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Indigenous Tourism Rights International: “Rethinking Tourism Certification” PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Joachim Willms [Managing Director]   


Indigenous Tourism Rights International (ITRI)

Rethinking Tourism Certification”: An Online Indigenous Conference

June 14 – July 2, 2004


Indigenous Peoples face growing pressure to turn their lands, territories and traditions into commodities for tourism. The United Nations declared 2002 as the “International Year of Tourism” (IYE), but the general lack of indigenous participation in the planning of IYE activities caused concern among a number of indigenous organizations, networks and community members. In response, ITRI organized the International Forum on Indigenous Tourism in Oaxaca, Mexico in March 2002 as an alternative and necessary space for Indigenous Peoples to conduct a critical review of their experiences with ecotourism.

Nearly 200 indigenous representatives and leaders from 19 countries gathered at the Forum to analyze and discuss the opportunities and problems posed by ecotourism in their specific communities. They produced “The Oaxaca Declaration,” a section of which calls on Indigenous Peoples to “strengthen strategies of coordination and information sharing both regionally and internationally, in order to assert participation in initiatives like the IYE” (Oaxaca Declaration 2002).

In addition, many of the indigenous communities and tourism businesses in ITRI’s network – especially those in Latin America – expressed a need for information and discussion on tourism certification in particular so that analysis of its potential impacts could take place. International development and environmental institutions, multilateral lending banks and leaders of the tourism industry are currently spearheading development of certification standards for ecotourism and sustainable tourism. Their discussions identify indigenous tourism enterprises as key beneficiaries of this effort, yet there has been little to no indigenous participation in these discussions. And there has been very little formal indigenous involvement in certification programs for ecotourism or sustainable tourism.

In answer to the calls for more information sharing and critical discussion on tourism and tourism certification, ITRI organized “Rethinking Tourism Certification,” a free, online indigenous conference that took place from June 14 - July 2, 2004.


ITRI developed a Conference announcement (in English and Spanish) and posted it on indigenous listservs and sent it to Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and others.

The Conference provided a space for open discussion by Indigenous Peoples who are curious about tourism certification, are working on certification, or working to develop sustainable tourism in their communities. The possible merits and drawbacks of certification were analyzed, the basic question being, “Is certification appropriate or not?” The Conference introduction (“Guidelines”) reaffirmed that Indigenous Peoples are “Rights holders” and not mere “stakeholders,” as they are reduced to in current United Nations and other policy discussions on sustainable development.

The Conference aimed to foster discussion among Indigenous participants, primarily from grassroots communities, organizations and networks in various parts of the world. Written translation was provided through a link to Babelfish software.

The Conference Guidelines urged people to review background materials on the ITRI web site before participating. During the Conference, participants reviewed case studies in order to identify the challenges that communities face in implementing particular programs, and to discuss how certification has benefited their tourism initiative. The case studies also allowed discussion of the diverse approaches to and driving forces behind certification (international agencies, communities or others).

Four fora/topics were discussed for approximately one week each:

(1) Review and Analysis of Current Tourism Certification Models - a discussion of current certification (ecotourism, fair trade) and the pros and cons of these programs in Indigenous communities;

(2) Indigenous Tourism Marketing - a discussion about access to markets, delivery of products/services, ethical marketing, codes of conduct, standards/guarantees (security, hygiene, comfort level), tourism limits, and procedures for depositing and managing funds;

(3) Sample Criteria and Standards - a discussion about who certifiers are, certification criteria, relationships to other stakeholders (NGOs, governments and others), and the possibility of developing an alternative "Indigenous" model of tourism certification, and

(4) Wrap Up and Actions To Take - a discussion of possible “next steps”

The people involved in the Conference were hosts (ITRI’s Director and an ITRI Advisory Council member), moderators, participants and guests. The moderators were responsible for keeping the discussion flowing in their particular fora, and synthesizing the key points raised. The participants were mainly individuals involved in community-level tourism projects and representatives of community and indigenous tourism networks. Due to the level of non-Indigenous interest in the Conference, a policy decision was made to allow only Indigenous Peoples and invited, non-Indigenous “guests” to participate. These guest academics, ecotourism experts and researchers took part to a limited degree, providing the participants with information about the certification programs they are developing.

