What Characterizes a Sustainability Leader in Tourism?

Published 21/10/2021
sustainability leaders characteristics

Good field knowledge is important in the tourism industry, to be able to help improve communities and the natural environment. Growing awareness to develop and live in a sustainable world has motivated scores of people to make a positive impact in tourism.

With lots of individuals working towards the same goal, how can a layperson identify a sustainability leader or changemaker? What makes a sustainability leader worthy of following – what sets them apart from the rest?

We asked our panel of sustainable tourism specialists what they felt were the distinctive characteristics of a leader or changemaker in sustainable tourism. Below the answers (highlighted respondents are available as consultants or speakers).

Our key takeaways:

  • Constant learners – Sustainability leaders stay up-to-date on the latest developments in tourism.
  • Inspirational – They have the ability to instill and inspire people to be responsible in their actions.
  • Responsible – Given the scale of damage to the planet and the sense of urgency to fix things, changemakers are the torchbearers of our planet.
  • Commitment – Someone who has dedicated their work towards achieving the SDGs or any other set objectives.
  • Walks the talk – Changemakers practice what they preach with regard to sustainability and conscious living. They lead by example.
  • Resilient – They show a can-do attitude and optimism during setbacks. 
  • Strategic – Skilled at handling multi-stakeholder dialogue and implementation of ideas.
  • Forward-thinking – Sustainability leaders think long-term and sacrifice short-term profits if it helps to achieve long-term and continuous socio-economic benefits for their business, the people and the planet.
  • Risk taker – courageous at trying new ideas and going against the flow, including systemic / political opposition.
  • Good listener – Emphatic to the situation on the ground and work together as a team.
  • Innovative thinking – Quick and creative thinking to adapt to challenges like pandemic-induced travel restrictions, overtourism, seasonal travel, etc.

Brian Mullis, sustainable tourism expert panel member
Brian Mullis

InterviewSpeaker profile

Individuals who have consistently demonstrated their ability to foster tangible positive social, economic, and conservation outcomes from tourism at scale.


Jonathon Day, sustainable tourism expert panel memberJonathon Day

InterviewSpeaker profile

Commitment. Focus. Collaboration.



Kelly Bricker, sustainable tourism expert panel memberKelly Bricker

Interview |Speaker profile
  • Continues the uphill journey, despite challenges, or steps backward;
  • Creativity to explore new ideas;
  • Committed in all aspects of what they do, daily living, work, and profession;
  • Prioritizes planet, people, and the severity of climate change;
  • Is a lifetime learner;
  • Does not shame, but is encouraging as every community, business, individual begins their sustainability journey;
  • Does not politicize sustainability, but rather builds bridges, collaboration.

Vicky Smith

Vicky Smith

InterviewSpeaker profile

Altruism. Forward-thinking visionary growth mindset. A willingness to go against the grain, often inspirational for doing so. A social entrepreneur – concerned with impact and financial viability – and capable of the skills required for each. Inclusive to involve and lead others.

Aivar Ruukel


For me, leaders are those who are brave enough, not only to talk about sustainability but also to act. Do something in practice, show the way! Time is running out, so the more radical the action, the better!

Alexandra Pastollnigg

  • Integrity and authenticity, value-based;
  • Innovating, being entrepreneurial;
  • Leading by example (rather than pointing fingers and telling others what to do);
  • Skin in the game (dedicating own time, resources, risk of rejection/failure);
  • Collaborating & sharing;
  • Appreciating sustainability as a holistic concept and progress, resisting perfectionism and black-or-white thinking.

Ally Dragozet


Someone who is a thought leader in this space, always up to date with the latest trends and strategies to take sustainable tourism to the next level.

Amine Ahlafi


A global vision and constant concern for balance and respect for the environmental and socio-cultural ecosystems on which tourist activity leans.

Anna Spenceley


A sustainability leader would be someone who applies mindful actions and behaviors embracing a global worldview to recognize the connection between the planet and humanity; thereby, through personal and organizational choices, effects positive environmental and social change. Read more here.

A changemaker is someone who is taking creative action to solve a social problem. Read more here.

Anne de Jong


Someone who is genuinely in the game to lead the transformation to improve the tourism industry and who has the skills to teach others how they can do better for themselves, people, and the environment. To lead the movement and to stimulate, encourage and support others to make changes as well.

