This year marks Solimar's fifth year working on the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria – a groundbreaking set of voluntary guidelines created to provide an international understanding of sustainable tourism. The long term goal: strengthen consumer confidence in the tourism industry’s sustainability claims and provide a clear path for tourism business seeking more sustainability in their offers.
This movement has come a long way since 2007 when Solimar was first contracted to analyze nearly 3000 tourism criteria from around the world. After the original GSTC Criteria for hotels and tour operators were launched in 2008, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) came to life out of the ad hoc coalition of partners such as the United Nations Foundation, UNEP, Sabre/Travelocity and Rainforest Alliance that helped finance and provide guidance to the initiative. Solimar has built websites, managed social media outreach, developed GSTC indicators and supported the ongoing technical review and revision of the GSTC Criteria as the Council has grown from a network of less than 50 to its current 200-strong membership.
Throughout 2011, the GSTC has focused on building a series of recognition processes that will add additional strength to sustainable tourism standards and certification programs by ensuring that they meet global best practices. Standards –may apply to receive GSTC recognition, and several – including those from the Rainforest Alliance, EarthCheck, and Costa Rican Tourism Board have done so. Certification programs with GSTC-recognized standards can then apply to become GSTC Approved. The first GSTC Approved standard is set to be announced soon.
This year, the GSTC is moving into its next phase as they develop a set of global criteria focused on sustainable destination management. Solimar Chaiman, Don Hawkins, has been involved in the development of the criteria set to launch in December. Like the criteria for hotels and tour operators, the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Destinations will serve as an aspirational set of guidelines for places interested in conserving and strengthening their human, cultural, and environmental resources. Five pilot destinations, including the Okavango Delta and Lanzarote have volunteered to pilot test the criteria and ensure that they are attainable and useful in a real context.
The GSTC Criteria have proven to be a useful tool for Solimar’s projects in Bolivia and the Western Balkans where they provide a previously unavailable starting point to assess current sustainable tourism efforts and a clear path for operator training, product management, and targeted marketing.
The GSTC hosted its 3rd Annual Meeting this week in Washington, DC, featuring an impressive line up of speakers from the travel industry.
The winners of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)'s Tourism for Tomorrow awards were announced earlier this week, recognizing the global leaders in sustainable tourism best practices. This past February I had the privilege of serving as an on-site evaluator for one of the finalists - Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC). I spent three days on the island of Sentosa, meeting with various stakeholders and learning about the new sustainability initiatives taking place in this complex and fascinating destination.
Sentosa Island, a small island off the mainland of Singapore, was reserved and developed exclusively as a tourist destination in the early 1970's. The island itself is a micro-chasm of the country of Singapore, and to understand its sustainability journey, I had to first understand the mindset and goals of the early developers. Early decisions were driven by rapid economic growth and urbanization plans for the country and the desire to create a very pro-investment, pro-business environment. With rapid development and over 19 million visitors in 2011, I'd say they've achieved great success!
With such a proven business model in place, why would an island like Sentosa even want to become more sustainable? With a new CEO and development plans for a large-scale integrated resort in place, Sentosa realized they needed to start planning for the island's long-term sustainability. In 2009, a "Green Plan" was developed to prioritize a number of sustainability initiatives. As a result, they've seen renewable energy and recycling programs reduce their energy consumption and produce less waste. The construction of a green boardwalk has made it easier for residents to walk and ride bikes to the island, thereby improving their health. They've preserved the greenery that residents have grown to love by maintaining 45% green space on the island, with forest restoration efforts and the reintroduction of indigenous flora and fauna, along with strict monitoring to ensure cleaner water and air quality. Heritage buildings have also been restored and re-purposed. While there have been challenges and work still remains to be done, sustainable development for Sentosa has meant achieving the right balance of economic growth while also creating a quality living environment for residents.
Since Solimar began working towards its mission in 2006, we've seen "sustainability" move beyond the narrowly defined concept of ecotourism to embrace all aspects and types of tourism—even in highly urbanised areas such as Singapore. Sustainability is not just about the environment anymore. It includes economic and social aspects, such as creating a thriving local business scene and ensuring that all segments of society can benefit from tourism.
How does an already developed destination like Sentosa Island, or a large city for that matter, actuallybecome sustainable? While the benefits are apparent, it is true that there is no clear "road map" for becoming a sustainable destination. Tourism is a complex industry with many independent actors - implementing sustainable tourism requires costs and trade-offs that may be viewed different from different levels within the industry. So how does a destination manage it all? Each destination community must determine what balance of environmental, social and economic activity meets their current and future needs. The most successful destinations are those who plan for their own success, and have a long-term and continuously evolving strategy that defines and refines how to become and remain sustainable—as well as competitive—within the market. Once these plans are in place, successful destinations are also those who utilize education and tangible benefits as a means of encouraging sustainable tourism adoption among all stakeholders.
While there will always be challenges when it comes to initiating change, the good news is that there is a growing body of information available on sustainable tourism best practices. Organizations such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council are also trying to address these challenges by developing a list of criteria for destinations to follow.
