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The Weaknesses of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria Approach

The case for global sustainable tourism criteria has not
been made. A coalition of 32 organisations, the Partnership for Global Sustainable
Tourism Criteria has spent two years developing sustainable tourism criteria and
we understand that these criteria are intended to constitute the ?minimum
standard 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 Inter-American Development Bank is
piloting a Tourism Sustainability Scorecard
based on the 52 criteria of the GSTC. The pilot will be completed in November


This Tourism Sustainability Scorecard is the latest effort by the Rainforest Alliance to breathe life into the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC) which it has been pursuing since 2003**. We believe that the approach is fundamentally flawed and that the resources which have been spent in developing the criteria would be better invested in tangible initiatives to bring to market and transparently report on the actual sustainability and livelihood impacts.

The Partnership reports that the draft criteria have been commented on by 2,500 stakeholders and that 4,500 criteria have been analysed.(2) Will this contribution be reported and shared?

There are significant weaknesses in the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria
   1. The Forest Stewardship Council is the model for the STSC. The FSC has been in operation since 1996. Data on market share is scarce, but FSC Germany in 2005 estimated that 4.3% of pulp and paper was FSC certified Market penetration remains stubbornly low and marginal.
   2. The success of the FSC model is questionable and that seeks to create a market premium, for timber, a far less complex product than a holiday or tourism experience. No process of certifying properties can produce a sustainable tourism experience because of the range of activities and impacts not least of the consumer in the destination. The tourist is not merely a consumer, the tourists also have impacts which they need to be challenged to take responsibility for.
   3. The criteria are no more than a ?wish list?, in the words of the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria ?the criteria indicate what should be done, not how to do it or whether the goal has been achieved?. This is another process based initiative which fails to report what has been achieved in reducing water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions per bed night or waste. There is no intention in the STC to measure or report on outcomes.
   4. The criteria are very varied and are not clearly ranked. Its is not clear that paying less than the legal minimum wage (B.10) is more or less important than waste treatment of carbon emissions. Is using architectural design and decoration harmonious with local traditions (C4) as important as paying above the legal minimum wage? What ranking criteria is the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria going to apply?
   5. The certification process is opaque. The consumer cannot know what the tourism business has achieved. Nor is the claim part of the contract between the consumer and the supplier, the consumer cannot take action for breach of contract if the supplied goods and services do not meet the standards claimed. The consumer has no contractual relationship with the certifying agency and cannot seek redress against them for any error of certification.
   6. The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria Certification lacks clear outcome deliverables, meaning and local significance ? there is no effort within the scheme to overcome this market weakness.
   7. The 52 criteria in the IADB Tourism Sustainability Scorecard reflect the wide range of issues which those consulted have identified. Any cursory examination reveals that the issues are not of equal importance and that they do not reflect the cultural and ecological diversity of the world we live in. Aside from atmospheric and water pollution impacts are local and decisions about priorities should and will be taken locally. Prioritising locally significant issues is important to achieving significant improvement in sustainability ?address the import issues rather than secure points for the merely ?nice to have?.

The case for certification has not yet been made. I know of no substantial evidence that certification delivers for the businesses which fund it or the public agencies which have subsidised and promoted it.

If there is evidence that
1.       sustainable tourism certification increases the market share of businesses that adopt it, or that
2.       there is consumer demand for certification, or that
3.       the environmental impacts of tourism have been reduced and that tourism has consequently become more sustainable.  

now is the time to share that evidence.

I look forward to seeing it. Good news would be welcome.

You can join the debate at

** Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council: raising the standards
and benefits of sustainable tourism and ecotourism certification? (Rainforest Alliance,Final report, March 2003)
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