The Global Sustainable Tourism Council – Champions for Purposeful Travel

 

One Planet Journey founders Richard Lindberg and Maral Kalajian spent 4 days meeting travel and tourism professionals from over 50 countries during an insightful conference in Stockholm. Organised by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and Visit Sweden, the importance of the event was underscored by the presence of the Crown Princess of Sweden and former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Is GSTC the entity that finally moves sustainable tourism from the fringes to the mainstream?

Do you care about sustainability when you travel?

If you are reading this, there is a big chance you do, and you are far from alone. The annual survey from Booking.com has revealed widespread interest from travellers worldwide for many years, and 2024 is no exception. 83% of travellers state that sustainable travel is important to them. However, more often than not, words don’t translate into action, and herein lies the challenge for the whole industry. How to close the gap between intent and actual bookings?

Brick building and tower of Stockholm City Hall with water in front.
Stockholm City Hall, the location of the Nobel Prize banquet, hosted the opening dinner

 

A global actor for sustainable tourism and Travel

Out of the talented and passionate professionals in the travel industry, one particular entity stands out as an agent of positive and credible change. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council, or GSTC for short. Its origins go back to 2007 with 32 founding members, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Rainforest Alliance, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). GSTC is an independent and neutral non-profit organisation, with members varying from national governments, NGOs, travel companies, hotels, tour operators, and individuals.

With a mission to increase knowledge, adoption, and demand for sustainable tourism, it establishes and develops global standards for said industry. The work is expressed through criteria for destinations, hotels and tour operators, as well as venue, event, and exhibition organisers. They encompass sustainable management, environment, culture, and socioeconomic impacts.

Part of the GSTC arsenal comes in the form of events, the latest attracting over 500 professionals from all over the world to Royal Djurgården in Stockholm, Sweden. Co-hosted by Visit Sweden and the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth, it took place between the 23-26th of April 2024. One Planet Journey took part and after many engaging sessions, we had a chat with GSTC CEO Randy Durband to take the pulse of the travel industry in relation to sustainability.

Profile picture of a Randy Durband holding a microphone during a speech.
Randy Durband, CEO of GSTC. Credit GSTC.

 

Randy is on his second career within travel. After twenty years of senior leadership positions at large US tour operators, a passion for sustainability took him to the sustainable tourism movement and the GSTC, where he leverages his network and know-how for a greater purpose.

 

Congratulations on an excellent event in Stockholm. What stands out the most, right on the heels of the conference?

The strong attendance with serious and deeply engaged stakeholders. The accumulated expertise and the sharing that takes place is something we’re happy to execute for the industry.


What is your main takeaway from these intense and insightful days?

The new EU Green Claims Directive (relating to how businesses that market to EU citizens can communicate sustainability) is an earthquake and volcano combined. And the implications are as powerful and unpredictable as those natural phenomena, creating tremendous anxiety and concern. I appreciated that Booking Holdings shared their take on it, which generated a lot of comments and thoughts.

Susanne Andersson on stage welcoming attendees.
Susanne Andersson, CEO of Visit Sweden welcomes the attendees

 

How will this affect travellers in the years to come?

In the short term, expect far fewer references to what is green and sustainable. Hopefully, the reduced quantity equates to more quality. Businesses face a complex transition period before they feel comfortable going out and talking about it again, using trusted and verified data. The Dutch government has already insisted companies stop communicating unverifiable claims, and for two years, UK government departments have issued fines. Nations around the world will follow suit.

So, perhaps less greenwashing, but also more greenhushing?

Absolutely. I welcome measures to reduce greenwashing, but it could lead to increased greenhushing (businesses not communicating sustainability successes to avoid scrutiny). We also see signs of another unintended consequence. With the focus on getting their house in order in relation to carbon, organisations are stepping away from a holistic view of sustainability, which is frustrating.

We see social issues related to tourism dominate the headlines. What is the GSTC solution to overtourism and protesting locals?

They are harder to measure, but there is progress with multi-stakeholder approaches, meetings with community members, private businesses, transport, etc. With credible and quantifiable methods, magic happens and problems are solved. It needs to be data driven, but also complemented with qualitative interviews and observation.

Circular shaped wooden building inside a large conference venue with a stage and chairs.
Award winning architecture at the Technical museum in Stockholm – one of many beautiful venues

 

How about capping the number of visitors?

