Embracing Sustainable Tourism: An Obvious Foundation for Adventure Brands

Global Sustainable Tourism – it’s so much more than a nice catch phrase. What we do now in operating our adventure companies, educating our customers, collaborating with our vendors, supporting our communities, and empowering and diversifying our staff will indeed contribute to making a positive difference for people, place and planet – this year, and for years to come.

How can we make a difference? What does sustainable tourism really mean? There are so many terms out there that involve or imply sustainable tourism, including responsible tourism, environmental stewardship, community & social responsibility, cultural heritage conservation, etc. It can be hard to get clear on what this really encompasses and what we can each do in our respective companies and communities.

Here is the UNWTO Definition of Sustainable Tourism:
Sustainable tourism is 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. – UNWTO

There is no such thing as “single topic” sustainable tourism. Note how the UNWTO definition addresses an integrated cohesive understanding of everything tourism impacts. As important, sustainable tourism applies to all forms of tourism, not just to certain categories of tourism, like adventure travel. All tourism can make a difference.

“Sustainable tourism development guidelines and management practices are applicable to all forms of tourism in all types of destinations, including mass tourism and niche tourism segments.” – UNWTO

If ever there was any doubt about the direct and indirect impact of tourism in all corners of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has made it crystal clear. Entire communities shut down, the bottom fell out of economic activity, and people struggled to survive. The planet did better! Wildlife actually thrived in many areas and air quality improved worldwide, including enough to see the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years from India.

At a minimum, we can and must do far better than to be part of the problem, OR to stand on the sidelines with ill-conceived neutrality. The implementation of basic practices like recycling and banning single use plastic is important, but we can go well beyond these initiatives.

The time is now to assess, implement and/or improve, our proactive sustainability measures for how we operate our tourism businesses.

This includes the “front stage”: our tours and trips in natural areas, heritage locations, remote wildernesses, urban areas, etc.,. And, it includes the “backstage”: our operations for community support, renewable energy options, waste management, environmental stewardship, environmental justice, diversity and inclusion, and internal/external training and education.

Discerning travelers expect that adventure tourism companies are also involved in sustainability practices. We have seen this trend gain a lot more traction over the last decade. It can be an important competitive differentiation from mass tourism companies (and from any adventure competitors who have not caught up yet). Being clear and consistent to spotlight your efforts is important, as travelers are comparing companies as they shop for their next adventure.

Recent Environmental Sustainability Trends Among Adventure Companies

A survey conducted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and Intrepid Travel in 2019 found that, in terms of climate action strategies, 68% of adventure travel companies report that they sustainably source food by sourcing locally or moving toward plant-based options, 66% purchase from more sustainable suppliers, 57% focus on water conservation practices, and 52% use renewable energy sources.

Resource: Adventure Travel Trade Association. (November 2019). The State of Climate Action in the Adventure Travel Industry. pp. 16.

Where to Start with Applying Sustainable Tourism to Your Brand? 

Let’s use the easy to understand, inclusive framework of the Global Sustainability Tourism Council (GSTC) criteria to look closely at how to get started identifying and assessing the many ways you can implement measurable, high impact sustainability practices for your company.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council created the global baseline of standards of sustainable travel and tourism to help guide us with effective and measurable ways to create positive impacts through our tourism businesses, organizations, and destinations. This is a great place to start your research and exploration. The purpose of their organization is to create clear, global, standard criteria for sustainable tourism.

“The Criteria are minimum requirements for tourism businesses and destinations, in order to help protect and sustain natural and cultural resources, and to help ensure tourism meets its potential as a tool for conservation and poverty alleviation. – GSTC”

About the Global Sustainable Tourism Council

“An organization named the “Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria” was formed in 2007 as a coalition of 32 partners, initiated by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation (UN 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. Through the development of a set of universal, globally accepted criteria the partnership took the first step toward standardizing a common language for sustainable tourism.” Learn more here.

GSTC Vision: Tourism fulfills its potential as a vehicle for social, cultural, and economic good while removing and avoiding any negative impacts from its activities in terms of environmental and social impacts.

