The beginning of the end for incremental sustainable tourism certification

The MGM Grand in Las Vegas has a 4 star Green Key Certification .  Green Key claims to be the foremost “green” ranking, certification and audit program in North America with more than 1,400 member hotels.   MGM have many other sustainability accolades (The United States Green Building Council recognized MGM Resorts with the LEED Advocacy Award for longstanding commitment to sustainability).

Here are 3 facts about the MGM Grand –

1.  Las Vegas is a desert.   Annual precipitation is roughly 4.5 in (110 mm) (Wikipedia).   Clark County has long standing and severe water issues.  The MGM Grand has five outdoor pools, rivers, and waterfalls that cover 6.6 acres!!!

2.  The EPA states that 1 Vegas Resort with 3000 rooms uses enough energy to power 9000 3 bedroom homes.  The MGM Grand has 6852 rooms.  Do the maths, it uses as much energy as a small town.   I can’t find any figures on how many light bulbs it uses on the front of the building but the sign alone has 6000 bulbs.   There are more than 2500 energy guzzling slot machines with flashing lights.

3.  At the time they were recognized for these Awards the MGM Grand featured a glass-sided lion habitat inside the casino area, in which up to six lions were shown daily (only closed February this year).

MGM's glass lion habitat

CC Viewing environment at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas by Foqus

It’s clear that sustainable tourism accreditation has gone badly, badly wrong.   How did this happen?

The fundamental issue is that sustainable tourism accreditation rewards incremental performance (regardless of any measure of absolute performance).    This means the MGM Grand are given Gold Awards because they make modest improvements, regardless of their appalling water and waste performance (not to mention the Lions!).

So here is the question, should the MGM Grand be labelled as –

A)   Leaders in sustainability to be admired and copied OR

B)    Very bad wasters of energy and water doing a very small amount to improve?

The sustainable tourism accreditation schemes allow them to position themselves as A.   This is quite wrong.   It sends entirely the wrong message.   Here, sustainable tourism accreditation does more harm than good.

What is being done about this?

Very little.   Recent initiatives, including The Global Sustainable Tourism Council, examine and ‘recognize’ existing certification schemes that are consistent with their criteria.   These recognized schemes are for incremental performance – they too let the green washers through.

 What needs to be done?

1.  We need to evolve sustainable tourism certification to absolute levels.   For example, an acceptable water consumption per guest in region x = y litres.    This will take time, but its the only way to way real achievement vs making a small effort.

2.  We need to stop giving appalling polluters the encouragement of Gold Sustainability Awards.   Rather than reward their little improvements we should be shutting them down.

3.  We need to recognize that the impacts of tourism are different in different places, for example water conservation is a big issue in some places and not in others.    This means local issues are more important than global checklists.

4.  We need to ensure the transparency of these schemes – we must be able to read what they have achieved rather than have them hide behind an accreditation label

5.  The tourist must be part of the process of the evaluation.   We cannot control the impacts of tourism through hotels/infrastructure alone.  What the tourist chooses to do shapes the impacts of tourism, we cannot control the impacts of tourism without controlling the impacts of tourists – which means they must be in the loop.

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Date / Fecha: 29/10/12

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