Antonio Abreu


The capacity to make things happen.

Antonis Petropoulos


A true changemaker is one who at the beginning is mocked like a mad person, who creates new, alternative paths, concepts, networks, platforms, products, experiences, campaigns, infrastructure, and so on against everyone’s ‘wise’ advice.

She or he combines a philosophical attitude to life with an entrepreneurial spirit and the political will to ‘change the world’, to make it a better place for all through tourism, and to make tourism a better place for all, and is ready to take all sorts of risks to achieve it.

Audrey Scott


A sustainability leader or changemaker is someone who is realistic in the challenges, but also hopeful and solutions-oriented by offering holistic and inclusive approaches. A leader is one who can bring together all different types of people and stakeholders to work together towards change.

Beatriz Barreal


Being able to raise awareness on the importance of stewardship over our socio-economic ecosystems and their fragility. They are able to trigger real changes in the monitoring system of the quality of life for the ecosystem itself, as well as the wellbeing of humans.

Christian Baumgartner


A changemaker understands the complex requirements and challenges of sustainability in tourism. He/she knows good examples, knows about technical and other solutions and ways to achieve them. He/she is able to develop and implement goals and measures in a participatory multi-stakeholder dialogue.

A changemaker is also not afraid of (growth) boundaries and has tourism success criteria beyond arrivals and overnight stays.

Christof Burgbacher


There is enormous diversification in tourism, every business, and every destination is different. That is why sustainability can never be applied with a stencil. Leaders must have the ability to find measures that suit a company or destination, make sustainability tangible for travelers, and avoid any risk of greenwashing.

Darrell Wade


They take a strategic view that considers the different stakeholders and the outcomes they are each seeking – looking to maximize common interest areas and build awareness of differences.

Elisa Spampinato


Innovative thinking. Looking at the problematic aspects from different positions, answer the same questions with the eyes of different actors. Considering other perspectives and finding inspiring solutions. 

We are more separated than we are ready to admit. This usually happens because we live different realities. One of the things that a changemaker and sustainability leader does is showing the connections and the possible ways of mutual interaction that create new common paths.

Elizabeth Becker


Willingness to combat our own biases and see the full picture. Then learning how to translate sustainable tourism into stories.

Erik van Dijk


Always innovative. Looking for new changes. There are always challenges to make the world better.

Fiona Jeffery


An ethical and moral compass that drives decisions with a commitment to delivering social and environmental justice by doing ’no harm’. This involves ensuring the protection, preservation, conservation and appropriate enhancement of destinations, their cultures, and the benefits tourism brings to local and indigenous communities.

Frankie Hobro


A visionary, a trailblazer for the environment and planet who leads by example, is philanthropic, and does not focus on immediate personal gain. Someone who constantly plans well into the future, focussing on the long-term benefits, and building towards this vision through smaller short-term achievements or decisions.

Weighing every decision and action to ensure the best positive results for the future, rather than what will result in the best immediate profit. This often involves sacrificing short-term profits or gain in order to invest in a more sustainable future, which will reap longer-term environmental benefits, not just for themselves but for everyone affected in future generations and for the planet, both locally within the community and across the globe.

Gianna Moscardo


Resilience and grit to keep going, compassion and patience in continuously explaining, persuading, and encouraging others to come with you on a sustainability journey.

Glenn Jampol


A sustainability leader must be a true believer that tourism can help alleviate learned prejudices, can instill a sense of urgency and responsibility for the way we travel, and build a sense of importance about how our decisions are made when choosing destinations to visit. A sustainability leader is a storyteller.

We are ‘missionaries’ fomenting change in the outdated and dangerous perception that has directed and generated chaotic and insensitive tourism for decades. If ever there was a dire need for change in our habits, our decisions, our support for tourism business, destinations, and the people who reside there, it is now.

Changemakers are the last bodyguards of the planet and protecting and eschewing its beautiful ecology and symbiosis. They paint the landscape of how the future might look and improve for the better for future travelers.

Greg Bakunzi


A person who inspires the community to adopt friendly tourism and always ensures that sustainable tourism does make a positive change.

James Crockett


Passion, knowledge, leadership, commitment, determination, empathy, an underpinning philosophy that drives motivation.

