This site uses cookies in order to function as expected. By continuing, you are agreeing to our cookie policy.
Agree and close

Module 3

The Role of Sustainable Tourism
Certification for Businesses and Guests: Benefits and Challenges 

The third module will look at the effects of sustainable tourism certification on businesses and their role for consumers and travellers.

Certification can be a challenging task, especially for SMEs - because certification costs time and money. SMEs in particular often lack the additional resources to easily tackle this challenge. Therefore, many companies ask themselves, ‘what benefits they actually gain from a certificate?’ You will find an answer to this question in the following module.

This module is about:

  • Motives for sustainable tourism certification
  • Potential issues and challenges
  • Potential benefits for tourism businesses
  • Potential benefits for consumers and travellers
  • Conclusions from the analysis

Potential Benefits and Challenges for Tourism Businesses

The first question we ask ourselves is: What is the motivation of tourism stakeholders? Why do tourism businesses opt for sustainable certification?

A frequently stated motivational factor for sustainable tourism certification in the accommodation sector is the potential for savings in operational processes. The stakeholders want to reduce their operating costs by certification - through a more efficient use of water, electricity, fossil energy and the reduction of (food) waste. This cost reduction effect is proven by many studies.

But: Although sustainability measures lead to cost savings in the medium term, not all businesses achieve these benefits equally. Cost savings mainly benefit large accommodation businesses (scale effects!) and those businesses that have not previously applied any significant environmental measures (Tippet et al., 2020).

For tour operators, certification systems offer guidance in the selection of their contractual partners. In addition, many tour operators see a competitive advantage in using certification as an image and marketing tool.

But: Despite the growing interest in sustainability, sustainability certification has not yet become an effective marketing tool in tourism (Lund-Durlacher, 2017).

The examples given above are only a small and exemplary selection of the benefits of sustainable certification that tourism stakeholders expect.

A survey of sustainable certified tourism companies in Germany shows:

Besides cost savings, competitive advantages, more efficient operations and a better reputation, the most important reasons for sustainable certification are a sense of responsibility towards the environment and the incentive to improve the quality of the offer (Strasdas et al., 2016).

It should thus not be ignored that the interest in sustainability certifications is rooted in the increasing desire to contribute to sustainable development and to minimise negative impacts! Hence, the focus is not only on the resulting certificate or label, but also on the process itself that facilitates sustainable development. In general, it can be stated: The assessment of whether sustainability certification is worthwhile also depends on the desired effects.

There are numerous studies measuring the benefits of certification systems in tourism. These show a wide variety of chances that can result from sustainable certification.

Potential internal benefits:

  • Improved management processes of certiefied businesses, generating co-benefits (process efficiency, service quality - especially with process-oriented certification systems, where the focus is on the management and improvement process).
  • Cost savings, which sometimes far exceed the certification costs.
  • Gaining new competences (e.g. environmental technologies).
  • Enhance developments and innovations (measures for sustainable development  often require a change of behaviour at many levels and can therefore support the development of new processes and products).
  • Possibly increased staff motivation.

Potential external benefits:

  • Elimination or reduction of practices that have a negative impact on the environment and the local community.
  • Promotion of networking among certified companies.
  • Marketing tool targeting business partners.
  • Image enhancement: Positive reaction of guests, the media and in the professional community.
  • Offers your guests a sustainable and qualitative alternative to conventional product and service offerings.

(Strasdas et al., 2016 & Lund-Durlacher, 2007)

How national sustainability strategies can affect the benefits of sustainable tourism certification:

The German government's “Programme of Measures for Sustainability 2021” introduces a new regulation for the selection of accommodation for federal business trips: Apart from 2030, the guideline applies that for business trips by federal authorities and associated institutions, only an accommodation that is classified as sustainable in the sense of the German sustainability strategy can be booked. For this purpose, the hotel index will be shifted to sustainable hotels - this includes those that hold high-quality sustainability certifications.

Potential Benefits and Challenges for Consumers

The reason why certification has been less perceived as an effective marketing tool by tourism stakeholders is often attributed to the fact that few customers consider certification before booking or making a purchase decision.

In fact, surveys show that customers rarely prefer an offer based on sustainable certification, despite an increasing interest in sustainability.

The Reiseanalyse Trend Study (RA) is a representative survey to capture and characterise the holiday motives and interests in Germany. According to the current survey from 2022, sustainability was only an influential factor for 21% of travellers when planning their trip. Only for 5% of the respondents was sustainability the decisive factor.

But: A lack of information about product and service specifications influences the choice of a product. This suggests that education and information could stimulate sustainable consumption and purchasing behaviour!

Are we dealing with a chicken or egg problem here? Is there no demand for a sustainable offer on the part of consumers? Or is the sustainable offer in tourism not sufficiently expanded and identified?

Information about sustainable offers and the promotion of these are the basic benefits of certification from a consumer's perspective: Certifications provide orientation and inform about the sustainability of an offer. It is difficult for customers to judge whether an accommodation provider supports fair working conditions or uses renewable energies. A certificate therefore gives relief by guaranteeing that certain standards are respected.

But here comes another challenge:

The informative value of a certificate is reduced by the fact that they are sometimes unknown due to their low market penetration (‘What does the certificate promise?’) or certificates sometimes differ in their claims and in their quality (‘Which aspects of sustainability does the certificate cover?’ ‘Can I trust the certificate?‘).

Overview: Lessons learned from the Analysis

  • Sustainable tourism certification promises many potential benefits for tourism companies! 
  • Certificates can help to minimise the negative impact on the environment and the local community and to increase the quality of products and services.
    To realise this potential, a high-quality label should be chosen! 
  • Certificates provide trust and orientation for customers.
    The most important aspect to extend these benefits is to choose a trustworthy certification body with a convincing, transparent and well-known label! 
  • So far, sustainable certification has only been marginally considered in consumers' purchasing and travel decisions.
    In order to create incentives and also increase the willingness of guests to accept the higher costs that are sometimes involved, certificates need to be made visible and the sustainable output of the certificate should be communicated in an appealing way! 
  • The low market penetration of sustainable tourism certification results in certificates being relatively unknown.
    The positive effects of sustainability certification should therefore also be communicated to partners (B2B) in order to motivate others and increase the visibility of certificates in tourism in the future! The more businesses and destinations are certified, the easier it is for travellers to find sustainable alternatives!

SMEs that have been certified with the EU Ecolabel share their experiences on the EU Ecolabel website:

“Can tourism become a driver for the SDGs […]? YES, IF more tourism businesses and destinations go for sustainability certification and IF more tour operators, travel agencies and online booking services promote certified tourism and IF more consumers give priority to credibly certified travel options.” (destinet, n.d.)

And to give a positive outlook: The Reiseanalyse Trend Study (RA) also shows that the influence of sustainability on purchasing decisions has been steadily increasing since 2016!

We hope this module helped you to assess the potential benefits of certification for you or your business. In the next module, we will show you how to best navigate through the European label jungle.