For more information on those working towards a more sustainable future, click here to read more about the Tourism for Tomorrow Award finalists.
Sierra de la Giganta is one of the last remaining wild stretches of Baja California Sur’s coastline, but it is increasingly coming under the pressure of developers who are eager to replicate Mexico’s other tourism mega-destinations. It is also one of Mexico's poorest regions, with existing economic options limited to fishing, mining, and other resource extractive activities. With the support of the Resources Legacy Fund, Solimar and our local partner, RED Sustainable Travel, are working to identify the opportunities to link tourism, conservation, and rural development in this region.
In order to ensure the long-term protection of Sierra de la Giganta's natural and cultural resources, solutions must address the region’s conservation goals while also providing real economic opportunities for the local population. These goals present a perfect opportunity for sustainable tourism, as it is an economic activity that depends upon the preservation of natural and cultural resources rather than its extraction.
Solimar and RED's initial tourism assessment revealed a number of interesting potential tourism models for the Sierra de la Giganta region, concepts that will be developed and documented in business plans that can then be used to attract donors and investors to the region.
The first potential model focuses on marine tourism. Establishing a network of coastal community tourism service providers would allow locals to benefit from the marine tourism activities already taking place in the region in the form of kayaking tours, sailboat rentals, and private yacht owners. Local communities could provide complimentary experiences such as mule trekking tours, salt-water fly fishing guide services, and restaurant/food services.
Secondly, a private reserve eco lodge could boost the current tourism offerings. A local conservation organization that established a private coastal reserve is considering the development of a small-scale ecolodge that would enable visitors to not only spend a night in the reserve, but also to participate in the organization's terrestrial and marine monitoring and research activities. From checking bighorn sheep motion cameras to conducting fish counts in the Sea of Cortez, the lodge would give visitors a chance to be "biologists for a day". Such a lodge would also create needed jobs and revenue for local communities, as well as begin to better integrate those communities into the reserve's conservation activities.
With the assessment complete, we look forward to further developing these business plans into a shared vision of sustainable tourism for this unique region.
El Pardito fishing community inhabits a tiny island in the Sea of Cortez, surrounded by ocean and soaring desert mountains.
Part of the cultural attraction of Sierra la Giganta is the continuation of traditional economic activities like fishing. The goal of sustainable tourism is not to replace those activities entirely, but rather introduce additional economic alternatives to reduce the pressure on the region’s natural resources.
Local artisans show off their handiwork in El Pardito.
Solimar & RED team members assess new tourism opportunities in Sierra de la Giganta.
Before you embark on your next adventure, take the time to view Gringo Trails. This feature-length documentary, directed and produced by American anthropologist Pegi Vail, sheds insight on the unanticipated impact of one of the world’s most powerful globalizing forces—tourism.
Gringo Trails illustrates three cautionary case studies that reveal the devastating effects tourism can have on local cultures and the environment: one deep in the Bolivian Amazon, another on the Salt Flats of Bolivia, and the third on Thailand’s small island, Ko Pha Ngan.
The film flashes back to a 21 year old backpacker, Costas Christ. Eager to find a tourist-free island paradise, Costas travels off the “gringo trail” to the small island of Ko Pha Ngan. It is 1979 and during his month on Haad Rin Beach, Costas finds his paradise—authenticity. The film then jumps forward to 1999 showing Haad Rin Beach jam packed with over 10,000 people celebrating New Year’s Eve. This once pristine and secluded beach is now home to the famous Full Moon Festival, which attracts thousands of travels from across the world. Local businesses have flourished but socio-cultural and environmental aspects of Ko Pha Ngan are devastated.
Haad Rin Beach, 1979
As a local Thai admits, in Ko Pha Ngan, it is too late. Sustainable tourism development requires a thorough assessment. Context is key. This is why Solimar International stresses the importance of strategic planning, particularly destination assessments. Destination assessments provide in-depth analysis of the competitiveness of a region as a tourism destination and are key to identifying the next steps in sustainable tourism development.
Time and again throughout Gringo Trails, the viewer comes across tour operators, guides, and travelers who are not properly trained in sustainable tourism practices. The deterioration of the Salt Flats and the decreasing anaconda population in the Bolivian pampas, are partly due to a lack of professional training and education. Strategic planning can only be carried out to full potential if the destination has a trained workforce and educated travelers. Recognizing the instrumental role education has in cultivating sustainable tourism, Solimar works deeply to promote specialized training and education services geared toward sustainable tourism.
The case studies depicted in Gringo Trails demonstrate the importance and significance of sustainable tourism. Pegi Vail leaves the viewers with hope, as she takes us to a small indigenous village in South America where well-planned tourism development has proved to be a positive force in the village’s economic and social development as well as its environmental and cultural conservation. Gringo Trails truly is an eye-opener for the conscious traveler.
Gringo Trails made its theatrical release September 4-11 at Cinema Village in New York City. For a full list of screenings visit gringotrails.com/screenings.
For more information on Solimar’s tourism assessments download the free Tourism Assessment Process EBook.