From the Responsible Travel archives: The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria debate (2009)

The Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) Criteria initiative was created at the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development. A coalition of 32 organisations, the GSTC has spent two years years developing sustainable tourism criteria which are intended to constitute the “minimum standard that any tourism business should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources while ensuring tourism meets its potential as a tool for poverty alleviation.”

However, there is little evidence of industry support. Some $200,000 has been committed to the initiative, and donors have been approached for a further $1 million, suggesting a cost of at least $1.2m. Many of the supporters are organisations which might reasonably expect to be engaged in doing the work, funded through the project. Amongst the supporters are a number of agencies which have been involved in certification. We do not query their experience, our concerns are more fundamental: the certification approach does not deliver.

A Tourism Sustainability Scorecard, based on the 52 criteria of the GSTC, was launched by the Inter-American Development Bank in November 2009. This scorecard was an effort by the Rainforest Alliance to breathe life into the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council which it had been pursuing since 2003*. We believe that the approach is fundamentally flawed and that the huge resources which have been spent in developing the criteria would be better invested in tangible initiatives to bring to market and transparently report on the actual sustainability and livelihood impacts.

Our response
In July 2009 Harold Goodwin, Director of the International Centre of Responsible Tourism and Justin Francis, Co-Founder & Managing Director of Responsible Travel launched a campaign to open up debate around the plans to develop the GSTC Criteria, intended to set out a "minimum standard" in tourism sustainability for organisations worldwide. It is our belief that this 'one size fits all' approach to sustainable tourism is not the answer either in terms of offering consumers a useful point of reference, or indeed in the future advancement of responsible tourism within the industry.

Our 10 concerns:
  1. Many of the impacts of tourism result from the behaviour of tourists. Therefore sustainable tourism cannot be reduced to managing the impacts of tourism businesses.
  2. There are no indicators or targets against which progress might be reported. It is all about policies, strategies and plans rather than defining targets and measuring the outcomes.
  3. The certification process is opaque. The customer does not know what has been achieved and cannot take any action about failures even if they do.
  4. The criteria are very many and varied and not ranked. There is no indication of how they might be varied to meet local concerns and priorities.
  5. There is no evidence that sustainable tourism certification is effective, or the best way, to increase the market share of businesses that adopt it. It does not make commercial sense.
  6. Taking such a broad approach reduces focus and ignores local priorities. It can only result in a superficial approach and limited impact at the destination level.
  7. There is a real danger that certification will be used to exclude or disadvantage those who cannot afford the certification process or to renew their membership.
  8. There is little evidence of private sector engagement unless subsidised. Indeed there is considerable evidence that businesses do not renew their subscriptions when they have to pay them themselves.
  9. The approach seeks to impose supranational priorities over national and local ones.
  10. Once again tourism is developing a solution which appears to be unrelated to the established international processes.

There are four key reasons why the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria will fail:
  1. We know of no evidence of consumer demand. It is not sufficient to argue that it has created consumer demand in other sectors so it will work in tourism. There have been hundreds of certification schemes and none of them have effectively created consumer demand; this is not surprising since the consumer benefit is unclear. What is the experiential gain?
  2. All tourism has local impacts (except for emissions); the impacts need to be identified, prioritised and managed locally. There is no global certification scheme for hotel room quality, for example, which is an inherently simpler task.
  3. There is good reason for this; the world’s diversity precludes it. There is no case for one global set of priorities; any international accreditation scheme requires this. Tourism is a much more complex product than timber and the take up rates are still low there.
  4. Only by creating a long “wish list” of criteria is it possible to encompass the diversity of issues which are of local concern. There is a very real danger of failing to deliver anything other than a wish list and of failing to identify and prioritise those issues which matter in a particular place.

What we did
We detailed five of our core concerns addressed in an open letter to the GSTC Steering Committee. These concerns, and our views about the criteria, were published, and those concerned were invited to share their views and sign a petition in support. Over 80 individuals from among the public and the tourism industry signed the petition, including many with interests and expertise in responsible tourism certification.

The response
In response to our open letter, we met with Erika Harms (Executive Director of the Tourism Sustainability Council at the United Nations Foundation) at the World Travel Market in London in November 2009. We agreed to disagree on how matters should proceed regarding the criteria. She declined our invitation to post a reply addressing our concerns on Responsible Travel, but did respond in an open letter. We still do not believe there has been a response to the substantive points we raised.

The open letter informed us that the new Tourism Sustainability Council would be launched in 2010. It confirmed that we were correct in voicing our concerns that that criteria focus on the enterprise level and the universality of the proposed criteria. The open letter asserts that the businesses receive a tangible rate of return on the investment in sustainable practices; we accept that there is a good business case for cost reduction through Environmental Management Systems (EMS) and that an improved bottom line can result. However, we also believe that certification is not necessary for the introduction of EMS – and if the returns are good it does not need to be subsidised. Therefore the case for spending public money on certification has not been made.

The letter asserts that the international accreditation will result in increased market recognition and sales for businesses certified as sustainable. However, there is still no evidence for this – if there is, please share it with us. Our experience suggests that to engage consumers the issues need to be salient in their minds, either because they brought the concerns with them from home, or because they know that they matter in the destination.

Further reading

* Source: “Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council: raising the standards and benefits of sustainable tourism and ecotourism certification” (Rainforest Alliance, Final report, March 2003)
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