Ten Habits of Award Winning Sustainable Tourism Businesses in East Africa

Maasai women members of CMMFTen Habits of Award Winning Sustainable Tourism Businesses in East Africa – STTA Investigates

The tourism industry is awash with awards. It is equally awash with “green-washers”. Green-washers are those businesses that make false claims about their engagement in sustainable tourism practice. In most instances, third parties have not verified their claims. This behaviour by ‘green-washers is called   and greenwashing”. As a result, it is increasingly becoming a challenge for conscious travellers to determine which awards are genuine and for conscious businesses to select partners who are committed to sustainability

Peter Gash the Managing Director of Lady Elliot Island Eco-Resort, Queensland, in an interview with Sustainability leaders, an online forum that seeks opinions of sustainable tourism leaders, states the following about award chasing businesses but who have no purpose.

“Operators need to be a bit careful with who they partner with (in terms      of choice of certification or award scheme). It is best to choose one or two     certification systems to work with and stay with them. Some people    collect them (awards) like trophies on the wall. We just treat it as a         measure of     how we are doing and where we are going           (https://lnkd.in/d54KhzM)

Awards and certification are desirable for benchmarking and measuring performance but businesses must choose carefully. Some award managing organisations are event managers; their ultimate goal is to look good (get publicity) and attract more exhibitors to their events by incorporating an award. Others are running the awards and certification as income generators. Their goal is to certify as many as possible so as to achieve their financial goals. In both these instances, the objective is not to encourage change practices. The push is now for businesses to take responsibility instead of letting awards and certification drive their agenda. In the end, “good deeds” will show, prevail, and/or ascend with or without awards.

The list of Kenya’s award winning tourism businesses is a mixed basket. It has high-end lodges/camps operated by established or renowned tourism personalities, families, or companies, community lodges and large hotels based at the Coast. This picture may mislead one to believe that being sustainable has to do with economic prowess and connections. The converse argument would be that those who engage in sustainable tourism endure. So, what is the true picture?

In a survey conducted by STTA, we established that one way to separate award chasers from those engaging in sustainability wit a purpose, is to look at the habits of the award winners. The investigation involved reviewing what award winning businesses are doing in terms of sustainability, how are they doing it, for whom do they do it, why are they engaged in sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism was used to mean tourism that cares for People, Planet, Profit, and has a Purpose. STTA added the fourth P (Purpose) to the conventional 3ps to come up with 4Ps.

Here is what STTA found out about 10-habits of award winning sustainable tourism businesses:

