Back in 2008 I chose the topic of developing a transparent verifiable reporting tool as my dissertation subject. For my literature review I researched the current offerings for showcasing a companies good practices. I covered certification, benchmarking, reporting, associations, online responsible travel agencies and awards. I quizzed many individuals who use or are involved with the various processes available and the main outcome was they all lacked transparency.
In my research I found it difficult, if not impossible, to find out the criteria used in a certification programme and then which and to what level a business needed to reach in each criterion to be awarded the top grade. Benchmarking and reporting schemes are not common in the tourism industry but what is available is very Eurocentric and complex, mainly aimed at larger companies. Many associations and online responsible travel agencies request for members to agree to their codes of conduct but rarely do they actually ensure that the members are meeting these requirements. As with certification, awards do little to highlight a company’s good practices. What the winner achieved or how is rarely published.
In the first stages of developing the Responsible Tourism Reporting tool I would simply ask companies to report their annual achievements against their Responsible Tourism Policy, which I would then independently verify. This turned out to be not so simple as I found many companies did not have a clear picture what responsible tourism included. They had never labelled their actions; they just saw it as the right thing to do. People could tell me the ways in which they reduced their impact on the environment, the treatment of their staff and their involvement in the community but when it came to writing the report they drew a blank. To help, I compiled simple yes or no questionnaires for each business type that joined the scheme. The aim was to get the company thinking along the lines of what aspects of their operations they need to be concentrating on for the Responsible Tourism Report. These questionnaires are now permanently updated as the industry adds more points.
The next step was to measure their business’ impacts. Again I found companies often had no way of telling me, for example, how much electricity they had used without trawling through paper bills. I wanted to be able to compare how much CO2 each business produced per bed-night/client each year. It was imperative that any tools I introduced must be simple as people were too busy running their businesses to have time to collect data. As a result, I now have some very simple Excel workbooks that allow businesses to monitor their environmental impacts on a monthly basis. Several businesses have started to use these and have found them easy to integrate into their working day.
I am still having trouble encouraging people to write their reports for me. People seem to think that when it comes to writing a report, longer is better. I don’t think it helps that the three published reports I have are all 15+ pages long. I try to stress that if your report is just a paragraph long this is fine, at least you are on the road to transparent reporting. But once again I found it necessary to help with this step of the process and am now providing report outlines based on the company’s questionnaire. These also include how each point will be verified. I hope to see in the future a more fluid approach where businesses are able to write their own reports giving priority to what they feel is important and not being lead by an outsider’s point of view.
Currently the reports are published at http://www.rtreporting.com/reports/reports.htm. I feel that by only having a collection of reports makes the Responsible Tourism Reporting process fairly opaque – an attribute I wanted to avoid. You have to be a pretty curious individual with a lot of time on your hands to read, evaluate and compare these reports. So this is my next stumbling block – how to make the data I collect more visible. Right now I don’t have enough completed verifications but this will change over the coming months. Once I do I can then start the process of setting up comparison tables showing, for example, which hotel in Nepal has the lowest carbon footprint. Or take another example using the trekking industry: many agencies claim to pay their guides above the national average but when questioned what the national average is no one knows.
Creating comparison tables will allow companies to make legitimate claims supported by independent verification. Lastly (well for now) I want to highlight companies who have missing data. Currently if a company does not want to report on something, for example fair employee salaries, then it does not have to. It is down to the reader to notice this omission. With comparison tables gaps like this will be more obvious and will in turn force businesses to be more transparent. One thing I should mention alongside transparency there comes a degree of discretion. My aim is not to make companies who are trying look bad nor is it to publish sensitive data. All data handled is done with complete confidentiality and is only published with the consent of the company in question. Sensitive data is disguised by percentages such as profit, payroll, training budget etc.
My scheme is very much in its infancy and everyday something new comes to mind but the interest and support I have is tremendous. So many businesses clearly see the benefits. Time will tell to its success but right now the future looks good.
Jenefer Bobbin (Current Masters Student)
Responsible Tourism Reporting Initiative (http://www.rtreporting.com)