Sustainability Standards: A tool for tourism recovery

Can global sustainability standards be key to a green recovery? Banner image: Shutterstock/frantic00
Sustainability Standards: A tool for tourism recovery

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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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

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Green Recovery SDGs Tourism

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