  1. The top management of the organisation is deeply, if not directly involved in the sustainability agenda of the company. Where there is commitment by top management, size is not a hindrance to embracing sustainable tourism or ‘doing good” and it is likely that business will directly invests its resources in its sustainability initiatives. The top management engagement translates to allocation of resources for sustainability programs and long-term commitment. Sometimes the management uses its own resources to create awareness in the organisation and to move the sustainability agenda forward. This is particularly the case in single-unit businesses where the founder is the sole decision maker. Most directors of award winning tourism businesses serve in other conservation and tourism organisations and have membership in several other organisations that support planet and community.
  1. The business is the single or largest and first investor in its sustainable tourism initiatives; but also discloses resources received from other sources. The worst form of “green-washing” is where the business totally uses external funds to support its sustainability initiatives or where its direct contribution to sustainability is less the 50% of the cost of investment in sustainability. The common approaches by tourism businesses in Kenya towards raising resources for sustainability is to mix organisational contributions, with travellers philanthropy as well as donations from grant giving organisations. Both the direct investment and donations are clearly shown in sustainability reports and other publicity material of the organisation. Safarilink is the best example of a business that funds its sustainability initiatives 100% from internal funds.
  1. The business constantly evaluates its practices through participation in awards and certification programs. Emphasis here should be on the balance between participation in awards and certification programs, and the choice of certification programs. It is important to note that most awards do not have systems for third party verification hence the judgement of performance is based on what the applicants say about themselves. Authentic award winning tourism businesses participate in awards and certification that provide for third party evaluation of claims. They also do so regularly therefore opening themselves for scrutiny from different quarters. The best example here is Porini Camps. They are the most awarded camps in Kenya. They participate in a wide range of award schemes and have also demonstrated growth through the higher levels of recognition received in the recent years including being Gold eco-rated
  1. The business is committed to long-term programs that are aimed at causing positive change. Apart from being long-term, the programs also need to be integrated to increase their viability, sustainability, and scale of transformation. Serena beach hotel has been running a turtle conservation project for 23 years. Their commitments to this project are many and varied and continue to evolve. Some of their commitments involved paying a marine biologist to support the set-up of the project; paying fishermen for protecting nests; paying fishermen for every egg that is protected to maturity; training fishermen on sustainable fishing, engaging neighbouring hotels, procuring refrigerators for the fishermen, training its own staff and offering lessons to hotel guests on turtle nest management and hatching. What started as a conservation project, has evolved to include transformation of local livelihoods, provided income for households, and educated hotel guests. This is a not a feel good project, but a do-good project. Some businesses constantly chose short-term initiatives that do not allow for proper evaluation of impact.
  1. The business has a clear purpose for engagement in sustainability initiatives. A clear purpose is derived from organisation values for the 3ps (people, planet & profit). The purpose should be clearly documented through a policy or plans or scheduled activities. It should be known to the staff members and to business partners. Staff members need to be given a chance to engage. Finally, it should show evidence of implementation through reports and other forms of communication. When a business has a clear purpose for engagement, there will never be a shortage of opportunities to engage. They go out of their way to ‘do good’’. Two businesses that stand out in terms on purpose are Safarilink and Lets Go Travel. Despite Kenya not having a certification program for tour operators and airlines, these companies have been pioneers in sustainability initiatives in their fields. Safarilink Aviation has designed ingenious ways of engaging with People and Planet projects. They have recognised destinations where they fly-into as the beneficiaries (for whom) of their sustainability initiatives. For example, for every ticket sold to Diani, they contribute a percentage of ticket cost to Colobus Conservation to save the Colobus monkey that is threatened by human development in Diani. They equally contribute to Lewa Conservancy for every ticket sold to Nanyuki. They have done this for more then 5 years. In addition, they have health and education programs, not to mention the carbon offset initiative with Mt Kenya Trust. Why would an airline do this, unless its business values recognise people and planet?
  1. The business publicly declares its belief, engagement, and support for sustainable tourism. This can be done through printed material, reports that are shared publicly and through on-line platforms and participating in activities and programs that promote sustainable tourism. It is an investment of time and treasure (money) to create awareness and share experiences with business partners, clients, and the public. Lets Go Travel is the champion of this public display of commitment to sustainable tourism. They participate in all events that promote sustainable tourism. The exhibit and every opportunity and share printed materials that publicly show their support and commitment to sustainability. Their sustainability reports are supported by figures to show the level of investment and impact. They are the first tour operator to join Ecotourism Kenya when it was founded. They are among 10 tour operators in Kenya pioneering the Travelife program for tour operators. They have won the Eco-warrior Award. Lets Go Travel is a member of several conservation organisations, including Friends of Nairobi Aboretum, Nature Kenya, East African Wildlife Society, Ecotourism Kenya, Laikipia Wildlife Forum, among others. Their people projects include feeding the needy, and the “keep her in school” project that provides teenage girls in selected schools in Nanyuki with sanitary towels.
  1. The business fosters long-term relationships with guests that go beyond selling a holiday package. In some cases the relationships flourishes into long-term partnerships that result in repeat visits and new customers through the ‘snowballing effect’. They do this by creating memorable experiences for their guests anchored on their sustainability initiatives. In most instances these businesses have well developed, well managed travellers philanthropy programmes that enable guests to support projects of their choice. In best practice scenarios, the request to support is offered after the guests have experienced and not before. Where traveller’s philanthropy is not handled properly, it can be repulsive to guests, be seen as intrusive, or become a “guilt trap” as some guests have described their experiences. Example of tourism businesses with well-established travellers philanthropy programs include &Beyond, Asilia and Cheli & Peacock. These tourism businesses have well-established foundations that support their community and conservation work. They also have systems for directly supporting the foundations.
  1. The business has a dedicated person or persons or teams responsible for sustainable tourism programs or special projects. The aim of having these focal persons or focal points (e.g. committee) is to ensure that someone takes responsibility for identification, implementation, documentation, reporting, evaluation, and communication of the initiatives. In most cases, the focal persons or teams have other “primary duties” and only attend to sustainability as a secondary duty. This approach seemed to work for a number of operators. Sometimes the dedicated person was the Managing Director, a director, or founder of the business. Examples of leading sustainable tourism businesses that have dedicated teams include Cheli & Peacock, Serena Hotels, Asilia, &Beyond, Sasaab and Turtle Bay Beach Club.
  1. The business has broad networks that encourage learning and sharing lessons. Most the award winning tourism businesses have membership in several conservation organisations and groups. Through these networks, they add their voices to advocacy campaigns and demonstrate commitment to a course. The favourite national organisations are East Africa Wildlife Society (EAWLS) and Nature Kenya. In addition to the national organisations, these businesses support other region based organisations like FONNAP, Laikipia Wildlife Forum, Watamu Ocean Trust, and many more. As a requirement, all award winning sustainable tourism businesses are members of Ecotourism Kenya. These networks enhance identity of the businesses and provide direct opportunities for giving back to the planet.
  1. The business complies with statutory regulations and is up-to-date at all times as a minimum operation standard. Some significant legislation that tourism businesses need to comply with include Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Audits (EA), tourism licensing requirements, labour laws like issuing staff with employment contracts, allowing staff to join unions, paying wages in line with or above living wage. All eco-rated facilities must be compliant before being rated.

