Building a community-centered destination stewardship initiative

Care for communities that make up the fabric of destinations is critical. But how? A destination stewardship approach can help tourism stakeholders – including community members – create their shared future in a collaborative and mutually beneficial way. Samantha Bray, PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, shares her expertise. This post was originally published on the Center for Responsible Travel’s website.

What Does Destination Stewardship Mean and Why Does It Matter?

Translating the concept of destination stewardship to action requires a structure that supports bringing all of the stakeholders around the table. It also requires giving them a real voice in tourism planning, policy, and management.

While there are many structural models that can facilitate a destination stewardship approach, in this post we will be exploring the concept and importance of destination stewardship and formation and mobilization of destination stewardship councils.

A group of women in traditional clothing gather around a table to discuss tourism initiatives. [Photo courtesy of Mauricio Miramontes]

Destination stewardship is defined by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council as “a process by which local communities, governmental agencies, NGOs, and the tourism industry take a multi-stakeholder approach to maintaining the cultural, environmental, economic, and aesthetic integrity of their country, region, or town.” It is about protecting the very qualities that make a place first and foremost a wonderful place to live, with the added benefit of being a wonderful place to visit.

This is important because a healthy and happy community is needed to support a healthy and happy tourism industry long-term. For too long, tourism development in the name of financial benefit for a few has occurred at the expense of the people who actually spend every day in a place. Their natural and cultural assets, and even their very neighborhoods, become commodified to the point where the community itself cannot enjoy them. Their fundamental ways of life are degraded in the name of more people, more money, more tourism.

Of course, profit is an essential “leg” of the triple bottom line stool of “people, planet, profit.” The World Travel & Tourism Council reported tourism accounted for 10.3% of global GDP and 330 million jobs (1 in 10) around the world in 2019. Tourism has countless benefits for destination communities, businesses, and travelers. However, we need to use the post-Covid “tourism reset” opportunity to take a hard look at the way things have been done and consider how we can do them better. (We also need better metrics, which is something CREST and colleagues at the Future of Tourism Coalition and others are working on.)

What we can do now is shift our mindsets to a stewardship approach. Pre-Covid, there was an escalating movement of dissatisfaction among residents of many destinations who had simply had enough. They felt they were not being listened to and that their wants and desires were not part of the tourism development and management equation. Let’s dig into how this can be remedied.

The Destination Stewardship Council Approach

While there is no one-size-fits-all model for destinations, with intention and initiative there are several steps a destination can take to shift towards a stewardship approach. The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and our friends at the Destination Stewardship Center (DSC) have been compiling and studying successful initiatives for years, and we offer the formation of destination stewardship councils as a model that can work.

In the following section, we share our documented steps to success. A destination need not experience the process in this order, and all may not be applicable for each destination, but our goal is for these steps to be used as a road map whereby the destination can choose its own route.

Initiative Activation

The activation phase refers to the point when one or more stakeholders involved in a destination’s tourism sector realize the need to do things differently, and mobilization begins.

Identifying strategic timing

When might you consider forming a destination stewardship council? There are three triggers that might indicate the time is right.

  • Need for resilience/recovery: When initiative needs to be taken to support small businesses, local supply chains, and the greater community following a shock to the tourism system, such as Covid-19, a hurricane, a fire, etc.
  • Local pressure: When there is a sense of disconnect between residents of a place, the tourism industry, and the current system of destination management.
  • Government/DMO will: When a government or destination management organization recognizes a shift to destination stewardship is needed, and a new approach may be taken during strategic planning or fiscal year-end budget restructuring, in tandem with other government departments and their development plans, etc.

Forming a planning team

Once the idea of a stewardship approach has taken root, it is time to form a planning team. This planning team may be very informal at this stage. Key considerations include:

  • Need for a champion: For a council initiative to get off the ground, there must be a champion who moves the process along and is committed to its success. This leader – or even better, leadership team – must generate enthusiasm for the concept and may be from the public, private, or civil sector.
  • Key participants: Once the champion has stepped forward, a planning team should be convened. This should be a small group of key stakeholders who clearly would have a role in the early success of the initiative.

Considering the council model

What is the council’s scope, and how does it fit into the current systems in place? While you do not have to have the answers to these questions at the very beginning, these are important considerations to make.

  • Identifying [initial] geographic boundaries: The planning team should consider what the geographic scope of the council might be. It might be based on political boundaries if aligned with the destination perception, or it might be more organic, based on unifying geographic or cultural elements – in effect, the tourism ecosystem.
  • Taking stock of capacity: The planning team should then conduct an initial capacity assessment. If a destination stewardship council is to be convened, are capacities in place to deliver on its goals and objectives? What capacities currently exist with those who are involved in tourism, and what are the gaps? Capacities may range from knowledge about important issues related to tourism, destination management, and sustainability, to skills like project design, development, and fundraising. How might capacity gaps be filled?
  • Organizational structure: It is important to consider options for where the council may “live.” Will it make sense to integrate this approach into an existing tourism management organization? Will the council form as a branch of a larger organization, such as a tourism arm of a broader economic development commission? Will we start an entirely new entity? There are several models to offer here, including simply a collaborative committee or alliance to start with. New structures have also emerged from Covid, such as public/private task forces at national levels. More structure can be added as the council develops.

Gathering Data

Now that the concept of a council has support, it’s time to collect data to proceed in an informed way. At this point, it may be helpful to engage a third party with knowledge of destination stewardship to help facilitate the following steps. In many cases, those intimately involved in tourism will be so close to the issues at hand that a third party, impartial perspective can be helpful for guidance.

Conducting stakeholder mapping

The planning committee should map out all the potential stakeholders who exist within the destination and could be invited to have a voice in the council. A holistic list may include:

  • Public sector (ministers, advisors, civil servants, civil departments, elected representatives, political parties, local government, commissions, international bodies)
  • Private sector (corporations, businesses, business associations, professional organizations, business leaders, financial institutions)
  • Civil sector (resident groups, seasonal residents, diaspora, media, religions institutions, schools/universities, social movements/advocacy groups, trade unions, local NGOs, national NGOs, international NGOs)
  • Marginalized stakeholders who are left out of the planning process (inclusive of racial minorities, persons with disabilities, generational gaps, socio-economic status, LGBTQ+ status, and gender status)

An infographic depicts the different roles of stakeholders. The Private Sector, Civil Sector, and Public Sector each have their own focuses.

This list will likely be evolve over time. Tourists should also be considered stakeholders. While not involved in the council, the council will want to collect data from visitors to inform decisions. Once the council is more fully established, a continuous visitor survey of satisfaction, enthusiasm, and use is recommended.

Engaging residents through surveying or forums

Working from the stakeholder map, the planning committee can then reach out to these communities through surveying and/or public forums to seek to find out current perceptions of tourism.

Holding community visioning sessions

A community visioning session(s) may then be held to share ideas for components that should be included in an aspirational community tourism vision, document core personal values (which can help guide the mission and vision), and consider more specific steps that can be taken in key areas such as:

  • Collaboration, cooperation, and partnerships
  • Funding and financing
  • Natural resources and the environment
  • Cultural heritage and the arts
  • Business & product development
  • Promotion, marketing, and communications
  • Public policy and government support
  • Quality and service excellence

Before a visioning session begins, it is key for the host to encourage participants to be kind, honest, respectful, creative, and – if possible – to have fun.

Council Mobilization

Armed with information and an engaged group of community stakeholders, the time is right to mobilize the council.

Forming or expanding a council

At this phase, the council itself can be formed. Care should be taken to ensure participation in the council represents the nature of the community, with public, private, and civil sector involvement. The planning committee may morph into a steering committee that will help to form the direction of the council, and key gaps may be filled on the steering committee. While the government should be at the table, the council must be structured to ensure it can exist beyond changes in government or loss of any one council member, including the champion.

Creating a mission & vision

In early days, the council should work from the data collected to develop a proposed mission (overall purpose) and vision (what the future of tourism looks like if the council is successful). The vision may be developed from the resident surveys and outcomes of the visioning session(s). The mission and vision should be circulated for public feedback and can be refined as the council’s work progresses.

Defining metrics of success

The council can also look at the data collected to determine what metrics of success should be utilized. Beyond visitor numbers, employment, and economic benefit, metrics of success might include spreading out seasonality, controlling use intensity of assets, local satisfaction with tourism, effects of tourism on communities, sustaining desired-tourist satisfaction, impact on built heritage (historic & archaeological sites), and protecting critical ecosystems. What additional data should be collected from tourism stakeholders to measure the key metrics?

Developing shared goals, objectives, & strategy

With the mission and vision in mind, in addition to the input from stakeholders, the Council can develop shared goals, objectives, and strategies. The council may choose to conduct another stakeholder survey at this time to ask the community what the council needs to accomplish in the next three years to be successful.

This information can be helpful in establishing goals (specific, objectively verifiable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) and objectives, as well as priorities. Once goals and objectives are developed, it may be helpful for the Council to split off into topical committees, leveraging the expertise of specific council members.

