Sustainability Certifications

Sustainability Certifications

“The Future of Tourism” Interview Series


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or views of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) or any of its employees. The aim of the interviews is to assist with the rapid, robust and responsible rebuilding of the Asia Pacific travel industry.

The Covid-19 crisis has halted travel and tourism, unintentionally benefiting air quality, CO2 emissions and habitats globally. The COVID-19 crisis has similarly locked down societies, increased isolation impacting the emotional health and welfare of many.

As such, the Covid-19 crisis has provided clear evidence that behavioural changes can really make environmental impacts, representing an opportunity for accelerating climate actions. However, the need for societies to have inclusive development that spread benefits are just as necessary. How then, as tourism strives to rebuild better, can recovery packages deliver benefits for our planet, people and prosperity goals?

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) establishes and manages global sustainable standards that are the guiding principles and minimum requirements that any tourism business or destination should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources, while ensuring tourism meets its potential as a tool for conservation and poverty alleviation. GSTC does not directly certify any products or services; but provides an accreditation for Certification Bodies that certify hotels and accommodations, tour operators, transport providers, and destinations as having sustainable policies and practices in place.

PATA SSR spoke to Dr. Mihee Kang, the GSTC Program Director Asia-Pacific to have better understanding of sustainability certifications in tourism and the benefits of getting certified by credible accredited bodies, particularly during this challenging time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Q: Hello Dr. Mihee Kang. Thank you so much for your time today and we are very excited to have you with PATA in this interview. To get started, would you mind introducing a bit about yourself and the work you are doing with GSTC, please?

Mihee: Thank you for inviting me and GSTC for this interview. I am Mihee Kang from GSTC, and I am working as the Asia Pacific Director. I’m based in South Korea, but our GSTC staff work globally. My main job is managing all GSTC activities in the Asia Pacific region. It can be training sessions or communication with the governments and business sector. We provide guidelines on how to make their destinations and tourism industry more sustainable. So, we organize many activities including webinar or on-site seminars. Also, part of our job is assessing destinations in terms of sustainability. So those are GSTC main activities, and I’m primarily engaged in those activities in the Asia Pacific.

Q: During this challenging time of the COVID-19 crisis, many tourism destinations and companies have been struggling to operate. So, why should they aspire to achieve certification from GSTC accredited bodies? Will better certification schemes lead to better recovery for the tourism industry?

Mihee: First, I’d like to explain the meaning of a certification. Certification means you’re actually doing what you are claiming to be doing. It’s an official process to prove an object or organization has certain characteristics. If you say you are caring about animal welfare, you should actually be taking actions about animal welfare. So, the certification is that process to prove what you said. There are too many labels that confuse the customers, including us. According to our tracking of the labels, there are over 300 labels, including inactive ones. How many labels do you think you can recognize among those 300?  And how much could you understand what those certification programs mean in terms of sustainability? To be honest, I can’t say I understand all the certification schemes and what they really measure. They are often full of claims of eco-friendly, responsible or caring for local communities or animal welfare. How much can we trust them? Or how can we trust all of those claims?

Unfortunately, the quality of certification varies widely. We have learned that some certification programs do not have on-site audits, they only do desk review. And some programs give a certificate based on keeping membership over time, rather than based on the merit. So, in those cases, we can’t trust them even though they argue they are certified. That’s why GSTC exists. GSTC provides global criteria for sustainable tourism and accredited certification bodies, who are transparent and trustful. GSTC assesses certification bodies with their management system and certification process. We don’t directly certify hotels, tour operators or destinations, but we accredit certification bodies who audit and certify hotels, tour operators or destinations whether they have impartiality and go through vigorous processes to audit and certify them.

Certification is not always well understood or well appreciated, but it has an important role by providing the disciplines for the businesses and destinations to improve all aspects of sustainability. And again, certification provides impartial evidence whether the businesses or destinations are actually delivering sustainable outcomes or just claiming. So, if you look for certified businesses, it means you can look for more sustainable companies and suppliers. But to make sure the quality of those certification programs, GSTC has an accreditation program process. So, you need to be thoughtful when you’re selecting the certification bodies and checking if they are accredited by the GSTC.

