On my way through the capital of Costa Rica, after my meeting with the Rainforest Alliance, I have had the chance to be received in the offices of the ICT (Costa Rican Tourism Board by MSc. Gustavo Alvarado Ch., the Director of the Tourism Management Department, and Lic. Séfora Serrato S., member of the induction and evaluation team.
Costa Rica avec Sefora du CST

Costa Rica, the Pioneer Eco-Tourism Country

The CST is a unique national programme in its category. This certification was started in 1997 and has even been appointed by decree, pushing Costa Rica to the forefront of the Eco-Tourism market.
“The main objective is to make the concept of sustainable tourism a practical and unavoidable reality, in the context of competitive tourist product to the country and in improving the use of natural and social resources” explains the ICT on the website dedicated to the CST: www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr. It is also a way of beating ´greenwashing´(the use of terms such as eco-hotel when there´s not much ecology going on other than the name).
Costa Rica is, at the moment, one of the only country to have such a policy on certification. Argentina and Chile started as well such programs (I’ll tell you more when I’ll reach these countries very soon!).
Today, 224 hotels are certified, 70% are small structures, 16% of medium size and 14% are large. The CST also includes a certification system for tour operators, theme parks and rental car agents, which adds up to a total of 312certified providers in tourism in 2014.
This year, two new business bodies have been added to the list: gastronomic and maritime tour operators. The ICT hopes to integrate and engage ever more providers in the tourist sector from across the country and build a destination that is truly responsible at all levels.

What are the steps to follow for the hotels ?

To begin with, it is important to underline that this process of certification is voluntary and integrally financed by the government… which makes it a free process for the hotel managers.
The certification is subject to a re-evaluation every 2 years. The different procedures to undertake are the following:

  • Fill in the registration/application form and sign the judicial declaration: Commitment to the 28 laws such as the payment of taxes, social security for employees etc…The ICT then verifies that the hotel has in fact adhered to the different laws.
  • Participate in a 4 hour introduction to the stakes of the CST and presentation of 210 issues.
  • Prepare the answers to the 210 questions with supportive evidence (photos, administrative documents). During the 2 to 3 months of preparation, the hotel manager can contact the CST team if needed to obtain more information or advice.
  • Receive 2 auditors from the CST to present in digital format (such as a PowerPoint presentation) the answers to the issues and to show them around the structure to illustrate, which take up to a whole day.
  • Await the final mark given by the two auditors and the presentation and defence of the dossier in front of the CNA (National Accreditation Committee), constituted by 8 members from the NGO (non-governmental organization), Universities, the ICT, the state and from the chambers of commerce.

It is after this last stage that the percentage is calculated in each of the four categories of sustainable development: natural environment, internal processes, raising traveller awareness and local development. The smallest score for a category is assigned the corresponding level (see photo below).
CST logoThere are 5 levels of certification. These are represented by a “green leaves and human profile combined” logo. The objective is to encourage hotels to implement ever more sustainable practices to attain higher levels of certification or more “leaves” in the future: a system of continual improvement.
The hotels that obtain the best scores are then use to showcase the CST brand and as a marketing strategy for the ICT, which benefit from better visibility on the market. The ICT offers the hotels to accompany them to professional trade fairs. For the hotels that obtain the 5 Levels, registration to these events is free, with 4 Levels, only 20 % is to be paid and so on, by multiples of 20%.
It can be observed that there is a kind of competition between hotels across the country, at who will have the most Levels. On the other hand, a hotel that has no levels can be seen as dubious. The CST becomes the rule, and every year new businesses join the movement.

Possibilities of Improvement and Hotel manager Interviews

  • The score system: “The fact that the lowest score is what is used to denote the final level (as opposed to an average score) may seem unfairly punishing”.

CST response: The scoring system has been chosen in order to underline the importance of each of the four areas: Physical Biological, Service Plant, External Clients and Socio Economic Impact. For example, if an average had been used, a hotel that has 90% in 3 areas but only 40% in the fourth, could result in a score of 77%, even though they may not respect half of the criteria in reference to the environment. In being so strict, the CST wishes to avoid Greenwashing as much as possible and propose a system that is complete and stimulating, so the lowest score of the four areas evaluated is the one that rates the final level.

  • The heaviness of the process: “To obtain level 5, it is almost obligatory to contract a full time expert on the subject to answer each issue intelligently, so only the larger hotels, that have those resources can attain that level”.

The CST´s response: The process is very detailed in each of the areas and requires some real ground work in terms of implementing the practices and their documentation. The CST underlines the importance of distributing responsibilities amongst the team, and to advance bit by bit in the process. The objective isn´t in attaining the 5th level in the first year, but to improve the implementation of the practices and to gain a level at each re-evaluation in the concept of continual improvement.

  • Answers to the question vs real actions: “The CST level obtained is not in accordance to what you are actually doing, but to the way in which you answer the issues. The may be websites that sell the answers to the questions proposed”.

The CST response: It is in fact difficult to investigate each of the points 100%, yet during the visit to the establishment and the revision of the documents, it is possible to have a good idea of the level of conviction of the entrepreneur and his team.

  • Global vs Individual specifications: “The certification programme is the same for luxury hotels and for rustic lodges, for the tiny establishments and the big hotel chains, for the hotels in the city as for the hotels located in the jungle”.

CST response: In effect, the base questionnaire is the same, yet it is possible to respond non applicable to certain questions, and this way it does not affect the final score.

  • Theory vs practical solutions: “The CST creates big directives, but doesn´t supply any concrete solutions that are practical and economically viable to accompany the structure”.

CST response: To favour the support between hotels and to propose tools is part of the grand projects that are necessary to put into place.
What a nice transitional subject to conclude this article: the objective of Hopineo is precisely to collect the best practices already implemented in hotels around the world in order to share concrete solutions, tested and approved, by the hotel managers themselves!
The support from the government and the implementation of a certification system such as the CST is a great opportunity to develop the country and its tourism in a sustainable a responsible way. Hopineomight be able to participate and complete such initiatives by offering their support in sharing tools and practical solutions… Something to follow up with such as a Spanish version of theirHopineo website for example 😉
News Nov. 2014: Presentation published by the CST to present its action plan and coming evolution (in spanish)

Translated by Holly Cooper Chima

Florie Thielin : The Hospitality Tour Latin AmericaArticle by Florie
The Hospitality Tour
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