A Malaysian District Collaborates Lest Tourism Run Wild

? Destination Stewardship Report – Vol. 3, No. 1 – Summer 2022 ?

Why would a place with relatively manageable tourism create a sustainable travel destination coordination group? While many destinations around the world are reeling from the impacts of over-tourism, including environmental degradation, a few are heeding the warning and proactively putting a plan in place. One such is the Mersing District in the Malaysian state of Johor, just north of Singapore. Cher Chua-Lassalvy discusses what it took to rally the district’s numerous, varied stakeholders and create the collectively managed Sustainable Travel Mersing Destination Coordination Group.

Aerial view of small green island, with sand flowing into crystal blue-green water.

Aerial image of Pulau Goal, Mersing, one of Malaysia’s nearly 848 islands. [Photo courtesy of Mohd Farithrizal Bin Md Zain, Jurufotografi B19, MBIP]

Mersing? Where’s that?

I have a friend who goes by the name Mersing Guy on Facebook. He was born and bred in Mersing and runs the local recycling business in town. Mersing Guy (true to his name) loves showing his visiting friends the hidden gems in his beautiful home district. A few weeks ago, we stood in front of the gold-domed Masjid Jamek looking out across the charming coastal town and beyond to the coral-ringed islands that dot the emerald sea. Mersing Guy always says that he is truly lucky to call this place home. It is a sentiment I have heard echoed many times from locals and it is easy to understand why.

The stunning hilltop mosque, Masjid Jamek Bandar Mersing, illuminated at night. [Photo courtesy of Chan Hyunh Photography]

However, the natural beauty of the area is a double-edged sword. It attracts tourists like bees to honey, but the ecosystems in Mersing’s mainland and islands are also extremely fragile and susceptible to damage from human pressures. This biodiversity is not only the pride and joy of the local communities but also a key contributor to their livelihoods and well-being as a source of tourism revenues, employment, coastal protection, and food resource. Furthermore, an influx of tourists and unmanaged growth of tourism development could have an effect on the current, much-loved, laid-back way of life, cultural assets, and land use. Herein lies the often-seen challenge of balancing the benefits of tourism with the desire and need to protect these wonderful landscapes.

Mersing District is located along the east coast of peninsular Malaysia’s southernmost state of Johor. It is the third largest district in Johor and encompasses a land area of 2,838 square km (including the offshore islands). Mersing is most famous for its eco-diverse islands described in the Lonely Planet as:

“a constellation of some of Malaysia’s most beautiful islands. Of the cluster of 64 islands, most people only know of Pulau Tioman, the largest, which is actually a part of Pahang. This leaves the rest of the archipelago as far less-visited dots of tranquillity.” The Lonely Planet

Besides the islands, Mersing is host to other natural wonders including long stretches of untouched mainland coastal beaches, mangrove-lined rivers, and pristine and little-visited rainforest reserves. Endau-Rompin National Park in the north of the District is the second largest national park in Peninsular Malaysia, encompassing 870 square km and protecting the only remnant of native lowland tropical rain forest in southern peninsular Malaysia and mainland Asia.

Given its rich nature and biodiversity, Mersing attracts both domestic and international tourists. However, according to the Mersing District Council, Mersing remains comparatively undiscovered, with the District receiving approximately 250,000 tourists per year pre-Covid, a little lower than the 270,000 tourists registered annually at the better-known, single island of Pulau Tioman in nearby Pahang.

Why Does Mersing Need a Destination Coordination Group?

As Mersing sees relatively little tourism, one questions the need for the district to have a destination coordination group to focus on sustainable travel. Many local stakeholders including government, businesses, and residents nevertheless recognise that without guardianship and management, our fragile ecosystems risk being damaged. Many of us have seen how mass-tourism and over-tourism destroyed natural wonders in destinations close to us. We did not want this to happen on our own turf and wanted to put measures in place to manage tourism sustainably.

word cloud with words like beach, small town, food, relaxed, peaceful, tourist attraction. These words are used to describe the district of Mersing in Malaysia.

Word map based on the question asked via an online survey of Mersing’s community “What is your favourite thing about Mersing?” An exercise undertaken as part of Cultural and Bio-Asset Mapping of Mersing 2020. [Image courtesy of Majlis Daerah Mersing, Think City Malaysia and KakakTua Guesthouse & Community Space]

A study commissioned by the East Coast Economic Region Development Council on the Endau Rompin Park concluded that “a more holistic, landscape-scale approach should be adopted, with Endau Rompin forming part of a wider strategic economic zone based around sustainable tourism and land management”.

