Last week, Sustainability Leaders and its sister publication, The Place Brand Observer, were invited to attend Global Green Destinations Day 2016. The event took place in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the 2016 Green Capital of Europe, on the 27th and 28th of September and was organized by Green Destinations, Ljubljana Tourism, the Slovenian Tourist Board, Quality Coast, and Good Place. Over 300 attendees traveled to the event from destinations around the globe to discuss the challenges facing sustainable development in destinations, new technologies that could lend a helping hand, and to celebrate the 2016 Top 100 Sustainable Destinations.

I can’t think of a better place to host a celebration of international green destinations than in Ljubljana. From the lush forests that encircle the city to its dedication to reduced traffic, clean drinking water and its Slovenia Green sustainable tourism strategy, the city oozes green from its pores.

Slovenia, Green. Active. Healthy

Fittingly, on World Tourism Day, the event opened with a welcome from State Secretary of Economic Development and Technology, Eva Štravs Podlogar, who briefly explained how since 2011, the country’s tourist board has tried to live up to its motto “Green. Active. Healthy”.  This was followed by a few words from Albert Salman, President of Green Destinations, who announced that the organization, with its partners DestiNet and EarthTravel, would be releasing an interactive Green Travel Map featuring green destinations and their sustainable product offering. And, a presentation by Luigi Cabrini, Chair of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), on how the organization promotes the 4 Pillars of Sustainable Tourism – effective sustainability planning, maximizing social and economic benefits to the local community, reduction of negative impacts to cultural heritage and reduction of negative impacts to environmental heritage – through training, certification, and accreditation of sustainability labels such as Green Destinations.

Program highlights

As UNWTO Secretary Taleb Rifai said in his video message to attendees, “If you’ve not visited Slovenia, you have not lived!” This was immediately felt from the moment you arrived in the country steeped in a rich culture, dramatic history, world-class local cuisine and one-of-a-kind natural heritage and was underscored by presentations by event organizers the Slovenian Tourist Board, Ljubljana Tourism, and Good Place:

Global Green Destinations Day Organizers
Albert Salman (Green Destinations), Eva Štravs Podlogar (State Secretary of Economic Development and Technology), Maja Pak (Slovenia Tourist Board), Petra Stušek (Ljubljana Tourism), and Luigi Cabrini (GSTC); Photo: Florie Thielin

Maja Pak, Director of the Slovenian Tourist Board, discussed the country’s commitment to sustainable tourism, which started in 2011 with the goal of 100% Green. The subsequent creation of the Slovenia Green program – offering assessment, training and certification –  to help build up the quality and credibility of the country’s sustainable tourism offering at a destination and individual operator level showed that they were committed to making their goal a reality.

Petra Stušek, Managing Director at Ljubljana Tourism, highlighted some of the initiatives that earned Ljubljana the title of 2016 European Green capital, such as the closing of the city center to traffic in 2007, the 620% increase in pedestrian zones in the past 5 years, the 3 euro/year bike share program, chemically untreated water, and zero waste strategy. There was also a strong focus on the city’s commitment to grow tourism while making the quality of life of locals a priority through the development of tourism activities in the areas outside the city center, among other initiatives.

Ljubljana before and after Green Slovenia Initiative

Jana Apih, Director of Good Place, shared how her organization was helping to create and promote sustainable travel through the Slovenia Green Program. There are currently 17 destinations and 10 accommodations that have been certified through the scheme (which follows the Green Destinations Standard), with 11 destinations still pending. They are planning to expand to include the certification of farmstays, attractions and events and hope to add another 20 destinations and 5 accommodation providers in the coming years.

The threat of tourism growth and the overlooked pillar of sustainability

For years, the focus of the tourism industry and conferences like this has been on how to attract tourists and increase arrivals. Thanks to the boom in the tourism market – that barely skipped a beat during the 2008 global economic crises – for many destinations, growth is no longer a concern. The ominous figure of 1.8 billion tourist arrivals by 2030 now insights more anxiety than celebration, with protests in Venice and Barcelona proving the urgent need to address the never-ending hoards that flock to many of the world’s most popular destinations. This theme was touched on by a number of speakers, including the Slovenia destination representatives.

Salli Felton, CEO of The Travel Foundation, gave an eye-opening presentation on the threats of mass tourism and how to properly monitor its impact on destination reputation, the environment, and on local residents. She explained that to minimize the negative impacts of increased tourist arrivals, destinations must shift the focus from quantity to quality, using sustainability as a base philosophy integral to the health of a destination instead of merely a marketing tool. The Travel Foundation offers not only data collection but analysis to help destinations monitor and then create a strategy to handle mass tourism.

In his presentation, Chris Doyle, Executive Director – Europe at the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), also stressed the need for better capacity management and a destination-level strategy for tourism growth. However, one of the strongest takeaways from his presentation was the need to focus on profit first. For many years, out of the 3 Ps of Sustainable Tourism (People, Planet, Profit), the focus has been on cultural and environmental conservation, largely ignoring the need for economic sustainability.

