By Sunny Lewis
BANGKOK, Thailand, January 14, 2016 (Maximpact.com News) – Tourism can play a positive role in conservation by showcasing the value of existing natural and cultural heritage and focusing attention on the need for preservation. But tourists can be disruptive, and the amenities built to serve them can destroy wildlife habitat and disturb land needed as a bulwark against climate change.
Sustainable tourism is the key. It’s more than not littering and not buying souvenirs made from endangered species, but exactly what activities are sustainable and which are destructive? Groups around the globe are finding the answers.
The Pacific Asia Tourism Authority (PATA) is working with members from nine countries to cultivate a better understanding of how tourism affects the natural world.
At the PATA Academy, held in Bangkok in early December, a team from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its Mangroves for the Future initiative offered a seminar on Business Ecosystems Training, a product of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) that presents the basics of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
As part of the seminar, IUCN hosted a site visit to Bang Kachao, a 2,000-hectare riverine peninsula covered with wetlands and forests located across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok.
As it is near Bangkok, Bang Kachao faces the degradation of natural resources, the reduction of green space, water pollution from households and industries, land-filling for flood prevention and riverbank encroachment.
Visiting Bang Kachao allowed participants to see how well-managed tourism and cooperation with local communities can help protect the peninsula’s habitats. They learned how sustainable tourism can help conserve wildlife habitat by providing income to the local people who do the work of preservation.
Talking with community conservation groups, participants learned that local wisdom and knowledge can contribute to the sustainable management of Bang Kachao through the restoration of its mangrove ecosystems.
In 2013, IUCN Thailand started working on biodiversity conservation in Bang Kachao. With Thailand’s Royal Forest Department, the Asia-Pacific Network for Sustainable Forest Management, community groups and academic institutions, IUCN supports efforts to conduct landscape and biodiversity surveys, to establish demonstration sites, and to promote ecotourism activities that benefit the local community.
That same year, IUCN and its Mangroves for the Future project partnered with the Marriott International hotel chain to protect the environment and support local communities in Bang Kachao and coastal areas of Thailand through mangrove restoration, the sustainable sourcing of seafood and local procurement practices.
All these practices are a part of daily life for conservationists in the world’s most magnificent, most fragile places. And they were not made up on the fly. Formal standards have been developed by an international body dedicated to sustainable tourism.
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), a virtual organization that exists only online, establishes and manages global sustainable standards with the goal of increasing sustainable tourism knowledge and practices among public and private stakeholders.
At the heart of this work are the two sets of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Sustainability Criteria: Destination Criteria as well as Hotel and Tour Operator Criteria.
The guidelines are intended to apply to all forms of tourism accommodation, from large hotels and resorts to remote community guesthouses.
The GSTC Criteria are the minimum, not the maximum, that businesses, governments, and destinations should achieve to approach social, environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability.
Since tourism destinations each have their own culture, environment, customs and laws, the criteria are designed to be adapted to local conditions and configured for each specific location and activity.
And the guidelines have just become even more formal. In mid-December, the International Standards Organisation (ISO) published a new Technical Specification (TS 13811) “Tourism and related services – Guidelines on developing environmental specifications for accommodation establishments,” – New guidelines help tourism accommodation go green.
As a member of the ISO’s Technical Committee on Tourism, the GSTC contributed to the development of the new standard.
GSTC Technical Director Guy Chester said, “Sustainable tourism is vital if we are to meet the recently adopted global Sustainable Development Goals. The Technical Specification focuses on environmental aspects and it is a tribute to the rigor and applicability of the GSTC Criteria that select criteria were adopted for this ISO document.”
Clare Naden of the ISO said, “The guidelines outline a number of things that accommodation establishments can do to reduce their impact, including conserving their use of resources, reducing pollution and better managing their waste, as well as ways they can make a positive contribution to the area. This includes things such as restoring natural areas of scenic beauty and educating staff, clients and the community of the important role they too can play.”
Tuba Ulu Yilmaz of Turkey, who led an ISO tourism technical specification working group, said the new guidelines are expected to be a technical reference for a wide range of stakeholders, not just accommodation providers who want to be more environmentally friendly.
“It is also aimed at countries with no regulations to constitute a framework; national and international bodies to assess and harmonize their existing schemes or certifications; and consumers who want the choice to choose establishments that have the environment in mind,” she said. “It will foster the ultimate goal of environmental sustainability and raise the overall standard of the tourism sector.”
But Geoffrey Lipman, president at International Coalition of Tourism Partners and chair of greenearth.travel, told a tourism workshop in San Jose, Costa Rica in November that “the travel industry is behind the curve in translating global policy into local level actions.”
The workshop, co-organized by The Long Run initiative of the Zeitz Foundation, the Costa Rican Tourism Board and the Chamber of Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism of Costa Rica, emphasized the recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals as amplifying the opportunity to realize the full potential of the tourism industry for the wellbeing of the people and the planet.
“Efforts need to be brought together to impact mainstream policy making,” said Lipman. “Everyone has a responsibility to link tourism to the Sustainable Development Goals and climate targets.”
Several United Nations agencies are involved in guiding and encouraging sustainable tourism. The UNESCO World Heritage Centre sets global standards for good management of the world’s most exceptional places.
Places as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa’s Serengeti Plain, the Pyramids of Egypt and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are designated as World Heritage sites that belong to all the peoples of the world. This idea is embodied in an international treaty, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972.
The World Heritage Centre encourages the 191 States Parties to the treaty to establish management plans and set up reporting systems on the state of conservation of their World Heritage sites.
Sustainable tourism guidelines set the standards, and awards motivate extra effort.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) will recognize exceptional sustainable tourism projects on January 20 at an awards dinner in Madrid, Spain.
The diversity of these projects is shown in the category of Enterprises. Award nominees include:
- Garuda Indonesia airline and its Bali beach clean-up initiative, which emphasizes the role of communities in preserving coastal areas;
- Switzerland Explorer Tours, with a 100% electric bus tour and sustainable tour experiences;
- Meliá Hotels International of Spain for promoting employment opportunities for young people at risk of exclusion;
- The Treetop Walking Path in the Anykščiai Regional Park in Lithuania;
- The Projeto Fartura of Brazil and its Plentifulness Project linking food, research and travel in 145 Brazilian cities.
The UNWTO Awards on Excellence and Innovation are held in collaboration with Madrid International Tourism Trade Fair and with the support of China’s Macao Government Tourist Office, Port Aventura, the Galicia Tourism Board of Spain, Hilton Worldwide, Etihad Airways, Mapfre Asistencia, Amadeus and the Paraguay Tourism Board.
Award-winning journalist Sunny Lewis is founding editor in chief of the Environment News Service (ENS), the original daily wire service of the environment, publishing since 1990.