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Green Tourism – the World’s most Credible* Sustainable Tourism Programme


The concept of having a green grading programme was devised in 1996 through a collaboration of VisitScotland and an organisation called Tourism and the Environment Forum (TEF).  TEF was funded jointly by VisitScotland and Scottish Enterprise, the economic development agency for Scotland.  TEF had researched competitive destinations around the world to Scotland, such as New Zealand, British Columbia and Scandinavia.  It was felt that developing a green grading programme to complement the world leading quality standard operated by VisitScotland would give businesses in Scotland a competitive advantage in comparison to these other destinations

SEAIn September 1997 Shetland Environmental Agency (SEA) won the tender to deliver the grading assessments for the Green Tourism Business Scheme.  SEA comprised of two people the JonDirector Jonathan Proctor and one employee Andrea Nicholas.

Shetland Environmental Agency

Original from Manchester, Jon Proctor has a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Science from Oxford Brookes University and had worked for 2 years as a countryside ranger before joining the Shetland based environmental consultancy SEA in 1991.  After a year as an employee, the directors decided to give up the company and Jon took on the role as the main shareholder and owner.  Jon has always had a strong interest in animals and nature and as a young boy he was the first person in the UK to successful breed Jackson’s chameleons in captivity.  After two extended periods of travelling, originally in a group and then independently, throughout Africa, Jon developed a significant interest and personal commitment to reducing man’s impact on the natural world.  This has been a driving passion of his since the early 1990’s and has been fundamental in the success of the Green Tourism Programme.

The main work undertaken by SEA from 1991 to 1997 was energy and environmental auditing and advice for a variety of businesses in Shetland.  This included fish farms and processors, quarries, hotels and domestic households.  Jon undertook significant training during this period and developed a high level of skills in particular relating to energy efficiency, environmental good practise and building services.  He undertook training to be an environmental auditor to British Standards in 1993.  Between 1993 and 1996 SEA undertook a range of projects on demand-side management for Scottish Hydro Electric to raise awareness of householders in Shetland in energy efficiency and help them reduce their electric bills.  As a result the company won the Scottish Energy Saver of the Year award 1995.

AndreaIn 1995 SEA won a two year contract with the Scottish Office to research Waste Minimisation in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.  As a result, the same year Jon decided to move to Perth and open a second office on the Scottish mainland.   The Shetland office closed down in 1999 and SEA is now based in the same offices as Green Tourism.

Although born in South Wales Andrea spent her early years living on a dairy farm in Norfolk and from 11 years old in The Isle of Thanet, Kent.  She undertook a BSc (Hons) and MA in Landscape Design at Sheffield University and became a Chartered Landscape Architect in 1986.  During the 11 years before joining SEA, Andrea worked for a number of large environmental consultancies and developed skills in computer aided design, IT and office management.  During her time working for RSP Andrea had a number of projects designing external areas for hotels, business parks and leisure facilities in the UK and Northern Cyprus.  Whilst working for Buro Happold she spent 5 months in Saudia Arabia working on large domestic villas and public buildings.  Her last position before moving to Scotland was Office and CAD Manager for David Lloyd Leisure in Hounslow.

Andrea met Jon at a Midsummer’s Night party in Altrincham in 1996 and the relationship developed over the next few months, and in March 1997 Andrea moved in with Jon and started working for SEA.  With a personal interest in nature, Andrea has been significantly influenced by Jon’s passion for the environment over the years.  Always looking at things from a practical point of view Andrea has a strong commitment to the environment and a desire to want to help and give advice to businesses on their green journey.  Her IT, management and organisational skills have been an essential part of the success of the Green Tourism programme.

Projects undertaken by SEA 1997 – 2013 include providing advice and auditing on the ISO14001 standard for a number of clients such as Triodos bank and Framgord Fish Processors.  They developed an energy advice guide for Scottish Businesses which formed part of a publication produced by TEF.  They were the assessment body for the EU Flower for Tourism Accommodation and Camping Sites from 2003 – 2008 and carried out over 30 assessments in UK and Ireland.

In 2007 SEA provided some consultancy advice to Qualmark who are the assessment body for New Zealand Tourism’s Quality Assurance programme.  Qualmark wanted to incorporate green measures within their quality grading and SEA undertook research with a number of businesses in New Zealand, using the Green Tourism criteria as benchmark.  Following SEA’s work Qualmark introduced their three tiered Enviro-Mark and Janie Neumann, an employee of SEA, spent 2 months in New Zealand helping them with its rollout.

sweden logoIn 2010 SEA was approached by West Sweden Tourist Board to help with the development of a new sustainability quality standard for Swedish Tourism businesses.  SEA has provided consultancy advice to them over the past 3 years and has been a key member in the team that is developing the standard which has recently been launched as Swedish Welcome.



