The 7 Best Practices of Sustainable Tourism Destinations


By: Angela Nagy, GreenStep Solutions

Over the past decade, I have been working with and researching how tourism organizations at the international, national, regional, and local levels have been integrating sustainability practices. Through this work, seven best practices have emerged that we now use as the basis of our Sustainable Tourism programs. Before I dive into these best practices let’s take a step back and look at the origins of what we now define as sustainable tourism.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as tourism that “meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future. Rather than being a type of product, it is an ethos that underpins all tourism activities. As such, it is integral to all aspects of tourism development and management rather than being an add-on component.”
The term and concept of “sustainable tourism” was formally born at the first World Conference on Sustainable Tourism in 1995, where The World Charter for Sustainable Tourism was originally adopted. Twenty years later, at the World Summit on Sustainable Tourism (ST+20), it was updated to include the terms, actions, and objectives we see today. Ultimately, the goal of sustainable tourism is to balance the needs of the tourist with those of the destination, thus retaining the economic and social advantages of tourism and mitigating any negative social, economic, historic, and cultural impacts on the destination.
This early work of the UNWTO and the World Charter for Sustainable Tourism has resulted in several destinations around the world adopting various programs, charters, pledges, and certification programs over the past two decades that focus on environmental, social, cultural, and of course, economic, sustainability. Through the research of these destinations, analysis of various reports, and hands-on work with both tourism destinations and tourism businesses, I have identified seven best practices that tourism destinations should take if they are serious about advancing the sustainability performance of their region. It is the same approach we take when working with our destination clients.
While these best practices don’t necessarily need to be implemented in the order presented below, this process will lead to the highest level of engagement amongst stakeholders.
Best Practice 1: Engage, educate, and consult with stakeholders to help inform and guide future plans and actions.
A permanent tourism destination stakeholder committee should be established, which includes representation from the destination management organization (DMO), local government, Indigenous communities, community organizations, and tourism businesses. You may also have liaisons from the provincial/state or federal/national government levels. Ideally, initial training on sustainable tourism is provided to the committee, to help ensure a common language and understanding of sustainable tourism, the opportunities it presents for the destination, and the risks associated with doing nothing or not moving fast enough. This committee should meet at least quarterly to guide, inform, and learn from the next steps.
Best Practice 2: Establish a baseline.
In order to understand your current reality, it is important to undertake a baseline analysis of your current sustainability performance. This will enable the determination of gaps between where the destination is performing well and where there is an opportunity for improvement. To establish a baseline of where your destination is, use a framework based upon the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Destination Criteria, which is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. GreenStep Sustainable Tourism offers a free Sustainability Score for tourism destinations and businesses to help assess their sustainability performance in a number of key areas including management, social and economic, natural and cultural, and environment.
Best Practice 3: Set clear goals and identify the specific actions to achieve those goals.

Establishing your baseline will help you to understand where your destination is doing well and where you have room for improvement. This will then help you to identify SMART (specific, measureable, achievable, relevant, & time-bound) goals, followed by the appropriate actions and strategies to work towards these goals. This strategy and action plan should be understood and ideally approved by impacted stakeholders, as well as  designed to complement and support your existing destination development strategy and goals.

Best Practice 4: Ongoing implementation, monitoring, and measurement of impacts and results.
Once you have measured your baseline, established goals, and created an action plan to achieve those goals, it’s time to implement. Integrating your sustainability efforts into your existing meetings and accountability rhythm will help to make sure that sustainability isn’t siloed, and that it becomes part of regular discussions and decision-making. At least annually, reassess your sustainability performance against your goals to confirm if your actions are leading you in the right direction, and what impacts you have observed so far on your destination.
Best Practice 5: Publicly Report.
Some level of public reporting on progress towards your goals should be undertaken. Integrating key sustainability performance indicators and metrics into your regular monthly, quarterly, and/or annual reporting efforts is ideal. Publish these reports, or summarize them for public consumption, and of course, weave your achievements and future goals into your destination marketing efforts to help build your reputation and brand as a destination that cares about sustainability. These reports can also be used as the basis for award applications and nominations.
Best Practice 6: Engagement of tourism businesses.
Engaging tourism businesses in your destination is essential to a robust destination sustainability strategy. To understand where tourism businesses need the most support, consider encouraging them to undertake their own baseline analysis on key issues. You could also use the free Sustainability Score for tourism businesses, which is based upon Global Sustainable Tourism Council recognized criteria, and aggregate the results to identify the areas of strength and opportunity within the destination. Once you have an understanding of where your business stakeholders have gaps in their own sustainability performance, you can offer training or other programs on these sustainability issues as part of your destination development efforts. Businesses in your destination will now have a framework from which they can measure and monitor their own impacts and contributions to your destination's goals, and develop a strong basis from which to embark upon certification of their own operations.
Best Practice 7: Formal assessment and certification of destination
By taking all of the previous steps, your destination will have the key elements in place to support the pursuit of destination certification. This is a big step and requires a significant commitment of time and financial resources. Certification will verify that your destination is in compliance with Global Sustainable Tourism Council criteria, will help to bring added credibility to your destination’s efforts, and is a strong signal to your stakeholders and the rest of the industry.
“In the end it’s all about protecting our product. If the product – our destinations – aren’t protected in environmental and social terms then people won’t want to visit them, it is as simple as that.” – John De Vial, Director of Financial Protection and Financial Services, ABTA