Planning activities

The Council committees can then come up with an activity slate to meet the goals and objectives for the next few years. What do you plan to do this year to meet your goals? Next year? The year after? The initial timeline should be short (not more than five years) to allow for the evolution of the council.

Understanding that it may take time for a council to get its feet under it to start raising funds, it is recommended that in the first year, activities proposed cost as little as possible and can be executed through partnerships. Activities proposed should be approved by the full council and prioritized based on impact, achievability, and interest.

While all ideas are important to consider, not all ideas are realistic, especially within the first few years. Consider creating a “parking lot” for ideas that may not be realistic at the time but can be reconsidered later.

Destination stewardship planning in Big Bay, Michigan. [Photo courtesy of CREST]


With the council’s goals, objectives, and activities in place, it’s time to put down roots and execute the plan.

Holding a catalytic event to gain traction:

An opportunity to generate excitement within the council and to gain traction in the community is to hold a catalytic event(s). This event may draw attention to the unique selling points of a place, including cultural, environmental, economic, social, historic, and aesthetic integrity.

Celebrating these offerings makes the community aware of them and attracts tourists who want to linger (versus mass day-trippers). It should also allow council members to work together towards a shared goal, can draw attention to the council’s initiatives, and perhaps even raise funds for a specific milestone activity.

Establishing a structure

Assuming key players have been involved in the council from the beginning, it’s time to officially find a home for the council, as considered during the activation phase. Has the council found a home within a currently established organization, or is it operating as a standalone organization? If the latter, how does it effectively work with established tourism organizations to ensure its voice is considered in tourism decisions?

Business Planning & Fundraising

The council should consider the best ways to administer the council and fund the activities proposed. Is government funding an option? Can the council apply for nonprofit status to receive grants? Is a membership model an option? A business plan should be created to ensure sustainable funding.

Executing activities

The council may choose to adopt a strategic doing approach, a tool of the Agile Strategy Lab Network, which is a collaboration of Purdue University and the University of North Alabama.

The concept of strategic doing teaches people “how to form collaborations quickly, move them toward measurable outcomes, and make adjustments along the way.”

It is ideal for organizations made up of volunteers utilizing a “plan > do > plan > do” methodology of executing identified projects, pursuing only a few activities at a time before taking on more.

The council should continue a cyclical process of collecting and analyzing data from stakeholders (ideally annually), planning, and implementation.

Joining the Destination Stewardship movement

The Future of Tourism Coalition, and those who have signed up to its 13 Guiding Principles, are focusing on building a more resilient, regenerative, equitable, and sustainable tourism economy. We’ve set out a vision for the decade ahead and are developing a toolkit based around 3 drivers for transition, where fundamental changes in how tourism is planned, developed, and managed will create the necessary foundations to make our vision a reality: destination stewardship and stakeholder engagement, managing tourism’s impacts, and local and sustainable supply chains.

In the first webinar of the Resetting Tourism series, put forth by the Future of Tourism Coalition, CREST and the DSC discussed innovative forms of governance and collaboration that will enable a more holistic approach to tourism management and development. We also touched on how it will bring new skills, resources, and levers for change, which will help develop resiliency, community contentment, and each destination’s unique intrinsic appeal.


Regardless of which model a destination uses, a good stewardship approach – one rooted in community – will help to ensure everyone has a stake in the future of tourism, laying the foundation for a collaborative and holistic approach.

Key Takeaways from CREST’s Forum On Destination Stewardship

What does it mean to implement a destination stewardship model? What are the successes and challenges communities face throughout the process? And what does a shift towards stewardship mean for destination marketing? Alix Collins summarizes the key takeaways from the 2022 World Tourism Day Forum.

A Better Way Forward

For this year’s World Tourism Day Forum (27 Sept. 2022), we at the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) wanted to shine a light on destination stewardship. Initially, we were going to focus solely on the mindset shift from marketing to management, but implementing the destination stewardship model isn’t just about making that shift. It’s also about governance, funding structures, stakeholder engagement, political will, and community and private sector buy-in.

So we shifted our focus. The first panel focused on implementing the destination stewardship model. In theory, bringing people together for better destination stewardship sounds easy. In practice, however, it can be challenging to implement. While there are fantastic models across the world, we decided to focus on US destinations because of the political and cultural landscape that poses unique challenges. The second panel focused on rethinking destination marketing, moving from tourist-centric marketing that aims to get more heads and beds and towards community-centered storytelling that aims to capture a destination’s sense of place and benefit the community in ways requested by the community.

Our speakers included: Jonathan Tourtellot (Destination Stewardship Center), Seleni Matus (International Institute of Tourism Studies), Ilihia Gionson (Hawai‘i Tourism Authority), Dawnielle Tehama (Willamette Valley Visitors Association), Dr. Brooke Hansen (University of South Florida), Sven Gonstead (Big Bay Stewardship Council), Lebawit Lily Girma (former Editor-At-Large at Skift), Rob Holmes (GLP Films), JoAnna Haugen (Rooted), Jayni Gudka (Unseen Tours), Tom Smith (Intrepid Travel), Andreas Weissenborn (Destinations International), and Diwigdi Valiente (Panama Tourism Authority).

Key Takeaways

Collaboration is Key

In his keynote address, Jonathan Tourtellot said that a “lack of a collaborative structure at the destination level is why I’ve become a relentless advocate for the creation of destination stewardship councils, by whatever name, [to take] care of the ultimate tourism product, which is a place – a place where people live.”

We can accomplish more together than we can apart, and yet doing so is easier said than done. Collaboration is about more than sharing ideas. As Dawnielle Tehama, mentioned, it’s about stakeholders co-designing and co-deciding tourism policies and practices that impact everyone in the community. And a step beyond that, it’s about co-managing as well.

In Willamette Valley, this looks like developing and adopting a place-based strategy by “connecting and building bridges between different sectors of the tourism industry, and starting to have the conversation with our state and local agencies, our DMOs, and other stakeholders,” she said, including the wine industry, hospitality, lodging, guides, operators, and outfitters. In Big Bay, Michigan, an isolated, rural community, it looks like connecting stakeholders through formal and informal means, from surveys and in-person forums to their annual Fall Festival.

There is no one-size-fits-all model

Every destination is different. Dr. Brooke Hansen and two of her Florida’s Keep America Beautiful affiliates are following a model inspired by the work of Ilihia Gionson and his team at the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority (HTA), but the models are vastly different. In Hawai‘i, we are seeing a top-down approach, with HTA leading the effort to co-develop island-wide destination management plans with counties and visitor bureaus. In Florida, there is a lack of direction from the state level, so Dr. Hansen and others are taking a more grassroots approach. By bringing together nonprofits, volunteers, tourists, and academia, they are testing a model specifically designed for Florida but one they hope others can look to.

We need to manage our invitations

Overtourism was a problem before the pandemic. Residents of Barcelona and Venice, for example, took to the streets to protest the unsustainable influx of tourists into their cities in 2017. But during the pandemic, tourism ceased in many places and exploded in others, primarily in destinations where travelers could experience the outdoors. As a result, many destinations, including Hawai‘i, began to rethink their relationship with tourism.

“In Hawaiian culture, there’s a specific protocol towards asking for entry and being granted entry,” Gionson noted. With limits on the number of people allowed in specific places, they can better manage funds and staffing. It also allows them to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t invite you in at this time, the other 2,000 people are invited in, you’ve got to wait a minute. And that’s something that I think the market just needs to understand in these times when demand is this great for these finite resources.”

If we want to be more authentic, we need to be more inclusive

“The market is demanding more authenticity…there’s only one source of authenticity, and that’s the community, you can’t counterfeit it, can’t manufacture it,” said Gionson. Andreas Weissenborn also noted that in a world where destinations are competing for tourists around the world, you need to have a brand, and “if you build an authentic and inclusive, distinct brand, you inspire people to want to visit you.” This brand, he notes, isn’t created or owned by a destination organization but is developed and owned by the community.

Being authentic also means being inclusive, which doesn’t solely mean gathering input from communities but giving them agency over developing tourism policies, practices, and products.

Jayni Gudka discussed the importance of including voices from marginalized communities not only in destination marketing but also in development of tourism products. For community tours, she notes, this means asking who is deciding what’s included and excluded from the tour, and who gives the tour, particularly whether it’s someone from the community or outside of it. “For us at Unseen Tours, it’s really important that we don’t speak on behalf of people with experience of homelessness and marginalization, who are our tour guides, but that we provide them with opportunities to share their own stories and opinions with the world through their walking tours.”

Diwigdi Valiente shared similar insights from working with indigenous communities in Panama, who are now seeing more representation at all government and business levels. “Now, we are not just the ones that dance in order to show our culture to visitors, but we’re also being part of the of the tourism chain, not only being the providers of services, but also being more involved in the tourism management.”