By Judy Kepher-Gona


Conservation Alliance of Kenya Launched- What Needs to Change

Today conservation ‘big-wigs’ in Kenya, led by  international Conservation NGOs and leading national NGOs, were joined by “peripheri” NGOs who are beneficiaries of funding from the large NGOs, at a breakfast to launch the Conservation Alliance of Kenya. The Minister for Environment was present to officiate over the launch. The creme de la creme of conservation were present and a few high profile friends to boot. I will find time to familiarise with the objectives of the association. In the meantime i pray the following things change.

  • Government participation- I guess the NGOs paid for everything and the government was a guest all through to lend credence to the process. Because of the way NGOs report achievement and outputs, the participation and/or presence of a senior government official is a significant achievement. So by all means it will be reported that government supports the Alliance. I hope we can see the government support in action. for example compensation for victims of human wildlife conflict, implementation of land use policy to protect wildlife corridors and designated conservation areas, support to private and community conservation areas, support to County Wildlife Conservation and Compensation Committees created under the wildlife Act 2013 and support devolved management. It is not a secret that conservation would collapse tomorrow if the NGOs shut down or left. How can government hold claim to a resource it cannot manage. It should co-own wildlife with people who support wildlife conservation. In particular i have in mind communities that live with wildlife. The local Masai say that government action of insisting it owns resources it cannot manage is like “reaping where they have not sown” or “milking cows it has never herded”.
  • Change the wildlife conservation narrative by promoting a shared value of Wildlife. One of the biggest challenges of conservation in Kenya is the divergent values attached to wildlife. Conservationists see ecological and heritage value in wildlife. Tourism confers aesthetic (romantic) value to wildlife. Local communities are struggling to identify with these new values. In many local communities wildlife was used in folklore to depict different human characters. The hyena represented greed. The Lion represented bravery. Elephant  in my community was used in metaphors related to taking responsibility for your actions however big they were, because the elephants carries its trunk and tusks. The baboon was associated with ugly looks. My community believed cheetah and leopard were kept by witches. And many communities have similar folklore.  Some writers have argued that inability by conservationists to create a common/ shared value for wildlife, hence a new narrative remains the biggest challenge to conservation. Until such a time that majority of Kenyans see wildlife the same as they are defined in NGO project proposals, we will continue to lose wildlife.
  • Systematic and genuine public involvement in conservation is what we need, not participation. I am tempted to ask why the launch event of the association was not held on a weekend in a football stadium if indeed conservation is everybody’s business? Conservation has been preaching to the choir for far too long. An exclusive club to say the least. They should borrow from tourism which learnt the hard way that domestic tourism is good for the country. Three years after that discovery, domestic tourism is growing faster than international tourism and new packages targeting local people have opened travel for Kenyans. Hail the #tembeaKenya campaign. Maybe it is time for ‘domestic conservation!”. We need to see many grass-root, local people driven conservation organisations receiving funding from the big guys to run their own conservation programs and campaigns in a ways that resonate with their people. Conservation through the eyes of the local people.

In an effort to be inclusive by working together, exclusion was screaming loud at this event.

As promised, i will read more about the organisation and review my thoughts

Nairobi, 12th April 2016

Is the Safari itinerary in Kenya Promoting Ecotourism

safari landing image

Is the Safari Itinerary in Kenya Promoting Sustainable Tourism?

