Why the future of sustainable tourism lies in Asia: interview with Randy Durband from GSTC

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Randy Durband is the Chief Executive Officer of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), the UN-created non-profit that manages global baseline standards for sustainable tourism. Before starting work in sustainable tourism seven years ago, he had twenty-four years in senior leadership positions at large U.S. tour operators. He speaks with Anula Galewska about the organisation’s development so far and where it is heading.

This article is the first in an interview series talking with the speakers at the GSTC conferences held in Suwon, Korea and Athens, Greece in October and November 2016.

Anula: This is the first time the conference is open to public. Why?

Randy: As an accreditation body, we need to work on our brand presence. When I first joined GSTC, we were just another acronym along with all these certification programs. Although we’re nothing like these – we are the single accreditation body – people don’t know that. We have to be better understood as there’s really little understanding of what GSTC is.

Anula: This conference took place in Korea. You are based in Bangkok. Is GSTC focussing on Asia?

Randy: Yes, very much. This is the Asian century. The global middle class is shifting. In 1990’s 55% of global middle class was in Europe and North America. But by 2030 over 60% will be in Asia.

Let’s be honest, the sustainable tourism movement has been mostly European. Europe, especially the northern half of Europe, leads the world in terms of travellers having awareness, the travel provider having a strong CSR policy, government regulations, EU mandates on carbon emissions etc. That combination of government, citizens themselves and travel providers leads the world.

“The next half century is all about what happens in China and the rest of Asia. So the entire sustainability community in all sectors needs to look hard at the continent.”

The next half century is all about what happens in China and the rest of Asia. So the entire sustainability community in all sectors needs to look hard at the continent. So yes, it’s absolutely a strategy. And honestly, I feel like that when I’m talking to Europeans I’m talking about the finer points of sustainable tourism. And now we have to get the basic message here, where the global population is shifting and global travel action is shifting and being led.

Anula: Are there any countries you are working mostly closely with?

Randy: Right now Indonesia, Thailand and Korea but we’re also trying to figure out the right strategy for China. We have a few nice relationships but in terms of trying and getting to The China National Tourism Administration we haven’t made any significant attempt because we want to refine the message.

Actually we’ve only been speaking to governments for a couple of years since the launch of the destination criteria in 2013. Prior to that we only had base standards for hotels and tour operators, and GSTC was kind of hotel-centric. It was first founded because there were so many certifying bodies for hotels and the first job was to sort that out. There are over 200 bodies – from a European perspective, probably too many. And there’s an economy of scale they’re all struggling with. Even though they’re based in Europe where there’s highest concentration of people interested in this, still there’s probably too much supply in comparison to the demand.

So the access to the certification in the world is very uneven. There’s probably too much in South Africa and Europe, and perhaps in Australia; and too little in Asia and in the developing world. Particularly pricing and access are a big issue. In general certification is seen as a first world phenomena.

We as an accreditation body are trying to be as neutral as possible. Our job is to accredit based on a quality process. But we as a global movement have to be thinking about other frameworks to make sure that everyone has equal access.

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Anula: Don’t you think that there is too much focus put on leisure travel, and we tend to forget about the opportunities for sustainable tourism in the business sector?

Randy:  I agree that there should be more focus on the business side of travel and hotels. This is the reason why one of the themes of this conference is MICE. Because we wanted to emphasise the fact that this sector is extremely influential. When groups of 200 or 2,000 or 8,000 people come to a convention or a meeting large or small, the cluster is quite significant and you can impact their activity. So I think this is an important arena. There are already sustainability experts within the MICE community, but I think there’s a need to expand this discussion.

In the end a business traveler is also a leisure traveler.

Anula: GSTC doesn’t have a huge budget right now. So what is its communications strategy?

Randy: The strategy is to work with industry giants and get them to develop their preferential procurement. That’s also what WWF’s strategy is and we work closely with them. They were really influential in making MSC and FSC great in other sectors (Fish and Wood). So they talk in the background with the industry giants, because that develops the whole supply chain.

Let’s take the WWF project with Royal Caribbean as an example. By requiring in the next few years that the shore excursions have to be certified as sustainable, these suppliers will then be sustainable for the other businesses that they serve, which influences the whole supply chain. So then the Royal Caribbean competitors see that and will say, ah we need to match them. This WWF’s strategy has worked very successfully in other sectors. So that’s the strategy we take at GSTC.