We need metrics that matter

We need to move beyond metrics that promote quantity over quality and towards metrics that matter. Communities around the world are being pushed to their breaking point as unsustainable numbers of tourists visit their destinations and put a strain on their resources as well as natural and cultural assets.

Tom Smith noted that the “ultimate measure of success has to be the long term health of the communities that that we visit on our tours….Destinations that truly embrace and engage and consider the happiness of residents, hosts, and travelers will ultimately create the most economic and social value for everybody.”

It’s not about tourism

JoAnna Haugen said it best: “It’s important to consider [that] when it comes to community-focused tourism, it’s not about tourism. The focus really needs to be on the holistic well-being and care of the community, and tourism is a vehicle or a tool that can support that, if and when appropriate.”

We at CREST couldn’t agree more. CREST’s mission and vision for tourism embody this same principle. Tourism is not a product but rather, a mechanism through which communities can improve livelihoods for themselves and their neighbors, conserve and raise awareness about their most precious natural assets, share their cultural heritage and ideas, and spark meaningful entrepreneurship opportunities and positive change.

Ultimately, as Tourtellot notes, “tourism done well can help protect these places. Done badly, it can help destroy them. Good destination stewardship can make the difference.”

Missed the 2022 World Tourism Day Forum? You can watch the recording here.

OPINION: The NY Times’s Selection of Sustainable Destinations

This year, the New York Times Travel section devoted its annual list of recommended destinations to places “where travelers can be part of the solution” – a sustainability first that recognizes the interactions between tourist and destination. How did the Times do? DSR editor Jonathan Tourtellot does a quick review of the editors’ choices.

The New York Times Chooses 52 Good-Stewardship Destinations

“Did you have something to do with this?” My friend’s message contained a link to the New York Times’s annual list of 52 places to visit. It’s issued every January, only this year the newspaper’s list could have been wrapped in recycled brown paper and tied up with biodegradable string: “52 Places for a Changed World,” announced the venerable Times, where tourism can help with problems “like overtourism and climate change.”

No, not me, I replied – erroneously, it turned out – “but great that they’re doing this.” The 2022 list, says the Times, “highlights places where change is actually happening — where endangered wild lands are being preserved, threatened species are being protected, historical wrongs are being acknowledged, fragile communities are being bolstered” – all with tourism somehow helping.

Here’s the list.

Source: New York Times. Click to enlarge.

Let’s take a look at a few of the choices.

Some selections were listed mainly as overtourism alternatives: visit Gouda, not Amsterdam, in the Netherlands; Chioggia, not Venice, in Italy. Other destinations have enacted careful limits to avoid overtourism in the first place, such as Islas Cíes in Spain.

Estes Park, Colorado, USA earned a mention for adaption to climate change, and Normandy’s bike trail for not adding to it.

Some places are using tourism to help preserve or restore traditional societies disrupted by external factors, as with the Bedouins of Egypt’s Red Sea Mountain Trail and the culturally distinct villagers of Vietnam’s Red River Delta. On Fogo Island, Newfoundland, that monument to fishing-village heritage, The Fogo Island Inn, helped reverse the island’s cod-moratorium decline.

The design of the Fogo Island Inn reflects the traditional fishing piers of Newfoundland. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

In some places, entrepreneurial initiatives to empower women rely on tourism – Marrakech, Morocco (improved crafts and culinary skills) and the mountains of Uttarakhand, India (homestays provided by widows).

For indigenous management of protected areas – a welcome trend – we have Daintree Rainforest in Queensland, Australia and Thaidene Nëné National Park, on Canada’s Great Slave Lake.

African wildlife survival depends on tourism. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Mozambique’s new Chimanimani National Park and the entire country of South Africa basically represent the parks and conservation areas of all Africa that need tourism to return; lack of it has put wildlife at risk from poaching, agricultural pressures, cattle grazing, and other threats during Covid.

Tourism also helps conservation recovery in Puerto Rico’s hurricane-battered El Yunque National Forest; Greenland and Saguaro National Park, Arizona, USA, both welcome “voluntourists” for planting trees and pulling up invasive grasses respectively.

Only a few seemed a thematic stretch. Some places appeared to be listed simply because they’re doing a good job of stewardship, tourism notwithstanding – Monaco and El Hierro in the Canary Islands, for instance. Places like Northumberland, U.K. and Santa Cruz county, California, USA seemed merely nice places to go, with just a modicum of preservation and conservation noted.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona, needs volunteers. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

It turns out that I did have something to do with the list, and so quite likely, did you readers, either directly or indirectly. While reviewing old emails, I discovered one I had forgotten: Back in October of 2021, I had answered a request from the New York Times, relayed via my colleagues at CREST, asking for ideas for a new approach to their annual list: aspects of destination stewardship.

Portugal’s Alantejo wine region was among those chosen for sustainable food and drink. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Quite a few subscribers to the Destination Stewardship Report may have received the same call. Even if you didn’t, all of us in this community deserve a nod for bringing a new way of thinking increasingly into the realm of conventional travel reporting.

This is good. We’re not only being heard; we’re being consulted by mainstream media. To be sure, the NYT has covered sustainable tourism before, but not to my knowledge in such an elaborate panorama directed right at the traveler. Tourism policymakers take notice. The more that sustainable tourism shows up in mass media, the sooner governments, tourism boards, and alert citizens will start accepting and then encouraging it.

The need, however, is urgent. Threats to destinations continue. The organizations and individuals who subscribe to this Report, or who have signed on to the Future of Tourism Coalition’s Guiding Principles, would do well to boost our outreach to mass media. We need to build relationships with more editors and producers, with more reporters and influencers. We need to look beyond our silos and inject our points of view into the mainstream news cycle – to become the point of referral whenever an issue of destination stewardship arises, stressing that tourism is an integral part of the places where it occurs, and must be managed so as to help and not hurt.

Chelenko Opts for All-In Sustainability

Some beautiful destinations are recognized as such with special governmental designations. That may provide an opportunity for a holistic approach to destination management. Fernando Ojeda and Natalia Naranjo describe how the Chelenko Lake area of the Chilean Patagonia has done just that.

Chile’s Chelenko Adopts a Structure for Stewardship

Chelenko is a scenic, nature-based destination in the Aysén region in the Chilean Patagonia. The Chilean government designated it a Touristic Interest Zone (Zona de Interés Turístico – ZOIT) in 2000, due to rising tourism and an increasing need to protect the lake.

The Leones River, stemming from its namesake glacier, pours into the Chelenko Lake (a.k.a. General Carrera Lake). [Photo courtesy of Sernatur Aysén]

In 2017, an update of the Chilean tourism law created an opportunity to formulate a participatory work plan at a local level that would establish sustainability guidelines in the ZOIT. That process resulted in identifying this vision for Chelenko:

“In 2030 it will be a consolidated touristic destination, responsible and inclusive with the communities, that protects and values its natural resources, its identity and traditions, and assures sustainable development for the local communities. Generosity and kindness of its inhabitants are an important part to generate a high level of satisfaction for visitors.”


Chelenko was the first place to receive the ZOIT designation from the Chilean government. This was an opportunity to strengthen participatory planning skills; contribute to the conservation of touristic resources, and also promote public and private investments in this area.

The Chelenko ZOIT is an area defined within the General Carrera Province, encompassing the General Carrera Lake – better known as Chelenko Lake – as well as Bertrand Lake and the surrounding area. There are more than 10 towns distributed between the two municipalities of Chile Chico and Río Ibáñez.

Kayaking is a popular tourist activity in Chelenko, especially alongside the breathtaking Marble Chapels, a series of islands sitting atop glacial waters. [Photo courtesy of Sernatur Aysén]

Chelenko in the Tehuelche aboriginal language means “Lake of Storms.” Shared with Argentina, it is the biggest lake in Chile and the second largest in South America – 200 km long and 590 meters maximum depth, at 350 meters above sea level. Chelenko Lake is linked to the Bertrand Lake and nurtures the most abundant river in Chile: The Baker River.

The main economic activities of the region are agriculture, cattle, mining, and nature-based tourism, which includes hiking, horseback riding, and wildlife watching. Numerous rivers and lakes provide opportunities for sports and adventure activities like recreational fishing, sailing, rafting, and kayaking.

Management Strategy

The main strategy for managing tourism is to establish a collaborative (public and private directorate) and participatory structure to plan and implement actions for the destination –  Directorio Público Privado ZOIT Chelenko (Pubic-Private Directorate for the Chelenko ZOIT). Its main characteristic has been to integrate private stakeholders so that they can have greater participation in the governance of the lake. Their continued efforts and commitment have been key to advancing a sustainable agenda, with participation happening at different levels (within the ZOIT plan, outside the ZOIT plan, or at the local level led by the civil society).

Even so, stakeholders’ active involvement can be a challenge; there is an active participation at a local level from both public and private stakeholders regarding their concerns towards sustainability. Being a small community, local leaders are involved in different initiatives beside the tourism activity; they are also involved in other coordination entities like water, electrification, neighborhood committees, etc.