It is significant to note that the Conference took place without funds and was conducted by volunteers recruited by ITRI; it was decided that although the electronic format would not be as effective as a face-to-face conference, there was an urgent need to at least provide a forum for Indigenous Peoples to begin an international discussion process on certification.


A total of 173 people from 36 countries participated in the Conference. Each of the four topics generated different levels of interest. Few participated in the Marketing topic.

The case studies that were discussed were primarily three different types: (1) externally driven programs developed by relatively large, global networks; (2) community initiatives, and (3) combinations of both. It was found that there are few certification programs that prioritize indigenous concerns rather than environmental and economic concerns. One example is the “Respecting Our Cultures” program in Australia, which requires that businesses produce written endorsement from traditional authorities and custodians of the land, and emphasizes cultural and artistic authenticity and property rights. It also provides workshops and technical assistance for Aboriginal peoples and communities to help them understand product development and the tourism industry in general.

The beginning of the conference focused on the experiences of participants in Latin America who have few resources and wanted to know about the possibilities offered by certification. Many focused on basic issues such as finding out who was promoting certification and why, how these actors had (or hadn’t) collaborated with Indigenous Peoples in these processes, and discussing certification from the very localized perspectives of their specific communities.

Participants with experience in non-tourism certified markets noted that certification often requires training, high costs and burdensome administrative procedures to maintain certification, and yet there are no guarantees of institutional support, technical assistance or economic benefit.

One participant from Mexico stated his concern that producers and communities could become “… more dependent on a ‘certified’ market, and they remain subjects of and hooked into a demanding market, and they have to ‘satisfy the demands of this market,’ and this has nothing to do with the autonomy of the indigenous communities, or with a local development linked to the culture and tradition of indigenous communities.” This same participant cautioned that certification’s system of inclusion and exclusion could damage social cohesion. Recalling his region’s experience with certification of timber and coffee, he said that these producers “live and form part of a community and an Indigenous People, which in the end are at risk because these producers become ‘privileged entities,’ existing above the community that covers them, and this generates problems within the community… Certification creates producers of first and second class, those that become privileged sons of the system, the others become a shame; the first become receptacles of economic and institutional support, the second become an object of dispute by NGOs and official institutions, trying to get them to leave their ‘natural’ state so they can sit at the table with the privileged sons, those certified by the modern world.” He also noted that there has been little public discussion of the social sustainability of certification programs, particularly those whose criteria are not determined by Indigenous Peoples.

Participants noted that certification of tourism is not the same as certification of products like coffee and timber because tourism is built upon social relationships between and among hosts and visitors – relationships which cannot be quality-controlled by the technical requirements of certification. Questioning the feasibility of applying externally-developed standards, one participant noted that the quality of service is based on the quality of the experience, which is itself based on the very specific qualities of the social relationships that are constructed within particular indigenous communities. Another participant stated, “One of the reasons we do not agree with existing certification is that all the tools have been developed in the majority of cases by external consultants who do not know the reality of the communities.”

Participants voiced concern that certification could ignore or even undermine Indigenous Peoples’ local priorities and customary standards and practices. They pointed out that external standards could displace culturally specific concepts and practices of accountability, hospitality and stewardship of the natural world. One participant from Mexico felt that indigenous communities must recognize that certification is primarily and ETHICAL issue, stating, “… Tourism is a service based on social relations… social relations that are, or should be, products of historical and cultural questions, and not solely technical and specialized questions like certification. For example, trust in our communities is a product of a culture and a very specific form of education and communication… questioning our trust is questioning our history, our culture, in sum, our way of being, and this I do not believe we should permit, because processes of certification are mining our culture, our way of being. Therefore I repeat: I believe that at bottom the issue of certification has ethical aspects.”

Participants doubted that mechanisms to guarantee Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination and true community control would be incorporated in certification schemes, and wondered who would control the certifiers and their global control organization, the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC).

One participant called for a scrutinized analysis of existing ecotourism certification schemes. She proposed that criteria analyze whether or not the certification program guarantees:

- Ownership and management of tourism by indigenous communities;

- Training and employment of Indigenous Peoples without altering their lifestyle;

- Indigenous Peoples’ autonomy on local resource management, regulation of visitor behavior and the setting of carrying capacity limits, and

- That ecological impact on surrounding or downstream communities is minimized

A final criterion asks, What are the mechanisms in place to enforce these guarantees?”