How Sustainable Travel Mersing Came About

In 2019, the idea of a mixed stakeholder sustainable destination working group was mooted to the Mersing District Council (Majlis Daerah Mersing) by several local stakeholders. The group would be led by the Council, and lined-up into the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism Arts and Culture’s National Ecotourism Plan 2016-2025 which proposes that Destination Coordination Groups (DCGs) be set-up across the 60 eco-tourism clusters across the country.

As a local stakeholder group composed of government, NGOs, private sector, and community leaders, our working group developed and took the proposal to set up a Mersing DCG to multiple meetings across government agencies at Federal, State, and District levels as well as to receive the blessing of the Johor Palace, which houses the royal Sultan of Johor.

In mid-2019, after six months of presentations, awareness-raising and persuasion, Sustainable Travel Mersing STM DCG was founded. Its aim is to support the development and growth of tourism that allows communities and businesses to thrive alongside healthy ecosystems. As a stakeholder group, STM uses the Global Sustainable Tourism Council  Destination Criteria to guide its work. The goal for the destination is to become certified as a sustainable destination by 2025.

A group if people in side a guesthouse in Mersing District. People are on couches looking at their phones and on a screen out of the frame.

Launch of Cultural and Bio-Asset Mapping of Mersing 2020 Project by Majlis Daerah Mersing, Think City Malaysia and KakakTua Guesthouse & Community Space. [Photo courtesy of KakakTua Guesthouse]

The Work

STMDCG has since created work plans based on priorities guided by the four pillars of GSTC’s Destination Criteria. The on-ground work has included:

  • Development of a DCG and Secretariat with Terms of Reference in place
  • Scheduled monthly meetings to brainstorm strategy, work plans, apply for funding, and present work completed
  • Holding town halls and focus group discussions for local stakeholders and collecting input, thoughts and opinions on sustainable tourism in Mersing
  • Collating feedback and relevant available information, then using these to create priorities for STM
  • Co-writing the first iteration of a sustainable tourism strategy largely based on the GSTC’s Destination Criteria. The strategy is currently out for consultation.
  • Collectively applying for funding on a collaborative basis to meet the aims of STM.

In addition, individual government departments, NGOs and private sector participants also continuously push forward with individual projects around marine and terrestrial conservation, stakeholder engagement, up-skilling, capacity building, creating guidelines, and mapping, which collectively add to the goals of STM.

Whilst Covid has delayed outputs and progress of STM, the activities and advocacy so far have resulted in some subtle changes. For instance, the Malaysian government increasingly cites and labels Mersing district as an eco- / nature tourism hub within Malaysia. This has resulted in steps by various players, including a pilot project by Majlis Daerah Mersing in partnership with a local university for an online tourism registration, monitoring, and governance portal. Though still in its early stages, it highlights the government’s will and interest in managing tourism and its impacts.

There has also been increased interest in Mersing from external agencies and funders in supporting post-Covid economic recovery, in particular the development of resilient, sustainable, and community-led tourism in the District.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

STM’s progress was greatly hampered during the two years of Malaysian Covid lockdown. In addition to being unable to meet physically as a working committee, we were also set back because we could not conduct training and stakeholder consultations in a community uncomfortable with digital interfacing.

Besides the Covid years, the work across multiple stakeholders and varied geographical landscapes has posed various challenges. However, these challenges have provided us with some important learnings outlined below.

  • Ground-up initiatives can get off the ground if there is enough patience, perseverance and will.
  • Every location needs a different approach to sustainable tourism, but we can learn deeply from other destinations journeying on the same path.
  • We currently run STMDCG without a full-time project management team. All participants give their time voluntarily. To forge ahead in the journey towards certification, we feel that we need a funded full-time project team to truly propel the project forward. We feel that this needs to be led by a project manager with one or two junior officers.
  • Human connections are key. It is a top priority to have STM’s aims more widely disseminated to tourism operators, resort operators, owners, and other community stakeholders. We believe this is best done through a mix of more formal town halls and focus groups as well as small group informal meetings and coffee or “makan” (eating in Malay) sessions.
  • A diverse stakeholder engagement team is essential, as different ethnic or gender groups in communities feel more comfortable speaking to different members of the group.
  • Co-creation with multiple stakeholders can be a lengthy process requiring a lot of patience, however this leads to joint ownership of the project’s directions and is a worthwhile exercise.
  • The diverse mix of landscapes (islands, rainforest, mainland coast) creates challenges, and we are still grappling with how to best tackle them. For now, we include trips to remote small islands and indigenous communities (which can be costly) as well as mainland stakeholders.
  • Creating a recognised DCG working on sustainable tourism has amplified interest in Mersing as a sustainable tourism destination. This has brought increased funding and projects focused on biodiversity conservation and responsible tourism into the area.