Joanna Van Gruisen


Someone who thinks ahead of their times, out of the box, and is not afraid to tread a new path. Someone who has an imagination that can see positive opportunities, can make singular connections, and believes in the possibility of transformations. Someone who can see and care beyond their immediate tourism enterprise.

Jonathan Tourtellot


As with any changemaker, passion, perseverance, and willingness to listen to many points of view. In tourism, that means residents, tourists, industry, scientists, and destination stewards, whether government, private sector, or civil society. All are involved.

Jorge Moller Rivas



Lisa Choegyal


People who understand the basic principles and are prepared to stick their necks out to put it into practice to the best of their ability.

Mariana Madureira


I think leaders in this area should be passionate about both sustainability and tourism and open/available to help more people understand why it is important and how it can be done.

Marcus Cotton


Passion, balanced with pragmatism.

Marta Mills

  • To be a changemaker you need to be bold and brave to challenge the status quo. That usually involves a lot of quiet work and small steps, many conversations, many workshops, many hard questions to ask and answer. And it takes a lot of time! 
  • Need to be patient and not get discouraged by the likely opposition. People are afraid of  change, so a change-maker is bound to cause fear and opposition! 
  • Need to challenge the current state of mind and encourage the mind-shift to think long-term and beyond a personal gain.
  • To encourage but also push others, particularly local decision-makers, leaders of DMOs, and tourism businesses to question, answer and change the mindset.

Megan Epler Wood


Leadership does take courage, as does change-making. In our field, this often requires raising issues that may not be ideally suited to the current government and industry environment. It is difficult to say we need reform, change in governance, and universal metrics that guide our profession. All of these ideas are about change, and it can be a challenge to even raise some of these ideas.

Mike McHugo


Think of the end goal all the time and try to ensure the change is positive. There will be ups and downs but there is no one size fits all answer.

Natalia Naranjo Ramos


Motivation to support others with responsibility and acknowledge the role of each one in the process.

Paul Peeters


A sustainable development leader is someone who guides a lot of followers towards sustainable development.

A changemaker is anyone who causes a change in thinking and/or practices in the tourism sector, even without many followers.

Peter Richards


Good question! I think the absolute essence is that a leader or a changemaker’s work leads to significant, tangible positive outcomes for people and the environment.

This doesn’t mean that they must work in the field. But, their work needs to have an impact that can be followed to the field and proven in the field. Just ideas aren’t sufficient.

Great leaders’ work inspires people beyond just a small group. It reaches across boundaries. It builds trusting relationships across gaps usually characterized by misunderstanding and mistrust; and it shows the potential to create beautiful, valuable work in these gaps.

My personal opinion is that kindness is an essential element of good, successful leadership.

Rachel Dodds


Characteristics are passion, curiosity, willingness, effectiveness, governance, and most importantly, willpower.

Rebecca Hawkins


Someone who tells the truth, gets beyond the political stuff, motivates, nurtures, cajoles, and acts.

Reto Fry


A sustainability leader or changemaker is visionary, knows the solutions, has a strong will, stays relaxed while never giving up.

Richard Butler


Someone who listens, tries to understand and appreciates that nothing happens in isolation but is always connected to and influenced by and influences everything else.

Richard Hammond


Someone who is focused on clear objectives that tackle the development of tourism, that takes into account the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

Shannon Guihan


One who is able to engage team members, no matter the team type or size, to feel empowered to support the change that is afoot – with both ideas and action. A move towards a more sustainable destination or operation requires a significant societal shift – and that requires buy-in and participation at all levels of an organization. I believe sustainability leaders are strategic thinkers that are able to take a long view that prioritizes the potential for impact – impact being critical.

Shannon Stowell


Determination and staying in power.

Shivya Nath


Someone who is able to look beyond the conventional definition of tourism and explore other business models, redefine growth, draw on other industries and think out of the box to make tourism equally beneficial to the local people, the planet, and those who choose to travel.

Sonja Gottlebe


It’s his own lifestyle that gives example and inspiration to others. We are permanent ambassadors of sustainability through the way we travel ourselves and manage our company.

Willem Niemeijer


A leader or changemaker makes bold new steps, pioneering new ideas that inspire others.

Xavier Font


It’s someone that is willing to altruistically innovate.

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