Kenya remains a top safari destination in Africa despite stiff competition from Southern Africa and Tanzania. It is widely acknowledged that the Kenyan safari received a massive boost from the movie “Out of Africa”. The safari became associated with a jeep, sun-downer, game drive in the Savannah, wilderness accommodation and romance. This image continues to be replicated in safari itineraries and packages offered by tour companies.  As part of STTA project to assess the status of sustainable tourism in Kenya, STTA evaluated the safari itinerary against  some criteria in Martha Honeys ecotourism score- card in her book Ecotourism and Sustainable tourism- who wons paradise. How “eco” are the safari itineraries?

The survey focused on the safari program and how it is offered. In doing this, we are aware that there is a growing number of tour operators who are redefining the safari itinerary by including walks, adventure activities, volunteering, culture, history, and culinary experiences. We used the typical safari itinerary (see below) for study

Day 1

  • Pick up (usually an airport or a city hotel)
  • driveto park / reserve
  • arrive at lodge/camp on timefor lunch
  • rest at camp after lunch
  • 4pm gather for afternoon before game drive
  • overnight at camp with campfire and masai dance

Day 2

  • 6am -wake up call. tea/coffee and off for game drive
  • return to camp at 8,30 for breakfast
  • rest of day in room. lunch served at 12.30
  • 4pm gather for afternoon tea before game drive (sun downer an option)
  • overnight at camp (bush dinner available at additional cost. check with reception)
  • Day 3
  • Morning game drive
  • Breakfast and depart

The Score

  1. Travel to natural destinations

The safari itinerary is 99% travel to natural destinations. It is reported taht more than 60% of tourists to Kenya go on “safari” to a conservation area. This has been enhanced by the growth of community and private conservation areas that promise to offer a different safari experience. Even tourists to the beach go on safari for a day. There are a few itineraries that combine natural areas with city-based experiences. The safari itinerary scores big on this one. However, it should be noted that Kenya is making every effort to diversify it’s tourism offer because of concerns over a ‘tired’ safari product. Transforming the safari itinerary is a challenge for the excellent tour companies that are in Kenya. It remains to be seen whether the percentage of visitors travelling to natural areas grows or shrinks in the coming years.

  1. Builds environmental awareness

We found out that whether your itinerary contributes to environmental awareness depends on the guide. In a separate study STTA has categorized guides into tour drivers, tour guides and safari guides (look out for next post on types of guides). We found out that Safari guides are good at creating environmental awareness.  These are usually accredited guides with in depth knowledge of destinations. They have had long term interaction with the destinations and will be comfortable linking wildlife viewing with environmental concerns and local livelihoods. Through guiding they are able the build environmental awareness during game drives and the entire safari. Few tour companies use safari guides because they want to avoid costs of keeping guides. Your typical tour driver looks for wildlife (big five), ticks the box and moves on to look for the next on the list. This lessens the overall quality of the experience. There have been concerns of tour drivers who ignored visitor requests to stop and view wildlife en route to lodge on day 1. They declined visitor requests on the basis that game drive times are scheduled and that they will miss lunch . Some guests have ended up seeing less on scheduled game drives than during drive for lunch on day 1. Here the record is mixed. The challemge of guiding is by addressed by the new tourism Act that now provides for a national accreditation system. Without a safari guide, the safari itinenary performs poorly against this criteria

  1. Respects Local Culture

What does this itinerary say about the culture? Basically the itinerary is about game-finding and game viewing with cultural spicing.  The spicing is the cultural dance offered after dinner. However, tour drivers always add a visit to cultural centers en route to conservation areas because of personal gain. The centers pay the drivers for making stops. Tour operators are aware that their visitors are taken to cultural villages by guides or drivers yet they refuse to add village visits to their packages on claims that they cannot guarantee quality of cultural offers in cultural villages. So culture continues to be offered in the ‘black market’ with the beneficiaries being the “tour drivers”. Here the record is very poor.

But again, some operators have founds ways to promote visits to cultural villages by partnering with the villages and using a pre-paid ticket systems to ensure the villages benefit and not the drivers. One such program in Masai Mara was funded by Travel Foundation, the UK based charity. The participating villages have reported increased revenues while the lodges have reported improved visitor satisfaction from visits the villages.

  1. Creating economic benefits for host communities

One of the direct ways to create benefits for host communities is to employ local people in tourism. Guiding is considered an area of employment for host communities. However this is not happening fast enough to make a difference. Most tour operators, especially SMEs,  often use city-based tour drivers. These SMEs, do not own tour vehicles nor do they employ guides. They engage city-based tour drivers on need basis. Apart from lessening visitor experience, they deny local people economic benefits through employment.