An aerial view of the Marble Caves (Capillas de Mármol) Nature Sanctuary, on the shores of General Carrera Lake in the Aysén region. [Photo courtesy of Sernatur Aysén]

The Action Plan

The participatory action plan identified these strategic pillars: promotion, sustainability, infrastructure, human resources, product development, and governance. Here are the key aspects identified for sustainable management of Chelenko and lessons learned since implementing the participatory structure and plan:

  • Private plus public governance – a must.
  • Government commitment to the process at national, regional, and local levels.
  • Governmental support in technical knowledge, data, information, logistics, and facilitation in meetings to strengthen participation from all local stakeholders.
  • Involvement and empowerment for enterprises and community.
  • A public, concise, long term, and participatory plan based on a diagnosis.
  • Measurable goals and regular meetings for follow-up.
  • Continuous motivation and team building, especially for community and NGO leaders.
  • A private stakeholder corporation that supports the long-term vision regardless of changes in government and public administration. It also allows leveraging resources.

At a public level, key aspects of local engagement towards sustainability have included communication and articulation: training, awareness, access to information, promotion of local identity, tourism awareness campaigns, and development of new touristic products and cultural events. You can see more details here.

On the private side, entrepreneurs have established a network: “Chelenko Redponsable” (“responsible network”). This network is a cooperative of enterprises where all members implement and promote sustainable practices: socio-cultural (local products purchasing, exhibition of regional handcrafts), management (local workers), and environmental aspects (energy efficiency, waste management), working to develop community-based tourism. Many of these leaders are part of the directorate. One of the main topics addressed last year was water quality.  Water treatment plant malfunctions, mine tailings, sewage, etc. have generated concerns about water quality and its management, especially for the lake. Chelenko Lake should have one of the purest waters on the world, and the community wants to preserve it for future generations.

Participation of public and private organizations within the destination has succeeded in developing wide commitment toward sustainability in the territory, in large part because local communities love and care about their territory; they love their history and identity. These are of course the main assets for sustainability, providing the destination with a unique sense of place. The community’s sense of co-responsibility within the destination provides a unique tourism experience.

Fernando Ojeda, Tourism Professional, passionate to support sustainable tourism destinations. Today in charge of Touristic Interest Zones in Aysén´s Regional Tourism Office.

Natalia Naranjo Ramos, Development and tourism expert advisor. Country Representative in Colombia for the Canadian Organization for Technical Cooperation –CESO-SACO.

Japan’s Journey Toward Sustainability

It’s a tall order for a large country to change its national policy and commit to improving stewardship for hundreds of its tourism destinations, but Japan is taking tentative steps in that direction, spurred on by one young official and a lot of collaborators. GSTC’s Emi Kaiwa reports on how this tentative change of heart came about, what’s happened to date, and how far it has to go.

Springtime for Destination Stewardship in Japan

Sakura tree spring blossoms. Photo ©Emi Kaiwa

In 2018, a book left in an office rack snagged the attention of a young Japanese official. Beginning with that moment, Japan, a country of 126.17 million in 20191, finally began action toward sustainability in tourism. In 2020 the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) decided to adopt the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) Destination Criteria as policy and create a national set of guidelines called the Japan Sustainable Tourism Standard for Destinations (JSTS-D)2.

Unwilling to be left behind, Japan is on the trail to becoming a sustainable country with a national program to support its hundreds of tourism destinations. In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared that Japan will achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050.

How Did This Come To Pass?
Over the past decade, JTA focused on marketing, seeking an ever-increasing number of international visitor arrivals (IVAs),3 while still aiming for a measure of sustainability. The target was for 20 million IVAs by 2020, which was quickly met, and then revised to a goal of 40 million. The Covid pandemic kept this goal from being acheived, but Japan decided to aim for a target of 60 million IVAs by 2030.

Fuji-san draws both domestic and international tourists. ©Emi Kaiwa

This increase might seem contradictory to meeting sustainability goals, but Japan is larger in size than Italy, which received 131 million visitors in 2019 (albeit with some dire overtourism situations). Arguably, Japan has room.For an entire country, economic goals are still as important as sustainability.

It was challenging to impart the importance of destination management to industry stakeholders whose priority used to be marketing. In order to do both, Japan had to find a way to sustainably manage destinations so that they can receive 60 million visitors. The solution came in the form of the GSTC framework, which promoted the idea of destination management [in its Destination Criterion A1] while still supporting economic goals.

The Book and the Man
In 2018, GSTC was not well known to Mr. Hajime Ono, the young Chief Official from Visitors Experience Improvement, JTA. One day, a book4 that “someone” left on the rack in his office caught his eye. It summarized in Japanese a 2017 forum on sustainable tourism. The contents of the book were all about GSTC, which aroused his intense curiosity to learn more.

Cars jam the same spot to see Mt. Fuji. “I saw one car hit another due to the limited parking space,” says the author.  ©Emi Kaiwa

Understanding the value of GSTC’s comprehensive global standard for managing destinations made him consider the connection between management and overtourism issues. He concluded that the GSTC-Destination criteria could be the broad management tool needed for dealing with overtourism, a critical problem for Japan before COVID-19 arrived. Even if this pandemic stays for a while, the tourism business will bounce back sooner or later.

Japan may in fact have sufficient capacity to receive its goal of 60 million IVAs by 2030. One way is through promoting rural areas as tourist destinations. So is development of transportation infrastructure – airport facilities and mixed-mode commuting to rural areas, accommodation facilities, and tourism resources – that will make it possible for tourists to spread out and visit different regions in Japan. By using information and communication technology, popular destinations can control tourists’ visiting times and mitigate the impact of seasonality.

A plan for comprehensive management of destinations was therefore deemed essential, and adopting the GSTC approach as a tourism policy was the solution. Mr. Ono became the lead in creating the JSTS-D guidelines to comply with GSTC-D criteria. The guidelines employed user-friendly wording, with references and examples, as a way to provide self-guided management at the destination level.

How To Make It Work?
Even though the JSTS-D was based on the global GSTC standard, nationwide penetration at the destination level was going to be quite challenging. How then could the local municipal and Destination Management Organization (DMO) officers be motivated to read the JSTS-D and implement it along with other tourism stakeholders? Fortunately, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) acted as a catalyst. SDGs have been included in many municipal comprehensive strategy plans and have gained traction in almost all industries year by year. Corporations seem eager to find ways in which they can achieve the SDGs. One is by collaborating with destinations to support them in becoming more sustainable by using the GSTC Industry Criteria (GSTC-I) for tourism businesses.

That “someone” who left the book on sustainable tourism for Mr. Ono was actually one person representing many people who worked hard to get attention from the government for many years. Their earnest effort has borne fruit. Mr. Ono left the Visitors Experience Improvement department in March 2021 and moved to the Office of Director for Travel Promotion. Now, a newly formed organization called “Japan Tourism for SDGs”, which is not government mandate, will take over the initiative from the national government to continue Japan’s journey. This independent organization is led by Mr. Hidetoshi Kobayashi, who has declared that he will spend the rest of his life working for sustainable tourism.

JSTS-D is not perfect. There is room for improvement, and that is one of the important characteristics of sustainability. Obtaining a sustainability label does not mean everything is entirely sustainable. Other aspects of improvement will be found in the learning process of getting certified. For now, think what the best approach is to move toward sustainability for the destination. The answer will not be the same, single, perfect solution for every prefecture and municipality. Perfect sustainability cannot be achieved at once, but destinations should keep moving forward patiently, one step at a time.

As the proverb says, Rome was not built in a day, nor was it built by only one man. Accelerating the sustainability movement requires fostering talent, expanding partnerships, and creating a network of people with sustainability mindsets. It might take time and endurance, but it thrives unexpectedly once a destination is ready. Sustainability is a long journey, probably without end, and the government is not the only one to lead its path. Society also needs to keep catching up and adjusting to rapid changes in a globalizing world. On this Earth of limited resources, however, the pathway of sustainability is required to maintain all humankind.

[1]Statists Bureau of Japan. Statistical Handbook of Japan 2020. [Online]. Available from’s%20total%20population%20in%202019%20was%20126.17%20million[Accessed 23rd November 2020].

[2]Japan Tourism Agency. Japan Sustainable Tourism Standard for Designations (JSTS-D). [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10th January 2021]

[3]Japan Tourism Agency.観光立国推進閣僚会議 「観光ビジョン実現プログラム 2020 -世界が訪れたくなる日本を目指して-. [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10th January 2021]

[4] Japan Eco Tourism Center. 100年先を見すえた観光地域づくりのために 島原半島フォーラム. [Online]. Available from [Accessed 23rd November 2020] *This book was produced by Japan Eco Tourism Center’s grants projects to promote GSTC in Japan since 2015.

~  ~  ~

Thanks to Mr. Ono for his commitment to sustainable tourism initiatives as a government official and his assistance with this report.