GTBS Canada plainIn 2010 SEA was also commissioned by Ethos in British Columbia to develop a sustainability programme for Canada.  Unfortunately after the initial pilot Ethos lost its funding and had to close.  However SEA continued to work with one of Ethos’s staff who voluntarily helped to keep the programme going.  As a result of the pilot SEA developed a Canadian version of the Green Tourism criteria and graded 25 businesses.  After a visit to British Columbia in September 2012 SEA has now signed a license agreement with a consultancy, GreenStep Solutions Inc for them to deliver the Green Tourism Canada programme.  SEA is training their assessors during the summer of 2013 and will provide on-going support and technical advice for them.

Criteria  Development

When SEA won the contract in 1997 to deliver the assessments for the Green Tourism Business Scheme it became apparent very quickly that a delivery programme and criteria did not actually exist.  There was a concept of a 3 tiered scheme and a list of 7 sections but no criteria, grading process, programme support materials, website etc.  So independently of the contract with VisitScotland to deliver the grading visits SEA developed the programme and its criteria.

The principles behind the Green Tourism programme are based on the ISO14001 standard of implementing an environmental management system in a business.  This includes identifying the most significant aspects and ensuring continual improvement.  However the criteria and grading process are based on the businesses performance and evidence that the measures are in place and making a difference.

SEA decided that for credibility the businesses had to have an on-site assessment by a qualified Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) registered auditor.  Also based on SEA Ltds experience it was decided that the process should be as much about providing the advice and support to help business reduce their running costs as it is about assessing their current level of achievement.

SEA remains the owner and Standards Agency for the Green Tourism programme setting the criteria requirements and continues to develop it to maintain its relevance and credibility in a constantly changing world.

Programme Development

The assessments were subsidised and administrated for the first three years by VisitScotland and Scottish Enterprise.  During this period VisitScotland was responsible for the supporting the membership including collection of fees, printing and distribution of criteria documents and plaques, marketing of the graded businesses and promotion of the programme to the industry.  This included the use of the Green Tourism logo in printed literature, inclusion of Green Tourism information in the Quality Assurance literature and some recruitment activities, such as mailouts and membership offers.  VisitScotland’ s website at that time was a joint venture with a private company and that company did not want to advertise a competitive website so they did would not allow Green Tourism logos to be displayed on the business listings.

During this period SEA was contracted by VisitScotland and paid to carry out the grading visits.  However, outwith the contract SEA also developed a significant number of support materials and tools.  These included an annual newsletter, a website, factsheets and templates.  The website has been operational since 1998 and has always had a full listing of all Green Tourism members.

The original criteria and programme were tested on a pilot group of 30 accommodation businesses and then rolled out to the rest of the accommodation businesses in Scotland.  It was voluntary programme and there was a charge to join of £75 for Bronze, £100 for Silver and £150 for Gold.  These fees were set by VisitScotland and based on the perceived amount of time needed on site to assess the businesses.  It was assumed it would take longer to do a Gold assessment because there would be more to look at.  This did not prove to be the case and often Bronze visits took longer as there was more advice to provide on opportunities for improvements.  After a year, and due to interest from other sectors, the criteria was revised by SEA and made available for Visitor Attractions.

When the funding came to an end in 2001 VisitScotland no longer wanted to support the programme and SEA took over all aspects of membership, administration and production of scheme materials.  A not-for-profit company, Green Business UK Ltd was set up to be the membership organisation.  It was felt that it would be more transparent if membership fee were paid into a company that had no shareholders and therefore any profit made would go back into the programme development.  It was also hoped that it might assist in any future funding bids or contracts.

Since 2001 Green Business has grown from 1 employee to 12 employees and a turnover of nothing to a turnover in 2012 of £700,000.  There are currently over 2300 members across the UK and Ireland representing a wider variety and diversity of business types and locations.

SEA and Green Business have continued to develop the programme and support materials.  The 4th update of the website was launched in August 2013 and the 5th version of the criteria will be out for consultation in the autumn of 2013.

Regional Roll-outs

In 2000 SEA was approached by South Hams Council in Devon as they were interested in having Green Tourism in their area.  They were a progressive destination and had been one of the pioneers of the Green Audit Kit.  SEA secured a contract to roll-out the programme in that area.  The criteria were revised by SEA to an English version and over 20 businesses achieved a grading.

Regional pilots in the East of England and North West followed shortly after South Hams and in 2005 Green Business secured a contract to roll out Green Tourism across the South East of England.  Over 50 businesses were involved in this pilot which included holding training seminars, advisory visits and networking events.  The following year pilots were undertaken in The Broads and Cumbria and in 2007 Green Tourism was made available to any tourism business throughout England.