Today as I finish off this article, we have come out of our first physical post-Covid STMDCG meeting here in Mersing. How wonderful to finally sit around a table, eat local snacks, connect on a human level, and physically put our heads together again. I look forward to post-Covid reopening with optimism and hope the work we are planning will make Mersing Guy proud.


Cher  Chua-Lassalvy is Co-founder and Managing Director of Batu Batu – Pulau Tengah, a sustainably-minded off-grid island retreat in Malaysia with a focus on generating profits through tourism to create positive impacts in the local area. She is also the President and Founder of Tengah Island Conservation, a Malaysian non-profit biodiversity management NGO working within the Johor Marine Park. Batu Batu and TIC together were the proud winners of the World Travel Market Responsible Tourism Silver Award for Best in Conservation & Wildlife (2019).

Reset Tourism Webinar Series – Destination Stewardship

“Good for us, better for all.”  —St. Kitts sustainable tourism slogan

Held on 25 March 2021, the first webinar of the Future of Tourism Coalition‘s four-part “Reset Tourism” series drew 500 registrants. These webinars are intended to help destinations emerge from the Covid crisis with new forms of governance and collaboration that will enable a more holistic and sustainable approach to tourism management and development. That includes the skills, resources, and levers for change needed not only to develop resiliency, but to bolster community wellbeing and each destination’s unique intrinsic appeal.
The Coalition team here presents highlights from the first Webinar, led by two of the six Coalition founding members, the Destination Stewardship Center (DSC) and the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST):

Destination Stewardship and Stakeholder Engagement

This two-hour webinar laid out the case for policymakers to consider as Covid recovery begins: To move from seeing tourism merely as an industry defined by business transactions to seeing it as something more complex, requiring holistic management of the interaction between tourism and the destination. Better destination stewardship – the process of caring for the place and its people – thus requires consideration of all stakeholders, including local residents, to evolve stronger and more resilient destinations.

To discuss real-world approaches for doing just that, a moderated panel hosted representatives from three different types of destinations – St. Kitts, Caribbean; Göteborg, Sweden, and the Columbia Gorge, USA.

Key Takeaways from the webinar

    • Recognize that tourism is not like other industries; it depends on the destination – a place where people live.
    • That reality requires broadening standard ways of measuring tourism success.
    • Success means adding protection and enhancement of destination quality to economic benefits, preferably focused on the destination community.
    • If we see the destination as tourism’s holistic “product”, then it requires a holistic management approach.
    • To acheive that, local public, private, and civil society sectors can collaborate to build a tripartite destination stewardship council or equivalent.
    • Take steps to make it happen: Activate, collect data, mobilize, implement.
    • Make it work by building strong relationships with frequent communication.

View PowerPoint slides by
—   Center for Responsible Travel 
—   Destination Stewardship Center
Watch webinar recording (2 hours)

Here are the webinar high points in more detail. After Samantha Bray of CREST made an introduction to the webinar series, Jonathan Tourtellot of the Destination Stewardship Center gave a keynote presentation that included these elements:

