How to determine destination sustainability successWhat does it take for a destination to be considered successful, in terms of sustainability? How to determine and measure sustainable tourism success?

This was our question to the destination sustainability panel which we convene in partnership with The Place Brand Observer (TPBO) a couple of times per year.

Here the answers (in alphabetical order, with links to the respective interviews). For a thematic summary of expert answers, click here.

Albert Salman, Netherlands:

Adopt the Green Destinations Standard, and at least implement those criteria that are applicable and feasible for your destination. You don’t need to become certified (i.e. 100% compliant), but for every destination is it feasible to meet 75% of all applicable criteria. Well, if you do, consider joining the Sustainable Destinations Top 100 competition, which is free and selects those destinations implementing at least 70% of the GD criteria!

Amine Ahlafi, Morocco:

The success of a destination’s sustainability is measured by its carbon footprint and the implementation of its responsible programs, projects and actions. But also through the satisfaction of its customers by mixing leisure and relaxation with respect for the environment, local people while generating sustainable income to local communities who must be at the heart of all action.

Indeed, the symbiosis between man and nature must be the capital of a sustainable destination. This should be seen in all the links of the value chain of the tourist product and in a strategic way and not limited to small, one-off actions in the back country.

Overtourism could be an alarming indicator destroying any possible perception of a sustainable destination.

Anna Alaman, India:

Sustainable destination management needs to be taken as a holistic approach. This is one of the strategies, in my point of view, to measure “success”. While we cannot lose the focus of each enterprise’ mission, we can not avoid climate change issues and just targeting economic benefits for the locals, for example.

This is one of the most difficult management strategies, I believe for small tourism enterprises. In my experience, we can be dispersed in so many touristic issues (economic, environmental, socio-cultural) that sometimes, we lack creating and measuring impact on any.

Brian Mullis, sustainable tourism expert panel memberBrian Mullis, Guyana:

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I believe I have a unique perspective in that while many leading sustainability practitioners have advised governments at all levels, few have led a national tourism board. Advising a destination on sustainable destination management, development, and marketing best practices is one thing; being responsible for implementing it is another.

Implementing the following practices led to Guyana to be recognised as a Top 10 Sustainable Destination and the #1 “Best in Ecotourism” destination at ITB Berlin this year:

  1. Maintain a national strategy and action plan: Guyana Tourism Strategic Action Plan 2018-2025. In our case, our strategy is 100% aligned with our national Green State Development Strategy and the Low Carbon Development Strategy that preceded it.
  1. Foster inter-ministerial and multi-stakeholder collaborations and establish and implement structured, mutually beneficial partnerships across the tourism value chain e.g., with sister governmental agencies, the national trade association, community leaders, and the tourism private sector.
  1. Improve the policy environment and infrastructure for sustainable tourism development. Create a positive policy environment that provides incentives and concessions that support green growth and MSME development.
  1. Strengthen governance within the Guyana Tourism Authority and the laws and regulations that govern tourism to ensure the institutional structure is in place to stand the test of time irrespective of which political party is in power.
  1. Build capacity within the national tourism board, among local practitioners, and within the tourism sector and strengthen standardised curriculum at every given opportunity to foster self-reliance and reduce reliance on securing outside technical assistance.
  1. Incentivise businesses to improve safety, quality and sustainability practices to meet visitor-ready standards and global sustainability standards.
  1. Strengthen product based on market demand and the destination’s strengths. In our case, this means focusing on scaling up community-led and owned indigenous tourism, SAVE Travel, birding/wildlife tourism, and sustainable adventure travel.
  1. Improve marketing efficiencies and effectiveness to reach high value, low impact travellers and foster a balance between the volume of visitors and the value they each represent.
  1. Benchmark against global best practices, and monitor and report on the results. In our case, we’re benchmarking against the Green Destinations Standard.
  1. Ensure stakeholder engagement to foster buy-in and support throughout the process.

Gavin Bate, United Kingdom:

The obvious answer is to always consider the destination in terms of the negative or positive impact of tourism on the environment, the culture and the social fabric of the community, rather than just the simplistic view of economic benefits, bringing more money in. These often intangible factors are best seen through the medium of stories and anecdotes and public comment, so I would say the measurement of sustainability should not be so empirical but more holistic. Less generic and more specific to an area or region.

I think also that destinations should avoid stereotypical definitions and measurements, and try to get a more ‘bottom up’ sense of what local people think and feel, and experience. Often these questions are funnelled through an academic prism, or measured in an unrealistic way, or answered only by certain people at a certain ‘level’.