Q: With the lockdown and travel restrictions in many places now, the pandemic has unintentionally shown us how the changes in human behavior can positively impact our climate. Do you see any opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis can bring for promoting sustainable tourism? And what should be the lessons learned here for the tourism industry?

Mihee: Recently, we have talked a lot about the future post COVID-19 and what we should do during this crisis. COVID-19 is related to all aspects of the environment, society and economy, and we have painfully learned about how we should live with nature, how we need to care for the people we work with, and then, how we can keep our business alive. None of these things is either easy or difficult. GSTC criteria for industry include crisis and risk management, and if you prepare for this kind of crisis and have a plan for risk management, it could be a little bit easier for you to survive in this crisis because you already have a plan that you can follow. Also, the GSTC criteria for industry include the safety and health issues, and animal and wildlife related criteria to ensure a safe and healthy environment for tourists, your own staff and nearby communities. We need to work with different stakeholders to ensure that making a more sustainable tourism supply chain is the key and then continuing the discussion about the environment and communities.

A few months ago, we organized a series of webinars for Greek stakeholders from both public and private sectors in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Tourism, and we invited a speaker from the organization managing the Slovenia national sustainable tourism certification program to talk about their national certification program and its impact. She got a question from the participants about how their business sectors could survive from the COVID-19. She replied that it’s because they were able to assess their management system, including risk and crisis management, and thus, the business sector is more ready to respond to such a crisis. She also mentioned that there’s no exact data yet. But it seems that the businesses that join their certification program seem to be in better shape than other businesses during the COVID-19 crisis. Slovenia actually announced they successfully contained the coronavirus. So, we need more research on this issue. But if you follow the criteria, you will have a more sustainable business status. It means that before a crisis happens, you need to establish systems and strategies to respond to the crisis or risks effectively. People talk about smart tourism combining technology for post COVID-19. I think that is really important but the concrete basis should be sustainable systems and practices, and we need some guidelines and procedures to follow. GSTC criteria and GSTC accreditation process together with the certification bodies can give better access to prepare your sustainable systems and practices.

Another example is one really small island in the Pacific region. This country is also one of our destination members. They follow GSTC criteria for industry and they have developed their own industry criteria for hotels. Besides, they have established a recovery plan and then communicated that recovery plan based on sustainable approaches. Despite being a really vulnerable country, they always think about sustainability. I can’t say they are a sustainable destination so far, but they have made big efforts and their government really tries to make a better system based on effective policy. So, it can be a really good example of government reaction and leadership during this kind of a crisis. Their recovery plan integrating risk and crisis management elements helps them become more sustainable and respond effectively to the crisis.

Q: How can we actually encourage tourism destinations, companies and organizations to be certified, especially during this tough time of the COVID-19 crisis?

Mihee: Basically, if they see the benefits of sustainable movements, they will naturally follow. But still, they need some incentives to get in the market such as more coming tourists or more profits they can gain. So, for that, they need active promotion. Luckily, these days, the OTAs such as or Agoda are going to give better market benefits to certified entities. For example, when you search for a hotel on their websites, the certified hotels will be prioritized and listed high on the search results. So, it will be spread to other OTAs sites for destinations and tour operators. Also, some of the booking websites today present destinations and tour operators based on their marking on sustainability. So, I think if or Agoda starts putting certified hotels on the top, the other OTAs will follow. When we consider the recent online customers purchasing rates, we can encourage more OTAs to give benefits to the certified entities. Then, the business sector will also join certification because they can see the benefits through being on the top.

We also need to feature more sustainable businesses or destinations on different media including PATA website or newsletter so that more people can access the information about sustainable businesses and destinations. According to the survey, the lack of information and lack of a certification discourage people from making sustainable choices. The number one reason was money or the cost. And number two was the lack of information. This result indicates that we need to provide more information. Therefore, providing related information through different channels and using accurate booking engines highlighting certified entities would be a faster way to promote the certified businesses or destinations. And I’m sure this kind of interview by PATA can also help people understand more about the importance of sustainability certifications.

Q: In one sentence, how would you envision the future of tourism after COVID-19?

Mihee: I envision that the tourism industry and more destinations will integrate sustainability in their practices, including hygiene and safety, to satisfy the stronger demand for certified businesses.

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