A Taiwanese Island Boosts Tourist Capacity – Sustainably

[Above, Turtle Island in profile. Photo: Roi Ariel]

For 20 years, ecotourists have been eager to tour a biodiverse volcanic island off the coast of Taiwan. But what happens when both locals and tourists complain about the stringent conservation limits on visitation set by government and academics? Monique Chen explains how stakeholders have harmonized ecological carrying capacity and local economics.

Taiwan’s Turtle Island, an active volcano known for its turtle-like shape, claims a rare lily, an endangered flying fox, a dazzling coral reef, a thriving ecosystem, and a “Milk Sea.” Its proximity to Taipei makes it a tourism magnet – and a management challenge.

The island lies 10 km east off of Taiwan’s Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area (NEYC), named as one of the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations from 2016 to 2020. Known as Guishan Island in Mandarin, it has a surface of area of 2.85 km2 and a high point of 398 meters above sea level with an unused military outpost on top of the hill. The island’s location off the northeast coast puts its ferries within an hour’s drive of Taipei, and then a mere 20-minute boat ride to the island.

Dated back to the Qing Dynasty (around the 18th century), Turtle Island had a population of 700 villagers at its peak. The whole village was relocated to the main island in 1977 because of the limited health, educational, and transportation resources. After the relocation, the island became a military base from 1977 to 2000. All the land was expropriated by the military.

The accessibility restrictions and the influence of the warm, plankton-bearing Kuroshio Current (pdf) has resulted in a surprisingly well-conserved area of rich natural and geological resources, home to many fish and coral reef species and a critical area for Taiwan’s offshore fishery. Over 50 hot spring vents lie in the sea floor near the “turtle head,” where a unique species of crab lives. There are around 16 species of cetaceans in the area according to studies. A diversity of more than 400 species of plants and 120 species of butterflies, snakes, birds are found in the island, as are two native Taiwan species, the endangered Formosan flying fox and the Formosan lily, as well as a native Chinese fan palm habitat.

Volcanic Turtle ( Guishan) Island – 17 minute video.

Limiting Carrying Capacity

Because of its amazing natural and marine resources, the government reopened Turtle Island for ecotourism in 2000 in response to demand from the tourism industry. To protect island ecology, capacity control was set at 250 persons per day, almost all brought in by ferry. Also, to ensure low impact on the environment, the supporting policy Regulations for Guishan (Turtle) Island Ecological Tours (Chinese only) was put into effect. The regulations prohibit fishing, hunting, feeding wild animals, taking any natural resources from the island, and importing animals and plants to the island.

In the first two years, the capacity limit caused some management problems. NEYC, a part of Tourism Bureau Taiwan, was struggling with pressures from local stakeholders, especially private accommodation businesses and ferry companies. Over 10,000 tourists applied to visit Turtle Island every day, but the low draw rate raised issues and complaints from both tourists and local businessmen on the main island.

Increasing Carrying Capacity

NEYC adopted a strategy of slowly increasing tourist capacity while keeping the ecosystem intact. The daily visitor capacity limit was gradually raised from 250 to 350 (2002), then 400 (2005), 500 (2007), 700 (2010), 1000 (2014), and 1800 (2015 to the present).

An endangered Formosa flying fox. Of the bat’s three Taiwanese habitats, Forest Bureau research shows that only the group in Turtle Island has grown steadily since 2010, suggesting that NEYC’s tourist carrying capacity plan has not harmed the ecosystem. Photo: Yang Yueh-Tzu

How did they do it?

It is easy for a DMO to declare it would like to set eco-social carrying capacity according to academic research, but when the DMO actually begins to implement it, stakeholder voices and facility capacity must be taken into account. There are always academic professors who strongly embrace ecological conservation without tourist access and who may not agree with rising visitation. Other professors will take stakeholder opinions and the environmental situation into account. The NEYC staff told me that there was no conflict in their discussion with professors.

In order to help the local economy by replacing the declining fishing industry with a growing tourism industry while still protecting marine resources, NEYC went on to hold meetings with local stakeholders at intervals on how to increase carrying capacity and improve the facilities so as to achieve a sustainable “ecological economy.” Following these discussions, including professors from marine, biological, and recreational departments, NYEC arrived at a plan that balanced the environmental research baseline with local economics. Considering that only a part of island (the tail part, around a tenth of its surface) was open to the public, the dock, hiking trails, and service facilities (toilets) could be improved and maintained.

Rebuilt stairways can handle increased foot traffic to the peak. Photo: Roi Ariel

The tourist-accessible area is around 19,835 square meters and the capacity baseline was originally set at 132 square meters per person in 2000. Visitation sessions were set at 150 people a session before 2010, then 250 people a session in 2010, under the operating procedure controlled by an NEYC guard team. Now tourists are usually split into four 90 to 120 minute sessions per day, with a limit of 450 visitors at the same time during March to November. (The island is closed during monsoon season from December to February.) Wednesdays are reserved for academic organizations only, up to 500 visitors, split into different sessions.

From the sign atop Turtle Island. Photo: Roi Ariel

Coastal guards monitor when tourists get on board and leave the island. Now, there are 13 recreational ferries with a capacity of 85-94 visitors, among which four ferries are owned by the former Turtle Island residents and the rest run by other locals in NEYC area. Most of the tour packages combine dolphin watching and hiking on the island, so some ferries can go dolphin watching first and take turns to get on the island.

The Formosa Lily restoration project allows tourists to see a beautiful springtime white landscape near the tourism center. Photo: Yang Yueh-Tzu

Each group of visitors landed on the island has 90 to 100 minutes to tour along the trail system, guided by licensed guides. After a stop at the tourism center, tourists visit the temple and old primary school buildings, walk around the lake to explore biodiversity, and visit the military tunnel and abandoned fort where they can watch the sea.

According to the report, there are always requests for more facilities and carrying capacity. For example, overnight stay service and submarine tours were suggested. Because NEYC’s main target is to conserve the natural landscape and environment, development with big construction didn’t fit in their plan.

Control of Dolphin Watching

The dolphin/whale watching activity around Turtle Island began even before Turtle Island opened for tourists in 1997. As one observer has noted, “in 20 years, Taiwanese people changed to conserve the cetaceans instead of eating them.”

However, there were no regulations and no consideration of carrying capacity for tourists participating in a dolphin and whale watching package. Given that all ferries have must acquire a license from Yilan county to run a recreational business, the stakeholders decided to limit the number of licenses in the area to 13, tied to a code of conduct. That put an automatic limit on cetacean watching around the island.

Sightseeing ferry at the edge of the Milk Sea. Photo: Monique Chen

The negative impact from dolphin watching activities brought together academics aligned with NGOs, the Fishery Agency, Council of Agriculture from the Taiwan central government to set up a voluntary certification system, “Whale Watching Mark,” in 2003. Among the 13 ferries, only 5 were certified. Due to the complicated documentation process required for certification, and given that green tourism was not mainstream enough in Taiwan, the Whale Watching Mark hasn’t received good responses from ferry companies until now. NEYC has also started to cooperate with Taiwan’s national Ocean Affairs Council in monitoring dolphin research in the area. Since 2017, researchers have used GPS to track the sight-seeing ferries as an indicator of dolphin movements.

As a DMO, the NEYC has tried to find friendly strategies to get more ferry owners to understand that chasing dolphins may harm the environment. By regulation, tour guides working for ferries and on Turtle Island must be licensed by NEYC twice a year. Through annual tour guide training, the ferry owners have gained more knowledge about protecting the marine dolphins. According to one captain, one protocol among ferries now is to take turns for 10 minutes for tourists to observe nearby dolphin families when more than one ferry approaches them.

COVID-19 and Beyond

During the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic tourism in Taiwan has soared as Taiwanese were not able to travel overseas. Some popular Taiwanese destinations encountered unprecedented negative impacts of overtourism for the first time. Even though tourist arrivals reached full capacity during weekdays, Turtle Island remained under control because of its carrying capacity system.

One challenge NEYC faces now is the “Milk Sea” close to the island, where “God has spilt the milk” as described by promotional agents. The Milk Sea refers to seawater with milky cream color caused by undersea hot springs. The tourism industry has touted this new sightseeing spot as a novelty, and tourists are flooding in. More and more yachts, stand-up paddleboards, and kayaks have come to this area, causing safety problems and conflicts with the ferry boats.

The Milk Sea from atop Turtle Island. Photo: Yang Yueh-Tzu

Fortunately, from 2016, NEYC has been implementing the GSTC Destination Criteria and participating in the Green Destinations Program has helped NEYC gain confidence and not only assess what they have done so far but also act on guidelines for achieving a more “sustainable-ecological economy” tourism pattern. Now some voices among original residents express hope that Turtle Island can be designated a cultural landscape heritage site and the history of their traditions and culture preserved.

Whatever changes to the Island may be, they will be based on official adherence to sustainability criteria. “‘Ecological Island’ is the main management strategy of Turtle Island, and the priority is to keep the eco-landscape and lower the construction impact in Turtle Island,” says Chia Feng Lin, Coordinator of NEYC.

