Ten years ago, the Rainforest Alliance launched its sustainable tourism program. It was a logical next step for an organization already committed to improving lives, livelihoods and landscapes through sustainable agriculture and forestry; after all, tourism is the world’s largest service sector, an important source of revenue in developing countries, and an industry with very real impacts (both positive and negative) on people, wildlife and the environment. Here, Rainforest Alliance vice president of sustainable tourism Ronald Sanabria — who has been with the program since its inception — reflects on the milestone…
I was born and raised in Costa Rica, a country that shared my vision of tourism as a way to help conserve nature and alleviate poverty. Throughout my travels, I discovered that tourism could be the structure to support cultural bridges. Sustainable tourism that addressed these three areas – environmental protection, poverty alleviation and social justice — became my quest and the Rainforest Alliance offered me a home where I could turn my ideas into actions.
When developing our sustainable tourism division, we reflected on what the industry needed and worked to create a program that satisfied those needs. We wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between theory and practice – making all of the lofty ideas about sustainability attainable for hotel owners, tour operators, nearby communities and ecosystems. Our approach in a nutshell: focus on providing training and technical assistance to tourism entrepreneurs and giving them the tools to improve the management of their own businesses.
We also wanted to foster a universal understanding of sustainable tourism, increase market access for sustainable tourism companies, recognize credible sustainable tourism certification programs through accreditation and provide education on sustainable tourism. But we couldn’t do it alone — we needed to involve other organizations, experts and industry insiders. So, with patience, persistence and guidance from many allies, we helped develop the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
Among the public perception challenges we faced was debunking the myth that sustainable tourism meant only high-end luxury eco-lodges or basic accommodations for backpackers, with nothing in between. We firmly believe that the hundreds of seminars and workshops we have given to thousands of people around the world have helped shift thinking, so that today’s travelers realize that all kinds of tourism can be made more sustainable.
And finally, we saw the need to connect sustainable tourism suppliers with buyers; to date, we’ve helped to develop over 100 alliances with tour operators committed to sourcing from sustainable tourism businesses. By bringing more and more businesses on board, we hope to eventually aid in the development of an industry where sustainable tourism is the norm.
Ten years ago, our presence in the tourism world was limited to small informational stands spouting information about green practices at giant international tourism trade shows. Today, our little green frog is a prominent, well-respected fixture in the tourism world.
What’s next for the Rainforest Alliance’s tourism team? We’ll expand our field work beyond Latin America, focusing on other regions within the southern hemisphere that need access to sustainable tourism information, training, funding and tools. And, since tourism is responsible for an estimated five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll increase our emphasis on climate change mitigation through sustainable tourism practices.
Our work would be impossible without the help of our incredible network of tourism ministries, donors, NGO partners and friends. Meeting so many wonderful, committed, visionary individuals has been one of the greatest blessings of this work. We thank them all wholeheartedly for their support and look forward to continuing our work together!