The other way to benefit host communities is to include community-based offers in the itinerary. This is rare. Only operators who own a tour company and have a lodge/camp will include community-based offers in their itineraries. Here we have a mixed score. (read our previous post on status of community based tourism to understand reasons given by operators for not including CBT in their offers).

Review by Judy Kepher-Gona, Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda- STTA, Nairobi Kenya April 2016


Going green is expensive-Why does the perception persist?


More than 15 years ago, when i worked with experts and Kenya’s tourism fraternity to set up the eco-certification scheme for accommodation facilities in Kenya, cost of going green is one concern that emerged during every stakeholder consultative meeting. We stuck to one argument that going green was an investment and that it made “sense and cents”. We had few reference documents. We were passionate. The key reference publications at that time were a few from International Ecotourism Society. They were very useful.

We finally got over this huddle by drawing synergies between green investments and product development. It worked. Next was managing another perception. Cost of being certified is prohibitive. An operator asked- “why would i make an effort to go green and then pay someone to confirm that i am agree”. They wanted it to be a free service or paid for the certifying body or other organisations. This would be an incentive, the industry argued. We nearly lost the case for paid certification. . However, the industry empathised with the fact that Ecotourism Kenya needed funds to manage the new certification scheme. Ecotourism Kenya and the industry settled on a token fee of US$ 150 for certification. The applying facilities would cover the cost of accommodation for assessors. Over the years, Ecotourism Kenya has faced challenges when revising the fee upward.

From 2015, i became  involved with another process to develop green guidelines for tourism destinations in Kenya. The same debates have emerged. The destinations perceive that it will be costly to comply with the proposed guidelines. The cost of certification is yet to be discussed. But I am sure it will be contested. Is this a Kenyan problem?

In 2016, like in 2002, i am trying to reflect on the arguments presented by operators against paying for certification and those who perceive green investment as costs, to understand where the challenge lies. I can resonate with the question raised in 2002 by the Kenyan operator who did not see the logic of being charged for assessment of their green investments. Of course nothing is free, if the operator does not pay for it, someone else must pay for it. Who is this someone else? Government? Development NGOs? Environmental rights organisations? UN Organisations? All these have been floated as potential financiers. Are there examples where any of these organisations that are meeting cost of green certification in tourism?

The persisting perception that going green is a cost and not an investment remains disturbing. What is the source of the concern? Is it how we frame the certification tools? Or is it the checklist of best practices? Or standards? In 2002, i believe the concerns were fuelled by how we we framed the questions in the certification tool. The questions expected specific responses, not a range of actions.  There were also few examples of best practices, so the checklist was borrowed from developed world. It was even more challenging to point to standards. Kenya had just enacted its first environmental law (EMCA1999) and there were no local standards for water use and management in hotels, or electrical equipment like washing machines and air conditioners,  or black water management and many more. Much has changed since then and opportunities for going green are many  and clearer. This is supported by research and technology. But the issue of cost persists. Is it the nature of tourism investments? Maybe not.

Tourism in Kenya is dominated by many small and medium enterprises. Trends show that there is growing participation in certification and awards. As such it can be argued that the growing participation in certification schemes and awards are driven by these small and medium enterprises. Does that mean they can afford to invest in green? Or are they getting their way by tapping into ‘low hanging options” for green.    There must be two categories. Those who invest and those who “innovate investment in green”.

What is the challenge?

How authentic are those Sustainability credentials?

samburu elephants

“Authentic sustainability credentials should reflect in the health of a destination and wealth of the host communities. I strongly believe we cannot have a healthy ecosystem without a wealthy community”- @GonaJudy

Everyone has jumped into the sustainability bandwagon. Some have faked it (green washed)  until they made it. Good news. Others are still faking it (Green washing). The sad thing is that they are receiving attention. The numerous awards and certification programs have not helped.

I have always had a problem with certification and award programs that don’t provide for field assessment of applicants. They have encouraged armchair sustainability champions who hire PR experts to complete their certification and award applications and to create amazing sustainable tourism policies  for businesses whose directors have never passed a resolution on sustainable tourism. The staffs too are clueless on the concept. There is no plan.