Following the criteria, NEYC keeps on communicating sustainability principles and marine conservation to business owners, tour guides, and ferry owners, along with continued academic monitoring of Turtle Island’s ecological indicators .

To summarize, from the view point of sustainability, stakeholders’ voices and social conditions should be taken into consideration as well as academic research. Although the carrying capacity program may not be 100% perfect from scientists and researchers’ environmental protection perspective, NEYC has found a transforming strategy to meet the needs of the tourists, local ferry owners, and environmental conservation needs.

Hopefully, this example can inspire other destinations to find their own balance strategies.


Monique Chen has supplied these additional links (some in Chinese only):

  1. Study on recreational carrying capacity in turtle island (2004; Chinese) –
  2. Tour information for Turtle Island (English) –
  3. Wild Animal Conservation Act in Taiwan from 2000 –
  4. Visiting application web page of Turtle Island (Chinese only) –
  5. Whale Watching Mark Taiwan –
  6. Blue Whale Ferry with Whale Watching Mark on website –

Doing It Better: Columbia Gorge

As if symbolizing the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, a rainbow bridges the states of Washington and Oregon on each side of the Columbia River.

The Search for Holistic Destination Management In our last DSR issue, we discussed the importance of GSTC Destination Criterion A1, which reads in part: “The destination has an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, . . . for the management of environmental, economic, social, and cultural issues.” The requirement seems obvious, yet surprisingly few places around the world come even remotely close to meeting it. Below is Jacqueline Harper’s profile of one that does, fourth in a series of such profiles being assembled by the Destination Stewardship Center.

Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, Oregon and Washington States, USA

The mission of the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance (CGTA) commits to “developing the region as a world-class sustainable tourism economy”. This non-profit organization works both to protect and enhance the scenic, natural, cultural, and recreational resources of the Columbia River Gorge and to highlight lesser-known local communities.

The Columbia River Gorge became a National Scenic Area when President Ronald Reagan signed an Act on November 17, 1986. The Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association (CRVGA) was founded in 1990 as a bi-state initiative to promote the gorge to the tourism industry. Thanks to the Gorge Tourism Studio conducted in 2016, over 250 stakeholders – ranging from public agencies to private enterprise and community leaders to youth – came together to discuss ways the local communities could be economically stimulated through sustainable tourism while at the same time protecting the local environment. Thus, the CRVGA grew into the CGTA.

The Gorge Tourism Studio is a program developed by Travel Oregon that addresses and collaboratively solves critical issues in the region such as balancing economic benefits of tourism with preserving quality of life, natural resources, and cultural resources.

Bridge of The Gods at Cascade Locks, Columbia Gorge. Photo: Richard Hallman

Geographic description

The CGTA is exemplary as it brings together a bi-state area, representing both Oregon and Washington. The Columbia River, the basis for the Scenic Area, forms a natural state border between Oregon and Washington State. The CGTA includes the National Scenic Area (see map below), reaching from the Sandy River to the Deschutes River (both on the South side of the river) and from Mt. Adams (WA) to Mt. Hood (OR). It is the largest National Scenic Area in the United States. Not only does it cover two states, but it also brings together six counties, and 15 towns, encompassing over 292,500 acres. The Gorge canyon at its core consists of both rain forest and desert. The canyon is 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep. Many visitors travel here for a world-class adventure experience as this region has many scenic trails, rivers, cascades, and mountains. This destination is sought after by windsurfers, kiteboarders, and sailors for the “nuclear winds” created as the rainforest transitions into the desert, according to the CGTA.

Credit: Travel Oregon, Columbia River Gorge Tourism Studio Program Summary (August 2017)


To the CGTA, sustainability is about optimizing positive impacts of the visitor economy while protecting the land. “Tourism is a sustainable economic driver to protect these [natural] areas and respect them,” says Emily Reed, Network Director of the CGTA.

The Gorge Tourism Studio had another legacy; the event brought stakeholders together where they created a vision to shape the region over 15 years. By 2031, as a part of the 15-Year Vision for Sustainable Tourism, the CGTA wants to achieve objectives in the following areas: transportation, culinary/agriculture, culture, seasonality/congestion, and balance. For transportation, the region would like to be connected by a transportation system that allows visitors to come travel and explore the region without needing a car. In terms of agriculture, they want visitors and locals to eat what is grown and produced in the area in addition to alleviating hunger in the region. The CGTA wants to spread the knowledge of the local culture, so tour guides teach about it and food trails of national significance are marked. Another key factor is to make tourist hot-spots less congested and spread the benefits to less popular areas of the region and times of year. Finally, the CTGA wants to create a visitor experience that balances protecting the local communities, culture, and natural environment.

Under the CGTA’s Statement of Intent, their strategies for being a sustainable world-class destination are to:

  • Spread the seasonality of visitation
  • Reduce congestion during peak seasons and in high-use areas
  • Spread the benefit and increase the economic impact of tourism throughout the entire gorge
  • Respectfully and authentically integrate cultural heritage into the visitor experience
  • Connect resources to optimize destination marketing
  • Capitalize upon the visionary projects underway in the Gorge to ensure this place remains a world-class destination

While the 15-Year Vision does not specifically mention enhancing the environment, Emily Reed, explains that the National Scenic Area defines everything the CGTA does. Tourism protects the natural area as it generates an economic benefit, showing that if tourism is managed correctly, it is a sustainable economic driver.

Organizational Structure and Governance

The CGTA is a network of diverse businesses and organizations. It consists of a Board and a Core Team (see the network diagram below). The Board typically has nine voting members and four non-voting advisors. The Core Team is chosen by the Board and is made up of three to five people, representing both Oregon and Washington, and has decision making power. At the center of everything is the Network Director. The Network Director convenes the network and supports the Action Teams under Board oversight.

Courtesy, the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance

The six different Action Teams have self-appointed leadership. To become a part of this project or get involved, network participants self-select themselves, based on expertise, interest, and capacity. The Marketing and Communication Action Team communicates about projects aimed at achieving the purpose of the network. The Car-Free Visitor Transportation Action Team is working on visitors traveling in the region without the need for a car. The Culture Action Team is focused on highlighting the history and unique stories of the Gorge and surrounding region. The other three Action Teams are culinary and agritourism, outdoor recreation, and workforce.

There are over 80 active and/or engaged participants. Active Partners collaborate and carry out the purpose of the network. Active Partners meet quarterly with the network to focus on tourism on both sides of the river. You can become a partner/renew your partnership by filling in a form and investing financial resources into the CGTA. Most Active Partners are also involved in Action Teams. Engaged Participants (businesses and individuals) take part in larger events and help with projects. A newsletter and social media keep the public up to date on projects.

Due to the geographical reach of the CGTA, coordination with the local and regional Destination Marketing Organizations is critical, and they are participants and partners in the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance.


Network participants have direct responsibility for protecting and sustaining the character of the Columbia River Gorge. The collaborative work aims to share the cultural and natural history of the Gorge with visitors and cultivate a sense of stewardship over time. Some of the projects the tourism alliance is working on include We Speak the Gorge, Hear in the Gorge, Ready Set Gorge, East Gorge Food Trail, and Columbia Gorge Car-Free.

We Speak the Gorge is a front-line training program so that workers can increase the awareness of visitor service and resources throughout the Gorge. This program was initiated by the Marketing and Communication Action Team. The goal is to have all front-line staff communicating a consistent message as well as highlighting top spots in each community to visitors. The idea is to serve the customers while growing the sense of community and strengthen bonds with neighbors.

A podcast series, called Hear in the Gorge, was developed by their Cultural Heritage Action Team. It communicates the cultural and natural history of the area while encouraging visitors to encounter the place and its people more thoughtfully, and with greater care. The podcast episodes dig into the stories of a place, listening to the people who know it best. You never quite know what to expect.

Sustainability and Stewardship Programs

The CGTA supports Ready, Set, GOrge, which is an educational initiative that develops messaging and visitor maps to guide sustainable and thoughtful visitation. The website promotes travelers to support the local communities by offering advice on planning your trip, preparing for your trip, and connecting with the community when on your trip. It also promotes tips for traveling with care in nature, such as how to prevent invasive species and leaving no trace.

Another program working to educate hikers is Trail Ambassadors, which places volunteers at popular trailheads in the Gorge. Volunteers engage with visitors around safety, ethical use of public lands, and Leave No Trace practices. They are also trained to help visitors engage with the local community. This program helps keep ecologically sensitive areas from being permanently damaged by tourism pressures.

The East Gorge Food Trail brings local organizations together to enhance and connect culinary and agricultural businesses to showcase the Gorge food system. Developed by the Culinary and Agritourism Action Team, the Food Trail links family-owned farms, farm-to-table experiences, crafted cider, wine, and beer, and everything in between. The trail is open throughout the year and can be toured car-free. The website provides examples of itineraries and outlines the best time of the year to travel for specific produce.

