Revising GSTC’s Destination Criteria

? Destination Stewardship Report – Summer 2020 ?

The GSTC Destination Criteria (GSTC-D) were revised last year with global public consultation. The criteria were first developed through a stakeholder consultation process leading to their initial publication (Version 1.0) on 1st November 2013. In 2018 the first revision of the GSTC-D began. The process has taken over a year to complete, including two rounds of global public comment, with final approval reached in December 2019. GSTC’s International Standards team explains what the criteria are, what they are for, how the revision process worked, and the main changes that have resulted.

The Elaborate Process of Revising Your GSTC Destination Criteria
By Kelly Bricker and Richard and Jackie Denman

In this article:
The process

  • To whom do the criteria apply?
  • What are the criteria for?
  • What standard revision process has been followed?
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Targeted stakeholder consultation

The results

  • Key themes emerging from the consultation
  • A structure toward increased understanding
  • New for 2.0 – Performance indicators and SDGs

The GSTC Destination Criteria (GSTC-D) were first developed through a stakeholder consultation process leading to their initial publication (Version 1.0) on 1st November 2013. In 2018 the first revision of the GSTC-D was initiated. The process has taken over a year to complete.

Oversight of the revision for the GSTC-D has been provided by the GSTC’s International Standards Committee (ISC). The group is comprised of a small number of tourism professionals with experience of sustainability standards and certification, drawn from across five continents. A final version of the revised GSTC-Destination-Criteria-v2.0 was approved by the GSTC Board at their meeting on December 6th 2019.

The purpose of this article is to summarise and provide a formal statement of the process that has been followed in undertaking the revision. But first, a brief introduction is required.

To whom do the Criteria apply?

The GSTC-D have been designed for destinations[1]. The criteria do not relate to a single body but rather to a named place that can be uniquely identified.   The criteria simply require that the condition described pertains in that destination, irrespective of what body may be responsible for it or how or by whom any related action is implemented.

The scope of the GSTC-D is broad and the criteria can be applied to a wide range of destinations. They may be in any part of the world and of any type (e.g. urban, rural, mountain, coastal or mixed). The criteria can relate to large destinations (e.g. sizeable cities or regions) and to small ones (e.g. national parks, clusters of local communities, etc.).

While the GSTC-D relate to the place, not to a body, many of the criteria may nevertheless be taken up by and applied through a destination management organisation which is responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism within the destination. The existence of such an organisation is a central requirement of the GSTC-D. It should be noted that this organisation is not necessarily a local authority or public sector body and requires the involvement of both the public and private sector.

Some of the criteria refer to enterprises. These may be individual businesses but they may also be other forms of facility, operation and undertaking. For example, they could include museums, festivals, public buildings and monuments, not only commercial businesses such as hotels or paid attractions.

What are the criteria for?

Uses of the criteria include the following:

  • Serve as the basis for certification for sustainability
  • Serve as basic guidelines for destinations that wish to become more sustainable
  • Help consumers identify sound sustainable tourism destinations
  • Serve as a common denominator for information media to recognize destinations and inform the public regarding their sustainability
  • Help certification and other voluntary destination level programs ensure that their standards meet a broadly accepted baseline
  • Offer governmental, non-governmental, and private sector programs a starting point for developing sustainable tourism requirements
  • Serve as basic guidelines for education and training bodies, such as tourism schools and universities
  • Demonstrate leadership that inspires others to act.

The Criteria indicate what should be done, not how to do it or whether the goal has been achieved. This role is fulfilled by performance indicators, associated educational materials, and access to tools for implementation, all of which are an indispensable complement to the GSTC Criteria.

What standard revision process has been followed?

ISEAL is a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment. The GSTC is committed to following the guidance of ISEAL in developing and implementing the global sustainable tourism criteria. The GSTC-D revision process has been informed by the ISEAL Code of Good Practice: Setting Social and Environmental Standards, Version 6.0 – December 2014. This is referred to as the ISEAL Standard-Setting Code.