Over the next few years there were numerous other regional projects including North East England, Forest of Bowland, Jersey, London, North York Moors.

In 2008 VisitEngland introduced a validation system for Sustainable Tourism programmes in England to ensure that any programme they promoted was credible* and transparent.  The International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT) at Leeds Metropolitan University developed the validation process and carried out the assessments.  Green Tourism was the first programme to be validated in 2008 and was successfully revalidated in 2011.

“Green Tourism provides excellent value for money to a wide range of tourism firms with first class environmental advice and auditing. Satisfaction rates of certified firms are very high and dropout rates low, both for the smallest of tourism firms and increasingly at corporate level.” Xavier Font, ICRT.

In 2009 following projects in Brecon Beacons and Powys the programme was made available to businesses in Wales and it was endorsed by VisitWales.  In 2010 Green Business won a contract to deliver Green Tourism in South Kerry and over 60 businesses were involved.  Following this project Green Tourism was made available to any business in Southern Ireland and it was endorsed by Faitle Ireland.

In 2011 Green Business won a contract to deliver a small roll-out in Antrim, Northern Ireland which included 10 businesses.  Following this pilot Green Tourism was formally endorsed by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Sustainable Tourism Assessors

All Green Tourism members are assessed once every two years by a qualified sustainable tourism assessor.  All assessors are employees of Green Business and have an environmental qualification or equivalent experience and a personal commitment to the environment.   They are also very good communicators able to explain technical issues to non-technical people.

The assessor’s initial training includes a week of classroom sessions on the principles of environmental auditing, legislation, ISO14001, sustainability and the tourism industry.  They shadow a minimum of 30 assessments with the senior assessors and have to reach a certain standard and level of competency before they are able to do visits independently.  In order to pass their probationary period of 4 months they are shadowed by the Technical Director on a number of assessments to check they have reached the required standard.  All the assessors’ skills and standards on the grading visits are reassessment annually by the Technical Director.

Assessors are trained to be able to assess all types of businesses and there is internal training from those with different specialities to ensure all assessors have a similar knowledge base.  They undertake between 200 and 250 assessments a year based on one week of visits followed by a week in the office writing up reports and trip planning.  It is important for managing and ensuring a good quality of service that the assessors are in the office regularly to talk to each other and liaise with the membership team.

Additional and on-going training is provided to all assessors both internally and via external trainers at least 3 times a year.  Assessors also attend conferences, seminars, workshops on a variety of topics in order to maintain their technical knowledge especially with new and emerging technologies and legislation.  Training sessions in the past two years have included – time management, customer care, accessibility, renewable energy, New Scottish Waste regulations, ISO20121, IEMA foundation course and Investors in People.

Technical Team Meetings & Review Committee

Assessors attend and contribute to regular technical team meetings at least 4 times a year.  At these meetings they share good and bad practice they have seen on their recent assessments and discuss any issues that have arisen.  This is an important part of the programme as it ensures a high level of knowledge across the assessment team and more than any one assessor could gain alone.  Also at these meetings they will review criteria including discussing options for revising or introducing new measures and any resultant changes to the scoring for any particular measure or for different business types.

If a business gains a high enough score to achieve Gold this has to go to the review committee which meets as required.  The assessor has to present their report and the committee of  2-3 assessors will review the scoring and evidence.  Additional information may be requested or time constrained actions imposed on the business before the Gold award is confirmed.  The review committee will also assess any appeals from businesses that have an issue with their assessment report.

Membership Growth & Trends

The membership numbers in Green Tourism have mainly increased year on year.  In the first 5 years the rate of growth was as much as 30% per year.  This was a result of a number of groups joining the programme in the early years.  This included the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (60 sites) joining in 1998 and Historic Scotland (65 sites) in 1999.  The pilots and destination projects have also boosted numbers as indicated in table below.


The introduction of the Climate Change Levy in 2001 raised awareness of the need for energy efficiency and there was a growth in interest in Green Tourism, especially from hotels and larger businesses.  The same year as a result of foot and mouth, many of the businesses could not be visited and were given an extension to their assessment period.  However it did not result in any decline in membership, in fact the disaster raised awareness in the connection between food, the countryside and farming.  This resulted in an increase in people wanting to have a holiday in the UK and again more interest from businesses wanting to join Green Tourism.  Other disasters also encouraged this growing interest in “Staycations” including the outbreak of SARS in 2003 and the 2011 eruption of Grímsvötn, the volcano in Iceland.  These influenced people to holiday in the UK, avoid international travel and their reliance on flying.