Only as a last resort. There are better ways to control flow, spread out over time and season. We have an enormous opportunity with shoulder and off-season, and many destinations are actively courting travellers interested in these periods.

 

There is still a wide gap between traveller interest in sustainable travel and actual tourism bookings. What’s the biggest barrier to more uptake?

Travellers wish for information, but they want it simple and clear. Sustainability is hard and more of a journey, which makes it difficult for an online travel agency (OTA) to get right. There is also a perception of high cost from both travellers and businesses, and here the industry needs to do better. There are plenty of sustainable options cheaper than the standard, needing no training or large investments to implement.

The big brands, who already have plans in place, should focus on executing. Especially in the consolidated business travel sector, which stands for 30% of all trips, the giant players that dominate the market have the chance to move the needle. They have some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies as clients, for example, Google and Apple. As buyers of hotel rooms, they can exert pressure to ensure more sustainable practices in a swift timeframe.

 

As a traveller, do I come into contact with the GSTC?

We work directly with businesses and governments, but not with travellers at this point. Among our activities is a unit that serves as an accreditation body — compliant by the way with the EU requirement to utilise an EU member state’s accreditation body inside the EU. The function provides guidance for the certifiers that travellers notice in the form of ecolabels at hotels, for example. We look at impartiality, credibility, and rigour in order for the accredited certification bodies to do their job well.

Randy Durban on stage giving a talk.
Randy Durband explains the Global Sustainable Tourism Council work method

 

Do you have plans to be more consumer facing?

Becoming a consumer brand takes a lot of time and money. As a non-profit we focus on the wholesale level, and if you compare with actors like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), it took 7-8 years before one of the titans in the paper industry, Kimberly Clark made a huge commitment to offer FSC-branded products, and then the competition followed. This is what we need in the travel industry. We have to move beyond plans and recommendations to stronger positions and actions. It’s not going fast enough.

 

There are over 200 ecolabels around the world. Wouldn’t it be better with one system to rule them all?

It could happen with the will of the right movers to make it so. The proliferation of certifications and labels is confusing for travellers, and the industry needs to put its foot down.

You’ve set standards across the whole industry, with criteria for attractions coming next. What are the plans after that? 

Food and Beverage, most likely. It’s a tough one, especially distinguishing between the resident and visitor experiences.

What has been the biggest success so far?

The national legal mandate enacted in Turkey, where the Ministry of Tourism has the right to revoke a business licence if they don’t comply with the sustainable standards. There is nothing like it in the world, and we hope to see it replicated in other places.

What can we as travellers do to help things along?

Speak up. At your hotel, or destination. Ask questions, comment in surveys or reviews. It creates a virtuous cycle.

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Thank you, Randy, for your valuable insights and to the whole of GSTC for a memorable conference.

 Fredrik Reinfeldt on stage presenting about travel and tourism.
Former Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt on the virtues of travel and tourism

 

Sustainable tourism is not a trend, it’s a necessity for a thriving travel sector. And after all, “The world needs the hospitality sector, the world needs people meeting each other,” as Fredrik Reinfeldt, former Prime Minister of Sweden, said in relation to how travel curiosity makes the world a better place. Destinations are feeling the heat, in some cases literally, and there is a marked shift to attract discerning travellers who wish to stay longer, avoiding the peak season, thus alleviating overtourism.

In the end, environment doesn’t sell, adventure and comfort does. Travellers don’t want lectures, they desire inspiration, and as such, service providers must keep their eyes on both dimensions. Measuring, verifying, and communicating the right data and insights will determine who wins the hearts and minds of travellers. We can only hope legislation doesn’t mute the great work being done by purposeful brands in the sector. Willy Legrand, professor at the IU International University of Applied Sciences, said it well while moderating a session at the conference in Stockholm.

“Better to get it roughly right than precisely wrong.”

GSTC is well poised to get it right, staffed by experts, and passionate leaders such as Randy Durband and his team. But, to get there, there is a need to scale. There were 500 attendees in Stockholm. We hope to see 5000 at future events. I am certain our readers wish the same.

Old ship sitting in dry dock besides dinner tables.
Farewell dinner at the 400-year-old Vasa ship – a testament to sustainability and conservation

 

What is your best example of sustainable tourism? Do you remember seeing any ecolabels? Let us know in the comment section! Subscribe to our newsletter and benefit from travel guides, sustainable tourism and luxury travel tips, insightful interviews, and inspirational places to visit. One Planet Journey – The World’s First Deep Travel Magazine.

 

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