Yet with each passing day, media is awash with winners of this and that sustainable tourism award. At this rate we may end up with a growing list of sustainability operators but not commensurate positive impact on destinations (both ecological and socio-economic).

I know of hundreds of award winning destinations and operations in Africa. Most of these destinations are wildlife conservation areas and the operators are based in these conservation areas. Their award winning practices revolve around benefiting host communities and supporting conservation of iconic species. So why is Africa loosing its big mammals and cats at such alarming rates despite many awards won by tourism operators for supporting conservation? Why do host communities in wildlife dispersal areas in Africa still kill wildlife in retaliation from human wildlife conflicts yet everyone is winning awards for benefiting communities from sustainable tourism? Which brings us to another question. Will sustainable tourism save destinations? That’s for another day

One may argue that there is nothing wrong with ad hoc sustainability actions provided they are meeting a desired outcome. True, but how do you explain the disconnect between the winning trends for businesses and the continued losses for biodiversity and dissatisfaction of host communities (common good)? 

“What you don’t measure, you can’t manage.” This quote summarises my belief that a truly credible sustainable tourism operation must have sustainability plan, have a goal and targets, have a monitoring and reporting system. These plans should be measurable in terms of investment and impact. It is the transformative value of these plans that should be considered during awards and certifications, not un-coordinated actions of kindness that make the business look good. Short cuts will benefit the businesses but not the people and places we depend on for tourism

The quest for sustainability in tourism needs to shift gear from rewarding activities to rewarding impact. And every claim must be assessed!

Sustainability is the New Luxury

Sustainability is the New Luxury-Tourism is a business of leisure and recreation. Therefore, quality (luxury) is a key differentiating factor between products. In this industry, excesses also define luxury. Too many tourism professionals still believe that sustainability threatens quality. They still see sustainability in terms of reducing water use, reducing energy use, and reducing waste, reducing noise, and construction using natural material among others. Indeed, at the advent of ecotourism/sustainable tourism in Kenya, no tourism facility with rooms that had four concrete walls, would have passed an ecotourism (sustainability) test (scorecard). Sustainability was also more about what the business did and had less focus on the consumer. This perception is informed by early practice of sustainability, which focused on reduction of negative environmental impacts.

There was another influence on early practice of sustainability. Businesses were managing negative impacts to “look-good”. The consumer and by extension luxury, were subconsciously ignored. This perception was consolidated as the ecotourism movement became associated with adventure/nature tourism. It is about this time that lodges in Kenya experimented with concepts like “dry-toilets”, introduced new aspects of game viewing like walking safaris, transformed the lodge concept from 100% concrete to use of local material and reduced the number of beds per facility to reduce impact. They also started to engage local people as guides and improved the bucket shower concept. Later developments involved partnerships, conservation and land management approaches. The journey of sustainability had begun. Over the years the sustainability space has broadened and the concept has significantly evolved.

However, the early sustainability considerations, based on reductions, green architectural designs and “look good” activities, remain valid. They define, in my view, the “minimalist” era in the sustainability evolution. However, the

Today, emphasis is on adding value to products and services by heightening social and environmental values of the product. The focus is on the customer as well. As such, businesses can create new experiences for guests by incorporating sustainable (green) elements to products and services. For example, food experience can be enhanced by sourcing produce from certified organic suppliers, enabling guests to pick their combination of fresh vegetables from a vegetable garden, buying from “fair trade” labels, or even instituting measures to manage food waste. Businesses can also enhance the food experience of guests by joining global campaigns to reduce food waste and sharing this information with guests. Equally, accommodation experiences can be enhanced by “green sourcing’ of fittings and furnishings.

As demand for ‘green/clean” production expands, opportunities to enhance experience through sustainability are being made available everywhere, making it possible for every aspect of tourism to incorporate sustainability without compromising quality. It is reported that by the end of 2014, sustainability had become much more achievable, doable, common practice on travel and tourism industry.

This transition from “doing good” to “being good” and focusing on enhancing product/service experiences, as opposed to only reducing negative impact, can be equated to a shift from linear to circular economies. It is about harnessing innovation and creativity to enable positive outcome. In tourism, positive outcomes are nothing more than memorable experiences for guests.


As with the shift from linear to circular economies, the transformation of sustainability into experience (luxury) is a systematic process that requires good governance as well as sustainable management systems and structures. These processes and systems are best observed through practices of award winning businesses/leaders in sustainable tourism – in essence reviewing current trends in sustainable tourism.

