourism certification schemes, focused on a sustainable management cycle of continuous improvement and assessment of responsible tourism. Green Destinations uses the GSTC criteria, adapted for specific destination contexts, to certify destinations based on their level of sustainability performance. Solimar International and Green Destinations are working together at the country level including in destinations like Timor-Leste and the Maldives to share best practices, such as through the Green Destinations Top 100 Competition, and the Green Destinations Good Travel Seal White Label Certification Scheme. These programs enable recognition of destination sustainability efforts while providing important information to travelers seeking sustainable experiences.

Several other notable schemes which are effective in encouraging environmental awareness may not be GSTC accredited, but they do include the GSTC standards and/or the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Blue Flag has a global accreditation program for beaches, marinas and tourism boats and promotes sustainable development in freshwater and marine areas. GreenKey audits and certifies tourism establishments (accommodation, restaurants, attractions and more) and promotes sustainable methods of operation and technologies, offering carbon and water calculation tools. Travelife is a certifying body for tour operators and travel agents. The program includes managing the impact of accommodation, transport and excursion providers. They offer a wide range of training and management tools to improve social and environmental impact in the destination. Biosphere tourism is a certification scheme that includes companies involved in destinations, events, hotels, and transportation, measuring environmental performance and social and cultural impacts.

Limitations of Sustainable Tourism Certification Schemes

Certification schemes are not without their complexities. Currently, over 100 companies claim to have developed sustainable tourism certification schemes to measure the impacts of tourism, from municipal waste, climate costs, and financial burdens. While these schemes tout their accreditation methods, many are certifying that the stakeholders they work for have met a minimum standard, instead of encouraging improved environmental and human conditions. Most certifications reward companies for doing their homework, but they don’t set standards for minimum wages, workers rights, and environmental initiatives.

Importantly, certification schemes must be transparent in order to be credible. Many resulting figures and measures from certifications are often unavailable to the consumer. Contrary to other certification schemes, sustainable tourism accreditation is often measuring progress or an effort to track progress against an unknown baseline. Certification programs such as Green Destinations offer destinations a goal to work towards improving their sustainability practices, which is an important aim in and of itself.

While it is critical that businesses measure impact and costs, the bigger picture can still have a negative impact. A company is part of a complex system, where the individual business may meet the criteria, but still harms the system as a whole. An example could be a certified hotel in a desert area. The hotel is incredibly resource intensive, extracting a depth of resources from a water-poor desert environment. Operations like this do not serve people or the environment.

In this case, the certifications the hotel has received are effective at attracting lucrative business and well-intentioned customers, but not for creating equitable environmental and social conditions for local ecosystems and people. Usually, there are no obligations to keep profits at the destination to contribute to this local ecosystem, but international chains shift their earnings to tax havens. Updating these certification schemes to include minimum requirements for acceptable environmental practices and working conditions for employees and include a fair contribution to the local ecosystem could hugely improve the broader sustainability goals.

Conclusion and Further Readings

Despite these limitations that can lead customers astray, the efforts to become a certified sustainable tourism business offer opportunities to improve environmental and social circumstances, address climate change, land use, animal welfare, and create healthy economies. Successful integration of sustainable practices and management can support a sustainable socioeconomic development strategy, increased economic security, and improved environmental conditions.

Do you represent a destination of tourism organization interested in being certified as sustainable? Solimar can help you to choose a certification program that suits your future sustainability goals. Contact us to learn more.


Written by Cat Padgett and Carla Rijnders on January 19, 2023
community based tourism experience in tanzania

Community-based tourism is one of the most significant parts of the tourism industry and key to destination sustainability. Despite their importance, communities are often neglected in tourism. Many tourism destinations overlook local peoples, or at best use them as gimmicks and labor for foreign visitors. Instead, tourism should serve as a tool to improve destination development and locals’ quality of life.

What is a community and what does it mean for tourism?

A community is defined as individuals living in the same region with common interests and interactions. However, community means more than sharing the same physical environment – many social-cultural factors are in play to create a community. In tourism, a community encompasses anyone living in a destination and is affected by tourism, either directly or indirectly.

community cultural displays can be a great tourist attraction
Locals performing their traditional dance in Samara Beach, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

The importance of communities in tourism destinations

What is community-based tourism?

Community-based tourism falls under the umbrella of sustainable tourism. It aims to involve communities in aspects of tourism, ranging from planning to active participation. Community-based tourism seeks to support communities through tourism activities, and aims to offer tourists an authentic local experience. Solimar International has developed a CBT project in Timor-Leste.

In contemporary tourism planning, especially in developing countries, the voices of local residents often go unheard. Community empowerment aims to create dynamic and self-sufficient communities that will make decisions for their own well-being.