Some participants questioned the relevance of certification in circumstances where communities lack access to basics such as clean water, electricity, education, land rights and cultural recognition. Expanding on the definition of “basic needs,” one participant noted, “Whatever the case, to begin the process of certification we believe that there first needs to be organizational strengthening, which will raise self-esteem, strengthening cultural identity and value the environment, all of which will bring benefits and sustainable community development.”

Another concern was that international environmental, tourism and development organizations based in the global North are obtaining and using funding from multilateral lending institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank to steamroll through discussions on the need to establish standards for ecotourism and sustainable tourism, yet there is little clarity on how these organizations have used the name of Indigenous Peoples to obtain the funds, and how their discussions will affect Indigenous Peoples. Forum participants stated that there is little to no indigenous participation in, or even knowledge of these discussions and processes. ITRI wrote to the Bank to express concern about the lack of indigenous participation in the project and its funding, but information about both remains obscure.

Forum participants also reaffirmed that information sharing and programmatic activities that could impact their communities and territories cannot be legitimate or relevant unless they respect indigenous peoples’ right to prior informed consent and effective participation in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the programs, as delineated in ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Representatives of Rainforest Alliance and TIES who were invited to participate as “guests” in the early part of the conference explained that they are working with the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Tourism Organization, the Sustainable Tourism Certification Council and others to determine environmental, economic and socio-cultural standards for certification, and to develop ways to ensure broad participation on the part of businesses in certification programs.

An example of an alternative was offered: the “Community Tourism Assessment Tool,” developed by Rosalie Little Thunder (Rosebud, Lakota) to assist communities interested in tourism development. Using circular visual elements based on the Circle of Life, it validates indigenous knowledge and cultures, and facilitates culturally appropriate discussion, assessment and long-range planning. It has been translated into English and Spanish and used in various settings by diverse Indigenous communities It has also been adapted to other issues besides tourism. A booklet and dialogue process were developed in collaboration with ITRI so that communities could insert their Native language where suggested. The process was inspired by the Lakota concept of "How to be a good relative,” a concept that helps to understand our relationships with each other and our responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our communities, our nations, our cosmology, and more.

Overall, participants’ economic, social and cultural experiences differed greatly, and definitions and perspectives differed greatly from one continent to another. There were wide-ranging opinions about certification. Some participants were cautiously interested, and some expressed conditional support, but more people took positions opposing rather than supporting tourism certification, stating that certification is not a tool that corresponds to indigenous realities. Indeed, one participant proposed an indigenous-led “counter-certification” that “breaks all the rules of the international organizations… that is more social-cultural, that opens doors to all criteria and actors, that doesn’t exclude anybody.”


The major concerns and perspectives that emerged from the Conference underscore the difficulty of applying indigenous tourism certification programs on a wide scale.

Participants noted that since each culture has its own approach toward and application of accountability, legitimacy and responsibility, certification programs developed by those “outside” the cultures couldn’t be one-size-fits-all.

The issue of ethics emerged as an important issue for continued discussion.

There were two types of discussions: one regarding highly-structured certification programs, and the other regarding more hands-on programs brought up primarily by the smaller community members for which this conference was set up. The weekly topics often extended beyond their weeklong time limits, causing some to be simultaneous rather than being unified and organic, and their content sometimes overlapped.

The gap in context between programs like FTTSA, “Nature’s Best” and communities from “developing” countries was so great that some community members had difficulty relating to these programs, making it hard for moderators to guide participants along a shared understanding.

Some participants did not fully introduce themselves, resulting in a lack of context for their points of view; rather than participating, some conducted self-promotion.

Larger, non-Indigenous NGOs attempted to dominate the discussion. Conference guidelines clearly explained that non-indigenous participation would be limited so that Indigenous Peoples could have their own space for discussion. Yet a number of staff and consultants from these non-indigenous NGOs applied pressure to be allowed to participate more fully in the Conference, revealing their lack of respect for Indigenous Peoples’ needs and wishes.

Few rural people have access to technology/internet and, in some cases, a phone line; for some it is a hardship to travel to where they can have access. A number of communities were late in joining the discussion.

