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Tough Questions: Planet, People, Peace in Costa Rica (Day 2)

Sustainable Tourism: What’s the Definition?

By Ed Wetschler

“Sustainable tourism is like safe sex,” says Lelei TuiSamoa LeLaulu at the Planet, Peace and People conference in Costa Rica. “The rules are very simple, but if you break any of them, you’re dead.” No wonder people work double-time to define those rules. Amos Bien, who created one of the first eco-lodges in Costa Rica (Rara Avis, in the mid-1980s), admits, “I have a ten-page collection of definitions of sustainable development.”

So what is sustainable tourism? I’m almost sorry you asked. There are more than 127 (and counting) programs and agencies that certify which hotels and tour operators are “sustainable.” Confusing, I know, so the United Nations, after consulting with certification agencies from all over the world, has developed a list of Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria that feature 37 rules. (Again, Costa Rica paved the way: 34 of those rules echo Costa Rica’s Five Leaf Sustainability rating.)

I won’t lay all 37 rules on you. But after three days of 20 or so speakers from four continents, I can tell you which criteria the speakers here seem to prize most in green travel businesses:

  • The eco-lodge or eco-tour (etc.) must help preserve or even restore the natural environment. It should strive for a carbon neutrality to help stave off global warming.
  • It must bring income to the host country and to the local community, and not just through menial jobs, but through work that empowers the residents.
  • A truly sustainable experience should help visitors better understand both the natural and the human environments. There should be meaningful and respectful encounters between the visitors and locals; this is not about tourists just snapping photos of indigenous people playing dress-up for tips.
  • The experience should help preserve rather than uproot, rural communities and local cultures.

Surprisingly (to me, anyway) speakers here report that ecotourists from different countries seem to have different priorities. For example, more Europeans seem interested in the environmental aspects of sustainable tourism, while more Americans seek cultural encounters.

But the certification agencies, from the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, call for a more balanced approach. “The basic principles of sustainable tourism are like the legs of a chair,” said one speaker. “If one of them is shorter, the chair does not work.”

If you’re someone who enjoys sustainable travel, are these criteria of equal importance to you? How even are the legs in your traveling chair?

Next: Day 3.

Ed Wetschler, Associate Editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky, Caribbean Travel & Life, the Official Pennsylvania Guide, and other print and new media. He is president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editor-in-chief of Diversion magazine

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