GSTC Mission: To be an agent of change in the world of sustainable travel and tourism by fostering the increased knowledge, understanding, adoption and demand for sustainable tourism practices.

The GTSC 4 Pillars of Sustainable Tourism include:

  1. Effective Management: How are you implementing and managing sustainable practices across your tourism business? Without effective management of your sustainability initiatives, your efforts may miss the mark. (And, if you aren’t measuring your efforts, you might not even know it!)
  2. Social & Economic: How are you helping the places where your tourism product operates? Maximizing social and economic benefits to the local community and minimizing negative impacts are the essence of pillar #2. How are you supporting diversity within your organization, your customer and vendor relationships, and the communities in which you operate?
  3. Cultural: How does your tourism business support cultural heritage? Are you focused on maximizing benefits to cultural heritage and minimizing your negative impacts?
  4. Environment: How are you protecting, conserving, educating, and being a net positive steward of the environment and ecosystem in which you operate? Are you mitigating damage, applying restorative solutions, or both? Getting community and tourists to both participate and lead – is key.

Let’s take a look at some actual examples of adventure brands and destinations who are practicing these four pillars of sustainability.

Examples of Sustainability initiatives for each of the four GSTC Pillars

Pillar 1: Effective Management Example

The international mountain resort community of Vail, Colorado (not to be confused with the business Vail Resorts) certified as a sustainable destination in 2018, after a 3-year journey of hard work and collaboration with many public and private partners.  Keeping up with this sustainable destination certification required Vail to create a Destination Stewardship Council and a Destination Stewardship Strategy and Action Plan. The council is the accountability and measuring team; the strategy and action plan is the map and the compass. Without the ability to plan, implement, measure, and adjust/improve/continue its sustainability initiatives – Vail would be “skiing in the dark”. This critical pillar is the foundation to being successful in the other 3 pillars.

Read more about Vail’s experience and sustainable destination development here:


Pillar 2: Social & Economic Example

Alpaca Expeditions, founded in 2012 by Raul Ccolque, walks the talk with an extensive set of sustainability projects that support and empower porters, women, and communities in the high Andean villages outside of Cusco, Peru. A descendant of the Incas himself, Raul first started working on the Inca Trail as a porter, then a guide, then he started his own company. It is now one of the most successful trekking companies in Peru. He uses his company to support social and environmental projects in Peru, based on his experience growing up in a remote Andean village outside of Cusco. Alpaca Expeditions provides villagers in mountain communities good paying jobs, benefits, and community health & education services. During 2020, when all tourism was shut down, Alpaca Expeditions regularly distributed food support to remote villages and its own staff. Learn more about The Porters of Alpaca Expeditions, Empowering Women in Peru and Alpaca Expeditions Community Involvement.


Pillar 3: Cultural Example

Nomad Adventure, an adventure tour company based in Gopeng, Malaysia, helps to support and preserve the indigenous culture of the Orang Asli community though its educational adventure tours. Founder Yuen-Li Chan reached out to the local Orang Asli village women to find out how Nomad Adventure could work with them in an empowered partnership. Their community tours and Academy Kampung were developed to assist the women from this Orang Asli community to earn extra income by teaching visitors their traditional skills. Tours are run by the Orang Asli community members and introduce school children and international and Malaysian travelers to their unique and ancient culture.


Pillar 4: Environment Example

Rios Tropicales, one of the pioneer adventure companies of Costa Rica, has prioritized rainforest conservation and restoration since its beginning in 1985. Their private rainforest reserve is one of the largest private protected rainforest areas in all of Costa Rica. Led by visionary conservationist Rafael Gallo, Rios Tropicales became carbon neutral in the last decade, thanks to the reserve of over 2500 acres of native Costa Rican hardwood tree species. This is a mix of primary rainforest, protected from logging and poaching, and reforesting over 300 acres so far. All told, the reserve mitigates over 17,000 tons of carbon annually. This is well over the adventure company’s actual footprint, which they estimated at 4000 tons of carbon per year.

