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European Groups Work to Promote Ethical Travel

The "fair trade" label is appearing on many goods nowadays -- from coffee and chocolate to apples and apparel. But would a "fair trade" label influence people shopping for a vacation?

Man washing billboard with a fair trade logo

Some in the travel industry want to increase ethical standards in the tourism sector

The "fair trade" seal of approval takes the guesswork out of finding groceries and clothing that meet high ethical standards. Despite the label's popularity, the concept has yet to catch on in the tourism industry, as vacationers find it difficult to say which tour companies and hotels adhere to fair trade principles.

Still, some say the time is ripe for a wider analysis of fair trade in the tourism industry. Travelers worried about the ecological and sociological impact of their spending habits have fueled a trend toward responsible tourism.

"People do not want to have a guilty conscience when they travel," said Rainer Hartmann, a professor at Bremen College. He says there is a demand for fair trade travel, a trend that Heinz Fuchs of Tourism Watch, part of the Bonn-based Church Development Service, has also noticed.

"Transfair products increased by 30 percent in 2007," says Fuchs. "This idea is pretty widespread in other countries, but it's just catching on here."

Working group establishing criteria

Woman standing in front of a row of apples

As with organic apples, a fair trade seal might make ethical selection easier

Indeed, "fair trade" labels are not entirely new in the travel industry. South Africa's tourist organizations already use them and some European organizations are considering similar ideas.

An international working group has been trying to lay down criteria for a seal here that would look at factors such as fair pay for workers.

"There have to be set working hours,” said Fuchs. "Employees should have health and accident insurance, as well as unemployment insurance."

There's also widespread agreement that tour operators and companies should not get the seal. It should instead be awarded to products such as individual tours.

The group has likewise agreed that the label should not focus on niche markets for do-gooders.

"It should instead focus on mainstream tourism," says Fuchs.

Certification would raise consciousness, transparency

Hundreds of swimmers in sea with ten story hotel in background

The group wants to concentrate on mainstream tourism

Hartmann said he sees the merit of such proposals. "Consciousness in this area has grown, just like the evolution of organic food products, which are now on sale at every discount store."

And just like organic apples, a seal of approval for fair trade travel would be useful, he adds. Not only would it have the bonus of providing a standard set of criteria, it would also add transparency. "It would make it easier to convey that 'this trip is OK,'" he said.

Still, not everyone is convinced a seal is the best idea.

"Certification is not cheap. It costs several thousand euros," said Rolf Pfeifer, Chief Executive Officer of Forum Anders Reisen, a group of travel operators dedicated to environmentally sound tourism.

"A lot of hotels won't be able to afford it. Nor will a lot of small operators."

Pfeifer's company recently completed a report on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in tourism. The report is meant to serve as the basis for sustainability reports for other organizers to show how they comply. A recent decision by the forum requires all members to get CSR certification by the end of 2010. The certification would cover many of the same values covered by any fair trade seal.

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