At their first meeting on the GSTC-D revision, held on 21st September 2018, the ISC was presented with a paper containing a systematic review of the outcomes, requirements, guidance and aspirational good practice as contained in the ISEAL Code.   Broadly, these covered:

  • Transparent procedures
  • Published Terms of Reference, covering the need for, and scope of, the standard, stated outcomes and associated risks
  • Stakeholder identification
  • Public availability of a summary of the process
  • Public consultation, giving stakeholders sufficient time to provide input and opportunity to see how their input has been considered
  • A consultation process which is open to all and seeks to achieve balance of interests
  • Seeking to address constraints faced by disadvantaged stakeholders
  • Striving to achieve consensus
  • Clear decision-making procedures and protocols.

In reviewing the requirements of the ISEAL Standard-Setting Code, the ISWG has focussed on Section 4 (General Provisions) and Section 5 (Standards Development Revision). The process that was subsequently followed has been based on the requirements contained therein.

The key stages of the revision process are set out below.

Timeline Action
September 2018 Systematic assessment and presentation of the requirements of the ISEAL Standard Setting Code
21st September 2018 Meeting of the ISC to consider the ISEAL requirements, consider the revision process and request preparation of the Terms of Reference
October/November 2018 Planning of the process and timetable. Drafting of Terms of Reference and initial consultation questionnaire.
27th November 2018 Publishing Terms of Reference for GSTC-D revision
December 2018 – 31st March 2019 First round public consultation, via Survey Monkey. The survey was framed around the then current GSTC-D (Version 1.0), seeking comments and suggestions for improvement overall and for each of the criteria.
January – March 2019 Direct inputs invited and received from key stakeholder organizations.
March – May 2019 Review of first round consultation, with assessment and resolution of all comments received.
16th May 2019 Meeting of ISWG, to receive report on first round consultation and consider first draft of proposed revised GSTC-D.
16th June – 18th August, 2019 Second round consultation via Survey Monkey. The survey was framed around the proposed revised GSTC-D, seeking comments on the re-organised structure and on each of proposed revised criteria.
September – October 2019 Review of second round consultation, with assessment and resolution of all comments received.
18th October 2019 Meeting of ISC, to receive report on second round consultation and consider proposed amendments of the draft revised GSTC-D.
October 2019 Completion of final draft of revised GSTC-D, with addition of preamble, performance indicators[2] and cross-reference to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
30th October 2019 Circulation of final draft of revised GSTC-D to ISC and Destination Stewardship Working Group (DSWG) for comment
November 2019 Review and resolution of final comments and suggestions from members of the ISC and DSWG; preparation of final amended revised GSTC-D (GSTC-D v.2)
27th November 2019 Proposed GSTC-D v.2 circulated to members of ISC
6th December 2019 Proposed GSTC-D v.2 put to GSTC Board for approval

The revision process has been fully documented. Key documents relating to each of the stages include the following:

  • GSTC Criteria Revision and ISEAL Compliance, September 2018.
  • Revision of GSTC-D: Terms of Reference, 27th November 2018.

Includes: GSTC-D need, scope, objectives and uses, outcomes risks; key requirements of the process, program stages and timetable, stakeholder mapping, outreach and promotion.

  • Report of first round consultation and suggested criteria revision, 3rd May 2019.

Includes: details of respondents; handling of comments, key topics raised; draft revised GSTC-D.

  • Report of second round consultation and suggested criteria revision, 26th September 2019.

Includes: details of respondents; comments on structure and individual criteria; proposed final revision of criteria

  • Report of final draft of criteria revision, with indicators and reference to SDGs, 29th October 2019.

Includes: note on drafting of additional elements.

  • GSTC-D Vs2.0 final draft, November 2019.

