Sustainability in the travel and tourism industry has become the most discussed subject, accelerated by the pandemic. However, Roi Ariel, general manager of Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), says the industry needs accountability and greater public awareness
The 2022 GSTC Asia-Pacific Sustainable Tourism Conference was held recently in September. What were the focal points at the event?
There were three principal themes: attraction & destination stewardship, MICE & hotels, and ecotourism & heritage.
We started the conference with a keynote speech by Caesar Indra, president of Traveloka, which joined the GSTC recently and has a few collaborations with us in 2022. We also had a session on sustainable development, looking into the Saemangeum reclaimed land project in Jeonbuk, South Korea as well as the sustainable tourism path that Sentosa Development Corporation of Singapore is taking.
Another special session and topic focused on the young generation in the tourism industry. It was very well received, as we had young leaders (as speakers), including Natalie Kidd, chief people and purpose officer of Intrepid Travel; Jason Lin, CEO of Talent Basket; Jennifer Lin, senior business development manager of Rezio; Shinobu Hayama, CEO of Journey for Change; and Halim Choi, programme officer of Jeonbuk MICE Bureau.
Where do you think the travel and tourism industry stands in terms of sustainability?
The term sustainability is now mainstream. We have all the framework in place; we have credible assurance programmes set by GSTC, our partner certification bodies and accreditation bodies. We are working in this ecosystem together so we have this foundation.
We are also working with governments to support training to increase knowledge on the skills and benefits of sustainable operations and businesses. We have OTAs that are promoting (sustainability) to their customers.
We are at a critical point here. There are many stakeholders that can (facilitate) change and are making the change.
However, from a consumer perspective, it is still difficult to find a sustainable provider. We need hotels and tour operators to start making this shift to become more sustainable, especially since this proper system has already been set.
It is now much easier to explain the benefits of making this shift: becoming more sustainable usually means cost savings, allows for better market benefits, and it is the right thing to do!
There is no doubt that sustainability is the keyword for our industry. How will GSTC assert its authority as the global body for sustainable tourism to better educate both the industry and the public on this subject?
That is a very good question. Clearly, there’s still a lot of greenwashing, as well as misleading and false claims.
The UK’s competition and markets authority as well as equivalent bodies and two European Union member states had recently begun investigating companies over eco-friendly and sustainability claims, to make sure that consumers are not being misled. A greenwashing lawsuit was also filed against KLM Airlines in court in the Netherlands.
So, it raises the topic again on the liability to organisations and companies when they make sustainability claims. The assurance of sustainability claims is very important, and it is one of the GSTC’s core activities, which is eventually providing assurance for sustainable tourism. We do that through an accreditation programme for certification bodies as well as collaboration with standard owners.
I’m happy to see that different actions are being taken by regulators and private organisations to tackle that and to criticise those that make false or misleading claims.
It is also important to note that when we speak about sustainability in tourism, it is not just about the environment; it refers to a number of dimensions as set out in the GSTC criteria, including societal, cultural and economic aspects.
How has GSTC’s work evolved?
(There has been greater) involvement from governments with regards to guidelines and enforcement. We are now working specifically on supporting businesses in the region or country to be more sustainable.
In Japan, for example, we run tens of trainings every year sponsored by the Japan National Tourism Organization. In Turkey it will soon be mandatory for tourism businesses to follow the Turkish version of the GSTC criteria, with a transition period until 2030.
Booking.com, Agoda, Traveloka, Makemytrip, Google Travel – and a few more in the coming months – work with GSTC on different levels. The foundation is to highlight sustainable hotels and tours on their platform to consumers, a segment the GSTC does not directly engage with. When customers learn more about sustainable brands through these OTAs, it helps to push hotels and tour operators to adopt more sustainable measures.
(Accommodation buyers) are also joining the scene. For example, TUI and American Express Global Business Travel (AMEX GBT) make it clear in their RFPs that they prefer sustainable hotels.
So, GSTC’s collaboration with these three main stakeholders influences the travel and hospitality industry to become more sustainable.
How has the GSTC membership from destinations and hotel organisations evolved in the past two years?
I see three main trends. Firstly, destinations and governments have been introducing sustainability in a systemic manner over the past two years of the pandemic. This was very different from pre-Covid times where there was a general interest, moderate engagement, (and application of) some framework from the GSTC.
During the pandemic, many NTOs and DMOs invested a lot of effort into raising their skills, knowledge and cooperation to make their destination more sustainable. It is no longer just plugging the word sustainability into destination marketing campaigns, but pushing the agenda in a serious and systemic manner.
The second trend is the rise in hotels and chains joining GSTC and their sustainable tourism movement. Some of them are even updating their programmes (in accordance with) GSTC criteria.
Most notably, in March this year, the Singapore Hotel Association and the Singapore Tourism Board launched the Singapore Hotel Sustainability Roadmap with a goal of reaching 60 per cent of hotel room stock certified by GSTC-accredited certification bodies by 2025. It’s a great example of collaboration between the government and the private sector. It has really pushed hotels to take this topic more seriously.
One of our important OTA members, Agoda, launched online training for Singapore hotels in October, using their CSR budget to support this (initiative).
The third trend is an increasing demand for business travel to be more sustainable. AMEX GBT is actively promoting and preferring hotels that are certified by GSTC-accredited certification bodies, as it recognises the importance of assured sustainability claims made by hotels.
Recently, we also had BCD Travel and CWT join GSTC as members. These three huge entities represent the majority of the corporate and business travel companies out there, and they mean business when it comes to sustainability.
What more can we expect from GSTC’s work in 2023?
One core message to highlight in 2023 is the emphasis on the general usage of the sustainability standards as guidelines. Anyone can use the standards, which are readily available and free on the Internet, such as the one published by GSTC.
Apart from the GSTC Destination and Industry criteria, we are now in the process of creating the GSTC Attraction criteria and the GSTC MICE criteria which we expect to be published at end-2023 or early 2024.