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Decoding Sustainability, The GSTC Way

Through this article we wish to delve into Decoding Sustainability, and understand the importance of adopting the GSTC criteria. It is an attempt to enable the reader, who could be a traveller, a tourism business (the industry), a tourism Board or a DMO (Destination Management Organization), to look at Sustainability as the way forward, in experiencing the best, in making their every rupee spent proliferate to every person involved; in making their travel worthy and leaving the least negative footprint behind. Let us begin by asking ourselves a pertinent question? Is Sustainability a term relatable only to being environmentally conscious? Or does it have more robust and deeper usage? Let us explore and get ourselves acquainted with the right concepts and the right actions that will lead to sustainable travels being more consequential of mindful choices.

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” —

Moslih Eddin Saadi (13th century Persian poet)

The Flow of the article: Demand for conscious travel options and Greenwashing, Decoding Sustainability (The concepts), Greenwashing and the need for certifications, too many fragmented labels and the rationale for GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council), GSTC Criteria and Accreditation; the need, Case studies

Freeda and Keerthana Ravi

A recent survey by booking.com shows that 83% of the travelers are to make sustainable travel a priority in the future and over half the global travelers (53%) acknowledged the desire to travel more sustainably as a direct result of Coronavirus. For instance, TUI group shows preference for GSTC certified hotels – 9.2 million TUI customers stayed in hotels certified to a GSTC-Recognized standard (81% of TUI’s Hotels) in 2018. Online Travel Agencies (OTA) are developing plans to provide consumers with indicators in search results of certified hotels. The impact of travel and tourism on economies, environment and host communities can be positive and negative, hence creating both opportunities and responsibilities. With the growing emphasis on accountability for the negative impacts multiplied by the effects of the global pandemic, consumer awareness towards sustainable consumption is increasing.

With the tourism industry all set for a comeback like the pre pandemic times, 2023 will see a phenomenal change. The obvious choice will be to undertake conscious travel; options which throws good sustainability standards.


“Conscious travel is about human rights and sustaining communities, not just about environmentalism.” 

(Susan, Travel writer, What is Conscious Travel? – Travel Guideline). 

How does one make the right choice with businesses using umpteen labels such as “green”, “ëco” and other environment friendly claims in their marketing campaigns? Unfortunately, the majority of these claims are not verifiable and often do not translate into action, resultantly misleading consumers to act based on false assertions, leading to what is known as ‘greenwashing’. Most consumers do not have the level of knowledge, insight and understanding of the issues in tourism and sustainability to spot greenwashing. Another major issue arises when a business over-emphasizes on one aspect of sustainability (say reduced plastic use) they are obviously doing well at that, while continuing an unsustainable behaviour elsewhere or otherwise. This accentuates the need for information tools that validate the sustainability claims of tourism businesses/destinations. Among such tools are ecolabels and certifications that set standards and help distinguish genuine ecotourism and sustainable tourism businesses from others that make empty claims. It also calls for unpacking the sustainability jargons and concepts. A very pertinent step even before one starts to think of practicing the same. 

What exactly is sustainability? The US environment protection agency (US-EPA) has put forth a definition that encompasses the inclusivity of the term, “Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Beatrice Venturini, EHL Insights content editor writes in her article decoding the term in a more contextual manner, “The analysis of sustainability is often divided into three main perspectives: social, economic and environmental, (also known as “people, profit and planet”)”. And finally, the UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization’ s definition as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” All these definitions have brought in all the components of sustainability to fore and have made it full-scale.

Sustainable Tourism Therefore Makes Optimal Use Of Environmental Resources, Respects The Socio-Cultural Authenticity Of Communities And Ensures Viable, Long-Term Economic Operations

 (UNWTO, Sustainable Development).

The three dimensions of sustainable tourism – economic efficiency, social equity, environmental conservation– are interrelated and cannot exist on their own. From a practical standpoint, sustainable tourism is an aspiration to minimize the negative impacts and increase the positive impacts of tourism. 

Sustainable tourism is often confused with other terms such as ‘eco-tourism’ and ‘adventure tourism’. Eco-tourism is a form of niche tourism involving travel to natural areas (International Ecotourism Society) whereas, adventure tourism is defined as any trip involving two of the three elements – physical activity, natural environment, and cultural immersion (Adventure Travel Trade Association). While there are definite overlaps in the definitions, these are different sub-sectors of tourism and not all forms of ecotourism / adventure tourism are sustainable. 

Sustainable tourism does not refer to any specific type of tourism although it is often misinterpreted as a type of niche tourism product. Rather, it is an ethos that is elemental to all forms and functions of tourism including mass tourism. It is integral to all aspects of tourism development and management, however large or small. ( UNEP & UNWTO, 2005) Achieving sustainable tourism is a process of continuous improvement that requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders – from the Government to the tourists. 

“One Industry That Has Been Known To Greenwash Often Is The Travel And Tourism Industry.  Travel And Tourism Companies Try To Make Their Customer Think That They Are Being As Green As Possible When In Reality Their Industry Is One Of The Biggest Polluters And Most Harmful To The Environment”

Environmentally Unconscious TravelGreenwashing Sins of the Travel and Tourism Industry,

An apathy of a statement and true to the reality.

