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Beyond Labels

Back in 1999-2000 I worked with the Association of
Independent Tour Operators to develop their Responsible Tourism policy. In 2000
AITO committed to a set of principles which have guided their practise and that
of their members.

AITO acknowledged “that wherever a Tour Operator does
business or sends clients it has a potential to do both good and harm,” and
they recognised “that all too often in the past the harm has outweighed the
good.”  You can find their policy on
their website at

I worked with AITO to develop the policy and was struck by
the diversity of the habitats, cultures and activities which AITO
engaged with. Tour operators facilitate travel to a very diverse range
of destinations.
The social, cultural, environmental and economic issues and impacts
differ from
destination to destination. In some destinations the availability of
water is a
major issue, in many destinations it is not � although it is an issue
in an increasing
number of destinations. The cultural impacts also differ between Africa
and Asia between � and within) Christian and Islamic cultures.

We live in a diverse world. Responsible Tourism has, since
Krippendorf articulated it in The
recognised and celebrated that diversity. The Cape Town Declaration
in 2002 for example spoke of

“Relishing the diversity of our
world's cultures, habitats and species and the wealth of our cultural and
natural heritage, as the very basis of tourism, we accept that responsible and
sustainable tourism will be achieved in different ways in different places.”


Tour operators reflect the diversity of the destinations
they operate to and the travellers they attract. Some operators focus on wildlife
and conservation, others on social projects and cultural conservation.

There is no all encompassing definition of what constitutes responsibility.
As Krippendorf argued, and as I have echoed many times, we need active and
engaged travellers and locals  willing to
debate what constitutes responsible behaviours in particular places.  

 Tom Robbins used Explore as an example of a company where at
least one client felt they had been less than responsible. Robbins appeared to
endorse a global label as the solution to defining responsible.

I am not convinced. Labels cannot cover everything. I chair
the judges for the annual Responsible Tourism Awards and we Highly Commended
Explore in 2005 � see
Explore has high quality labels from AITO (the industry) and Tourism Concern (a
campaigning NGO). Explore is rightly commended for its achievements in Responsible
Tourism � it is one of the leaders in this field.

Explore has the labels � and rightly so � but what gives
life to the idea of Responsible Tourism, to the aspiration for responsibility,   is the debates
which go on around it. We each will define responsibility differently and no company
will be impeccably responsible in everything it does � all companies can be
challenged to do more and they are.

As I argued in Responsible
Tourism and the Market
published in November 2005

“There are some significant differences between the two
approaches of certification vs. responsible tourism. Certification is of most
utility for businesses concerned to audit their supply chains and improve their
management. It is process orientated and rarely provides the holidaymaker or
traveller with an enhanced experience; provided that the business does not
claim to have a current certificate when it does not, there is no risk of
litigation, and it tends to produce a level playing field with no differentiation
between certified products and little marketing advantage. It certainly does
not excite the end consumers.


By contrast responsible tourism is market driven, both
responding to and creating tourists who demand a more real encounter with the environment
and the community, based on values of respect for other people and their
places. These informed consumers subject the products and experiences to
continuous review. When they like it they recommend it to others and return
themselves. When a responsible tourism product fails to match its claims, the
tourist complains and in the worst cases the enterprise risks litigation for
misrepresentation. There is a ratchet effect as consumers expect and demand more
� benefits accrue to those companies and products which enable consumers to
realise their aspirations, as do the communities and environments around them.”


Responsibility will never adequately be reduced to a label �
as Krippendorf opined we need “rebellious tourists and rebellious locals”.

It would help if the journalists too asked the same kinds of
questions about the industry as a whole – regularly. Responsible Tourism is only a niche if
we let it be � all forms of tourism can be more responsible � keep asking the
questions. Keep challenging the operators – all the operators not just those who are trying to make a difference.

Recognise those like Explore who are so much better than the
industry average, recognise what is achieved � tell others and encourage them
to book with the responsible operators � but keep asking the questions an
debating the issues.

Will travel journalists do the same – regularly?

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