Setting Standards for Sustainable Tourism: An analysis of US tourism certification programs

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Poser, Elizabeth


Swenson, Jennifer

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As one of the biggest industries in the world, tourism has huge positive and negative socioeconomic, cultural and environmental impacts. Over the past fifteen years, a plethora of tourism certification programs have sprung up worldwide in an effort to recognize tourism businesses who truly work to reduce negative impacts by using sustainable practices. This worldwide proliferation of tourism certification programs, however, has led to consumer confusion, lack of brand recognition and widely varying standards. With a global accreditation body looming on the horizon that aims to create a single recognizable sustainable tourism brand, tourism certification programs will soon have the opportunity to become accredited by complying with minimum standards that will be determined by the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council. Accreditation will provide certification programs with the legitimacy and credibility they need to differentiate their programs, and thus the certified tourism businesses, from others with weaker standards, and may eventually lead to a shift of the tourism industry towards more sustainable practices. Here I use the best practice standards for tourism certification programs as laid out in the Mohonk Agreement, and the recently released Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, envisioned to serve as the common set of baseline criteria by which to accredit certification programs, to evaluate four state-level tourism certification programs as case studies in the United States. In assuming that these standards and criteria are the minimum requirements that need to be met for a certification program to become accredited, I find that none of these four programs, and presumably none of the US state-level programs as they currently stand, will meet accreditation requirements. I discuss the challenges these programs have in complying with best practice standards and in fulfilling the triple bottom line principles of environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural sustainability as specified by the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. I also conjecture what the future may look like for these programs and US tourism certification in general.


Master's project


Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences




sustainable tourism, ecotourism, tourism certification, Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria



Poser, Elizabeth (2009). Setting Standards for Sustainable Tourism: An analysis of US tourism certification programs. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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