Qualmark Enviro-Awards: Failed Experiment?

24 Aug

A couple of years ago, Qualmark became the world’s first and only ‘integrated’ tourism accreditation scheme whereby a suite of responsible tourism practices were incorporated within businesses’ overall quality assessment.

By many measures the integrated scheme has been a success – Qualmark recently celebrated the 500th business to be given an Enviro-Award under the integrated accreditation.  All over the country tourism businesses have been striving to incorporate sustainability into their businesses and to demonstrate this to market through their Qualmark accreditation.

But in its most recent newsletter to its license-holders, Qualmark announced a range of changes to its licensing process, including the intention to “de-couple” the responsible tourism assessment from the basic Qualmark accreditation.  The newsletter goes on to point out:

“Licence holders would still see minimum requirements for environmental sustainability in the main awards process but the Enviro award score will have no bearing on a licence holders star grading.   This de-coupling is going to begin in the Hotel and Holiday Park sectors from 31 August.”

(I like the term ‘de-coupling’.  Alternatives include ‘divorcing’ and ‘disintegrating’, although these were obviously passed over.)

The reason being put forward for this move is simply that it is what license-holders wanted, as found in research conducted by Tourism New Zealand.  But this is only part of the picture.  Why was an integrated system developed in the first place?  Have things changed so much that such a radical departure is warranted?

Let’s begin by considering the role of Qualmark.  Qualmark is a voluntary form of industry-regulation.   Why then, does Qualmark have any members?  It costs time and money to belong, and means being subjected to an annual interrogation by an assessor.  The answer is simple – there are benefits, and in particular, market benefits.

Generally speaking, industry organisations can encourage adoption of industry regulation by ramping up the benefits, and by introducing sanctions of varying severity for not belonging.  In the tourism industry, for example, tourism businesses are encouraged to adopt Qualmark through preferential market positioning.  It is necessary to be a Qualmark’ed business to attend TRENZ, for example.

So a ‘voluntary’ scheme takes on a different appearance in this case.  It is like when I tell my son he can bring home the milk change “if he knows what is good for him”.   His choice, but not totally voluntary.

The idea is that if an industry does not regulate itself effectively, the next stop can be legislation, and no one wants to be legislated.  The development of an integrated Qualmark accreditation was a form of industry regulation that resulted from the pervasive feeling at the time that the tourism industry should be (and be seen to be) a leader in New Zealand’s movement toward greater sustainability.  It could be argued that it was led by tourism organisations and agencies, and willingly accepted by tourism businesses.

As such, it could also be argued that the integrated label was a product of its time, and that times have changed.

I don’t know exactly how things are feeling in the regions (hollar at me, regions), but in Wellington there is a strong wind blowing (literally, as it happens, but I mean this metaphorically).  This wind is shifting the balance of power away from agencies, Ministries and regulators, and back toward businesses.  So when Qualmark points out that it is responding to what its’ members want…Well I think this can be seen as related to this whole wind type situation, which I expect is also blowing up there in Auckland (sick of the wind yet?).

I am not making a judgement on this either way.  There is no doubt that many Qualmark businesses will be grateful that they will be left to choose whether they want to behave sustainability or not, and not be told by a clip-board carrier to do so.  There will also be many Qualmark businesses who invested considerable resource into ramping up their sustainability measures to improve their overall grade who will feel a little bit like they have been dicked around.

Another side to this saga is whether support for the Enviro-Accreditation would have gained more support from Qualmark license-holders if it had been done differently.

Certainly, it would seem that it was a steep learning curve.   The time and effort required to achieve well in the Responsible Tourism criteria was more than some businesses expected.  More problematic, perhaps, was that many tourism businesses just didn’t understand what they had to do.  It wasn’t that Qualmark didn’t make it quite clear, but ‘responsible tourism’ is just not as simple as being able to forward messages to guests or not.

Judging the sustainable performance of a businesses is also a challenging process.  To ensure businesses were not fudging it the Responsible Tourism part of the Qualmark assessment could be very resource intensive.

I think that that the de-coupling of the Responsible Tourism criteria is not a monumental cock-up for Qualmark.  I think it was a good idea at the time, but since then a lot has changed.  We are in the midst of an unexpected recession that keeps on like a favourite pair of pants, and has changed some businesses’ priorities, and placed organisations like Qualmark under greater pressure. And we have a new Government that is more right-of-centre than many would had expected (one can smell the fear among the public servants).  Interest in sustainability at an institutional level has evaporated and been replaced with a bit more of a rip-shit-and-bust approach.

It sounds cliché but New Zealand’s tourism industry has always been a leader and has, from time to time, stuck its neck out to protect its position.  The industry’s cooperative, challenging and innovative approach is the envy of nations (let’s just believe this is true).  Qualmark’s integrated accreditation was worth a crack.

Let’s chalk this one up to experience.


5 Responses to “Qualmark Enviro-Awards: Failed Experiment?”

  1. ronmader August 26, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    I thought I was confused before but this news completely baffles me. What I’d love to see is a public forum hosted by Qualmark (or any eco/sustainable/responsible certification program) in which questions can be posted and read by local businesses and travelers alike.