Greenwashing also called “green sheen”, is a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly. (Greenwashing – Wikipedia). In the travel industry, greenwashing also refers to tour operators which make eco-trips seem more sustainable and ethical than they actually are. In some cases, tour companies mislead tourists into thinking that by participating in a particular activity they are giving back to the local community or environment (Daniela Frendo, Epicure & Culture Contributor). To avoid getting into being misled, one needs to select certified hotels and tour operators to craft your travels and stays. Certification is a voluntary, third-party assessment, through an audit, of a tourism enterprise or destination for conformity to a standard. For businesses, certifications serve as a means of measuring their sustainability performance while also communicating their credibility to the consumers. For consumers these help in identifying conscious businesses. With a rise in conscious consumption, the last decade has seen tremendous growth in the number of eco-labels/ certifications, with over 250+ different certifications for the tourism industry today. This has invariably resulted in confusion among consumers and businesses alike incentivizing the need for consensus and uniformity in the industry. Furthermore, ideally a sustainability certification should consider all dimensions of sustainability. However, most certifications today only consider environmental aspects, while socio-cultural and economic impacts are side-lined. E.g.: LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, a globally recognized symbol of building sustainability, provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings. While comprehensive and effective regarding environmental performance standards of buildings and resultant savings, like many other labels it excludes the socio-cultural impact of business operations.

“If it wasn’t for certification (GSTC), we might not have implemented all these changes. It was a way to force ourselves and our staff to implement changes. So, on one hand, certifications raise awareness, and on the other, it pushes people to constantly improve”

Mario Hardy, CEO Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA). 

The proliferation of green certification ‘labels’ and lack of a holistic approach to sustainability, led to the formation of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), initiated by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The purpose was to foster increased understanding of sustainable tourism practices and the adoption of universal sustainable tourism principles.

 GSTC establishes and manages global baseline standards for sustainable tourism known as the GSTC Criteria, organised around four main themes: Sustainable management, Social and economic, Cultural and Environmental. Owing to the varied nature of tourism development in different places, GSTC provides internationally recognized but locally adaptable standards for sustainability. The GSTC criteria (gstcouncil.org) is all inclusive, it has taken into consideration not only environmental parameters but also the socio economic and cultural factors for business and destinations to adopt and become sustainable in a more complete sense. There are two sets of criteria – one for the industry (hotels/tour operators) and the other for destinations. 

The visitors are on the lookout for tourism experiences and products that are certified to be of a sustainable standard.  Thence, comes in the aspect of qualitative assessment, accreditation and certification and the marketing of the same by the holder of the certification.  The GSCT criterion and indicators are more a nuanced approach to evolving and ensuring the experience, destination or the property and catapulting it into the mind of the people, who foray into the domain of sustainable options.  

In addition to managing the criteria, GSTC strives to bring a common seal of evaluation and uniformity in the labelling process within the tourism ecosystem. To this aim, it intends to act as an umbrella organization by providing an accreditation service that validates the certification body’s criteria and processes. 

GSTC Accredited means that a Certification Body (CB) awards certification according to processes that comply with international standards and good practices.


The GSTC Accreditation Manual draws compliance standards based on ISO and GSTC specific guidelines from the ISEAL Alliance standard setting code. Examples of accredited certifying bodies include TraveLife, Earth Check, Vireo srl, Control Union etc. The accreditation provides international credibility that the certification standard has been found to be in compliance with universal criteria for sustainable tourism and its procedures meet international principles for transparency, impartiality and competence. Being certified by a GSTC Certification Body means that your hotel, tour operator or destination complies with the highest social and environmental standards on the market and provides you a credible solution to environmental and social issues.

Special Feature


In 2020, Khiri Travel became the first DMC in Southeast Asia to be certified across all its 7 destinations. The company believes that businesses which take sustainability seriously and pursue the rigorous certification process will score higher on customer satisfaction, staff motivation and business efficiency. 

The CEO added: “With certification in all our destinations, clients can be rest assured that they are working with a responsible operator who cares about the bigger picture and has the processes and metrics in place to prove it.”

As a B2B travel company with counterparts in Western Europe and the US, the certification gives Khiri Travel a competitive advantage over other DMCs in Asia. The certification is not just about cost saving but a commitment towards sustainable travel.



Royal Mountain Travel Nepal, has been committed to sustainability since 2005, with positive impact generation at the core of their tourism products. Their partners include leading adventure travel companies like G Adventures.

In 2017, they decided to get a certification to further streamline their sustainability efforts and create a path for development. Even for organizations immersed in sustainable actions without a certification, a trusted certification provides a valid framework to measure, assess and create impact. The certification opens up avenues of networking and partnerships with other operators with similar interests. 

“Now, to get a certification, as an international acknowledgement, will only motivate us to focus more on sustainable development through the tourism industry” said Shiva Dhakal, MD Royal Mountain Tours, on achieving the certification in 2017. https://royalmt.com.np/news/royal-mountain-travel-has-been-awarded-the-travelife-certification-for-excellence-in-sustainability/  


Happy Trails, founded in 2003 was the first Destination Management Company (DMC) in Indonesia to be certified by Travelife (GSTC Accredited). Acknowledging the ethical perspective of a third-party verification, they chose to be certified. With the aim of strengthening their commitment to sustainability into consistent business practices their CEO Gerald Van Amerongen believes “This certification is just the beginning; we will proceed to persuade our key hotels and suppliers to take sustainability very seriously”



Kerala Voyages achieved sustainability certification in 2020. When Covid brought tourism to a standstill, Kerala Voyages decided to utilize the time to create additional value for tourists through the sustainability certification, anticipating demand for conscious travel post the pandemic. With increasing awareness for certifications in the west, an accredited certification provides them a definite competitive advantage.

“This brings more responsibility to the Company towards sustainability within and among other partners and stakeholders in the destinations,” a statement said.

As the first tour operator certified in India through Travelife, they hope that other players in the industry will follow on the path of sustainability.


A published paper on Sustainability, Accreditations, Ecotourism and SDGs – the GSTC way, in India has been posted on the GSTC website, with a link to the full pdf. See here: https://www.gstcouncil.org/ecotourism-in-india-sustainability-accreditations-and-sdgs/

This is also posted on the GSTC Academic Library page.









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