Tag Archives: sustainable tourism

Obstacles in Transforming Tourism Sector into a Real People Impact (RPI) Industry

Obstacles in Transforming Tourism Sector into a Real People Impact (RPI) Industry

Sustainable tourism has received a vote of confidence from United Nations. 2017 has been declared International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. It is the second time in 15 years that United Nation recognises sustainable tourism. The first recognition came in 2002, when the year was declared the International Year of Ecotourism.

That sustainable tourism is significant in the future and growth of tourism is now evident. From 2002 to 2017 declarations, the momentum to create awareness and make sustainable tourism the norm and not a niche market has been sustained. Nations, private and public organisations have developed tools or put in place systems for enhancement, implementation, monitoring & evaluation, measurement, recognition, and reporting sustainable tourism and sustainability in tourism. Some of the international organisations that have engaged include:

  • UNWTO – United Nations World Tourism Organisation
  • GSTC – Global Sustainable Tourism Council
  • IUCN – Green Destination Guidelines
  • UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
  • WTTC -World Travel & Tourism Council

The role of advocacy organisations like Global Ecotourism Network, The International Ecotourism Society, Global Sustainable Tourism Council, National Geographic, and SKAL has also escalated through conferences, awards, and development of standards. In academics, the contribution has come through curriculum development for graduate and postgraduate studies in sustainable tourism. The extensive research in this field is a further affirmation of the relevance and significance of sustainable tourism in the future and growth of tourism.

Suffice to say the engagement of these organisations, and the UN recognition has given tourism an opportunity to transform into a Real People Impact (RPI) industry. This has led to a shift of focus from simply complying with standards to enhancing visitor experience and safeguarding people and planet rights. However, obstacles remain to realising a real transformation of tourism into an RPI industry

Contrary to common belief, this year is not about creating events and celebrations with short-term focus. It is about making long-term commitments that will transform tourism to a Real People Impact RPI industry.

Therefore, if significant gains are going to be made from IYE2017, nations must put in place systems that will contribute to ending tourism as we know it. . Focus must shift to ethical people engagement. This will call for bold actions by all to confront and deal with obstacles. What are some of these obstacles

 Exclusive Tourism

Sustainable tourism will not be realised if tourism remains exclusive. Tourism has become increasingly exclusive, locking out residents and/or, host communities from places and resources. Here in Kenya, our beaches stand out. Access to beaches, which should have been public areas, have been restricted, through exclusionist systems, perpetuated by capitalist tendencies, in the name of enhancing guest experiences. The old ways of doing tourism assume tourists do not want to interact with Properly designed host and guest interaction can enhance visitor experience

Parks are other examples of exclusive tourism. History has confirmed that locking out host community’s form interacting with parks has not saved our wildlife. Reports indicate that Kenya has lost more than 40% of our wildlife in 40 years despite running efficient exclusionist park systems. Yet studies show that integrating managed livestock grazing in parks can yield positive results.

Other forms of exclusion are manifested in designs that do not consider people with disabilities. They are excluded for using or working in these facilities by the design

Unfair labour practices

It is not enough that tourism creates jobs. It must create reliable work programs that respect employee rights. Unfair labour practices is, a problem among unconscious tourism businesses. Two forms of injustices define unfair labour practices in tourism

  • Season-based employment, which deny employees benefits associated with continuous long-term employment. In areas where tourism is seasonal, companies are known to release employees, with no pay, during low season. Most employees can be described as casual labourers
  • Denial of right to belong to a union. Most employers in tourism deny their workers the right to join unions. This is made easy because a majority of their staff fall in the casual labour group and the rest are considered management.

The consequence of season based contracts and denial of rights to belong to unions is low wages and poverty. How else can tourism explain high levels of poverty in established tourism destinations, where tourism in the key economic activity?


