Welcome and get excited, this is the first of ten posts on responsible tourism. What you can expect from the ‘Green Series’ is: detailed information on greenwashing, tips to choose a genuine hotel/tour operator or agent, recommended products to use while traveling, how to travel responsibly and some pretty interesting interviews with leading figures in the responsible tourism sector. So stay tuned to learn about their views on the damaging environmental effects of the tourism industry.

This post however is all about greenwashing. So let’s get stuck into it to discover the signs that your hotel, tour operator or agent (HTOA) is greenwashing. Firstly, what is greenwashing in tourism?

Greenwashing is a play on the word whitewashing meaning to; conceal, deliberately cover up and veil any fact, perceived value or a supposed environmentally beneficial outcome. Greenwashing comes in the form of making substantial, yet unsupported claims about a positive environmental impact. It involves misleading customers by using nifty marketing campaigns, public relations and questionable advertising.

When I mention the environmental impact of tourism, below are my key areas of focus:

  • Plastic consumption and disposal
  • Animal welfare
  • Carbon emissions
  • Water consumption/usage
  • Human welfare

But how do you know if your hotel, tour operator or agent (HTOA) is good, despite heavy claims that they’re the best in the biz?

Supposed green initiatives to reduce energy expenditure without fundamental change in business practices.

Hanging up your towels after use may sound like a great initiative to reduce water wastage. But! If there is very little effort to improve a businesses overall impact, it’s more likely adding up to a cheaper laundry bill than actually improving the environment.

Claims of benefiting the environment by using energy efficient lighting is another weak attempt. It’s important to note that in Australia, traditional inefficient, incandescent light bulbs have been already phased out. So swapping lighting is not a matter of choice; it’s a matter of necessity. Not only that but energy efficient lighting lasts longer and is cheaper, so again, it’s more than likely a matter of cost saving than environmental impact.

Clever Marketing! Use of wording like eco, green, sustainable, responsible (or any of the examples on the cover image!) when there is little proof that they are.

I saw a prime example of this on a tour earlier this year in Western Australia. The company had the word ‘Eco’ in their title. The precedent was set that they were supposedly a responsible tour operator. After checking their website, I found a long list of self written initiatives being done to support the environment. While certification isn’t everything, it does at least leave you, as a guest, feeling that claims are somewhat true, this operator sadly was not certified.

Their policies online ask that you ‘observe native animals in their natural environment from a safe distance and do not feed them’. Upon arriving, the tour guide fed the animals grated carrot to lure them out so we (the tourist) could take pictures, get up close and see them in their natural environment. Good intentions, but this is a prime example of greenwashing.

Greenwashing can apply to wages and human welfare too (for guides, cooks, porters etc)

Many countries have a minimum wage, even Australia (believe me, I worked at McDonald’s at 14 years of age for $5.13 an hour). Which prescribes the lowest legal wage a company can pay but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a legitimate living wage or that it’s fair. A living wage includes enough to ensure employers are properly feeding their staff on tour, are provided staff with healthcare, maternity leave and are offered sufficient education and training.

“Companies that shout about ensuring the minimum wage is being paid are doing the very least and don’t deserve a pat on the back.”

Source: Good On You 

It’s hard (especially for us Aussies) to factor in tipping into our budget when traveling. But more often than not staff rely heavily on tips to ensure they’re wage is more livable. If you’ve noticed your HTOA is using the words ‘minimum wage’, perhaps you need to ensure your tip is a fair offering.

Backwaters of Kerala, India
Backwaters of Kerala, India

Marketing a region of sustainability within a larger product offering that’s not sustainable.

Just because your tour operator is doing great things in Vietnam for example, that doesn’t mean they’re sustainable in the other countries they operate. Greenwashing occurs when a company’s product offering has a small proportion of product with tangible environmental benefits compared to their overall offering. What’s really happening is the company is hoping that the green wave from their Vietnam initiative will wash throughout the company as a whole.

Unless the company has reported on increasing or improving their responsible product by a certain date, they’re more than likely hoping to pull the wool over your eyes. This is why certification and reporting are paramount to improve the standards of the industry overall.

Claims of being a ‘local and community driven company’ yet, employ non-local tour guides.

I see this lot in various forms in the industry, because travel is a complex ‘product’ that involves visiting diverse and often trying environments. People are looking for more of an authentic experience with a deeper connection with the communities they’re visiting. But if your tour is stopping through several countries over several days? Well, it can be a logistical nightmare for operators to ensure the guide will be from the region/country/town you are visiting, despite their claims of using ‘local’ guides.

Any HTOA still offering orphanage visits.

Not only should you re-think orphanage visits but seriously reconsider school visits too. Would you really be impressed if a foreign group of adults interrupted your child’s education to take photos of them and give them plastic toys or worse, candy? Re-Think Orphanages is a fantastic Australian organisation planning on preventing the unnecessary institutionalisation of children. You can find more information here.

Look out for any HTOA offering interactions with ‘wild’ or ‘rescued’ animals, particularly if they involve elephant rides.

In case you were unsure, elephant tourism is fueling animal cruelty. World Animal Protection has reported on the extensive suffering inflicted on elephant’s in Asia. Their focus was mainly on Thailand but also lead into investigations in Indonesia (Bali, Lombok and Gili Trawangan), Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

“Forced to endure painful and intensive training to make them perform, and to interact with people, they live their entire lives in captive conditions that cannot meet their needs. A life in tourist entertainment is no life for a wild animal. It is inherently cruel and abusive.”

Source: WAP

If you see a HTOA who offers direct interaction between elephant and tourist without any interaction with other natural herds – it’s more likely greenwashing rather than the meaningful experience you were promised.  And while we’re on it. There is absolutely nothing ethical, green, sustainable or responsible about taking a selfie with a tiger. Nothing. For more guidance on tourist activities that promote cruel tourist activities, click here.

Finding a responsible tour operator is much harder than it sounds. Check out the next post here for help in choosing the right one. If you’re interested but don’t want to keep checking on the site: Subscribe now, HERE.

Until next time, xo

Would love to hear from you so comment below with your thoughts on greenwashing. Share this blog on Facebook below OR follow me @avaycay on Instagram


  1. Vicki

    This is fantastic Lexi and I have not thought to look deeper! Certainly will now. Recently in Darwin I was horrified to see a “jumping crocodile” tour. They hold near above the water so crocs will jump fir the tourists. So sad. The one I went on just drifted through the river system quietly observing the wildlife including multiple crocs who lazily watched us but had no interest in us. The way it should be. Fantastic post.

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