Sustainability Standards: A tool for tourism recovery

Can global sustainability standards be key to a green recovery? Banner image: Shutterstock/frantic00

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Tourism has been recognised for its potential to drive development by creating jobs and wealth, including in geographical areas otherwise not accessible to other economic activities. In many developing countries and Small Island States, tourism is often the primary source of income as well as a catalyst for the growth of other sectors such as fisheries, agriculture and food industry to name just a few. Tourism first was included in the Millennium Development Goals as a contributor to poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment and job creation, and later as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In 2019, tourism accounted for 10% of the global GDP and 1 of every 11 jobs worldwide, with a record 1.5 billion international tourists. But in 2020 and 2021, tourism flows dropped by more than 70% causing huge economic and social problems, with tens of millions of jobs lost all over the globe. However, even before this unprecedented crisis the negative impacts of tourism on the environment, communities and culture were becoming a threat to its growth.     

In this context, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) was created in 2007 by a group including UN agencies and NGOs committed to sustainability and private sector. Unlike many other organisations engaged in promoting sustainable tourism, we set and manage standards that establish the environmental, social, economic and managerial requirements to be sustainable. Our global standards—the GSTC Criteria—are guidelines for destinations, hotels and tour operators on how to maximise the benefits and reduce the negative impacts of tourism, and include tools to measure their progress towards more sustainable business models.

We have seen recently, and especially during the pandemic, an increased interest from governments with tourism authorities, with countries as diverse as the Cayman Islands, Japan, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vanuatu, joining GSTC. They see value in a framework that can inform their national sustainable tourism strategies and provide the tools to introduce, implement and monitor the management of destinations. The active engagement of tourism’s leading companies in our programmes is a strong indicator of their interest in becoming more sustainable, and can hopefully drive change across the whole sector.

Read more on the Forum Network: Can the Circular Economy Become the New Normal in Cities? by Oriana Romano, Head of Unit, Water Governance and Circular Economy, Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Cities and Regions, OECD

As we saw during the 2008 global financial crisis, travel and tourism companies that integrated sustainability into their product and service offerings gained a competitive advantage and were better positioned to survive and thrive. While the crisis today is much greater, we have already seen that destinations, hotels and tour operators already engaging in sustainable practices are more resilient. Of course, health and safety is of primary concern to all businesses in hastening the recovery as quickly as conditions allow. But we have noted that along with significant steps taken for guest and staff health safety, many businesses are wisely improving many aspects of their business practices to operate in more sustainable and resilient ways.

We are seeing a greater move from words to action in many regards, for example significant efforts to reduce plastic use. Many destinations, hotels, attractions and tour operators recognise that tourism can be made safer and cleaner, especially on land, and should be perceived as such.

We have noted an increasing trend towards “slow” and local travel by car, train and bike or on foot. Domestic tourism, of course, recovers more quickly than inbound international markets, which eases the significant challenge of altering business practices.

Finally, we see many destination management organisations, or DMOs, significantly shifting their spending from promotion to planning and management. In fact, the M in DMO is increasingly viewed as “management” instead of “marketing” as it was before, and in some locales they describe themselves as a DMMO to capture both.

But how will the travel and tourism industry look post-pandemic? Will it be more sustainable? What are the best practices for dealing with the sudden change in demand following the pandemic, while ensuring that tourism experiences benefit everyone, today and in the long term? Whatever shape it takes, there are positive trends that tourism can contribute to “building back better”.

Read more on OECD Tourism Trends and Policies 2020

Read more about sustainability in tourism sector in the OECD's Managing tourism development for sustainable and inclusive recovery

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Tackling COVID-19 Green Recovery SDGs Tourism

Luigi Cabrini & Randy Durband

Chairman & CEO, Global Sustainable Tourism Council

Luigi Cabrini is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council since 2014.

Mr Cabrini led several initiatives on sustainable tourism at global level, focusing his activities on tourism and climate change, tourism and biodiversity, observatories for sustainable tourism, the green economy, tourism and heritage and global partnerships. He was the Director of the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) Sustainable Tourism Programme, Director for Europe and Secretary of the General Assembly and Executive Council. From 2014 to 2018 he was an Advisor to the Secretary-General of the UNWTO.

Before joining the UNWTO he has been engaged during 20 years in United Nations programmes for development and for  protection of refugees, in Guatemala, Mexico, Somalia and Pakistan. He was UNHCR Representative in Poland and Spain. 

Luigi Cabrini is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish and has basic knowledge of Russian and Polish. He is the author of various articles and papers.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is an international partnership with the aim of fostering increased knowledge and understanding of sustainable tourism practices, promoting the adoption of universal sustainable tourism principles and building demand for sustainable travel. At the heart of its work are the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for the Industry ( Hotels and Tour Operators) and for Destinations.

Randy Durband is the Chief Executive Officer of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), a UN-created NGO that establishes and manages global standards for sustainability in travel and tourism. The GSTC Criteria include guidelines for minimizing negative environmental, cultural, and social impacts while maximizing travel and tourism as a force for good.

He brings a unique blend of skills and experience based on two career paths he has taken in travel and tourism – nearly 30 years in the private sector, mostly in senior leadership positions with major tour operators including President of Travcoa, INTRAV and Clipper Cruise Lines, (brands within TUI Group), and Executive Vice President of Tauck World Discovery. His second career, now in its 2nd decade, began with economic development projects through tourism in developing countries in Southeast Asia and South America relating to emerging destinations including CBT and rural tourism, with UNESCO and ILO. He became CEO of GSTC February 2014.

Mr. Durband is a frequent speaker on sustainable tourism and has served on many tourism boards in Europe, North America, and Asia; and sustainable tourism awards judging panels including the WTTC Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, UN Environment Inspire Awards, and the PATA Gold Awards.

R. Durband's LinkedIn profile.