Research has shown (VisitEngland survey 2009) that businesses generally join for 3 main reasons.  Over 90% join because they have a personal commitment or interest in the environment.  This might be a “deep green” commitment or because they want to save resources and money.  84% join because of the marketing advantage of having the green grading and over 80% to reduce their running costs.  Typically businesses can reduce their costs by 20% in their first year of membership of green tourism.

There is no doubt that a very high number of the early adopters were in the “deep green” category and for many it was a personal lifestyle decision.  However there was also interest from businesses that wanted to differentiate themselves and add to their quality and other awards.  These tended to be the higher quality and those that were very good at marketing and in many cases were better managed businesses.

However in the last few years the increased awareness and adoption of Corporate Social Responsibility by government organisations and businesses has had an impact on the growth and membership of Green Tourism.  The numbers of hotels, groups and chains have increased significantly since 2007 when Ramada Jarvis was the first large hotel chain to join.  Green Tourism has become recognised as the most credible* third party certification for those businesses that want to green their supply chain and attract the corporate market.  In the past 5 years the following brands have joined Green Tourism and all their UK sites are in membership:

Hilton, Rezidor, Jurys Inns, QHotels, Radisson Edwardian, Menzies Hotels, De Vere Venues, Chardon Management, Prem Group, Best Western (120 of their members so far)

The current breakdown of membership is approx. as follows:

Hotels – 30%   B&Bs – 12%   Self-catering – 22%   Visitor Attractions – 16%   Holiday parks / hostels – 5%   VIC / Corporate offices – 5%   Activity Providers – 4%   Conference venues – 2%   Restaurants / cafes – 2%   Others – 2%

Grading Levels

The distribution of grading bands is maybe not what might be expected.  Generally it could be assumed that there would be a lot of Bronze businesses, a smaller number of Silver and the smallest group would be Gold.  However this is not the case as most businesses aspire to improve their grading and therefore move up the ratings and retention rates are highest for the Gold members.  There is a failure rate of approx. 5% of business that do not achieve the Bronze level.  The current grading distribution is as shown in table below.



Business have access to a Members Area on the Green Tourism website ( which includes case studies, factsheets and lists of useful organisations.  They also receive a monthly technical newsletter with information on new technologies, legislation, green suppliers and events.

Green Tourism has always had a requirement for the accommodation businesses to be quality graded either though a National Tourist Board or the AA.  However in recent years there has been a decline in the number of businesses that are participating in these schemes.  For instance, in England there are approx. 65,000 tourism accommodation businesses and only 25,000 are quality graded.  Therefore the requirement for quality graded was dropped in 2013.   However, if a business is quality graded they will gain additional credit on their assessment.  The Green Tourism criteria are being adapted to include a quality check for those businesses that are not quality graded.  This will ensure that Green Tourism graded businesses still maintain good levels of quality for their guests.

When a business makes an initial enquiry they are sent an application pack which includes the criteria, checklist and a list of benefits.  Once they return the application they receive an invoice for their fees and once that is paid they become a member.  The fees are set to take account of the size or number of employees and there is a one-off joining fee in the first year of £75. When they become a member they receive the awaiting grading logo, a listing on the website, access to the member’s area and eligibility to take up any supplier discounts offers.

Within 3 months of becoming a member the business will be offered a grading visit appointment.  The invitations are sent out 4-6 weeks before the appointment and the business must accept an appointment within 12 months of joining.  The grading visit takes approx. 2 hours and the business will receive the assessment report within 4 – 6 weeks of the visit.

The businesses are promoted through the Green Tourism website and a number of partner organisations that receive regular updates of the membership.  These include:

  • VisitScotland
  • VisitEngland
  • VisitWales
  • NITB
  • Failte Ireland
  • Travelocity
  • Book Differently
  • Eco Holiday Shop
  • Booking Services International

Press releases are produced regularly and there is a news stream and archive on the website reporting articles that appear on line.  Green Tourism’s YouTube channel (GreenTourismGTBS) has a large number of videos of good practice, interviews with members and suppliers.  The FaceBook page Green Tourism has over 400 fans and @GreenTourismUK has over 1200 followers on twitter.

Since 2011 Green Tourism has held an annual Green Tourism Week with an award ceremony for their GoldStar Award winners and Best Carbon Performers.  The GoldStars are selected from the highest scoring businesses from the previous year and go through a judging process which includes obtaining references from customers and suppliers.  The Best Carbon Performers are selected from those businesses that have reduced their carbon emissions the most.  This year’s award ceremony is going to be held during Green Tourism’s first full day conference on 8th November 2013 in Bristol.

*Tourism and Greenwash Report produced by Totem Tourism June 2013.