It isn’t Easy Being Green – The good and not too good practices in sustainable tourism

It isn’t Easy Being Green – The good and not too good practices in sustainable tourism

 It has always been my conviction that what determines the sustainability index of a business is what they do, that which can be and has been verified and not what they say they do or what they will do. This conviction has been confirmed by the recent scandal surrounding Volkswagen’s (VW) clean diesel claims. There are many lessons for tourism from the VW emissions scandal. The scandal brings to the fore the good and not too good practices that characterise the sustainability movement.

The VW ‘clean diesel’ scandal exposed the vulnerability of consumers of ‘green’ and the deception businesses employ in order to capture a piece of the ‘green economy’ pie without investing in sustainability. In brief, the VW scandal involves claims that VW exported nearly 500,000 cars to the United States of America (USA), cars whose systems had been rigged with the sole purpose of gaining clearance from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thus gaining access to America’s ‘clean energy’ market. In reality, their highly hyped ‘clean diesel’ model actually exceeded the set EPA emission limits. In so doing, VW falsely gained unwarranted publicity for their supposed “green” credentials. In fact, at the time the scandal was exposed VW was ranked #11 among organisations with the best Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reputations by the Reputation Institute. Though VW’s chief executive officer resigned following the scandal, the damage has been done and it will take VW decades to regain its reputation and position as a top tier car producer. Not to forget the potential financial consequences related to tax rebates for clean diesel.

A red flag has been raised. More than ever before, sustainability will be in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. It made sense and ‘cents’ for VW to mimic the trend in order to tap into the ‘conscious consumer’ market. Like VW, many sustainable tourism businesses, are cashing-in on the growing number of conscious consumers by adding the sustainable label without doing much. The danger with sustainability is that the wrongdoing of a few members of a sector can easily be extended to entire sector, as sustainability cashes in on consumer values. It is value driven. Businesses have no control over these values. While businesses can subscribe to and promote certain values, ultimately, it is the consumer who decides. The main lesson drawn from the VW scandal is that businesses should not gamble with customer values nor should they compromise on sustainability issues in lieu of making a profit.

For the tourism industry, the question that we need to ask ourselves is, what should businesses do to avoid this kind of exposé? Based on STTA’s experiences in business coaching, training and research in sustainable tourism, there are a number of ‘bad’ practices that must be avoided and good ones that should be adopted to minimise risks of consumer censure. Here are a few examples:

Bad – Focussing solely on the shareholders and the bottom line: Sustainable practices require businesses to shift their focus from shareholders to the larger society. Consequently, businesses should ensure they are accountable to all stakeholders (consumers, shareholders, local communities, etc.) and not focus solely on the shareholders. This is because genuine sustainability is outward looking. In the case of VW, the management team was focused on posting good results for their shareholders that they took the risk of deceiving their clients/consumers and the larger society. This shortsightedness has cost VW heavily not only in terms of revenue but more so the reputation and trust they had established among consumers. In the tourism sector, there are similar schemes that purport to be sustainable, whereas the objective is to benefit the business. For example, some hotels promote the ‘towel change’ policy not to save water or reduce pollution, but to cut on labour, detergents and energy costs. One can easily tell if the practice is genuine by checking whether the hotel also uses biodegradable detergents, has strategic water/energy saving programs, etc. If ‘towel change’ is a stand-alone activity, it is purely for the benefit of the business.

Good – Engaging the entire organisation in sustainability issues: Involving the entire staff in the organisations sustainability agenda is critical for the program’s realisation and success. Staff involvement encourages ownership of the agenda by providing a forum for staff to contribute ideas, which encourages innovation. Secondly, it establishes an internal audit team that checks on the organisation’s performance against the set sustainability actions. It is even a better practice to have a staff member with requisite skills in the specific areas identified to take lead. Nevertheless, even staff involvement can be misused. In some instances, businesses focus on activities to involve staff without having a strategy for staff engagement. For example, an organisation could choose to set up ‘green teams’ and while having a green team is a good idea, it is imperative to develop a strategy to ensure green teams work towards organisational green goals, which would be a sustainable investment. On example that comes to mind is the ‘green teams’ set up by many coast-based hotels. These, ‘green teams’ mainly undertake beach cleaning along their respective hotels sometimes in collaboration with community members, guests and beach operators, but rarely conduct sensitisation. Consequently, one would ask, is the goal to keep the beach clean for hotel guests or to save the ocean from pollution? In addition, how sustainable are these clean up exercises? These are pertinent questions, which should be asked to establish the motive behind the cleaning exercises and the agenda of hotels in establishing green teams. –