Separate documents, as Excel spreadsheets or Word tables, were also produced after each round of consultation, showing all the individual comments received and the response to each of them.

Stakeholder engagement

The importance of stakeholder engagement in the revision process has been fully recognised by the GSTC. Information on the communication activity and the level and nature of the response is summarised below. The revision of the GSTC-D has been heralded and documented on the Council’s website. This has invited participation in the first and second round surveys, with a click-through to the questionnaires. Invitation to participate was also prominent in GSTC’s stakeholder communication activity.

Calls to participate in the first public consultation included:

  • 13,770 accumulative recipients of our newsletters, members’ bulletins, media/press list, and invitations to those specifically signed for updates about the GSTC Criteria Revision. This also includes a list of 177 NTOs and 135 Trade Associations.
  • 4,050 accumulative impressions on social media GSTC official pages (not including other shares in groups and by other organizations and individuals).

In addition, all those known to have been GSTC-Recognized under the prevailing GSTC-D Criteria were invited.

Calls to participate in the second public consultation included:

  • 8,410 accumulative recipients of our newsletters, members’ bulletins, media/press list, and invitations to those specifically signed for updates about the GSTC Criteria Revision.
  • 6,250 accumulative impressions on social media GSTC official pages (not including other shares in groups and by other organizations and individuals).

In addition, all those known to have been GSTC-Recognized under the prevailing GSTC-D Criteria were invited, AND, those participating in the first-round of consultation.

In addition, the above numbers do not include promotion by partners such as PATA, WTTC, IUCN etc. (see below)

The first-round consultation survey received 88 unique responses and generated a total of 883 comments on the original GSTC-D criteria, some of which were multi-faceted. A significant proportion of the respondents (72%) had not previously engaged with GSTC criteria development. The second-round consultation received a total of 95 responses, of which 57 contained comments on the draft revised set of GSTC-D criteria, generating a total of 312 comments. Respondents in both rounds were primarily from Europe, Latin America/Caribbean and North America. The nature of the organizations represented amongst the respondents to both surveys is shown in the table below.

Nature of organization 1st round 2nd round
Consultancy 21% 25%
Non-Profit Organization or NGO 18% 18%
Government Agency (national, provincial, municipal, or other) 6% 16%
Destination Management Organisation or Partnership 0% 9%
Certification Body 5% 9%
Academia 16% 9%
Other (please specify) 18% 9%
Travel & Tourism Industry – private enterprise; any subsector, any role 15% 5%
None 1% 2%

Targeted stakeholder consultation

The GSTC’s Destination Stewardship Working Group (DSWG) has played an important role in the GSTC-D revision process. The group is made up of a number of individuals with particular knowledge and interest in destination management. The aim of the group is to assist destinations in maintaining their cultural, environmental and socio-economic integrity through implementing the GSTC’s Destinations Programme. At the outset, DSWG was asked to consider an initial possible re-ordering and re-grouping of the criteria. This formed an important and very helpful input in parallel to the first-round consultation and was carefully considered alongside individual comments from the consultees. Members of the DSWG also submitted comments on the initial draft of the proposed revised criteria. They were also consulted on the final draft, and their comments influenced the final amendments to the criteria and indicators.

A number of additional bodies with a high level of specialist knowledge, engagement and expertise in environmental, social and cultural sustainability in the tourism sector were directly invited to make comments and suggestions on the revision of the GSTC-D. These included:

  • ICOMOS: International Council on Monuments and Sites
  • ECPAT: Every Child Protected Against Trafficking
  • IUCN: International Union for the Conservation of Nature – Tourism and Protect Areas Specialist Group
  • WWF: World Wildlife Fund

The process of revision of the GSTC-D was borne in mind during much of the work of the GSTC during the period. In particular, two dedicated workshops were held as part of large GSTC gatherings. These took place in Africa and Asia, both continents that were under-represented amongst respondents to the public consultation. The workshops were held in:

  • Maun, Botswana, on December 9th 2018, during the GSTC 2018 Global Conference (150 delegates from 26 countries)
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand, on March 1st 2019, during the GSTC Asia-Pacific Conference (250 delegates from 25 countries).

