San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

For tour operators, sustainability Is ‘TOPS’

Eco-this, eco-that. The term gets bandied about so frequently in the tourism industry that it has lost much of its meaning.

“It’s really about asking if tourism is sustainable in the long run,” says Milagro Espinoza, communications manager for Latin America for the New York-based Rainforest Alliance, the worldwide nongovernmental organization devoted to conservation.  

So-called “ecotourism” is an important component of sustainable tourism, Espinoza says. In addition to conserving and protecting natural capital, though, tourism should safeguard a country’s social and economic resources, too. 

Enter Rainforest Alliance’s Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability (TOPS) program, inaugurated Sept. 28 in Guatemala City. TOPS forms a network of tour operators committed to improving the lives of their communities through sustainable tourism.

“At first, it seems overwhelming,” explains Lourdes Fuentes, marketing and sales manager for Careli Tours (www.careli, Nicaragua’s largest tour operator. “You say, ‘Wow!’”

Careli, founded in 1992, came relatively late in its existence to the concept of sustainable tourism. The business began working with Rainforest Alliance four years ago, adopting what Fuentes calls “a complete change in mission,” and is now one of the charter members of the TOPS program.

Getting everybody on board was really the key to changing that mission, Fuentes says. The nuts and bolts fell into place after that.

“You have to have a sustainable operation from top to bottom,” agrees Carlos Blanco, marketing director for Costa Rica-based Travel Excellence (, in business since 1996 and also a TOPS founding member.

Everyone employed directly or contracted by the firm – owners, managers, guides, drivers, reservations agents, receptionists – needs to be devoted to the concept of sustainability, he says.

Once the philosophical change in support of sustainable tourism is firmly in place, the logistics can be implemented. Some upward salary adjustment and substantial training, especially for guides, the most visible face of any tourism operation, are an important component of sustainability, Fuentes says.

“It’s a definite investment of resources and time to become sustainable,” Blanco explains. “If you start out slowly, any tour operator, large or small, can do it.”

TOPS-affiliated inbound tour operators – in the business, that means those operators in destination countries receiving foreign visitors – agree to follow 30 percent of Rainforest Alliance guidelines for promoting sustainable tourism their first year, with 50-percent adherence expected by the second year of membership, according to Rainforest Alliance’s Espinoza.

The opposite, of course, are outbound tour operators, which send travelers to foreign destinations. Outbound TOPS members commit to using 50 percent of destination-based suppliers certified by Rainforest Alliance, with an increase to 70 percent by the second year.

That means selecting lodging, transportation and guides dedicated to the concept of sustainability. Firms will be counted on to pay their employees a fair wage and incorporate environmentally friendly practices into their operations. Guides are expected to be trained. (Rainforest Alliance provides discounted training and certification materials for inbound operators wishing to become TOPS members.)

As of the program’s launch, tour operators in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica have affiliated here in Central America. Elsewhere, firms from Mexico, Peru and Ecuador in Latin America and, farther afield, in the United States and Europe make up the balance of TOPS members.

Sustainability also incorporates much behind-the-scenes work into operations the visitor never sees, Careli’s Fuentes says.

“Everyone in our office recycles,” she explains. “We want to make sure that everybody believes in these things.” 

The firm operates a large collection center for recyclable materials in Nicaragua’s southern colonial city of Granada, a rarity in a country where the government does virtually nothing on that count. Proceeds from the center, as well as a portion of those from Careli’s tourist operations, go to purchase supplies for local schoolchildren.

“Sustainability sells,” Travel Excellence’s Blanco says.

He adds that Europeans, the majority of his firm’s clients, seem to have a leg up on interest in the concept. North American visitors are catching up, though.

Guides do incorporate information about sustainability into their talks with visitors, but it’s a soft sell, Blanco explains.

“People don’t want to come here and be lectured,” he says. “They best learn by example.”

For more information about the Rainforest Alliance and the TOPS program, see the organization’s website at www.rainforest-, or follow its activities on Facebook at Alliance. The “Travel” section on the organization’s Facebook page, in particular, offers tips for engaging in sustainable tourism.

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