I believe in order to get a ‘buy in’ from the whole community, you need to trust the views of the whole community, even if they may know little academically about concepts like sustainability. In other words, I think over the last decades the subject has become prescriptive and formularised, adopted by academia looking for theoretical solutions which will never be read or adopted by local people.

An obvious example is climate change. For decades scientists have been warning the world of disaster with data, but it took a school girl to make the moral case in order to attract the attention of world leaders. She stopped the politicisation of the subject by simply appealing to human instincts.

I genuinely believe that the way we determine and measure success in sustainability should be done in an equitable way between local people and ‘the rest’.

Gianna Moscardo, Australia:

To date most of the focus on measuring and monitoring sustainability at a destination level has been on environmental impacts, with some attention to cultural and social impacts. But I think the key to destination sustainability is resident well-being/quality of life.

Ultimately destination residents invite or accept tourists to their communities because they hope that this economic activity will improve their quality of life or their well-being. If tourism is not making a net contribution to destination community well-being then it’s not a sustainable activity.

I prefer the capitals approach which argues that community well-being depends upon a healthy ecosystem, a vital and diverse economy and a sense of social well-being. And these are in turn based upon good stock of natural capital, social capital, human capital, cultural capital, financial capital, built and political capital.

So destinations need to measure some aspect of all these capitals, as well as resident support for tourism, to demonstrate if they are sustainable or not.

Jonathan Tourtellot, USA:

Achieving the measures collaboratively agreed upon in a destination management plan that was developed with community participation, and designed to ensure the protection of environmental and cultural heritage while benefiting local people, and avoiding overtourism.

Jonathon Day Placemark SolutionsJonathon Day, USA:

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There are a couple of ways to interpret this question. Let me address it in two ways:

I think it is fair to say that sustainability is a journey – not a destination. It is a process, rather than an outcome. I expect that the best destinations would never feel that they have ticked off the box for sustainability and can now move onto the next thing. There are always ways to improve.

Sustainable tourism is a “wicked problem” – each response, though guided by general principles, will be unique. And each action will generate unique responses, and often unearth new issues. The best destinations learn from the best examples and apply the ‘learnings’ to their own situation.

Answering this question another way – what does it take? Tourism is a system embedded in a larger socio-cultural system. The likelihood of success of sustainable tourism implementation is significantly increased when tourism is taking place in a destination community that is committed to sustainability; a community that is concerned about the environment – has recycling programs, supports renewable energy etc. – and is conscious of social and heritage issues, thus empowering tourism to adopt sustainable tourism principles.

How do you measure success? Again, there are a set of standard measures but each destination community must determine what success looks like. One thing is clear, that as we establish performance management systems to have indicators that not only tell us of past performance but give us insights into future issues.

For example, overtourism has become a major issue in recent years. Measuring community sentiment and customer experience on a regular basis should have alerted us years ago to the emerging problem. It is important to become proactive rather than reactive.

Kelly Bricker, sustainable tourism expert panel memberKelly Bricker, USA:

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A destination is successful when they prioritize the ecological limits of what they can support.  Foundationally, the environment is the best measure of success – how are we placing these ecological systems, which support all life on earth? Are they placed first?

Kevin Teng, Singapore:

In order to be considered successful, I believe that a destination needs to have three key components:

  • a robust framework to measure, report, and implement sustainability;
  • meaningful progress in improving its sustainability footprint over time;
  • great leadership that is transparent and honest with stakeholders.

Maja Pak, Slovenia:

There are several factors which need to be considered.

Besides the obvious, unspoiled green nature, sustainable infrastructure, sustainable management, destinations need to offer unique green experiences. They need to develop products with an added value that offer memorable experiences for the visitors. Successful cooperation of all key stakeholders, including management, local businesses and local people, plays a crucial role in the development of such experiences.

Furthermore, the destination needs to have a clear vision about its further development, based on strong green attributes of the destination.

How to measure it? Destinations need to set their own relevant sustainable KPIs. At the Slovenian Tourist Board, we have established the Green Scheme of the Slovenian Tourism (the GSST), which serves as a tool for destinations and service providers to evaluate and improve their sustainability endeavours, based on global criteria.

One of the most important indicators, in my opinion, is the measurement of the satisfaction of visitors and the local people. The tool combines all the efforts and knowledge of sustainable practices, which we have gained throughout the last decade. It is important to mention that the STB has been active in the field of sustainability for quite some time. The GSST is also recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and enables international comparison.