Both of these workshops had a diverse participation, including government officials, private sector and community-based organizations.

Key themes emerging from the consultation

During the first-round consultation, certain key topics were raised by a number of consultees, either directly or by implication, as being underplayed in the original criteria, amongst which the following deserve particular mention:

  • Management responsibility. The existence of some form of coordinating body responsible for destination management and sustainability was seen as a fundamental requirement. It needs to involve civil society, alongside the public and private sectors, and to have sufficient capacity to perform its functions. It should be the first criterion.
  • Strategy. The destination management strategy should also include an action plan. It should be monitored and reviewed, have political support and relate to wider policies.
  • Over-tourism. Concern about over-tourism was frequently mentioned. Comments pointed to a need for overall visitor management, including issues of visitor volume and dispersal. Regulation of operations, e.g. sub-letting, is a related topic.
  • Resident engagement and feedback. While public participation and feedback from residents was included in the original criteria, it was felt that it should have more emphasis and be seen as an important aspect of overall management to be covered in Pillar A. There should also be a greater emphasis on community awareness and capacity building with respect to tourism.
  • Visitor engagement. Visitors should be better informed about sustainability and their reaction to this should be included in visitor surveys.
  • Enterprise engagement. Tourism enterprises are key stakeholders and there should be a stronger reference to engaging with them beyond promoting sustainability standards.
  • Retention of income locally. Support for local tourism businesses and local supply chains should be seen in the context of reducing economic leakage and fostering linkage.
  • Visitor sites. The original terminology for sites and attractions was considered to be confusing. Management should address the area around key sites as well as within them.
  • Intangible cultural heritage. This was considered to be a gap and should be covered specifically in the criteria.

These topics, along with certain others, were reflected in the changes proposed in the first draft of the revised GSTC-D.

A structure toward increased understanding

The re-arrangement of the GSTC Destination Criteria into four sections, each with two or three sub-sections, is shown below. This new structure was designed to introduce a clear logic and to make the criteria more coherent and easier to understand. The order of the sections and sub-sections was not intended to indicate the relative importance of each topic.

SECTION A: Sustainable management

A(a) Management structure and framework
A(b) Stakeholder engagement
A(c) Managing pressure and change

SECTION B: Socio-economic sustainability

B(a) Delivering local economic benefits
B(b) Social wellbeing and impacts

SECTION C: Cultural sustainability

C(a) Protecting cultural heritage
C(b) Visiting cultural sites

SECTION D: Environmental sustainability

D(a) Conservation of natural heritage
D(b) Resource management
D(c) Management of waste and emissions

The revision also sought to refine the language used, with careful wordsmithing designed to ensure the clarity of each criterion.

New for 2.0 – Performance indicators and SDGs

The performance indicators presented alongside the Destination Criteria are designed to provide guidance in measuring compliance with the criteria. They are not intended to be the definitive set or all-inclusive, but to provide a solid sample set for users of the GSTC-D in developing their own indicator sets. The performance indicators essentially provide a suggested list of circumstances, factors, evidence and actions to be looked for in a destination when assessing compliance with the criteria.

Application of the criteria will help a destination to contribute towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. Against each of the Destination Criteria, one or more of the 17 SDGs is identified, to which it most closely relates.


[1] A destination has been defined by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as: “A physical space with or without administrative and/or analytical boundaries in which a visitor can spend an overnight. It is the cluster (co-location) of products and services, and of activities and experiences along the tourism value chain and a basic unit of analysis of tourism. A destination incorporates various stakeholders and can network to form larger destinations”.

[2] Suggested performance indicators are also published for each criterion, although these do not undergo a formal stakeholder evaluation process and are not considered part of the standard per se.

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