We were always very focused on the hotels side. We had endless discussions with TUI and big buyers of hotels. We were really trying to get the attention of the big OTAs too but with them we face the problem of scale. Because they need to see many thousands more hotels that are certified, in order to put them into their software and search results. They are interested but we need to get the scale first.

Therefore, our strategy with limited budget is that we can influence the consumer directly. We hope that if the industry giants are picking us up, then the big hotel chains that already have their own internal sustainability systems (like Accor or IHG), would also become GSTC accredited. Then it would be clean, understood, and would help to get the word out. So even if they have their own internal systems but they use the same top level filter (GSTC accreditation), than it’s starts becoming known.

We already have Royal Caribbean on the cruise side, and as soon as we get more hotels chains, then there’s hope of getting consumer awareness of top level label – the GSTC label.

The labels don’t need to compete with each other. It can be IHG Green or Accor Planet 21 on top, and then below – accredited by GSTC. We are not competing with certifiers. We are trying to enhance their credibility by having them apply and getting our mark.

Anula: Getting major OTAs on board would be a huge step forward. How is that going?

Randy: We’ve been talking with them. I can’t share with you anything more than to say they are interested. They want a simple system. They are businesses, so they have to show that this change would have no negative consequences on the purchasing. The good news is that when we’re talking with them.

They said that everything else that implies changes to our algorithm has to have a positive impact on sales. But in case of adding some sort sustainability criteria – if the impacts are neutral, not negative – that would be enough.

Anula: Do you believe that TripAdvisor’s Greenleaders is a good thing?

Randy: I have very mixed feelings about Greenleaders. On one hand it’s wonderful that the travel industry giant like TripAdvisor is raising awareness of the consumers and creates such a platform. But on the other hand (and I’ve told them this directly), we’re very concerned that it’s misunderstood and consumers may take Greenleaders program as some sort of certification. But it’s the opposite of certification.

“Talking about technical claims to the customer is wrong. You have to talk about the attributes.”

Hotels can say anything they want to say about themselves that’s not verified. TripAdvisor argues that their algorithms and client reviews would make sure that any false claims would be found out. But frankly, I just reject this argument. How does the client know what happens with a hotel’s waste management, how does the client even know that what they separate in the room is handled correctly in the back. Hotels don’t even execute properly the famous towel policy well. Even the most visible actions are not executed well and 90% are things that customers simply don’t see, so the consumer review is not that meaningful to me. And then people use it a reference to some sort of certification, which shows a huge misunderstanding about what certification is. Certification means a third party, independent and neutral, verifies your claims.

So we need to educate the public, and TripAdvisor should educate their customers too. At least to have a page describing what it is, that hotels can say whatever they want to say and give a preference to those who are certified. So yes, I’m very much concerned that it violates what is the key concept of what GSTC is trying to do.

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Anula: What are actually the benefits of being certified? Do you believe that certification is there to help drive sales, or more to improve the processes in general?

Randy: Talking about technical claims to the customer is wrong. You have to talk about the attributes. For the occasional client or a travel writer, someone interested to know more – a hotel certification is a powerful thing. So even if the certification doesn’t directly influence as many purchase decisions as we’d like to, it still is very influential, for those who are looking for some sort of verification. And then, there are many other reasons.

Certification and sustainability has to be looked at by businesses as risk management. And these issues become more prominent over time. There are legal issues and reputational issues. If you get certified, it shows that you’re running your business properly along all these lines. Business must look wider and more deeply on certifications.

Customers don’t look at an ecolabel on their hair dryer when they buy it. But they have more comfort buying it when they see it’s there because they have more trust that it’s not going to kill them. The absence of label or presence of label are complex things, very often working on a subconscious level. There are labels that are extremely successful and effective, like the Rainforest Frog or Fair Trade for coffee and chocolate.

Anula: Any thoughts on the phenomenon of ‘green hushing’ when sustainable businesses don’t communicate sustainability at all?

Randy: I think that even if you’re trying to be humble about what you do, you should at least broadcast these things because we need you to inspire others and motivate them to do the same.

 


GSTC Global Sustainable Tourism Conference took place in Suwon, Korea in October 2016. To view presentations from the past conference and learn about upcoming GSTC events, visit GSTC website

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