Ecotourism Certification Standards: The Tourism Sustainability Council

For decades, the concept of sustainable tourism was an intriguing and profitable one that, without defined criteria, resulted in the utilization of greenwashing practices by various travel industry suppliers.  In order to build consumer confidence and promote industry efficiencies, the Rainforest Alliance in partnership with 27 other organizations including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) developed a set of 37 voluntary principles that have come to be known as the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC), which is undertaken by the Tourism Sustainability Council (TSC) and provides a foundation for ecotourism certification worldwide.

The TSC is a global organization dedicated to:

  • Minimizing the effects of greenwashing
  • Mainstreaming sustainable business practices
  • Aiding the accreditation of tourism certification programs, and
  • Developing tools and resources that assist tourism businesses to increase their sustainable operations and inform consumers on best practices

First developed in 2007, the GSTC has taken into account more than 4,500 criteria from more than 60 existing certification standards. A kind of “uber-criteria”, the GSTC “represent the minimum 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.”

The GSTC criteria are organized into four main themes whereby:

  • Sustainable Management Practices include the implementation of a management system that incorporates environmental quality as well as health and safety issues, legal compliance with all relevant regulations, employee training policies, customer satisfaction policies, accuracy of promotional materials, local design and construction requirements including use of sustainable raw materials, interpretation of natural surroundings and local culture, communications strategy, and health and safety policies.
  • Social/Economic Practices include supporting initiatives for community development, local employment, fair trade services, and goods, support of local entrepreneurs, respect of local communities, policies against exploitation, equitable hiring, employee protection, and that company activities ensure the provision of basic services to neighboring communities.
  • Cultural Heritage Practices include a code of behavior for visits to historically sensitive sites, use of archeological artifacts, protection of sites, and incorporation and respect of local culture in the company’s operations.
  • Environmental Practices include conserving resources, reducing pollution, and conserving of ecosystems and landscapes.

The TSC has developed an accreditation program in the hopes of being the global standard-setting organization for sustainable tourism. Presently, the TSC is in the process of re-developing a standard setting manual based on the processes utilized for the development of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, including adequate management of the criteria and the periodic revisions based on broad-based consultation.”

Accreditation process:

Generally, a tour operator must submit an application for membership to the TSC where the company has demonstrates the following:

  • Public commitment to GSTC’s mission and objectives by providing a statement for how the proposed member is meeting GSTC aims
  • Plan for integration of GSTC within 12 months
  • Corporate sustainable tourism guidelines including a plan for continuous improvement of social, environmental, and cultural policies
  • Honest and objective information about the tourism industry’s sustainability practices
  • Support for UNWTO Global Code of Ethics
  • Use of GSTC in procurement and supply chain practices
  • Proof of appropriate license/registration to operate
  • Payment for annual membership

As the tourism industry evolves its business operations to reflect these standards, the GSTC have been reviewed and augmented every two years by tourism purchasers, suppliers, and consumers to maintain accountability. Also, there are “educational materials and technical tools to guide hotels and tour operators through the process of implementing sustainable tourism best practices.”

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