Persistent poverty in established tourism destinations in developing countries can also be attributed to high levels of leakages of tourism income. When there are no linkages between formal tourism sector and local economy, leakages occur. The percentages of leakages are high where there is limited capacity by local economy to deliver goods and services required by visitors. The importation of these goods and services reduces the amount of tourism income left in the local economy. As part of transforming tourism towards sustainability the overall tourism strategy of nations must provide for skills development and creation of linkages

Irresponsible Consumption

Irresponsible consumption is an obstacle to transforming tourism to a Real People Impact (RPI) industry. Irresponsible consumption patterns in tourism are characterised by unwillingness to pay competitive prices for services and products procured from local areas, buying from brokers who exploit local producers instead of building capacity of local producers to attain consistency in supply and appropriate quality. Lack of attention to supply chain may result in irresponsible consumption if goods and service are produced from forced or child labour. Worst example of irresponsible consumption involve tourism denying local people access to water by ‘acquiring” the only reliable dry-season source of water available to the community so visitors can have unlimited access while people and their animals trek for kilometres in search of water. For real transformation, consumption patterns that reduce the quality of life of local people, or threaten their livelihoods must be avoided.

According to STTA, this should be the agenda for 2017:

Businesses should make new commitments to sustainable tourism by developing strategies and plans and setting specific goals.

  • Tourism membership organisations should up their game, and extend their lobbying powers to compel their members and state to respond to call for sustainable tourism.
  • It is the year for Destination Marketing Organisations to hand over power to local communities, and residents so they can create experiences for travellers.
  • It is the year for investors to relook their partnerships and/or create effective partnership-based linkages with host communities
  • It is the year for tourism operators to review the distribution of tourism towards a more fair and equitable systems that minimise leakages
  • It is the year for public regulators to pay attention to positive impacts generated by tourism instead of focusing on numbers and revenue
  • Regulators should come up with bold and disruptive sustainable tourism strategies to secure tourism into the future
  • It is the year for sustainable tourism assessors to return credibility to certification programs by recognising and rewarding impact, not cost cutting measures and documented intentions
  • It is the year for financing organisations to include sustainability considerations in their eligibility criteria
  • It is the year to end Green-washing.


It is the year to end to tourism, as we know it


Green Tourism Summit 2017- 13th-15th June 2017. Call for Speakers & Delegates

3rd Annual Green Tourism Summit – 2017

Modelling a Sustainable Future for Tourism in East Africa

 Theme: Sustainable Tourism & SDGs

The Annual Green Tourism Summit, convened and hosted by Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda (STTA Kenya), will take place in Nairobi, Kenya from 13th, 14th & 15th June 2017. The Summit is a multi-stakeholder platform to inspire action towards a sustainable tourism sector in East Africa.

The 2017 Summit, is inspired by declaration of 2017 as International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development #IYSTD #IY2017, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN 17 SDGs that need urgent attention and the ranking of the East Africa states in the Global SDG Index.

The East Africa Community states are currently ranked between #120 – #128 in the Global SDG Index. For all these states, tourism is a key economic driver. Therefore, tourism must engage and get involved in the SDG dialogue as it provides an opportunity to improve the regions ranking.

The purpose of 2017 Green Tourism Summit is to identify key actions that will put tourism on track to meet the agenda of the SDGs. In order to do this, the Summit will seek to answer the following key questions:

  • What can tourism contribute towards realising the 5ps of SDGS
  • How can achievements be accelerated and challenges/ risks minimised or mitigated
  • Who needs to be involved?

This Summit is open to speakers and delegates from all over the world.

Call for speakers and Delegates is still open. Visit http://www.sttakenya.org for speaker guidelines, themes, and registration.

For further information, please contact Judy Kepher-Gona or Job Odhiambo

Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda

P O Box 44330- 00100

Nairobi, Kenya

Email: info@sttakenya.org

Telephone- +254 718 127 557

#IY2017studentvoicesKe – Kenyan College Students Adding their Voices to the Sustainable Tourism Agenda

Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda (STTA), a Kenyan founded sustainable tourism organisation, in celebration of 2017, the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development (IYSTD2017), has designed a campaign to get student voices heard. The campaign, dubbed IY17studentvoicesKe kicked off on 25th February 2017 and will continue until October 2017.

