The Top Seven Best Practices of Sustainable Tourism Destinations

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of TIAC Talk.

By Angela Nagy, CEO

Over the past decade, I have been working with and researching how tourism organizations at the international, national, regional, and local level have been integrating sustainability. 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, in 2015, the World Summit on Sustainable Tourism (ST+20) updated the terms and objectives of the initial declaration to account for major changes in the industry. Several actions were identified to help guide local communities and destinations; industry; consumers; researchers, developers and trainers; and networks and NGOs, on their path to sustainability.

Ultimately, “the objective of sustainable tourism is to retain the economic and social advantages of tourism development while reducing or mitigating any undesirable impacts on the natural, historic, cultural or social environment. This is achieved by balancing the needs of tourists with those of 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 research of these destinations,  analysis of various reports, and hands-on work with both tourism destinations and tourism businesses, I have discovered that there are seven best practice steps 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, first nations, 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 can be provided to the committee, to help ensure a common 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 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, nature and culture, and environment.

Best Practice 3: Set clear goals and identify the specific actions to achieve those goals. Understanding where your destination is doing well and where you have room for improvement will allow for the identification of goals, and then the appropriate actions and strategies to work towards these goals. This strategy and action plan should be understood and ideally approved by impacted stakeholders, and also be designed to compliment 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 have 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 had on your destination.

Best Practice 5: Publicly Report. Some level of public reporting on impacts and 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 awards applications and nominations.

Best Practice 6: Engagement of tourism businesses. Engaging tourism businesses in your destination is essential to a robust destination sustainability strategy. In order to understand where tourism businesses need the most support, consider promoting that they undertake their own baseline analysis on key issues. You can 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. 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. Now businesses in your destination will have a framework through 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


Angela Nagy is the CEO of GreenStep Solutions. Through their Sustainable Tourism division, she and her team work with tourism businesses and destinations to assess, accelerate, and provide certification for their sustainability performance.