    New Zealand’s official tourism strategy of spending big $ on marketing campaigns, celebrity endorsements and the like seem to go against the grain of the mom and pop enterprises that dot the country and give NZ is tremendous appeal. For those of us who sincerely care about sustainable practices, responsible tourism, indigenous culture, NZ has much to offer but it remains a hard case to find the information once is looking for from across the Pacific.

    On a sidenote, I am adding a link to this blog entry from the Planeta wiki http://planeta.wikispaces.com/qualmark

    • traveltastic August 27, 2010 at 12:37 am #

      Hi Ron,
      Thanks for your comments and addition to the Wiki.

      New Zealand has always marketed itself overseas, and its tourism sector has always been characterised by many small businesses. I don’t think that this is necessarily a contradiction is it?. The challenge continues to be making sure that the product lives up to what is being advertised. The structure of the industry means that it is so challenging to ‘direct the ship’ in one way or another, and Qualmark has been the most successful means of doing this. It is worth noting that Qualmark will still offer an Enviro-Award, but that it will be a separate add-on to the main Qualmark accreditation. It will be interesting to see how many businesses choose to take this option.

      In terms of finding information about sustainable tourism, yes this is a key challenge, both for operators and tourists alike. Watch this space…

  2. Motella September 11, 2010 at 3:59 am #

    Hi there Tim
    I enjoyed your post on Qualmark and if this is OK with you, have added your blog to our blog-roll at “Motella.”
    I am also amused with the term de-coupling and prefer to use “extraction.”
    Has Responsible Tourism been a failure? From the motel industry perspective – YES!
    This was embedded into Qualmark’s quality benchmarking assessment solely due to outside political motivation – It was certainly never asked for by the motel industry.
    It is unfortunate that “Responsible Tourism” has diverted Qualmark’s focus away from quality and has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.
    Ironically, this experiment has done nothing to save the planet, but instead has created a proliferation of unproductive greenwash from motel properties wishing to protect their quality star ratings.
    There is a premise that properties not choosing to take part in the impost of enviro-rating grandstanding are environmentally “irresponsible” – nothing could be further from the truth!
    Qualmark NZ is now hemorrhaging over a million dollars a year, its resources have been drastically cut and it is a husk of an organisation that is at risk of being unable to effectively carry out its core function.
    If Qualmark stuck to its knitting and focused on its core business, it would probably be in a better position and have greater industry credibility.
    Ideally environmental/social certification should have been better delivered by a private organisation based on actual industry demand and not forced on the motel industry by stealth.

    • traveltastic September 12, 2010 at 9:38 am #

      Dear Motella Blog,
      Honoured to be on your blog-roll. I will do the same when I get my act together and actually have one. I am often in contact with individuals in the tourism ‘beauracracy’ etc., and many of them are perpetually irritated by your blog, which I always think you would enjoy immensely!!
      On your comments…
      I was with a Qualmark’ed motel operator on Monday who had found the responsible tourism criteria a welcome addition to his Qualmark process. I have worked with this guy before and he is certainly not a greeny, and faces the same kind of pressures that most motel-operators would be facing. He found the Responsible Tourism criteria a positive experience and has had considerable success incorporating the practices into his business.

      I have seen instances like this up and down the country and feel that, in this sense, the Responsible Tourism criteria has not been the abject failure you describe. Overall I think it has, in fact, bought solid sustainability practices to many tourism businesses throughout the country. I think it failed because it was too difficult to administer, and I think that this is where Qualmark dropped the ball. But as I said in my post, I think it was worth a crack.

      In a fragmented industry like tourism it can be useful to have strong industry leadership and there is some merit in an industry-regulatory model vs. private provider models. I think it is undeniable that the Responsible Tourism criteria were a product of their time and the prevailing political climate, as you suggest. But the recent changes (to Qualmark, tourism, and the wider economy for that matter) are also the result of a (changing) political climate. I think it is worthwhile acknowledging the benefits and risks of the different ideologies rather than seeing one as commonsense and the other as political interference.

      I think that there is considerable merit to the approach being adopted by Qualmark now, of paying more attention to their members’ wishes and ‘sticking to their knitting’. But where you see the Responsible Tourism criteria as a step too far in one direction, I think it could also go too far the other way. What happens if the industry votes that assessors should all just piss off which I am sure many are inclined to do at times…It won’t be a very effective system then. Probably not a useful example but there you go. 😉

      I don’t think the links you imply between the Responsible Tourism criteria, Qualmark’s financial position, and its restructure are too solid. While we are on word-play (eg. de-coupling vs. extracting), I wonder what the difference is between a haemorrhage and a subsidy? One sounds a lot more painful than the other…

      Thanks Motella. Love your work


  1. Qualmark green: Middle Earth’s sustainable travel quality assurance « Sustainable Futures - November 26, 2012

    […] on the Qualmark Enviro scheme’s origin, criteria and award process and a critical post on whether the experiment of Qualmark’s Enviro-awards has actually failed. In my view, some incentive for tourism and travel operators to look into and commit to social and […]

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