Giving Meaning To Sustainable Tourism

Everyone seems focused on green. And there's nothing wrong with that. We've got to take better care of the planet, and anything the travel industry can do to support that is welcomed. But that's only the beginning of the role tourism can play in improving the world.

With the continued growth of the green movement, we've seen the emergence of dozens and dozens of organizations focused on preserving our forests, protecting our wildlife and cleaning our water and air. Add in the efforts of organizations like the American Hotel & Lodging Association (and its ubiquitous in-room table tents encouraging people to reuse their towels and bedding) and there's no question that we're living amidst a veritable sea of green, with all of these organizations doing what they can to help.

More than just green, however, what the industry needs to fully embrace is the broader concept of sustainable tourism, in which its enthusiastic support of environmental performance becomes woven together with the equally important goals of enhancing social performance and improving economic benefits to local communities and businesses worldwide. With this broader mandate, you begin to touch on the human element of preserving cultures and reducing poverty, critical components of any successful effort to preserve and sustain a destination (and, ultimately, our industry).

As we work to advance the concept of sustainability and attach it to tourism, we need to recognize that most consumers have no real clear understanding of what the words "sustainable tourism" even mean. In fact, a recent survey ISM conducted showed that over 60% of travelers were unfamiliar with the term "sustainable tourism" and when these individuals were probed, nearly 30% thought the term related just to the environment.

Yet, in this same survey, consumers were asked if aiding in the sustainability of the areas in which you travel is important, 84% said yes, and, perhaps just as importantly, over 65% of consumers say they are more inclined to use a travel partner (hotel, resort, airline, online travel site) if they know that partner supported sustainable tourism in their business practices.

Clearly, there's work to be done to educate and engage consumers in this effort and that starts by getting more companies within the industry to adopt and expand their sustainable tourism initiatives. Fortunately, the industry can now turn to a set of standards that has been created that form a baseline from which an organization can build its sustainable tourism program.

Created by the Tourism Sustainability Council (a newly created organization that was formed through the merger of The Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria and the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council), the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria have been designed to help harmonize, simplify and communicate, to a tourism organization and business, the basic framework required in order to achieve sustainability.

These criteria were assembled in a painstaking manner over an 18-month period using an extensive process of public and private input, an ensuing review and analysis of more than 4,500 existing criteria, outreach to 80,000 tourism stakeholders, input from 2,000 domain experts and the insights of an international steering committee.

To date, there are over 60 partners from around the globe including tourism businesses, conservationists, UN agencies, governments and non-government agencies that have already joined the Tourism Sustainability Council and adopted the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria as the baseline for defining and driving sustainability for tourism enterprises and entities around the world.

As more organizations and business adopt these standards, they'll be able to help forge a common language and a consistency of practice that can ultimately lead to a greater base of knowledge, understanding, adoption and demand for sustainable tourism practices.

Setting a standard as an industry starts by having them. By building our efforts from common criteria, we can ensure that we're all moving effectively toward preserving the world's cultural and natural resources while ensuring that tourism meets its potential as a tool for poverty alleviation. Just as importantly, we can create a baseline to fuel consumer understanding, interest, trust and involvement.

Giving meaning to sustainable travel.

It's a big task, but one that consumers need. And, our industry's future demands.

5 comments about "Giving Meaning To Sustainable Tourism".
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  1. Andrea Learned from Learned On, LLC, July 7, 2010 at 12:21 p.m.

    People tend to engage strongly with immediate surroundings and personal experiences, and incredible sustainable behavior awareness and change can come from things like sustainable tourism. Being in nature and in communities that survive because of their tending to the environment will be a powerful cue, for many. This may be one more area, however, where we need to make sure such experiences are accessible for and interesting to a range of classes, races and incomes (and perhaps target schools to lead the way, and then parents will learn...) Sustainable tourism can't only be a white, privileged "us" observing and helping "them" endeavor.

    We are heading in positive directions with sustainability in many industries, but the challenge will be in staying aware and tending to the social justice implications along the way. We've been really bad at that historically...

  2. Dian Hasan from MindCode, July 7, 2010 at 1:07 p.m.

    Hi Gary, excellent post!!!! Love it. What you're saying is true, today's travelers consider it COOL and IN to be GREEN, without really understanding what it means. And I'm sure most people don't know the difference between the different terms either; sustainable, eco, green, etc.
    What I do know that from a brand perspective, any company today that positions and promotes "social consciousness" (read: having a green heart... that's my term) is perceived as doing good. It's a trend that seems to be resonating around the world today, not only in the travel industry.

    I just got back from Indonesia, and the corporate world there is going ga ga over CSR (Corp Social Responsibility), every co wants to do it and promote it. While on the street-level, there's also some very refreshing development: people's/citizens' increased awareness of doing good/giving back to community and environment/going green. Example: there's been an explosion of bike-riding as alternative transport mode, to answer Jakarta nightmarish gridlock!

    I tend to simplify the view and just stick to the "3 Ps", responsible corp citizens of today (read: companies) that strive to attain: 1. Profit, 2. People, and 3. Planet. They must be profitable to go forward, and then give back/empower/touch their immediate People/Community (both internal Staff/Consumers/Comm/Stakeholders), and positively impact their immediate Environment/Planet

    ciao, dian

  3. Erin Read from Creating Results, Inc., July 8, 2010 at 11:28 a.m.

    Excellent post. And, before we can educate and engage consumers, travel orgs and businesses must educate themselves. I found the Sustainable Tourism Lab ( is a terrific resource.

    Gary, can you share a link to the standards you wrote about?

  4. Gary Leopold from CP Travel - Connelly Partners, July 8, 2010 at 12:38 p.m.

    Thanks for the positive feedback. For those looking to learn more about TSC and to review the criteria:

  5. Elizabeth Weisser, July 9, 2010 at 10:46 a.m.

    Gary (and Andrea, Dian and Erin):

    In agreement with all that education for both travel organizations (as well as the consumers they carry) need the strong footings and fundamentals of sustainable education for engaging with local populations, exploring natural environments, and maximizing the value of the travel experience. The Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University in NYC offers such a program ( I've recently completed the program and as a travel marketer am grateful for the 'grounding' I received.

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