Sustainable Tourism Certification

Certification as a Tool for Continuous Improvement of Sustainability Performance

(Updated July 25, 2023) How can sustainable tourism certification help the industry achieve a positive transformation? What roles does certification play in promoting sustainable tourism practices and encouraging long-term positive business impacts? Thoughts and examples on sustainability and its continuous improvement cycle, and where certification fits in these discussions.
Ayako Ezaki
Ayako Ezaki

Director of Training Strategy and Development at TrainingAid

When considering the reasons and motivations for tourism businesses to invest in sustainability efforts, often certification is seen as a way to support sustainability practices as well as encouraging long-term positive business impacts.

Is there a strong "business case" for sustainability certification for tourism businesses? What are some of the benefits and challenges for tourism businesses pursuing certification? What questions do businesses need to ask when assessing whether and how certification can support their goals?

Here are some resources, thoughts and lessons for tourism industry professionals working on topics related to sustainable tourism certification.

Understanding Certification

So what IS certification?

According to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), certification is defined as "a voluntary, third-party assessment, through an audit, of a tourism enterprise or destination for conformity to a standard".

It's important to note that this process requires a third-party audit, meaning that someone who is independent and nuetral has verified that the organization complies with a given standard (as opposed to the organization itself or someone who has a stake in it saying that it does). 

Anyone can claim to be green or sustainable, or that they are "taking care of the environment", "doing our part for the planet" or "giving back to the community" (or any number of vague yet bold claims that are unfortunately very common).

But unless the credibility of such claims can be proven, just talking about being more sustainable without proof is greenwashing.

And simply put, that's what certification can provide: credibility. 

Is Certification THE Answer?

As highlighted by the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN), the world of sustainable tourism certification is, unfortunately, rather complicated:

"There are more than 130 certifications for responsible or sustainable tourism programs in the world and at least 25 of these would be considered as credible or workable, but the value and reliability of these programs is constantly questioned for their positive impact on global travelers and the destinations involved." (GEN, A Basic Overview of Global Certification)

This is why the GSTC, which develops and manages the global baseline standards (GSTC Criteria), serves as an umbrella body to check the reliability of certification programs (this is called accreditation).

So the tools to help ensure certification supports and strengthens sustainability efforts in travel and tourism are in place. However, the awareness of what certification means, what accreditation is and how these are relevant to tourism businesses seeking to become more sustainable is not wide-spread enough (both among consumers and industry players) for such tools to play a meaningful role for many, especially smaller, businesses. 

Affordability is a key consideration for tourism businesses considering certification. A tool that is exclusively available to those with money cannot truly become a tool for ensuring sustainability of our industry. On the other hand, in order for certification to be meaningful, by definition, it needs to have a certain level of rigor. A label that's easy for everyone to obtain is unlikely to be credible.

Good, reliable and recognized sustainable tourism certification programs, therefore, need to maintain a balance between being accessible enough for most companies that are genuinely interested in becoming more sustainable, and being difficult enough to achieve so that it's actually meaningful.

Certification and Continuous Improvement

It's important to recognize that the value of certification is not just about gaining credibility and becoming recognized by industry peers and / or consumers. It's also about strengthening management practices.

A key underlying theme related to the application of sustainability standards is continuous improvement. Sustainability is not one static point to set as a goal, but commitment to continuously improving performance by applying best practices and implementing innovations. And certification as a mechanism can be a part of encouraging continuous improvement in sustainability practices among tourism industry stakeholders.

To maintain certification, organizations are required to be re-certified at regular intervals, which is an opportunity for strengthening motivation for employee engagement internally, and for engaging customers and partners through communications about sustainability achievements and initiatives.

For example, Innovation Norway’s Sustainable Destination certification program participating destinations are required to publish and report on 10 indicators annually.

"Innovation Norway Sustainable Destination Certification"

Should Certification Be MY Goal?

As noted above, certification can be a useful tool for supporting the process of implementing sustainability practices. At the same time, it's also true that it's not necessarily a solution suitable for all organizations. Especially from the perspective of smaller organizations, some of the reporting and auditing requirements may be too complex or expensive to fulfill.

From that perspective, for companies starting on a sustainability journey - or working out the best way to get started - the question of whether or not certification is the right tool does not necessarily need to be part of the initial steps. It is useful for anyone working in tourism to be aware of the fact that sustainable tourism certification as an option exists, and to know what that means. However, the question on affordability of certification does not need to be a hurdle before one gets to the start line.

Rather than worrying about the viability or relevance of certification, tourism businesses in very early stages of their sustainability journey may focus on:

  • Understanding the why (why it's important to invest in sustainability efforts) and ensuring that the relevance of sustainability from various perspectives - such as customer preference, supply-driven demand, and increasing regulatory pressure - is an integral part of driving the what (the specific sustainability actions).
  • Making a genuine commitment. There should be strong buy-ins from across the organization that investing energy and resources into becoming more sustainable is indeed a commitment that the company wants to make, because the importance and relevance of such commitment is clearly understood. 
  • Working towards making sustainability an integral part of the business. Sustainability efforts - whether you are working on staff training or guest education, resource management or supply chain code of conduct - are most effective when sustainability values are embedded in the way the company conducts its business. That's not something that can be achieved overnight, but working towards integrating sustainability into the core of business strategies and operations will make sustainability initiatives more coherent, meaningful and effective over time. 

A large part of becoming certified is about having good management practices which allows for proper documentation and reporting of different aspects of your business practices. So taking some of those initial steps will be a great way not only to get started but also to set your business up for success if certification does become a goal at some point.

Ensuring Long-Term Commitment

Staff turnover is a critical issue in travel and tourism. When engaged in processes that require continuous improvement over multiple years (such as sustainability certification), how can tourism organizations ensure long-term commitment?

One solution to this problem may be to work on establishing a sustainability management structure within the organization with interconnected groups, each responsible for monitoring, documenting and reporting on its respective area. This could help minimize the impact of one person (or a few people) leaving the organization.

Here are some examples of different forms of team / organization structure, with the aim of "elevating sustainability as a strategic priority" in mind.

Source: McKinsey Sustainability, "Organizing for sustainability success: Where, and how, leaders can start"

Another key question on this issue is how to ensure smooth transition in terms of knowledge transfer. Proper documentation of sustainability efforts is needed for this purpose, so that it’s easy to track who does what, what has been done so far, and what needs to be done moving forward.

Beyond Achieving a Label

Achieving certification in sustainable tourism is not a matter of ticking off the check list, but an ongoing process of implementing positive change within the organization.

So in addition to (and after) achieving a certain certification label, how should a tourism organization keep the momentum going for continuous improvement in sustainability practices?

  • Implement ongoing sustainability training as part of organization-wide skills development efforts (not just for "sustainability coordinator" positions). Prioritizing sustainability skills helps enhance the “culture of sustainability” within the organization, which in turn helps create an environment where employees are more engaged and motivated.
  • Produce a sustainability report on an ongoing basis, and engage your team in the process. Use the report as a way to encourage employee-led sustainability initiatives. Allowing employees to publicly share what they’re proud of will help motivate them towards continuous improvement.
  • Apply for awards. Regardless of the outcome, participating in award programs can be a rewarding experience that allows you to reflect on your current sustainability practices and assess where you’d like to improve. If you do win, whether it’s an international award or a local program, that will of course offer additional marketing benefits to help spread the word about your sustainability achievements to an even wider audience.

Related Resources and Additional Links