How places can become sustainable

Much is being said and written about “sustainable travel” and “responsible tourism”. The focus has been mostly on the role of travel companies in providing products and services that are deemed sustainable. But destination managers increasingly see imperatives to ensure that travellers and travel providers act in ways that sustain the places visited and to address the growing demand for travel that is “responsible”.

Why should a destination become more “sustainable”?

There are many compelling reasons. Sustainability is about ensuring that the tourism assets that attract the visitors continue to attract visitors. It’s about engaging the community in tourism such that residents welcome and support the visitors. It’s about reducing costs through more efficient use of energy for transport and accommodations. It’s about keeping the quality of residents’ life and the visitor experience positive by avoiding traffic congestion, foul air, noise pollution and much more. It’s about addressing the growing demand for responsible products, which today comes mostly from Europe but is growing among all source markets. Plus, we can never forget that the destination and its private-sector players must be sustainable financially as well.

But how can a destination become more sustainable?

The best way to start or improve sustainable practices and policies is to follow the guidelines provided by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), known as the GSTC Criteria.

Known for years for its Hotel and Tour Operator Criteria, the GSTC launched in 2013 its Destination Criteria. Both guidelines were created by a highly inclusive, global set of experts drawn from the private and public sectors, academia and NGOs. They provided more than 4,500 submissions that were condensed to a manageable set of 41 criteria that define sustainability in travel and tourism.

The criteria guide destinations on positive actions to improve upon and negative actions to avoid. Each criterion has multiple “indicators” providing a specific direction. The criteria were developed in English but have been translated into most Asian languages and are available free on

Gaining familiarity with the criteria by decision-makers and stakeholders involved in tourism is the perfect way to start. This shouldn’t be limited to the ministries of tourism and trade associations, but should include policymakers from various realms that influence planning and financing in the community, such as transport, finance, infrastructure development, education, labour and others, depending on local conditions.

GSTC offers training programmes of one to five days on how to apply the criteria. This training sets the team on its journey towards sustainability. Destination certification by a GSTC-approved certification body (GSTC itself does not provide certification) can be useful in setting goals and providing the discipline needed to make meaningful progress.

India took a big step forward in 2014 by developing national standards based largely on the GSTC Criteria, and other Asian countries are studying the idea.

Sustainability cannot wait, as destinations and the planet are in peril, which is why UNWTO secretary-general Taleb Rifai has said: “The UNWTO wholeheartedly supports the work of the GSTC and its sustainability criteria.”


This article was first published in TTG Asia, August 7, 2015 issue, on page 8. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe

Article written by Randy Durband

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