Unfortunately, a lack of sustainable planning in tourism ventures can create adverse effects in local communities. Community-based tourism aims to incorporate sustainability efforts and reduce the negative impacts of tourism, both on the environment and the residents of destinations.

community markets are popular with tourists
Traditional floating market in Thailand

What are the potential negative impacts of tourism on communities?

When done thoughtfully with stakeholders in mind, tourism is hugely beneficial to communities. There are many reasons why it is important to measure the negative impacts of tourism. To better understand the importance of thoughtful community-based tourism, let’s look at some of the potential negative impacts of tourism on communities.

1. Economic Leakage and Higher Prices

Tourism greatly influences communities in developing countries, especially those that take in large amounts of foreign currency. The profit generated from tourism–if not used to benefit communities–can create revenue leakage, and may lead to inflation in the destination, making it hard for locals to gain or keep economic independence.

2. Dependence on Tourism

Communities become economically vulnerable when tourism is their main source of income. They can become dependent on foreign visitors and have difficulty sustaining their economy during off-seasons.

3. Commercialization of Traditions and Customs

Especially with regard to mass tourism, local peoples and their cultures have become marketing assets for tourism profit. Instead of preservation, local traditions and customs are commodified and used as tools to attract more tourists.

local communities can suffer from harmful tourist practices
African women cooking traditional local food on the street

4. Cultural Deterioration

Interaction between locals and visitors can cause cultural clashes, and the rapid changes caused by an influx of tourism may agitate a community’s harmony and disrupt traditional living.

5. Environmental Damage

Tourism can also cause harm to the environment, leading to losses of natural resources and biodiversity, as well as general deterioration of the local biosphere as a whole.

tourism can damage the environment
Environmental damage of tourism on natural resources

Why is community important for sustainable tourism?

For a destination to be sustainable, tourism’s adverse economic, environmental, and social impacts should be limited. Local communities are motivated to minimize negative impacts to their homes in order to continue living in them, which is why community inclusion in the tourism sector is essential for sustainability. 

1. A Self-sustained and Locally Managed Economy

Community-based tourism ensures locals make their own decisions and keep the money within their community. As a result, communities become self-sustainable. The funds created by tourism activities stay within the community and are used for its own good.

2. Going Back to Basics: Local knowledge for preservation and sustainability

Locals know how to maintain and protect their land. They are permanent residents, and they care about their environment. Locals also hold knowledge beyond what tourism professionals can provide. They know what is appropriate or not for their environment. Local involvement ensures tourism sustainability. Locals are trained to protect and sustain their environment for themselves and future touristic activities.

3. Active Participation and Community Involvement

In community-based tourism, locals actively participate in the tourism decision-making process, which causes communities to gain confidence and their voice to be heard. It is important to include communities for sustainability, as community decisions have more considerable impacts than that of individuals.

4. Increased Value and Protection of Local Culture

Community-based tourism is also essential for cultural preservation. The publicity of local cultures encourages locals to value and preserve their traditions and culture.

What are the benefits of community-based tourism to travelers?

Community-based tourism not only benefits locals, but also travelers.

community-based boat tours are a great way to support locals when you travel
Small boat tours in Thailand

Here are some benefits of community tourism for travelers:

1. Experiencing the Authentic Culture

Community-based tourism gets closer to the community and the authentic culture. While a coach tour stops in a local village to buy handicrafts, community-based tourism involves tourists with the community and its lifestyle, which is a two-way interaction. Community-based tourism moves from the stereotypical, commercialized part of tourism to a genuine experience.

2. Unique Locations

Community-based tourism includes locations that mass tour operators may not prefer. It involves unique experiences and culturally dense areas fed by local knowledge.

3. Ethical Awareness and Responsible Traveling

Community-based tourism aims to provide opportunities for travelers to help locals. Tourists will know that their money is used for a good reason – the development of the destination. They will also leave knowing they have left a positive footprint.

4. Warm Welcome by Locals

Tourists have an unforgettable experience when they feel welcomed by locals. Community-based tourism puts importance on communities and tourists’ relationship with locals. Locals’ attitude is one of the leading influencers of why people prefer to travel to a destination.

ecotours help support the environment and the community
An ecotourist visiting a waterfall


In short, tourism has a significant influence on communities, especially in developing countries. Most tourism destinations ignore locals and use them as a tool to attract more tourists.

To the contrary, community-based tourism includes locals in every part of the tourism planning and managing process. Locals learn to be active participants. They build value and confidence, improve their knowledge, and interact with tourists, which creates mutual understanding and learning. The more locals feel supported by tourism, the more they support and further tourism, which favors destination sustainability and protection of the culture and its values. Community-based tourism helps locals when traveling to a destination. It is a win-win situation for everyone involved in tourism.

Interested in how we can help you with community-based tourism? Contact us to learn more.

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Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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