How Green Travelers Become Partners in Sustainable Tourism

Marinus Gisolf is a man on a mission – empowering tourists to become an active partner in sustainable tourism. Marinus began his professional career first as a tour guide and then as general director for Ecole Travel, in Costa Rica. As part of his duties, he was not only responsible for the company’s sustainable operations, but also for setting up Ecole Travel agencies throughout Ecuador, Argentina and Panama.

In 2005, he published the book, The Functionality of the Tourism Supply Chain and followed it up with Tourists and Sustainability in 2009. After Ecole Travel obtained its Level 5 Certification in Sustainable Tourism (CST) accreditation in 2010, Marinus decided to start his next venture, Tourism Theories. I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about where the sustainable tourism industry stands today.

How did sustainable tourism become a passion for you?

From the daily practice of green tourism and working with visitors, I switched to the theoretical side of it for one main reason: the tremendous gap that exists between theory and practice. The star of the tourism “show” is the tourist and s/he experiencing a tourism destination is what it should be all about. However, most people working in tourism still live in a strait jacket of strict economic thinking in terms of the provider-product-client chain (i.e. the company provides a product to a client).

Tourists are not clients, but should be fully fledged partners in tourism. I think that they have to play an active role in any sustainable tourism development. From practice, I know that there is no sustainable tourism without sustainable (green) tourists. Remember, that the only difference between us from the travel business and tourists is, that we are busy with tourism all year round, while tourists during a couple of weeks only.

Why is sustainable tourism so important?

There are still many cases in the world where the locals have not even heard of sustainable development, much less understand its benefits. For example, a couple of years ago we were in Puerto Natales, in the southern part of Chile. Because we wanted to go to the local national park, Torres del Paine, I needed a woolen cap against the wind and cold. I wanted to buy an original one made in Puerto Natales itself that would support local artisans and employment, rather than in a department store in Santiago.

In the first store there were various caps with “Puerto Natales” knitted in it, but to my surprise the label inside said “Made in China”. My wife and I went to five other stores and none of them had caps or hats made in Chile. Even worse, the sales staff did not understand why I objected to buying something made in China.

In the end, I had no choice and there you have a photo (above) with my hat and the glacier Perrito Moreno in Argentina in the background. I suppose that just galvanizes me more with my work.

With international organizations, like Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), quickly trying to build momentum around the issues of sustainable tourism, where you do think they can make the most impact?

Both the CST in Costa Rica and other programs introduced by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council fall short on one crucial point: they do not involve tourists or inform them accordingly. As long as most people keep on considering tourists as clients and the client is King, it will be hard to make any progress towards more sustainable management levels.

How can tourists become more of a partner in the sustainable tourism chain?

When my wife and I travel, we just go and see locally what the hotel options are and what there is to see. By doing so, it is again surprising how difficult it is for tourists to get to know which hotels or services have sound ecological (or responsible for that matter) management practices.

To involve tourists into the sustainable tourism debate I have developed what is called the Reflexive Approach to Tourism. Sustainability is all about the solidarity with future generations and in a way we have to see our planet not as something inherited from our parents, but something borrowed from our children.

Read Tips for Seeing Glacier National Park (Before Glaciers Disappear)