As Chris pointed out, profit must come first, as without profitability, businesses and organizations won’t have the resources to positively impact cultural and environmental conservation.

While putting profits first may seem taboo at a sustainable tourism conference, Chris’s statement that “Adventure Means Business” was greeted with many nods and mumbles of approval. He was sure to point out that a large part of this profit must stay in the local community – an area where adventure travel excels, with an average of 65% of profits staying in the region as opposed to 5-6% with mass tourism.

Paloma Zapata, Senior Director at Sustainable Travel International (STI), brought up the importance of the “bottom line” during her presentation on the need for collaboration in the creation of sustainable tourism and attractive destinations. Announcing an upcoming collaboration between Green Destinations and STI to create a platform supporting global standards, she emphasized the importance of mobilizing various stakeholders, all fighting for the same goals, to work together and create regional alliances.

Sören Stöber, ABTA – The Travel Association, was another speaker to bring up the business of sustainability, and how it relies on the strength of the ‘product’. In the case of destination management, the product was the destination itself, which needed to be protected, properly managed and sold in order for it to succeed. He cited Egypt, Turkey and the Dominican Republic as cautionary tales of how improper management and external factors like political disruptions, terrorism and crime can negatively impact the image of a destination, weakening its product with detrimental financial outcomes.

Global Green Destinations Day 2016 attendees
Photo: Florie Thielin

Data: how to collect it and what to do with it?

Another common thread throughout the conference was the need for better monitoring at a destination level, not only through data collection but proper analysis and communication. Herbert Hamele, President of EcoTrans, gave a detailed breakdown of the Green Travel Maps project created by DestiNet, Green Destinations and EarthTravel. The goal is to use the data gathered and analyzed by the three organizations to create an interactive map allowing destinations and businesses to better communicate their sustainability efforts to both the B2B and B2C market. While there are 150 certifications for the tourism industry, only 1% of businesses are certified. Green Travel Maps aims to change this, shooting for a 10% certification rate by 2030.

Marloes van de Goor from Earth Travel and Cinzia de Marzo, ETIS expert and legal advisor,  explained their companies’ roles in not only data gathering, but properly processing this data and presenting in a way that allows businesses and destinations to use it in their promotional and marketing efforts.

Other conference highlights

Olivia Ruggles-Brise, Policy and Communication Director, World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) gave an interesting presentation, “Tourism as Driver for Peace”, explaining the link between sustainable tourism and peaceful societies, and how sustainable tourism helps create the ideal conditions necessary for “positive peace” in a destination.

Back to the important role that communication plays in destination branding and promotion of its sustainability efforts, Jonathan Tourtellot from the Destination Stewardship Center gave 12 tips to get mainstream media to pay attention to your brand. I won’t list all 12, but they included using personal contacts, telling a story, making statistics stand out with graphics, and sneaking in the green message.

Finishing up the presentations was Ana Roš from Hiša Franko and her intriguing journey to bring local ingredients and traditional Slovenian dishes to the her customers, proving the diversity and culinary richness of the country.

Top 100 Sustainable Destinations

2016 Top 100 Sustainable Destinations

Of course, the highlight of the event was the awarding of certificates to the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations, which took place in the picturesque Ljubljana Castle. One by one, representatives from destinations from all corners of the map took the stage to accept their awards. The list was compiled by Albert Salman and Zainab Turay (Green Destinations), Valere Tjolle (Vision), and Jonathan Tourtellot (DSC), based on self-nominations. The winners were decided by the aforementioned parties with input from a special Top 100 Selection Panel based on their adhesion to the 15 Core Criteria of the Green Destinations Standard and a public vote on social media.

The full list of this year’s winners is available on the Green Destinations website.

Ljubljana as a Classroom

Ljubljana as a classroom

In order to see the city’s sustainable tourism initiatives in action, attendees were offered the opportunity to join one of four tours, each focusing on a different aspect of sustainable travel: Sustainable Mobility, Local Goods, Green Accommodation, and Social Responsibility. The tours started out with a scavenger hunt around the city and then took participants to visit various providers and see Ljubljana’s green initiatives in action.

A conference this size has proved that sustainability is no longer a niche concept, but a driving force in destination development worldwide. As the event closed, the focus was, as always, on the future. With 2017 being named the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, we are sure to hear a lot more from Green Destinations and the other organizations featured in the conference.

Destination branding

One of the key ideas discussed during the Summit was that destinations need to first focus on creating and developing a sustainable destination which is livable for residents alike. After all, if a destination is attractive for its inhabitants, it will also be attractive for travellers and visitors.

If interested in the topic, we invite you to explore The Place Brand Observer, where you’ll find information on place branding – the process of creating a destination brand and reputation.

Global Green Destinations Day 2016 Recap and Highlights