Credit: the East Gorge Food Trail Brochure

Managing Tourism Volume

Although the CGTA is not actively discouraging visitors to overcrowded places, they are promoting visits to lesser-known sites and businesses and making travel accessible by car-free transportation. The organization encourages visitors to well-trafficked areas to come during shoulder season or mid-week. Additionally, the CGTA promotes less frequented businesses and outdoor recreational activities that have capacity available, working alongside tour operators to guide visitors to less congested and lesser know locations and businesses.

To do that, the CGTA works with transit and public agencies to develop transit connectivity and develop car-free transportation options to trailheads and communities within the gorge. The CTGA’s Car-Free Visitor Transportation Action Team manages the Columbia Gorge Car-Free project, comprising a team of transportation professionals from private and public transportation providers, nonprofits, government agencies, and small businesses that offer the best options for exploring the Gorge car-free, whether by bus, foot, or bike. From the Columbia Gorge Express Performance Report Card, the Columbia Gorge Express was able to divert an estimated 20,700 vehicle trips from Multnomah Falls between 2016 to 2019. Columbia Gorge Car-Free also publishes example itineraries for car-free experiences, such as the Tasting Bike Rides of the Eastern Gorge.

Community Engagement

The CGTA works extensively with many different organizations in the area. The network includes, but is not limited to: the US Forest Service; Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation; Oregon and Washington State Parks; planning departments; Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission; and cities and counties in this region. The network receives feedback from a diverse range of stakeholders. The Action Groups are designed to respond to this feedback and adapt it into their projects.

Sasquatch attends a CGTA meeting. Photo: Emily Reed, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance

Tourism is an important economic factor in the region as it has created some 5,000 tourism jobs for the locals. Businesses play an important role in the tourism community. If a small business, nonprofit, agency, residents, or community group from the six involved counties is interested in stewarding sustainable tourism, they are welcome to attend bi-monthly meetings of the network’s active participants. They can also receive CGTA e-newsletters or participate in project teams. The CGTA is beginning to actively engage stakeholders that are not currently involved in the network – emergency services, elected officials, and residents. The tourism alliance deems it is important to engage  perspectives, criticisms, and ideas from these stakeholders to ensure local quality of life is upheld. For stakeholder feedback, the CGTA has quarterly network meetings, where stakeholders attend and ask questions and participate in polls and break-out groups. Surveys are also used to touch base with stakeholders.

The CGTA hosts the Gorge Tourism Summit every two years, which brings together agency staff, small business owners and managers, and nonprofit leaders from across the Gorge to discuss trends, best practices, and network with like-minded businesses and people. The event is geared toward new and current network participants, residents, and industry partners. Along with the Gorge Tourism Summit, the CGTA also promotes events organized and hosted by their network Participants, such as guided hikes, planting native plants, and trivia nights. The CGTA network is keen to expand on organizing events as a way to partner with local and regional associations, organizations, businesses, and agencies.


The CGTA works with a small budget that is acquired from partner contributions, the annual Gorge Tourism Summit, and grant funding. Partnership investments are made by small businesses, nonprofit and destination marketing organization participants, and from cities and counties within the network’s jurisdiction. Typically, funding and resources are more available on the Oregon side of the border, where the Alliance has more community partnerships. Although the budget is small, it has been stable. High priority projects receive funding first. Other projects are allocated funds depending on what remains.

There are three partnership options and the cost of becoming a partner depends on business type, size, and revenue. The Full Partner option has three sub-levels: Private, Non-Profit, and Public Agency. Private Companies have a minimum investment of $250; Non-Profits have a minimum investment of $150, and Public Agencies have dues that range between $500 to $2,000 depending on the number of employees. The Sustaining Partner option requires an investment of $3,000, with the partner eligible to be featured in special promotions. Finally, Contributing Partners invest less than the Full Partner level but are expected to provide additional support for the CGTA. In return, the GCTA connects their partners with resources, helps partners find funding for their projects, and promotes their efforts and projects.

Funding has been impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, but the CGTA is still operating and hosting virtual events and stakeholder meetings during the pandemic.

Measures of success

One important measure to get a full picture of the CGTA’s impact and progress relates to network building. Metrics include the number of participants regularly attending bimonthly meetings, numbers engaged in project teams, and the number of partners contributing financially. A second measure gauges the network’s impact, using metrics that include  local quality of life, participation in public forums, transit ridership numbers, visitor numbers to lesser-known locations, seasonal visitation numbers in all regions, the reach of the podcast and visitor messaging, and social media and web impressions.

Two pieces of advice Emily Reed has for other destinations  are:

  1. Diversity is key. You need to have as many different perspectives at the table as possible.
  2. Have a balance between meeting and doing. People cannot meet just to meet; you will not see progress that way. How fast you go, how much time you put in, and how much feedback you receive will determine your progress.

My commentary

CGTA has been challenged with the big task of working across fragmented geographical jurisdictions. However, with the emergence of this tourism alliance, I believe the effort to align multiple jurisdictions, communities, and DMOs is exactly what was needed for the Columbia River Gorge. By bringing together stakeholders from both sides of the river, it has allowed for management of this National Scenic Area to be a success. Many of the program’s’ websites reference one another to make finding information and resources for visitors to be seamless. It has turned the question from “which organization is responsible for managing which part of the scenic area?” into “how can we collectively make traveling to the Gorge as sustainable as possible?” This collective effort is why the CGTA was chosen as a destination stewardship role model for many other destinations that cross borders or jurisdictions.

The largest concern for the CGTA is distribution of funding for programs and projects across political boundaries. Travel Oregon is well established and has state funding, while the Washington DMO is still in its building stages. It is concerning that more funding and resources are available for projects and stewardship on the Oregon side at risk of neglecting the equally important Washington side. One recommendation may be to partner with businesses that do not have geographical constraints. If the CGTA is not having many partners sign up on the Washington side, they may need to reach out to local businesses that may not be aware of the benefits of joining the CGTA. Having sustainable funding is crucial for continuing the environmental and social progress the CGTA has achieved over the last four years.

The CGTA’s 15-Year Vision for Sustainable Tourism has initiated many great sustainability programs, such as Columbia Gorge Car-Free, Ready Set Gorge, and the East Gorge Food Trail. However, there is little communicated about the five areas of focus that are outlined under the 15-Year Vision. It would be helpful for stakeholders to see specific goals and targets for each area of focus. Moreover, there is no explanation for tracking metrics or progress of the focus areas. For example, it appears that the CGTA values quality of life for the locals, however, there are no publicly communicated metrics for engaging with locals  to ensure that no voice or group is left unheard. Without clear direction, stakeholders are left wondering what exactly the end vision is for 2031 and how the CGTA is staying on track. Additionally, there is no sustainability leader within the CGTA to help ensure the goals and targets are on track across all the areas of focus and Action Teams to achieve the 15-Year Vision.

We welcome your comments on the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance and its stewardship.

Jacqueline Elizabeth Harper is a student at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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.

Innovation in the Italian Alps

? Destination Stewardship Report – Summer 2020 ?

In the last five years, Dolomiti Paganella DMO in the Trentino region in northern Italy has transitioned from a fairly disorganized structure with no community support into a well-managed, prosperous and widely-supported destination management body focused on stakeholder cooperation and sustainability. The DMO’s innovative Future Lab initiative is now helping to shape a roadmap to post-Covid19 recovery in the first region in Europe hit by the coronavirus. Marta Mills explains how.

In Italy’s Dolomites, a “Future Lab” Inspires DMO Innovation

By Marta Mills

Hiking in the Dolomites. All photos courtesy Dolomiti Paganella.

Dolomiti Paganella Tourism Board is a regional DMO (Destination Management Organization) comprising five municipalities in the Dolomites, a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps. The region became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 because of its ‘intrinsic, exceptional natural beauty’. According to UNESCO, the Dolomites are ‘widely regarded as being among the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world. Their dramatic vertical and pale-coloured peaks in a variety of distinctive sculptural forms is extraordinary in a global context.’

Before 2015, the Dolomiti Paganella DMO suffered high seasonality, low funding, lack of long-term vision for tourism, and no clarity on the DMO’s role. The DMO used to manage a lot of different, ad-hoc projects, lacking in specialization, coordination, and leadership. This created unrealistic expectations and demands from the local stakeholders, and also meant that, according to its current Director Luca D’Angelo, the DMO was ‘doing everything for everybody and with no prioritization of tasks, and hence doing it badly’.

The DMO began shifting into sustainability in 2015. Its newest initiative is a research-intervention think-tank on the future of tourism in the region. Launched on 29 October 2019, The Future Lab is engaging not only the industry stakeholders but also – and for the first time – the whole community.

The Destination
Dolomiti Paganella is the brand name of the destination, Paganella being one of the peaks. The five picturesque ‘communes’ – Molveno, Andalo, Fai Della Paganella, Cavedago, and Spormaggiore – are surrounded by imposing, vertical rock walls, sheer cliffs and a high density of narrow, deep and long valleys. They provide opportunities for adventure tourism (mountain biking, climbing, hiking, paragliding and skiing) and family-oriented experiences, with several aquaparks, wellness centres, and family festivals.