Learn more about Rios Tropicales rainforest reserve and carbon-neutral program here.


Should You Seek Certification: Yes, No, Maybe? 

The challenge with certification is that it is time consuming and can be expensive. Each example of sustainable pillar practices shared above, with the exception of the town of Vail, is not certified by any official organization. At least not yet. The decision of whether or not to certify is specific to each company, organization, or destination. There are increasingly strong competitive reasons to push ahead and get a third party certification – to clearly differentiate your brand from competitors. It makes marketing your sustainability story that much easier, more powerful, and absolutely clear. The most important thing however, is to DO the sustainability work to benefit the people, communities, environment areas in which you work, and your own company. It can be an immensely compelling reason why staff would want to work for your company.

How does the Certification process work?

The GSTC itself does not certify operators or organizations. It provides the globally accepted criteria by which your organization will be measured in order to receive certification. There are a number of accredited organizations that certify. GSTC has a list on their website. These organizations can also help you with understanding where you are now and where you need to be, in order to be successfully certified. There are separate, specific certification criteria for Tour Operators, Hotels & Accommodations, and Destinations.

Here is more information on how to get certified:

Sustainable Tourism Training – Where to Learn More

Sustainable Tourism Training Program
GSTC Training Certificate - Julie ThornerI took the two day intensive Sustainable Tourism Training Program (STTP) back in October of 2019 at Bridger Bowl, in Bozeman Montana. (Sigh, the good ole days of pre-covid in-person training events.) It was a comprehensive course with a reasonable variety of national and international tourism examples (large and small hotels and tour operators, major destinations, and small mountain towns). It was an exceptional deep dive into the what, why, when and how of effective sustainable tourism practices. I took the STTP exam in order to be able to help our clients move farther along in a practical, intentional way with proven, clear processes to support their success. Understandably, the abrupt shutdown of tourism and limited operations in 2020 put a big dent into the ability of tourism companies to embark on a new or expanded path of sustainability initiatives in each of the four pillars that year. However, tourism companies and adventure brands across the globe have the opportunity to lead the way with full support and action for sustainability practices. The power and potential for positive impact of tourism is starkly clear (if you had any doubt), thanks to the sharp lens of the events of 2020.

Ready to consider what your company can do? 

Here are 5 steps to take for adding & expanding sustainable tourism practices at your company.

  1. Visit GSTC to learn more about criteria for sustainable tourism, specifically for your brand. Learn what kinds of certifications are available, what does certification bring, and which organizations do GSTC criteria certifications around the globe.
  2. Take an inventory of your current sustainability practices. What’s working, what’s not? How are you measuring your impact?
  3. Do a sustainability management audit and create a plan, based on your audit, for 2021 and beyond. Need help? Start here.
  4. Create partnerships with non-profit organizations and collaborate with your vendors. This add new excitement and value to your adventure brand, your tourism packages and your guests. It’s a win for your triple bottom line and your community.
  5. Reach out to potential tour operator partners to find out what certifications they prefer. This can put your company at a competitive advantage as their inbound tour operator in your operating locations.

Parting Note

Does the idea of developing or expanding your sustainability practices at your adventure brand overwhelm you, seem incredibly daunting, or cause intense panic around your financial stability?  If so, that’s a clear sign that it may be time to work on your exit strategy. Either passing the reins on to others in your company to manage these pillars, or seek an exit altogether. We have a private, confidential M&A division within Liquid Spark. We match adventure dreams to successful entrepreneurs.  Contact us.

“Let this be our clarion call. 

CREST’s annual metanalysis, The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics, shares key studies on COVID-19 and climate change and what lessons may be applied from the former to meet the challenges of the latter. In addition to general consumer, business, and destination trends in the context of recovery, we explore the unprecedented opportunity to mitigate two existential threats with one coordinated approach, truly making the world a safer, more equitable, and more resilient place for all.” – CREST

Read the Center for Responsible Travel’s September 2020 Full Report here: The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics 2020 

Want more tips specific to adventure companies during this period of disruption?