The website layout and the difficulty in using this complex technology were deterrents to greater participation; there are few technical tools for an ideal on-line process, and little training on how to use the tools. Some participants did not understand the process and had to be contacted by phone, or have their comments posted by the hosts (thus missing out on direct, interactive participation).

There is a vast knowledge gap about the certification of ecotourism and sustainable tourism among indigenous communities and networks, especially in the global South. International organizations that are spearheading the development of certification standards need to demonstrate the political will to achieve their stated goal of inclusion. They must first respect and allow for Indigenous Peoples’ customary decision-making processes and so communicate in a timely manner with Indigenous Peoples and their representatives, including their traditional leadership. They will also need to provide/facilitate the technical and financial support needed to ensure effective Indigenous Peoples’ participation in certification discussions and/or programs.

Indigenous Peoples could benefit from further dialogue about the possibilities and pitfalls of certification, and the potential for creating certification frameworks that are based on the values and priorities of Indigenous Peoples and their particular communities. Overall the forum discussions reaffirmed that indigenous control over tourism development is required to protect Indigenous Peoples’ cultural values, inherent rights and very existence.

The Conference was an important starting point in an on-going and urgent process of discussion.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

1) The Conference was generally successful, but it confirmed that there are clear challenges and limitations to the on-line, electronic format.

2) Diverse participation allowed a rich exchange of experiences, but it needs to be manageable in scale and scope (should not invite “guests” in the future).

3) A mutually-agreed upon definition of “community-based tourism” needs to be established.

4) Better, more detailed profiles of participants are needed; Moderators and partners will need to have more thorough discussions to make decisions/evaluations about streamlining the discussion so that organizations/corporations that have larger structures and budgets do not participate.

5) It was an enormous and difficult task to manage as a completely volunteer effort.

6) The Conference was not announced early enough: announcements and outreach should take place at least one month prior to such a conference.

7) There were not enough translators; the Babelfish software was able to generate translations, but these translations still needed to be reviewed by a human translator.

8) One Moderator should be dedicated to follow all discussion results, draw connections and integrate the information regularly into summaries for participants to use during the course of the Conference.

9) Funding, more cooperating partners and a more diverse indigenous advisory group were needed to organize and assist, with fewer NGOs and certification programs.

Next steps/Follow-up

ITRI should:

1) Consider the Conference as a useful tool for working with indigenous communities to organize future opportunities for discussion of certification and alternatives to certification, at local, national, regional and international levels

2) Locate more case studies to share with Indigenous Peoples so that the types of case studies can be more diverse

3) Continue the process of discussion and analysis of certification by translating and forwarding the results of the Conference to indigenous communities, organizations and networks in as many regions as possible. Information should be shared with communities interested in holding local and regional discussions for their own sake, and/or as preparatory discussions toward a face-to-face, international Indigenous conference on certification

4) Continue to urge international organizations to establish formal policies and funding mechanisms to facilitate the informed and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples in these organizations’ efforts to discuss and (if desired by the Indigenous Peoples affected) establish certification standards for ecotourism and sustainable tourism

5) Consider approaching religious organizations and other potential allies to explore the ethical and other issues identified during the Conference, and possibilities for collaboration in further discussion of tourism certification


ITRI would like to thank the Conference Participants, Guests, Co-moderators, Planning Committee, Translators and others for the efforts, expertise and support they contributed to make the Online Conference possible:


Shireen Aga - EAST Project (Environmental Audits for Sustainable Tourism)

Peter Apo - Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association

Amos Bien - The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)

Ann Becher - Co-author, New Key to Costa Rica

Beatrice Blake - Co-author, New Key to Costa Rica

Ada Chan - Fair Trade Tourism South Africa (FTTSA)

Damaris Chaves - Rainforest Alliance

Rodrigo Flores - FEPTCE

Martha Honey - The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)

Melissa Krenke - Rainforest Alliance

Luciano Minerbi - University of Hawaii at Manoa

Kate Robinhawk - Centro Ecological Akumal

Rodrigo Ruiz - Association for the Defense and Development of Kuelap in Peru, with assistance from Angelica Arriola

Jennifer Seif - Fair Trade Tourism South Africa (FTTSA)

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz - Tebtebba Foundation

Luis Vivanco - University of Vermont

Barbara Walker - EAST Project (Environmental Audits for Sustainable Tourism)

