The answer, of course, depends on the question. It is a broad question. Will the certification help us to achieve sustainable tourism? I believe it may make a small marginal contribution but no more.
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council was established in 2010 based on three years of work by 32 partners in the “Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria”. The GSTC describes itself “as the international body for fostering the increased knowledge and understanding of sustainable tourism practices, the adoption of universal sustainable tourism principles, and the promotion of sustainable tourism accreditation, products and services.”
One of the significant challenges for the GSTC was bound to be moving beyond the assertion of “universal sustainable tourism principles” to an accreditation process. There are sustainability issues which are genuinely global in that they occur everywhere and have global impact: greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity extinction and plastic waste, particularly when it ends up in gyros of plastic in the oceans, often being washed up on beaches far from where it originated.
All of the others, and certainly most, are local issues. For example, even in a small country like the UK we have areas prone to drought where reducing water use in hotels should be a high priority and areas prone to flooding where there are other issues of much higher priority. One of the principles of Responsible Tourism is that aside from tackling carbon emissions, biodiversity extinction and plastic waste, businesses should address the issues that matter locally and consult their neighbours in determining priorities.
It is doubtful whether any business would remain viable if it attempted to address all the issues included in the GSTC Industry or Destination Criteria. After an exhaustive consultation process, in 2019, the GSTC released Destination Criteria “performance indicators designed to guide in measuring compliance with the Criteria” and aligned with the UN SDGs.
On greenhouse gas emissions, a number of major tour operators have committed to Science-based targets. For example, TUI is setting comprehensive, science-based targets backed up by roadmaps, with emission reduction targets for their airlines, cruise business and hotels. The Travel Corporation‘s Climate Action Plan has also adopted Science-based targets. Although still rare in the tourism sector, over 5,500 companies across the global economy have adopted this approach and are reporting their reductions as part of their annual reports to investors, which ensures that they are taken seriously within the company. Unlisted companies, and that is most businesses in travel and tourism. are highly unlikely to be able to adopt science-based targets.
The GSTC is currently consulting on seven criteria in the Interpretation Document of the GSTC Industry Criteria. Although referred to as an interpretation document, it is prescriptive “The Certification Body is required to verify that there is evidence.” The indicators become more onerous from year one, to year two and again to year three.
Some tour operators, the buyers, are encouraging suppliers to join a GSTC-recognised certification scheme. For the buyers, this is convenient and requires their suppliers to carry the costs. Many unlisted businesses in the travel and tourism sector cannot meet these costs and remain viable. Every year in the Global Responsible Tourism Awards, we see businesses taking responsibility for all aspects of sustainability and delivering on global and local priorities, reporting in detail on why they take responsibility for particular issues and the difference they make. A large majority of these are uncertified.
We have confidence in the information submitted on their entry form because we make clear that if anyone queries their award, we reserve the right to publish what they have claimed in their entry. This effectively means that the Awards are enforceable in a way that the GSTC Certificates are not.
More and more people are encountering the gap between certification status and experience in the property. Cardboard jammed in the key slot on the wall resulting in the air conditioning being on all day, the air conditioning set unnecessarily low, lights on, and the TV announcing your name when you walk into the room. These practices continue to undermine the GSTC certification system.
The offended guest or client cannot seek compensation for misselling – the guest or tourist has no contract with the certifier and cannot secure compensation.
As worthy as the GSTC scheme is, there are other fundamental problems.
- GSTC Certification, Accreditation and Recognition are explained on the website but confusing for consumers.
- The consumer encounters a plethora of GSTC-recognised labels and others and it is unclear what the label guarantees.
- Certification does not make it possible to identify a hotel in a water-scarce area using the least water per guest night nor the one with the best employment conditions. The labels are opaque.
- There is no effective way of enforcing compliance with the GSTC standards
- We do not have data on how many accommodations are certified nor on how many have been cautioned or had labels withdrawn.
- Consumers are looking for sustainable accommodation, transport and attractions but report that they are unable to find it. Booking.com’s 2022 report reveals a 10% increase in demand for sustainable products over 2021, and in 2023, 51% believe there are not enough sustainable travel options, 44% report that they don’t know where to find more sustainable options.
The ecosystem around sustainability assurance is evolving with the growth of science-based targets and major companies reporting on their targets and their progress in meeting them.
Booking.com has encouraged businesses on its platform to include the sustainability measures they are taking in their listing. Increasingly knowledgeable travellers will enforce this listing as customers seek compensation for misselling when they fail to deliver on their promise.