 Bad – Good intentions without commitment: Intentions that are not matched by long-term investments cannot translate into sustainable practices or values. A genuine interest in sustainability is demonstrated by making the sustainability agenda part of an organisation’s business strategy. This means funds are earmarked to meet goals, progress is monitored internally and externally through third-party assessments and reports are produced. Some tourism businesses that claim the sustainability label often lack strategy or long-term focus on the agenda. Instead, they have good intentions executed through ad hoc sustainability actions like donating desks, renovating schools or using gifts from guests to make donations. These are acts of charity and charity and CSR must not be confused with sustainability. This mainly happens where owners and/or directors are aware of the opportunities made possible by having the sustainability label, but choose not to invest. They do little and then employ the best public relations companies or travel writers to promote their CSR project as sustainability. Unfortunately, the media hype has managed to mix-up CSR and sustainability.

Good – Producing regular and/or annual sustainability report: When sustainability becomes part of an organisation’s culture, they should produce a narrative and financial sustainability report. The sustainability report is what a business should use to promote its sustainability agenda. The report is an accounting document that opens the business to professional scrutiny. Many different organisations have developed reporting tools that businesses can adapt. A good report will be informed by data generated from structured documentation. Similarly, there are monitoring tools that businesses can adapt or they can develop their own generic tools that suit their needs. Currently, very few tourism businesses, including multi-year award winners, produce sustainability reports or have reliable documentation. Award organisers are partly to blame for lowering the standards and handling businesses with “white gloves” when it comes to sustainability.

Bad – Exclusively depending on philanthropic contributions to finance sustainability practices: The tourism sector is notorious for this sustainability ‘crime’. Few tourism businesses can claim to fund their sustainability practices from profits as they often top-up the investments with philanthropic funds. There is nothing wrong with attracting additional funding, but there are two principles that require adherence. First, a business must demonstrate that the funds being solicited are for scaling-up the impact of on-going initiatives. This means you must have started the project with your business investment funds/profits. Secondly, one must declare the level of investment of philanthropic funds in their sustainability report and in any publicity campaigns, award applications and other communications. This is to ensure that philanthropic funds and business funds are not combined. Transparency is as such, a key driver and factor. Based on financial records, audits reports and other documentation, an assessor of a business sustainability index should be able to determine that the business has invested in sustainability and accounted for philanthropic funds.

Good – Sharing practices and interventions with stakeholders including policy makers, other tourism businesses, researchers and communities for wider impact: Any business keen on sustainability will share their experience. Adopting sustainability means opening -up to external scrutiny, which could include business competitors. It is also important to note that sharing is not restricted to success stories. Failures and challenges should also be shared. The reason many businesses are afraid to share their claims of sustainability is mainly because they have no tangible data to support their claims. Before one can share, one must have documented evidence, which requires consistent monitoring and reports. While businesses can make direct efforts to share, they need to be supported by stakeholders including peer organisations and sector interest groups

Bad – Businesses focus on external awards and recognition more than the impact or level of transformation of their interventions and/or practices: It is common for businesses to make a one-off ‘green’ investment and capitalise on this flagship effort to gain as much publicity as possible. For example, in the tourism industry it is quite common to see businesses claiming they are sustainable or green because they planted 500 trees or supported a conservation drive five years ago or so. A few questions need to be raised when such a claim is made. For example, what is the guarantee that the land where trees are planted will not be converted to other uses before the trees mature? Some businesses have no idea where the trees are planted because they donated seedlings to some organisation to plant the trees and the only evidence they have is a photo-op of the cheque handing-over ceremony and images of a newly planted tree seedlings on some piece of land, which could be anywhere! Then there is the question of the survival-rate of the trees. What is guarantee that trees will be cared for to maturity? Are there reports indicating the surviving trees each year? Unfortunately, most awards and recognition schemes, including some certification programs, do not have the capacity to verify claims of awardees or simply do not consider it important. As a result, many tourism businesses have become award chasers and do not emphasise impact assessment, which is misleading.

“Good practices can be copied, but values have to be learnt”.

NB: Judy is the founder of STTA. STTA conducts direct business coaching and training workshops for businesses on how to establish a good sustainability strategy, reporting, monitoring and more. STTA also conducts assessments for business to determine their sustainability performance.