Reframing Tourism – and Why

  • There are two faces of tourism – destructive and constructive. We need to maximize the better side as pandemic recovery begins.
  • First, reframe tourism perceptions, as per the Coalition’s first Guiding Principle, “See the whole picture.”
  • Styles of tourism depend on character of place differently: experiential touring depends on human and physical character of place, rest and recreation needs only physical character, and entertainment-style (manufactured attractions) need no relation at all to identity of place. The first two depend on a destination’s intrinsic character, which is a limited resource. Unlike manufactured attractions, we can’t build more destinations.
  • Most tourism thus is unlike other industries in that its ultimate “product” is the place; tourism businesses facilitate the tourist experience with the place.
  • Second, reframe tourism success: Governments often see tourism as little more than the sum of business transactions, a flawed perspective that ignores other important factors. A perception gap persists whereby the tourism industry is seen as unrelated to the work of destination stewards in matters of culture, preservation, environment, and community well-being.
  • To gauge success, measure what counts, not just what’s easy to count. Totaling tourist arrivals and transactions ignores critical “externalities” – social, aesthetic, natural, spiritual, historic, and other facets of the destination. What’s more, caring for those things can pay off by attracting responsible tourists.
  • Aim for value over volume: Revenue per tourist trumps number of tourists; revenue distribution through the community trumps total revenue; overall enhancement of community well-being trumps revenue alone.
  • For destination resilience, diversify the economy and tourism markets, and build capability to cope with long-term issues such as climate change and the next pandemic.
  • Third, structure holistic management.  A holistic product requires a holistic approach. With tourism, that has not generally been the case. “No one’s in charge” is a common citizen complaint.
  • One model for fixing this is creation of a destination stewardship council or equivalent – a collaboration among public, private and civil society groups. The involvement of the community is key to success. 
  • Based on National Geographic experience, a tripartite destination stewardship council, with roughly equal weight to those three sectors, offers stability to survive changes in government, irresponsible development, and other disruptions.

Tourtellot’s closing warning: Without deliberate action to restructure management, destinations will likely default to the flawed, pre-Covid way of doing things.

Ellen Rugh and Samantha Bray of CREST then presented an overview of how to go about convening and enabling an effective destination stewardship council

Phases of Development – A Roadmap for Stewardship Councils
CREST and the DSC have studied successful stewardship initiatives and have field-tested a model approach based on their research. These four phases should be seen as a guideline to develop the stewardship council, a roadmap where destinations can choose their own route. There is not a set path that fits all.

Activation: Recognize the need; identify strategic timing (such as resident discontent or Covid recovery); form a planning group, and consider a stewardship council model. This process requires a committed leader or leadership team and a supporting group of key stakeholders.

Collect data from stakeholders, including residents and tourists (it is important to ask the right questions) and ultimately hold visioning sessions that include under-represented communities. Such data collection should become a continual cyclical process to inform planning, followed by implementation.

Mobilization Form a destination stewardship council comprising public, private, and civil society sectors; create a consensus mission statement and vision; define metrics of success that move beyond visitor numbers and total revenue; develop shared goals, objectives, and strategy; then plan the activities.

Hold a catalytic event to engage broad interest; establish a council or network structure; make a business plan to keep the council going; raise funds; begin executing activities.

For more information, visit CREST’s blog post on building a destination stewardship council.

Panel Discussion Highlights
Three representatives selected for their exemplary collaborative approach to destination stewardship spoke at a moderated panel:

Representing a regional destination: Emily Reed, Network Director, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, Oregon-Washington, USA

Management model: Partnership-based. Similar to the recommended tripartite model; enables transborder cooperation between states.
Funding: Member organizations chip in for staff.
Notable strategy: Various projects combat overtourism by spreading visitors geographically and seasonally.

Representing a tourism-dependent small island: Diannille Taylor-Williams, Assistant Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, St. Kitts–Nevis, Caribbean

Management model: Sustainable council made of public, private, and civil society sectors.
Funding: Tourism Ministry.
Notable strategy: Provide sustainability training for existing and likely government staff, thus injecting sustainability expertise into government decision making. Ensure that the council is a strategic partner on different initiatives to spread the concept of sustainability among different industries and stakeholders.

Representing a historic city: Katarina Thorstensson, Head of Sustainability & Smart Tourism Strategist, Göteborg & Co, Sweden.

Management model: Traditional DMO that has expanded its role to help develop the city as a sustainable destination.
Funding: Taxes and private support.
Notable context: Citizenry and politicians share a sustainability vision. “We have a good relationship with the politicians on our board. Opposition and incumbents are unified in believing that tourism is a key industry for the city.”

 Common themes emerging from the panel discussion and question-and-answer session:

  • Building strong relationships among destination stakeholders is essential. It builds long-term trust.
  • So does sharing a common vision.
  • Hold regular meetings; communicate what everybody is doing to enhance collaboration.
  • Think about the destination first, as per St. Kitts’s slogan, “Good for us, better for all”
  • Collaborate on ways to spread out tourism impacts, positive or negative.
  • When conflict arises, sit down and have conversations in order to move toward finding solutions.

Panelists considered those points good advice for destinations anywhere.

To continue to dive in to these topics, make sure to sign up for the free quarterly Destination Stewardship Report – a joint project of the Destination Stewardship Center and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

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. https://www.gstcouncil.org/gstc-criteria/criteria-revisions/. 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.