Explained | What is the ‘Blue Flag’ certification for beaches?

Two beaches in Lakshadweep have received the ‘Blue Flag’ tag, awarded by a Denmark-based foundation, taking the overall tally to 12

October 31, 2022 12:57 pm | Updated 05:48 pm IST

File photo of tourists sunbathing on a beach in Lakshadweep

File photo of tourists sunbathing on a beach in Lakshadweep | Photo Credit: The Hindu Business Line

The story so far: Earlier this week, two Indian beaches were awarded the ‘Blue Flag’ certification — a global eco-label — taking India’s overall tally to 12 in the list of cleanest beaches in the world.

Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav took to Twitter to share the development, writing, “Proud moment! Two more Indian beaches have made it to the list of Blue Beaches. Minicoy Thundi beach and Kadmat beach - both in Lakshadweep - are the proud entrants in the coveted list of Blue Beaches.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated the people of Lakshadweep. 

What is the ‘Blue Flag’ tag? 

The Blue Flag is a voluntary tag given to environment-friendly and clean beaches with hygienic facilities. The tag is part of an eco-tourism model that promotes sustainability in the tourism sector through environmental awareness, protection and sustainable development practices. It is accorded by Denmark-based non-profit Foundation for Environmental Education, or FEE, as part of its Blue Flag Programme. 

The Blue Flag Programme started in France in 1985 and has been implemented in Europe since 1987, and in areas outside Europe since 2001, when South Africa joined. Japan and South Korea were among the first Asian countries to have Blue Flag beaches.

In France, the programme originally started as an environmental awareness initiative. Schoolchildren wrote messages and put them in a plastic bottle with their names and the name of their nearest beach. These bottles were then collected by the French military and dropped in the Atlantic Ocean. The idea was to highlight the impact of dumping waste in seas and oceans. 

The programme was adopted by other European countries in 1987 and outside Europe in the early 2000s. Since then, the certificate is anually awarded to beaches, marinas and boat tour operators in FEE-member countries.

So far, over 5,000 beaches, marinas and boats have been awarded the Blue Flag in 48 countries. As of 2022, Spain tops the list with more than 700 awarded sites, which includes 621 beaches, followed by Greece with 570 Blue Flag beaches. However, the Blue Flag accreditation is seasonal and the award is valid only if the criteria are fulfilled. 

What are the eligibility criteria?

There are different criteria for beaches, marinas and tourism boats to be considered for accreditation under the programme. For beaches, the Foundation has identified a series of 33 criteria. These standards can be imperative, which means that a beach has to comply with them to be considered for accreditation, or guideline-based, which are not mandatory but preferred. 

Broadly, they are divided into four categories, covering water quality, environmental management, safety, and environmental information and education. The following are some criteria under each broad head:

1. Water quality: A Blue Flag beach should have “excellent” bathing water quality, for which regular sampling and testing need to be carried out. It should not have an oil surface on the water, or floating material like wood, plastic and other waste. Industrial, wastewater or sewage-related discharges must not affect the beach area. The beach must also comply with the Blue Flag requirements for the microbiological parameter Escherichia coli (faecal coli bacteria) and intestinal enterococci. 

All about the the Blue Flag tag

2. Environmental education and information: All certified beaches are required to have at least one Blue Flag information board in place. Bathing water quality information has to be displayed on the information board. There should be a provision of at least five environmental awareness activities for the public, preferably during its Blue Flag season. Bathing water quality information has to be displayed on the information board as well.

“The aim of this criterion is to ensure that beach users are well informed and educated about relevant environmental elements, local ecosystems and any sensitive areas in the surrounding environment so that they are encouraged to learn about and experience the environment in a responsible way. Information about coastal zone ecosystems, wetland areas, unique habitats or any sensitive natural areas must be displayed at or close to the Blue Flag beach,” the updated criteria reads. The code of conduct must address the activities and conduct of beach users. The beach code of conduct must be displayed on the Blue Flag information board.

3. Environmental management: As a general rule, Blue Flag accreditation is only given to sites that can manage visitors and host recreational activities without causing damage to the environment. A Blue Flag beach and its surrounding areas, including paths, parking areas, and access paths should be clean and well-maintained. “Litter should not be allowed to accumulate, causing these areas to become unsightly or hazardous. Waste disposal bins or litter bins (preferably with covers) should be of a suitable design and appearance as well as being functional,” the official website says.

It adds that the number of toilets or restrooms at the beach must be adequate and facilities should be easy to locate through signage. Unauthorised camping, driving and dumping are prohibited. Also, pets, other than assistance dogs, are not allowed on a Blue Flag beach or in the Blue Flag area. If the presence of pets is permitted by local and national legislation, animals are only allowed in parking areas, walkways and promenades.

4. Safety and services: A Blue Flag beach with a high number of visitors isrequired to be patrolled by qualified and easily recognisable lifeguards. Bathing areas should be defined on a map and information boards on the beach with markers or flags. For a beach with few visitors, public rescue equipment hooks, lifejackets and life rafts can replace lifeguards, but they have to be positioned, visible and located at regular intervals. First aid equipment should be available on the beach. Further, there needs to be an emergency plan in case of an event that leads to a large-scale impact on the beach like an oil spill, discharge of stormwater, or dangerous algal blooms.

The public must have access to Blue Flag beaches without being a client of a certain hotel or club. “Access to the beach should preferably be free, although at some beaches public access is provided through charging a small and reasonable fee (no more than $30),” the website says.

It advocates for ramps to make beaches accessible for those with disabilities. “It is strongly recommended that all Blue Flag beaches have facilities that allow access by the physically disabled, granting them access to the beach, surrounding buildings, and the restroom facilities…It is a Blue Flag recommendation that at this beach, if possible, there is access to the water for the physically disabled,” the latest criteria note mentions.

Who can apply and what is the review process?

Blue Flag sites are reviewed annually and awarded for an operating season, which can last up to a full year. Local authorities or private beach operators can apply for the tag, according to the Blue Flag website.

The application proceeds to an independent national jury who check for compliance with standards, and is then forwarded to an international jury. The International jury reviews applicants twice a year, in April for the Northern Hemisphere and in September for the Southern Hemisphere. This jury includes members from key global organisations like UNESCO, World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

After approval, the flag must fly at the beach during Blue Flag season.

The Blue Flag beaches of India

Twelve beaches in India have received the Blue Flag accreditation so far. Those tagged in the past are Shivrajpur in Gujarat, Ghoghla in Diu, Kasarkod and Padubidri in Karnataka, Kappad in Kerala, Rushikonda in Andhra Pradesh, Radhanagar in Andaman and Nicobar, Golden in Odisha, Kovalam in Tamil Nadu and Eden in Puducherry.

Now, Thundi and Kadmat beaches of Lakshadweep have been added to the list.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change started a Beach Environment and Aesthetic Management Service (BEAMS) programme to achieve international standards for Blue Flag certification. Under the programme, activities related to pollution control, beach awareness, aesthetics, safety, surveillances services and environmental education are carried out at identified beaches.

The Environment Ministry had in 2020 relaxed the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules that restrict construction and other related activities on beaches and islands. The norms were eased to enable the authorities to build the required infrastructure and facilities on beaches “subject to maintaining a minimum distance of 10 metres from the High Tide Line.

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