Conference Co-moderators

Marie-Andrée Delisle, of Tourism Consultants (a consulting firm specializing in tourism development since 1988)

Norbert Hohl, a lecturer at Flinders University of South Australia and a consultant on community tourism in South America

Milo Sybrant, Media and New Media Relations Assistant, Amnesty International USA,

Washington, DC, and ITRI Advisory Council Member

Planning Committee

Marie-Andrée Delisle, Cyndy Harrison, Norbert Hohl, Deborah McLaren, Lee Pera, Crescencio Reséndiz Hernández, Milo Sybrant and Luis Vivanco


Deborah McLaren – ITRI Director

Crescencio Reséndiz Hernández – ITRI Advisory Council member and General Coordinator, International Forum on Indigenous Tourism

Proceedings Editor

Carol Kalafatic

ITRI would like to extend a "special thanks” to the following Participants/Case Studies who shared a lot with us:

COOPRENA (Eco-Agro Tourism)

San Jose, COSTA RICA (Leyla Solano, Director)

Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow (Baby Dreaming)

NT, Australia

Cecilio Solís Librado

President, Indigenous Tourism Network of México, A.C.

And we extend another “special thanks” to:

Rosalie Little Thunder, who developed the “Community Tourism Assessment Tool”

Ron Mader, for providing technical assistance training

The Marisla Foundation (formerly the Homeland Foundation) Open Source Software

For more information:

Indigenous Tourism Rights International

PO Box 4657

St. Paul, MN 55104 USA

Attn: Deborah McLaren

Tel. 651-644-9984

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


Aboriginal Tourism Australia (ATA)

(A national Aboriginal NGO established by Aboriginal people)

Baby Dreaming

c/o Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow

Po Box 1023

Parap, NW 0804


Centro Ecológico Akumal

Quintana Roo, Mexico

COOPRENA R.L., a consortium/cooperative of community-based

tourism initiatives in Costa Rica

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA), an independent non- profit initiative established by the South African Country Office of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)

Nature's Best


Respecting Our Culture (ROC), a certification program developed for the Australian tourism industry by Aboriginal Tourism Australia

NaHHA Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, a non-profit organization comprised of individuals, companies, and organizations involved in tourism and hospitality-related fields in and outside of Hawai'i

Honolulu, HI

General Information: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it



Oaxaca Declaration

(under “Resources and Events,” then “Articles and Information”)

The Spanish summary of the STSC accreditation study is available at

Some certification programs that have considered the needs of Indigenous Peoples and where these communities have contributed to the design of the certification criteria are:

Green Deal (Alianza Verde, Peten, Guatemala)

Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa

Programa de Certificação do Turismo Sustentável - PCTS (Brasil)

Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Programme (NEAP - Australia)

Nature’s Best (Sweden/Suecia)

Some additional studies on certification in Spanish are:

Bien, A. "Aciertos y Debilidades del Ecoturismo en Reservas Naturales: el Papel de la Certificacion" (San José, Costa Rica: 2000),

(En Español) [PDF 2.9M~]

Bien, A. "Estrategia Certificaciones Turisticas en Centroamerica"

(En Español) [PDF 513K~]

Bien, A, "Los Sellos Ambientales y de Calidad en el Sector Turismo: Principios Generales de Certificación" (Costa Rica: 1999).

(En Español) [PDF 76K~]

Spittler, R. and Haak, U. "Descripcion y Evaluacion de las Distinciones Ambientales en el Turismo"

(En Español) [PDF 1.6M~]

Appendix C:


Total Number of Participants: 173

Breakdown by country:

Argentina – 3

Australia – 7

Barbados – 1

Belize – 1

Bolivia – 1

Brazil – 6

Canada – 7

Chile – 3

Colombia – 2

Costa Rica – 6

England – 2

Ecuador – 11

El Salvador – 3

France – 1

Guatemala – 3

Honduras – 1

Hong Kong – 1

India – 7

Jamaica – 1

Kenya – 7

Mexico – 16

Nepal – 22

New Zealand – 4

Nigeria – 1

Panama – 6

Peru – 12

Philippines –1

Portugal – 1

Russia – 1

Rwanda – 1

South Africa – 6

Sweden – 1

Switzerland – 1

Thailand – 2

Uruguay – 1

United States – 24

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