Szilvia Bartalos and Dr Edith M Szivas, SeaStar Consultancy

Sustainability is on everybody’s mind and tourism professionals are searching for ways to develop their business in a way that is both competitive and sustainable. One of the questions often asked is whether to subscribe to a green certification scheme and if so which scheme to choose. To aid with this decision, we approached the four global tourism certification schemes that currently operate in the UAE and asked them about their programmes, views and experience with tourism certification in the UAE.

Green certification
In the tourism sector, certification programs are voluntary schemes that can play an important role in bringing about more sustainable tourism because they provide participating organizations with an action plan for improvement. They assess operations against sustainability indicators, monitor performance and provide written assurance that the business conforms to specific requirements.

Record tourism development in a fragile natural environment
The UAE has a booming tourism sector.Dubai hotels alonewelcomed over 7.9 million visitors in the first 9 month of 2013 (DTCM, 2013) and all the indicators point to a hugely successful sector with substantial further future growth potential. Tourism, however, is developing in a fragile environment.The UAE has one of the world’s hottest and driest environments. According to WWF’s World Living Report, the UAE has the third largest ecological footprintafter Qatar and Kuwait.While demand for water in the UAE is growing, the country’s resources are limited and climate change affects the resources. The UAE is also one of the world’s largest per capita producer of waste (Habtoor Leighton Group). Furthermore, the UAE also comes in the forefront in terms of per capita annual emissions (UAE National Bureau of Statistics, 2011). Realizing these issues, the UAE has been active in engaging in large-scale sustainability projects. The UAE 2020 Vision and the Dubai Expo 2020 Bid wholeheartedly embrace sustainability whilst the flagship projects of Masdar and Shams Solar Power Station are also testaments of this commitment.

Tourism certification schemes in the UAE
Presence –Green Key is the largest of the four programs globally and currently has the highest market penetration in the UAE.Green Globe is the second largest scheme in the UAE. EarthCheck works extensively in Asia and Australia.

Different targets – GreenGlobe covers most segments of the tourism industry, including MICE. EarthCheck provides strategic opportunities for policy making not only for enterprises but also for destination management organizations. Blue Flag focuses on beaches and marinas and its flag is flown at more than 3800 beaches worldwide.

Different focus – While the environmental aspects are key elements for all the four programs, they all are different in their structure and philosophy. Green Key and Blue Flag are owned by not for profit organization and emphasize the importance of environmental education. Green Globe requires a strategic approach, considering all the key elements of sustainability and the triple bottom line, uses 337 compliance indicators applied to 41 individual sustainability criteria and provides additional PR and Solution services to its members.EarthCheck is heavily based in environmental science, giving emphasis to policy forming, sustainability approach, compliance and communication. Blue Flag provides an opportunity for beaches to get certification.

It worth highlighting that sustainability management plan and policy writing is a requirementfor both Green Globe and EarthCheck. All four certification programs provide third party auditing via local or regionally based auditors. Green Globe and EarthCheck are consistent with ISO based audit principles.

Examples of certified hotels and beaches in the UAE

Green Globe: MovenpickHotels, Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Emirates Towers
Green Key: Radisson Hotels, Starwood Hotels
EarthCheck: Dusit Thani , Banyan Tree Resorts
Blue Flag:
Public beaches: Abu Dhabi Corniche, Al-Mamzar Beach
Private (hotel) beaches: Jebel Ali Golf & Spa beach and marina, Emirates Palace beach

Where do we go from here?
It is evident that tourism certification is gaining recognition in the UAE. This not only helps the environment but it also benefits tourism businesses. How? First of all, tourism businesses committed to a certification program must prove their compliance to a set of indicators and report on their performance. This guarantees transparent results and real improvements. Secondly, and most importantly for the business case, it leads to measurable cost savings and increased consumer confidence.
In order to fully benefit from the sustainability efforts, the following considerations were pointed out by the interviewed industry experts:
• Hotels need to provide more transparency and evidence of real achievements without ambiguity and avoid ‘greenwashing’ to market itself as ethical with activities without real benefits to the environment or local communities
• All certification programs need to be based on of valid data and metrics
• There is a need for established baseline for operational performance that can deliver consistent reporting metrics which can allow comparisons within sectors and climate zones.

Tourism professionals have moved on from thinking that green certification is largely ‘green washing’ to believing that signing up to a green tourism certification program actually helps to make the right decisions and it also has positive impact on the bottom line.
Overall, tourism businesses must think how to make sustainability a part of their corporate culture and how to ensure that every single employee – not only the ones who take the company through the certification process – know, believe and implement sustainability measures in their daily work.

The Table below compares the four global tourism specific certification schemes currently operating in the UAE. (see url)

SeaStar is a UAE based consultancy company specializing in advisory and representation services for the travel, tourism and hospitality industry. Our work is based on the principles of sustainability, stakeholder participation and integrated planning. This approach is in line with the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism guidelines.