The campaign, delivered through free inter-varsity seminars, will be held each month with a different topic being tackled at each seminar. During the seminars, a moderator gives opening remarks on the topic of the day. This is followed by an interactive session where students  engage with each other and the moderator through commentaries, views, questions, and recommendations. The sessions conclude with a set of recommendations on how to take the sustainable tourism agenda forward. Students are then invited to summarise the days deliberations in 500-600 words. The best submissions receive a sponsorship the attend the Regional Green Tourism Summit, hosted by STTA, in Nairobi, June 13th-15th.

On 25th February, the discussions centred around what sustainable tourism will look like n a decade. Among other observations, the students had the following recommendations:

  • Bad governance and leadership is a threat to sustainable tourism and SDGs
  • Relevant college curriculums will play a key role in promoting sustainable tourism
  • Tourism curriculum must include skills to promote sustainable tourism
  • Product diversification is important to achieve ideals of sustainable tourism
  • Tourism linkages should not be optional. Investors should be made to commit to minimum linkages
  • Ethical labour practices are key for development in regions that depend on tourism
  • skill development for host communities to engage in tourism is key for sustainable tourism
  • Local-hood is important in promoting sustainable tourism

At the ned of all the seminars @STTAKenya will publish a special issue of student voices in Sustainable Tourism.

Add your voice to #IY17studentvoicesKe by following @STTAKenya on Facebook and Twiiter and LinkedIn


Unethical CSR- Fraud or Ignorance?



Unethical CSR- Intentional Fraud and Ignorance?

It is a shame to write about unethical CSR in this time and age when information is readily available on what businesses can and should do for ethical CSR. Tourism in particular has hundreds of indicators, awards and certification schemes recognising all sorts of “ethical”  or”responsible” practices. The number of awards and certifications programs and the numerous guidelines available online and through subscription gives the impression that majority of businesses understand what right even when they don’t comply. However there are CSR trends that are unethical and discouraging.

There are a few disturbing actions by businesses when it comes to CSR:

  1. Purporting to support a cause without involving the primary stakeholders: More and more many businesses are adapting labels and logos of “good causes” for a day, then take hundreds of photos and share on all social platforms pretending to be engaged, but are unable to explain their exact engagement with the cause.This happens when they fail to engage with primary stakeholders and interest groups therefore lack understanding and knowledge on how to effectively support the cause. Sometimes its deliberate to gain social capital. When  a business takes advantage of a good cause like breast cancer awareness month, or world diabetes day, or world elephant day and earth day, to attract attention of clients without having any tangible plan for the cause, this is unethicl and amounts to CSR fraud.
  2. Lack of public disclosure on what company has committed to specific CSR: Like the name clearly states, CSR is a “public-good” action. It is therefore expected that whoever engages in it will willingly disclose their investment on ‘public good”.Best practice would be to disclose the expected investment in advance and then corroborate the budget with actual investment in public reports. Few businesses are able to disclose their CSR investments before or after an intervention.  This failure to disclose is unethical and  amounts to CSR fraud
  3. Mixing funds from CSR Campaigns with business funds: Travellers philanthropy is one of the most abused concepts in tourism. Tourism businesses raise funds from philanthropic travellers for “public good” projects without having separate systems to manage the funds. These businesses end up using some of the funds to support their commercial operations. This co-mingling of funds results in CSR fraud
  4. Producing non-specific CSR Reports: Some businesses do not document their CSR activities, especially the financial aspects, systematically. Lack of proper documentation means they cannot produce effective financial and narrative reports. These kind of reports are prevents interest groups and stakeholders from asking questions. The businesses is the ultimate winner.

Suffice to say that the CSR fraud in tourism is perpetuated by awards and certification schemes that lack capacity and resources to verify claims made by businesses in award and certification application forms. Awards are behaving like  cheer-leaders who encourage the players to win but have no details on the rules of the game.

Change will be achieved through education and learning. Until then, green washing continues, preventing tourism from making an impact in the sustainable development arena.

@GonaJudy October 2016



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

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?

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.