Canadian Travel Press: A Conversation With GreenStep Solutions

This article originally appeared in Canadian Travel Press.

In this issue of Canadian Travel Press, Angela Nagy, CEO of GreenStep Solutions observes that: “Over the past decade or two, there have been many terms used to describe tourism that is better for people and the environment. Some of the most common terms include eco-tourism, responsible tourism, and most recently, the term “regenerative” tourism has emerged.” Read on to find out more.

I suppose the best place to start is to ask what’s GreenStep Solutions all about? What does it do? And, what can it do to help Canadian Travel Press’ travel agent readers when it comes to making their businesses more responsible or more sustainable? 

I started GreenStep in 2008 to help businesses measure and improve their sustainability performance, and reduce their environmental impacts and carbon footprint. For the travel sector, we provide assessments, certifications, training, and expert guidance in these areas, to help tourism businesses meet the growing traveler and corporate demand for responsible business. 

Terminology and definitions can be a bit confusing. I’m wondering if you can walk CTP’s readers through some of the key definitions – offer them a bit of a primer, so to speak.

Over the past decade or two, there have been many terms used to describe tourism that is better for people and the environment. Some of the most common terms include eco-tourism, responsible tourism, and most recently, the term “regenerative” tourism has emerged. Ecotourism is a type of sustainable tourism product that brings guests into relatively undisturbed or wild areas in order to experience nature. It is typically low impact, for example, sailing, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, etc., and often promotes nature conservation or local culture.

Regenerative tourism is much broader and is really a way of developing tourism, either at the destination or product level – and it looks at ways that travelers can leave things better than they found them, creating a net-positive impact, and often requires a place-based approach that considers the unique circumstances and opportunities of the host-community. 

Responsible tourism is really a term that is used interchangeably with sustainable tourism, but since sometimes people think of sustainability as just to do with the environment, responsible tourism has been adopted as a term used by industry.

Sustainable tourism really encompasses all of these other definitions, and all of these types of tourism are essential to achieving sustainability. 

As a bit of a follow up, can you talk a bit about the history of sustainability or responsible tourism … have views and approaches changed over the years? 

The term and concept of “Sustainable Tourism” were born at the first World Conference on Sustainable Tourism in 1995, where The World Charter for Sustainable Tourism was originally adopted. It was defined 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.” In 2015 at the World Summit on Sustainable Tourism (ST+20), there was a refresh of the terms and objectives of the initial declaration to acknowledge the changes the industry had seen over the previous 20 years.

It was stated that: “Twenty years later, the question is no longer if sustainable tourism is a viable solution but rather, just how far can we take it to realize tourism’s full potential to bring benefits to local communities, support green growth and economies, foster innovation, safeguard cultural and natural heritage, and protect the environment.” 

Now, one area that causes me confusion – I’m not sure about other people – is the different certification programs that are out there? Can you offer some insights on these programs? 

Sustainability is a complex subject, and it can be difficult for tourism destinations, businesses, travelers, and travel advisors to know what to do, what to look for, or even how to talk to start the conversation with guests and other stakeholders. 

Thankfully, there have been several international, national, regional, and local organizations created, and systematic approaches developed, to help the industry navigate the journey to sustainability.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council, or GSTC, is one of these organizations. The GSTC develops and manages the GSTC Criteria, which provide global standards for sustainable travel and tourism. They are not a certification body themselves; rather, they support other certification bodies, through the formal review and “Recognition” of their criteria, or through the formal review and accreditation of the certification process.

Certification bodies can then develop certification standards and programs for tourism businesses and destinations, like GreenStep and our Sustainable Tourism Certification, and submit them to the GSTC for Recognition or Accreditation, providing their customers with the assurance that the criteria meets internationally recognized standards.

There are dozens of certification programs and standards that have had their criteria recognized by the GSTC, and you can find a full list at www.gstcouncil.org

Over the past two years, a lot of companies have been talking about responsible tourism and launching a variety of initiatives,how do travel agents assess the sustainability of these programs? What do they need to look for?

Many of these initiatives, such as Tourism Declares and the Sustainable Tourism 2030 Pledge, require tourism businesses and destinations to make a public commitment or pledge to take specific actions that will see them measure and improve some aspect of their sustainability performance. 

It is important to note that these initiatives are different from certification programs, in that they are not assessing the level of sustainability or carbon reduction, rather they are typically verifying that some form of measurable action has been taken. As such, participating tourism businesses or destinations shouldn’t be making any green claims, but can celebrate and share that they are participating and working towards making a difference.

It is also good to look for alignment with an internationally recognized standard, for example, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council criteria or the Science Based Targets Initiative for climate change. 

So, I guess the other question I have is whether there is a demand for responsible travel? Is there research out there that shows the demand level?

Yes, a growing body of research shows that year over year, the demand, understanding, and expectations around responsible travel are increasing. For example, research from Booking.com has shown that 87% of travelers want more sustainable travel options, and 73% would be more likely to choose an accommodation provider if it has implemented sustainability practices.

Deloitte and National geographic have also conducted research on visitor behavior and future trends, identifying that sustainability will become a defining issue for the industry, and a priority for travelers. 

One of the things that I’ve been told is that while a growing number of consumers are looking to travel responsibly, they don’t necessarily talk about that when they’re purchasing a trip. Do you have some advice for travel agents on how to start that conversation and what points they should talk about when doing that? 

To start that conversation, agents could highlight that beyond standard things such as price, location, and amenities, they can help their customers find travel choices that align with their personal values.

Customers could be asked if they are looking to travel in ways that have a lower environmental footprint, or where they can have experiences that will have a direct positive impact on the natural environment or local community.

Of course, travel agents would need to develop a way of understanding and identifying what responsible or sustainable options are available, and then could help filter choices by various social, cultural, or environmental attributes that their customers are looking for. 

Last question … travel agencies are by and large small businesses and I’m wondering if there are simple ways that they can make their businesses sustainable without a lot of costs or paperwork?

The most basic steps are things like replacing all lights with LEDs, encouraging carpooling and other alternatives to single-occupant vehicles for commuting, ensuring that they are in compliance with local recycling bylaws, looking for other ways to divert waste from the landfill, and eliminating all single-use items including plastic water bottles, disposable dishes, and unnecessary printing. 

They could also look at socio-economic factors such as supporting local suppliers, creating a sustainable purchasing policy, or providing team members with training around diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

However, sustainability is truly a journey and it is important to move beyond one-off actions toward creating a sustainability management system. Regardless of the size of the business, the steps are the same: Engage staff and/or stakeholders to provide education, awareness, and understanding of what sustainability means to your business.

Measure your current sustainability performance. This could be your carbon footprint, your energy consumption, how much you spend with local businesses, or a survey of customers related to sustainability.

Form a green team or committee to set goals to improve your performance in key areas by a specific date. Create an action plan by mapping out what specific steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goals. Implement your action plan, and then report on and celebrate your progress. Review your actions and goals annually, and create new ones as needed.