The Future of Sustainable Tourism: Q&A with Erika Harms of GSTC

Who else is better to talk about the state of sustainable tourism today and where it is heading than Erika Harms, Executive Director of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)?

Erika Harms of GSTCErika has recently participated on panels and spoken to audiences about sustainable tourism at ITB Berlin and the Rainforest Alliance conference in Costa Rica. She was kind enough to sit down with us to answer these six questions on sustainable tourism, GSTC and its criteria, and how the discourse on sustainable tourism is changing.

1) What were the primary takeaways (top three) regarding the state of sustainable tourism today? Most significant challenges? Greatest opportunities?

Main Takeaways

  • While still perceived by many a niche, leading industries and destinations are taking important strides in that direction, it [sustainable tourism] is here and it is here to stay.
  • It is complicated and confusing, there is a need of a single language to communicate, according to industry leaders in Germany there is a need for a ceiling brand “Dachmarke” and GSTC certainly meets that profile.
  • Greenwashing is a big concern.

Challenges

  • How to reach the end consumer: he is less interested in certifications, however he wants 3rd party acknowledgement.
  • There is a perception that sustainability is expensive, the challenge is not that it is expensive it is not, but that it is not marketed enough and therefore they see little of the value of the investment. Creating the market access is a challenge.
  • Building confidence in the brand is important but with the confusion that exist with all certification and self-claims that is difficult.

Greatest Opportunities

  • Tourism is one of the best suited industries to ensure conservation and poverty alleviation, if done sustainably. With the GSTC criteria we have the principles for the hotels and tour operators to take these steps, and soon for destinations as well.
  • With the request for a ceiling brand, GSTC has the opportunity to shed some clarity in the market place, which was the intent in the first place. With one brand it is easier to market to businesses and eventually to consumers. That will be GSTC’s role.
  • Destinations are seeing the value of sustainability and as such it opens the opportunities through policies, incentives and legislation to accelerate the process.
  • With the GDS systems and Tour Operators supporting sustainability, we have an opportunity to integrate sustainability into the mainstream market, creating the market value that businesses had been missing.

2) You’ve been involved with sustainable tourism for 6 years now. How have sustainable tourism initiatives and discourse evolved?
The discourse had been marginal until the last three years. While it has taken longer than in other industries and the actions had been very timid, in the last three years has increased. Large hotel chains have undertaken important programs, Tour Operators like TUI are supporting and promoting certifications, companies like Travelocity have created search options for consumers seeking sustainability. It is a mainstream discussion now and with that we can move away from the philosophic discussions we were having even 3 years ago, to the action that stakeholders can take.

3) Where do you see sustainable tourism headed in the next 5-10 years? Are there any developments that you would characterize as being “on the edge” of the sustainable tourism curve? In other words, progressive practices that few organizations now engage in, but will eventually be generally accepted best practice?
My hopes would be that sustainability follows the path of quality and is an accepted requirement for travel selection. If that will happen or not, will highly depend on those promoting tourism. Sustainability now is still seeing mainly as environmental stewardship and companies have separate CSR activities. However slowly it has been made clear, and hopefully the GSTC criteria will help in this process, that sustainability encompasses environment, socio-economic and cultural aspects.

There are many activities out there and in my mind progressive are those that are taking a holistic approach looking at their own footprint as well as engaging suppliers and other stakeholders. Measuring and acting upon those measurements. You would think this would be common practice, but it is not. Most companies prefer to undertake CSR activities that benefit their communities but do not take this holistic approach.

4) How do you see the GSTC — the organization and its criteria — fitting into this future?
GSTC and its criteria provide a guideline through its principles by which businesses and soon destinations can build towards sustainability. Complemented with this is the process of recognizing and approving certifications, creating not only a more clear picture to separate the real deal from greenwashing, but also through the promotion of the one brand, building more awareness and less confusion. Finally, through the membership we have and led by industries like Sabre, Amadeus, TUI, Royal Caribbean there is a clear engagement in marketing sustainable businesses. With the commitment of destinations like Huan Shang in China, Costa Rica, Sierra Gorda, Mexico, we will be able to build sustainability into destination management. Overall the principles, the technical support, creating clarity in the market place and building markets are the value GSTC brings to sustainable tourism.

5) If you could change one thing about the discussion surrounding sustainable tourism today, what would it be?
There is still too much procrastination on whether we should engage in sustainable practices. We are here, other industries have been here long before tourism and as the industry that can have the highest positive impact on a place, we should move on and act.

6) What are the most significant challenges travel and tourism companies face when implementing the GSTC criteria? What are the biggest rewards when they successfully implement them?
The criteria were created as principles and as such businesses can use them to determine their baseline. There is a perception that you have to go and do big investments to accomplish the criteria, or that you have to immediately get certified. This blocks any attempt to move forward. We believe that sustainability is a process, one that certifications certainly can help guide, but one that at the end sits with the businesses. The perception that it is costly needs to be changed for what is the value that it brings, making the costs relatively low compared to the benefit.

There are clear cost savings rewards and according to some of our members clear stakeholder benefits, some see repeated customer loyalty based on their sustainability practices, others see higher employee retention because they align with the company philosophy on sustainable tourism. And with the launch of the recognition process and the commitments of key companies supporting GSTC, we will also have a market value proposition.

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