Masaru Takayama, Japan:

Regardless of the size of the destination, a deep understanding of how tourism is contributing positively to help improve the welfare of the residents must be indicated and publicly shared. So, taking a periodic poll on the satisfaction rate on how tourism is managed on the destination level is crucial, and needs  to be considered as a successful tourism indicator, in my opinion.

Things like too many tourists that dominate the residents’ bus/train seats including the priority seats for the local senior citizens speak for destinations which do not qualify as good or sustainable, in the eyes of locals.

Natalia Naranjo, sustainable tourism expert panel memberNatalia Naranjo, Colombia:

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A destination that is addressing its main issues related to maintaining and improving environmental and cultural resources; and is working towards sustainability with stakeholders and community is a successful destination.

Probably the best way to measure its success is to evaluate and continuously improve a participative action plan of the destination management organization with the stakeholders.

Also, the quality of life and the quality of the main ecological ecosystems, and the resources that maintain life have to be in good state and improving, along with their social networks – transparency and trusting relationships.

Peter Richards, Thailand:

  • A successful destination is able to retain key elements of its unique charm and sense of place (alongside / despite managed growth).
  • Waste is well managed, and green, public spaces are protected / created (e.g. parks, riverside or coastal walkways).
  • Local SMEs are not priced out of the market as destinations become more upmarket / boutique
  • Cross sector consultation / collaboration / concrete actions which show that people from different corners can work together.

Philippe Moreau, Portugal:

Sustainability, for me, is more of a responsible journey than a destination. It’s a commitment to really wanting to make a difference, and where the overall agenda is to “make it count” as opposed to any seal or certification, without degrading the importance of the latter.

I have recently come across “The Long Run” which uses an interesting framework based on what they call the 4C’s (Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce). I think that this kind of thinking has a more holistic approach for destinations…

Rachel Dodds, sustainable tourism expert panel memberRachel Dodds, Canada:

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Without metrics or indicators establishing a baseline, nothing can be measured. This should be in the form of a policy or plan that has specific, measurable indicators outlining acceptable limits of change (LAC). A multi-stakeholder approach should be taken to establish these LAC’s.

Some key elements should include resident happiness, affordability, natural and cultural preservation, number and type of jobs etc etc…. too many to list.

Without a clear  policy or plan there is nothing to measure. However, policy is not worth the paper it is written on if not implemented…

Raj Gyawali, sustainable tourism expert panel memberRaj Gyawali, Nepal:

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There are several factors that need to be considered when one talks about sustainability and destinations, the base amongst them revolving around the sensitivity to the environment, sensitivity to the culture and of course spread of tourism dollars in the economy.

Destinations that are successful need a solid grounding on these three simple, yet complex, principles. They need to be seen in the industry as clear strategies and actions well under progress in these areas.

Sustainability is a process, and not an end result of something you do, hence the movement is what needs to be watched to know if a destination is successful or not. This dynamic movement deeper into sustainability requires awareness, perseverance, creativity, will and strong focus.

When these characteristics are seen in the stakeholder base of a destination, one could consider that destination sustainable.

Richard Butler, United Kingdom:

Only attract visitors who do not have to fly, recycle water, use solar and wind power, use local food and labour.

Ronald Sanabria, Costa Rica:

Since sustainability in tourism is an ever-evolving process of continued improvements, success will be achieved based on the actual measurements of success and targets defined for a given destination in a given timeframe.

We cannot generalize because all destinations have different issued to tackle. Setting clear goals and targets aligned with international instruments, adapted to the local reality, is the starting point.

As an example, destinations could use the GSTC sustainability criteria and indicators for destinations and define clear plans that will move the needle given the conditions in a particular destination.

Others have gone the extra mile measuring social progress, like the implementation of the Social Progress Index in tourism centers which Costa Rica has implemented to compare social progress in tourism destinations versus social progress in the cantons where those destinations are located.

Steve Noakes, Australia:

There are degrees of success. It’s not always an end journey. Example, if a destination has committed to (say) undertake a sustainable destination approach as offered by one the the certification bodies accredited with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), that can be considered a ‘successful start’. If they continue the process and become a certified destination, that’s another degree of ‘success’. If they can maintain that certification over time, that’s another degree of ‘success’.

More about the destination sustainability panel here – including previous sessions and answers to some of the most pressing issues linked to making tourism more sustainable.

You want to ask the panel a question? Get in touch!

How To Measure Destination Sustainability Success: Expert Panel Answers
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