The Blue Flag Programme for beaches, marinas and tourism boats is run by the international, non-governmental, non-profit organisation called FEE (the Foundation for Environmental Education), Denmark. The Blue Flag Programme was introduced in France in 1985 and by 1987 it got implemented in various tourist destinations across Europe. In 2001, South Africa became the first country outside Europe to get the blue flag certification. Today, Blue Flag has become a truly global Programme, with an ever-increasing number of countries participating in it.
These blue flag certificates are awarded on annual basis to beaches and marinas of participating FFE member countries on achieving high standards in the four categories of:
- Water quality
- Environmental management
- Environmental education and information
- General Safety and services
The Blue Flag Programme promotes sustainable development in freshwater and marine areas. Blue Flag has become a highly respected and recognised eco-label working to bring together the tourism and environmental sectors at local, regional and national levels. The applicant for Blue Flag accreditation is the authority charged with responsibility for the beach or marina or tourism boat operators. This may be a local municipality, private hotel, national park, or private beach operator. A beach may be eligible for Blue Flag accreditation if it is legally designated as a bathing area and it has the necessary facilities and services to comply with the Blue Flag criteria. A beach or marina must be accessible to all (regardless of age, gender, physical health, political views, religion) in order to be eligible for Blue Flag accreditation. It should be clean and well maintained with all basic facilities of venue accessibility, toilets, garbage disposal and clean drinking water facility. FEE, and the National Operator in a country, reserve the right to refuse or withdraw Blue Flag accreditation from any beach where the local authority/beach operator is responsible for violations of national environmental regulations or otherwise acts in discord with the objectives and spirit of the Blue Flag Programme. Blue Flag beaches are subject to announced and unannounced control visits by the National Operator and FEE International.
Blue Flag Certification and Tourism
- An opportunity for the region to capitalise on this reputation for environmental protection and market itself as a tourism destination.
- A higher standard of environment for visitors, local people and the associated health benefits.
- A better quality of environment which gives visitors to your beaches, marinas and boats a superior experience, thereby increasing their profile.
- Protection of the local environment from the destabilising effects of unmanaged practices.
- Blue Flag Programme permits government and private operators to manage marina and beaches. Though marine habitats can be accessed by all, Blue flag programme prevents local fishermen from earning their livelihood, by restricting their movement into demarcated blue flag beaches and marinas.
- Private operators with vested interests collect fees to permit entry into blue flag beaches run by them, thereby inhibiting the entry of local populace to clean beaches.
- Implementation of blue flag programme on the selected locations require rehabilitation of people living in the area which can be costly and can permanently displace the ethnic communities.
- Creating facilities in these locations would require destruction of natural resources. Admitting tourists into such a space will also require felling some trees, laying roads, making way for cars to pass through, setting up lodging facilities, etc. – all of which are in opposition to the ‘environmental education’ part of the blue-flag accreditation’s values.
- Governments around the world have been rapidly weakening coastal zone regulations with an eagerness to unlock these areas for real estate and tourism. The rush to have the country’s beaches given the blue-flag tag will only worsen the natural eco system the location and accelerate international climate crisis.
Although Blue Flag is the most popular eco-award and municipalities use it as a management plan, there are criticisms over the use of the award. A compilation of Studies by Environmentalists and Researchers are briefly explained below:
Issue as a management tool
Micallef and Williams (2002)
Micallef and Williams (2002) stated that “although there are quality awards in use, including Blue Flag, none of them successfully take into account the biological, physical and socio-economic requirements that need to be balanced to effectively manage a beach”. The major components of the Blue Flag are relevant only for beach management, and inadequate to guarantee beach quality.
Research conducted by Boevers questioned whether the Blue Flag criteria really are an appropriate strategy to use for true environmental beach protection. After conducting a literature review on the Blue Flag award, Boevers stated that “the program appears to favour accommodations for tourists over interests for protecting ecosystem attributes”. Boevers challenged the beach managers to validate the claim that eco-label is improving the environment at a beach, by detailing the improvements that the program has made.
Mir-Gual, et al., (2015)
A recent study by Mir-Gual, et al.,conducted in Spain looked into environmental health benefits of Blue flag certification. The authors used fifteen different environmental variables to analyse 481 beaches in Spain, and came to the conclusion that there is no correlation between a beach receiving a Blue Flag award and any significant increase in its environmental quality. The paper argues that the eco-certification focused entirely on the quality of the beach in terms of what someone visiting the beach would want, and does not take into account the natural ecosystem.
Zielinski and Botero, (2015)
Another recent study aimed to identify the effectiveness of beach certification schemes. This study established a list of sustainability indicators after reviewing the literature, and then compared nine beach certification schemes to these criteria as a measure of effectiveness. The results stated that Blue Flag beaches have a 37% level of compliance with indicators of sustainability. However currently there is no evidence supporting that beach certification schemes definitely result in higher sustainability.
These authors argue that these types of certification should not be classified as ‘eco’ labels, but as more of a measure of amenities offered to the visitors.
Issue on water quality criteria
Lucrezi & Saayman, (2014); Micallef & Williams, (2002)
The biggest criticism with this focus is that the sampling strategy used to determine acceptable water quality that will meet the Blue Flag criteria is controversial for its accuracy. Sampling is conducted on a weekly basis usually, and researchers question if this sparse sampling should be considered as an accurate indicator of consistent water quality.
Issue with mechanical beach grooming
Boevers, (2008); Lucrezi & Saayman, (2014)
One specific criticism of Blue Flag is its lack of specific focus on the ecological health of a sandy beaches Popular tourism beaches are heavily used, which has led to some municipal authorities grooming them on a regular basis to make them more aesthetically appealing and to clean up garbage left behind by visitors. The Blue Flag criteria does recommend beach cleaning which is criticized by some because mechanical beach cleaning is a style of grooming that will harm the beach ecology. Grooming will dry out the sand and can have negative and long-term effects on erosion at a beach. Removal of naturally deposited plant debris through beach grooming can also lower sandy shore biodiversity dramatically and have negative impacts on beach species and habitats.
Issue with increased visitation
Ariza,Jimenez and Sarda (2008),
If Blue Flag eco-certification leads to increase in visitors significantly, the beach may be further harmed by overuse. A study by assessing beach management in the Mediterranean, found that 29% of beach managers considered their beaches to be overcrowded during the summer season. A few beach managers even indicated that a reduction of visitors up to 50% would be better. There were no plans, however, created to attempt to manage the level of beach use to a more desirable level, and there was no plan to try to do so in the near future. To have both a beach that is used intensively for recreation and also effectively conserved may not be possible as these two primary objectives are mutually exclusive.
Issue of using Blue Flag as a tourism and promotion tool
Lucrezi and Saayman,( 2014)
Research findings suggest that Blue Flag beach managers are not obtaining the certification to use it as a management tool for environmental protection, but as tool for tourism and brand recognition. Despite the findings that verify beach manager’s interest in Blue Flag as a potential promotion tool, none of the beach managers were able to provide any metrics or data to prove that receiving the Blue Flag status actually correlated to an increase in tourism or to a the public changing their perception of the beach’s quality.
Blue Flag award scheme is the best known and most widely used eco-award scheme globally. It is important to ensure that national and local beach operators of various countries utilizing Blue Flag is resulting in effective environmental protection. Otherwise the negative impacts from heavy use of beaches and marinas will not only negatively impact the health of the beaches themselves, but by extension the health of rivers and lakes