Interestingly, out of the two million overnight stays annually, 65% visit in the summer. That’s unusual for the Alps, where most visitors come in the winter. However, the facilities around the stunning Molveno Lake and a strong Bike Product developed by the DMO allow Dolomiti Paganella to spread the tourism season much wider compared to other alpine destinations.

The Change
In January 2015, Luca D’Angelo, former senior tourism researcher at the nearby Trentino School of Management (TSM) and a director of another DMO in Trentino (Valsugana), took charge of the Dolomiti Paganella DMO. Together with the TSM, he used a St Gallen Strategic Visitor Flow model to work out visitor flows and decided to focus on only four products (biking, hiking, climbing and family experiences). That shifted the promotion of the destination as a whole into developing and promoting specific products, which subsequently changed the whole structure and the strategy of the organization. Such specialization allowed the DMO to prioritize its activities and focus on a long-term vision.

Stakeholder cooperation
Initially, DMO-stakeholder cooperation focused on product development, forming new funding partnerships with local businesses (cable car companies, trail builders, accommodation providers) and the local municipalities who own the land. They jointly create and sell experiences that are then promoted by the DMO through their online channels. The focus on developing selected products (Bike Product for example) and strong cooperation with local business has built trust that allows more participatory, more efficient destination management.

A region of “intrinsic, exceptional natural beauty.” —UNESCO

Every year the DMO organizes two to three workshops with lift companies, bike chalets and bike hotels to jointly visualize the short and long-term goals for the destination in the next two to three years. Involving key industry players has been fundamental both in creating a strategy for the destination and for developing quality product.

Results and Impacts
The change has raised destination visibility, extended the season from April to November and broadened the visitor market. The growth in visitor numbers – 500%, from 2015 through 2019 – has significantly increased the revenue for the DMO and for the businesses. However, this growth came with negative environmental costs, and in the summer months overtourism became an issue for residents increasingly concerned about the region’s capacity for yet more visitors. Their enthusiastic support for the growth that had brought economic benefits started giving way to worry that overtourism was hurting quality of life for the communities. The FutureLab was the DMO’s response.

Next Phase: The Future Lab
As the confidence and trust in the DMO rose, it was the right time for The Future Lab to engage the local population in deciding on the future of tourism ‘as a positive force for the good of our community tomorrow and in future decades’. The Future Lab is involving hundreds of stakeholders in defining the role of tourism in the region, aiming for a more environmentally and socially sustainable model that benefits local residents, the environment, visitors, and tourism businesses.

I learned about it during a week-long tourism training on management of UNESCO natural sites run by the TSM in November 2019. Funded by the DMO and run in partnership with the TSM and Frame & Work, the Future Lab is seen by the DMO as a more innovative and sustainable form of destination management, based on stakeholders’ views on how tourism can benefit them and the natural environment. Over 700 local people attended the launch on 29 October 2019, when consultation on the future started. Discussion focused on four issues:

  • Destination’s DNA;
  • Future generations’ involvement in destination development;
  • Thriving in a future shaped by climate change;
  • Improving tourism balance.

The plan was to continue with stakeholder meetings and workshops in 2020, run by the DMO in cooperation with TSM and Frame & Work. A special Blog and the DMO’s Facebook group (only in Italian) allows the local people to check the updates and interact with the project. Before February 2020, over 20 workshops had been completed, and meetings with various associations and individuals willing to connect with the Future Lab were in full swing.

And then the coronavirus happened.

The DMO and the Future Lab Respond to COVID-19
The most recent analyses predict that the turnover in the region will be 40% less compared with the previous year. During the pandemic, the DMO has focused on two areas:

  • Supporting the tourism industry with constant updates; surveys on feelings and emotions; revision of the event calendar; and creation of a toolkit to help with cancellation, vouchers, revenue, social media communication, market insights, and so on.
  • Creating a strong relationship with the tourism community. For the latter, they have created new content with a different vision of the future, as in this short video. The community was also surveyed about their feelings on travelling again. The DMO encourages the community to use this time constructively by focusing on ‘internal resources that can be exploited’ – in other words, tapping the ideas, know-how, skills, and experience that locals can exchange to help with recovery. ‘We are working on the re-start phase’, says Luca, ‘but at the same time looking for a “new” vision through the Future Lab. This is precisely the idea of the Future Lab: reflecting on today to conceive interesting prospects for the future’.

The next steps will be to reboot project communication and stakeholder engagement, stimulate a new involvement from the community, and build new research tools. ‘It is important to note that we do not aim to turn the Future Lab into a crisis management project for the current challenge’, Luca told me. ‘While there is plenty of work to be done as a DMO to offer continuous support for our local community now, the focus of the Future Lab remains firmly fixed on planning and preparing for a better future.’

Thus, the project is still what it set out to be: a lab focusing on the long-term development and strategic decisions for the destination. The Covid crisis has surely changed the context of the process, and partners TSM and Frame & Work are currently rescaling, refocusing and recharging the project. They intend to incorporate the lessons from the pandemic that can also be replicated in other destinations.

Luca has no plans to leave the DMO as this new phase is just beginning. Even if he were to depart, the Future Lab’s strong foundations, based on cooperation with partners and stakeholder approval, should ensure the continuity of the project.


The holistic geotourism approach is designed to maximize tourism benefits for a destination community, minimize negative impacts, and build a responsible tourism strategy that celebrates and builds on sense of place.

Definition of geotourism put forth by National Geographic and the Travel Industry Association of America (now USTA):

geo·tour·ism n (1997): tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.

Note—”Geology,” “Landscapes,” and other distinctive and authentic destination attributes may be added to the definition as appropriate.

This section contains information on:

This section’s purpose:

  • To provide a forum for exchanging methods and lessons learned;
  • To help civic leaders introduce the geotourism approach to their communities;
  • To help businesses adopt and profit from the geotourism approach;
  • To encourage the geotourism approach in destination management.

NOTE: The URL leads directly to this page.

The goal is for tourism to help preserve, protect, and educate in ways that support the natural and cultural distinctiveness of appealing places and the well-being of the people who live there.

Why geotourism? Because the various types of excellent place-based, responsible tourism tend to be fragmented and perceived as niches—ecotourism, heritage tourism, geological tourism, agritourism, etc. Even “sustainable tourism” is often seen as mainly environmental. The geotourism approach is not a niche. By featuring the destination as a whole, a geotourism strategy can strengthen the case for responsible, beneficial tourism by embracing all tourism assets uniquely distinctive to the locale. Thus allied, advocates for those assets can form a constituency of stewardship. Together they have enough political and economic clout to challenge local threats to the place’s natural and cultural resources while building a unique marketing case for their destination.

OAS endorsement In 2013 the tourism ministers of the Organization of American States gathered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, declared geotourism to be the preferred approach for economic development in Latin America and the Caribbean.

For more about the geotourism approach, download:

How to Start and Sustain a Geotourism Initiative—Some starting tips and an invitation to participate.

The Geotourism Study Read the Executive Summary of  Geotourism: The New Trend in Travel, the landmark survey of U.S. travelers’ behavior and attitudes about sustainable practices, commissioned by National Geographic Traveler and conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America (now USTA). Conducted in 2002-2003, the study established that approximately half of American households that travel fit the geotourist profile—truly interested in the destination and eager to be responsible visitors. The full report is now out of print, and its findings need to be updated. Similar studies would also be welcome for other regions of the world.
For an academic account of the geotourism approach, download J. Tourtellot in Riposte Turismo (pdf).

More About the Geotourism Approach from National Geographic »

National Geographic Videos:
What Is Geotourism?
See what real geotourism practitioners have done from around the world.
“Choices” Put American audiences in a proactive frame of mind with this acclaimed 3-minute video (high-resolution version).It ironically lays out in two parts the difference between well-stewarded destinations and places that aren’t.

World Award for Geotourism At the 2011 World Travel Market in London the highest honor goes to National Geographic Traveler for pioneering work in geotourism:

Geotourism Challenge participants
From 2008-2010, National Geographic supported three open-source competitions conducted by Ashoka Changemakers and garnering hundreds of entries from around the the world. Finalists and winners exhibited notable social entrepreneurship in geotourism and destination stewardship, but all entries are well worth browsing, including the opportunity to contact and even partner with the principals.

The other “geotourism”
Geotourism based on geographical character is an approach, embracing all distinctive aspects of a locale. But the word is also used to describe a niche topic, geological tourism. As of the 2011 International Geotourism Congress in Portugal, the two usages have been reconciled and clarified by the Arouca Declaration (downloadable in four languages), in effect incorporating and supporting geological tourism as an important part of the geotourism approach. Read Jonathan Tourtellot’s report on National Geographic Voices. See also Angus Robinson’s presentation in Australia 12 Nov. 2010. His co-authored article on Australia’s Red Centre illustrates how a geologically themed tour is enlivened by the same holistic approach, bringing in culture, history, and nature.