ECO CERTIFICATION EXPLAINED
If you’ve travelled anywhere in Australia, it’s likely you’ve come across the ECO Certified tourism logo. Close to 500 tourism businesses – tour companies, accommodations and attractions – proudly display this logo on their windows, their vessels and their uniforms. But do you know what it signifies? Have you perhaps even thought that it’s probably just a marketing ploy; something aimed to attract “eco conscious” travellers?
Well, you might be surprised. ECO Certification is the world’s oldest national ecotourism accreditation program. Ecotourism Australia, who developed the program, is an internationally recognised not for profit organisation whose mission is to inspire environmentally sustainable and culturally responsible tourism. This is done through encouraging nature-based tourism businesses to become ECO Certified – and thus providing travellers with the assurance that the experiences they are having on their holiday are doing the right thing by the planet.
But how does a tourism business become certified? How can travellers know for sure that businesses are doing the right thing? And how did the certification program even get to where it is today? We’re glad you asked…
History of Ecotourism Australia
Ecotourism Australia (EA) was founded in 1991, becoming the first national ecotourism body in the world. In 1996, EA established its ECO Certification program, the world’s first National Ecotourism Accreditation Program. Today, this program is acknowledged as a global industry standard. Ecotourism Australia has built its operation around close collaboration with government agencies, academics and tourism operators. Today, as the national peak industry body, the organisation encompasses over 1600 products and represents close to 500 members.
With increasingly visible climate changes and the pressures put on natural resources from the ever-growing number of people travelling, EA’s operation is becoming increasingly important. Adopting the definition of ecotourism as ‘ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation,’ EA’s certification programs for tourism products build on the social, economic and environmental elements of sustainability. The organisation today runs four different certification programs for tourism products and operators: ECO Certification, Climate Action Certification, Respecting Our Culture Certification and EcoGuide Certification (managed by Savannah Guides). The organisation is also about to roll out its Destination Certification program.
What is ECO Certification?
Ecotourism Australia’s ECO Certification program is accredited through the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) Integrity Program. The GSTC is the global accreditation body for sustainable tourism certification programs, and its standards assess the quality of certification criteria and compliance processes against a global best practice standard. As one of only six programs worldwide to hold this international credibility, the ECO Certification program not only sets the standard for nature-based tourism operators in Australia but is also an internationally recognised and trusted program.
The ECO Certification program itself targets nature-based tourism products and is structured around three levels; Nature Tourism, Ecotourism and Advanced Ecotourism, where each level introduces more comprehensive criteria for the operator to meet. The program is broken down into eight key sections, including:
- General business and operational sustainability;
- Responsible marketing;
- Customer satisfaction;
- Environmental management;
- Education and interpretation;
- How the business contributes to conservation;
- How the business gives back to their local community; and
- How the business operates with cultural respect and sensitivity.
Environmental management forms the crux of the program and encompasses a range of elements, including minimal impact activity and facility management, emissions reduction, waste management, and minimal disturbance to wildlife.
The ECO Certification program is product specific. This means that an operator has to answer the criteria as it applies to each of their products, which may fit in to tour, accommodation, or attraction categories. For operators with multiple products, this means that they can have products certified on different levels.
ECO Certification in three levels
1. Nature Tourism
To achieve the first level of the program, Nature Tourism, businesses need to be focused around management of the natural environment. Operators at this level have to adjust their operation to leave minimal impacts on the natural areas in which they operate.
For the Ecotourism level, businesses that operate in natural areas must leave a minimal impact and make optimal use of natural resources to preserve the environment. Operators achieving this certification must offer interesting and innovative ways for visitors to learn about the environment, which also extensively help local communities and conservation efforts.
3. Advanced Ecotourism
Achieving the third level of the program, Advanced Ecotourism, are operators that provide leading ecotourism products. Their operation leaves minimal impact on the environment, and they deliver interesting and innovative ways for visitors to learn about the environment. These operators are committed to achieving best practice, being aware of how to utilise all resources wisely to conserve the environment and helping the local communities in where they operate.
Differentiating the levels of criteria are the inclusion of “core” and “advanced” criteria requirements, where applicants for Nature Tourism certification must address all core criteria sections 1-4, Ecotourism applicants must address all core criteria in sections 1-8, and Advanced Ecotourism applicants must address all core and at least 75% of advanced criteria in sections 1-8.
In addition to the self-assessment process of working through criteria requirements, applicants must have a series of management plans that reflect their current operations and improvement strategies. Alongside business, marketing and operational planning documentation, they must have in place an environmental management plan and an interpretation plan. Having these in place and regularly reviewed ensures the business operates to a consistently high standard and can grow and develop in line with strategies they’ve formulated over time.
To achieve any level of certification, the operator’s application is reviewed by an independent assessor. Once certification is granted, the operator must pass a comprehensive third-party audit process, which helps to maintain the credibility and integrity of the program. Their first audit is conducted within their first year of certification, and once every three years thereafter.
Ecotourism Australia’s other certification programs
While the ECO Certification program is EA’s longest running program, the organisation has also developed and manages a series of other programs to benefit the Australian tourism industry:
Respecting Our Culture (ROC) is a program that encourages tourism operators to carry out their business in ways that respect, support and enhance the understanding of the living
Indigenous culture and the Indigenous cultural heritage of the region(s) in which they operate.
The Climate Action Certification program is designed for all sectors of the tourism industry, and for those dedicated to reducing their carbon emissions and taking stronger action against climate change impacts. The Climate Action program also operates on three levels; Climate Action Business, Climate Action Innovator, and Climate Action Leader, with Leaders moving closer to achieving carbon neutral status.
EcoGuide Certification is owned by EA but operated and managed by Savannah Guides, which is a network of tour guides and tour operators who are working alongside leading researchers, tourism, environmental and community organisations. To achieve EcoGuide Certification, tour guides must use an environmentally responsible approach to the delivery of their product, guaranteeing a professional and authentic experience. Beyond that, tour guides must have extensive knowledge and understanding of the country, the local natural features, and how to treat the environment and communities they visit with respect.
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