Introducing the GSTC Destination Stewardship Starter Kit

How can a destination get started with the destination stewardship process? Tiffany Chan, GSTC Destinations Coordinator, shares best practices outlined in the new GSTC Destination Stewardship Starter Kit, developed by GSTC’s Destination Stewardship Working Group.

Defining destination stewardship

Destination stewardship is 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 esthetic integrity of their country, region, or town. In other words, to ensure that the destination retains and enhances the distinctive attributes that appeal to both residents and tourists. It requires a clear mandate, measurement of standards, community buy-in, and stakeholder collaboration. Practicing destination stewardship is crucial in ensuring that a destination remains attractive, authentic, and sustainable.

The Destination Stewardship Starter Kit has been developed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), led by their Destination Stewardship Working Group (DSWG), to support destinations in their transition towards a stewardship approach. It is intended for destination managers, policymakers, and other stakeholders who are involved in tourism development and management, including public and private sectors, community members, and non-governmental organizations. It is particularly relevant for destinations where there is external pressure to better manage tourism impacts, or when an essential shift to destination stewardship is recognized.

Getting started

This starter kit aims to provide a set of initial steps that destinations can take to shift towards a stewardship approach, though it is important to acknowledge that the process is distinctive to each destination. The steps offered in this starter kit serve as a guide and, therefore, it is not mandatory to follow them in a specific sequence. The recommended steps are below.

Destination Stewardship Starter Kit – Recommended Steps

Although the starting point for each destination may differ based on their specific needs and circumstances, sustainable management is foundational when it comes to a holistic approach to destination stewardship. Criterion A1 of the GSTC Destination Criteria (GSTC-D) summarizes the importance of a highly inclusive planning group. It is inclusive in terms of a “whole-government” approach, as well as ongoing and meaningful engagement with stakeholders from the community and tourism-related businesses.

What does a governing body look like? Criterion A1 takes care not to prescribe the structure of a council, whether it be an effective organization, department, group, or committee. A model destination council should comprise an area with permanent inhabitants and multiple stakeholders. It may or may not be the official DMO, but should incorporate DMO participation. Council activities should also involve a diversity of destination stakeholders and encourage the engagement of local communities.

Collaboration is key in the sustainability journey

Build a team of leaders

Get started by involving one or two individuals. Implementing a comprehensive sustainability program is challenging. There needs to be someone who leads the process and is dedicated to making it successful. Once the leader(s) has been identified, a planning team should be formed. The team should consist of a small group who have a clear role and responsibilities. Identify and bring together individuals who are passionate about sustainable tourism and committed to a long-term vision. Organized the team in a way that allows continuity for when members leave and are replaced by others.

Identify key stakeholders

Stakeholders also play a vital role in developing and implementing sustainable tourism practices. Identify potential stakeholders and partners within the destination, including local government officials, tourism organizations, hospitality businesses, and community leaders.  Look at potential projects with partners that are easy to get started and will have a big impact. Establish a stakeholder committee that includes the public & private sectors, NGOs, and the community. Include marginalized stakeholders that may be left out of the planning process. Many of the elements of sustainability plans are done by people outside tourism. Understand the work being done by those that can have a big influence.

This is not a comprehensive list, but rather a baseline of potential stakeholders. Each destination will have a variety of different stakeholders. Conduct stakeholder mapping to identify all the potential stakeholders that exist within your destination.

Involve the local community and engage stakeholders

Raise awareness among the general public to ensure the active participation of the entire community. Involving the local community and relevant stakeholders helps to create a sense of shared responsibility for the long-term sustainability of the destination, which can lead to greater success in achieving sustainable tourism goals. Gauge how residents feel about tourism in their community through surveying and/or public forums. Consider creating a listening advisory council. Engage with a diversity of stakeholders and include specific key players who can bring value.

Overall, the Destination Stewardship Starter Kit provides a practical roadmap to prioritizing governance and management strategy, creating a baseline for measurement, and setting achievable targets for sustainable tourism development. The outlined criteria and steps serve as a starting point for destinations to adopt a stewardship approach. It is important to note that destination stewardship is a continuous process of growth and improvement, and not simply a one-time checklist. Ultimately, prioritizing holistic governance, a multi-year management strategy, and continuous monitoring with adaptations will help kickstart your sustainability journey.

Download the Destination Stewardship Starter Kit

Doing It Better: Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

[Above, the Snaefell shield volcano rises above a beach. Its capping glacier, Snaefellsjokull, is the centerpiece of its namesake national park at the far western end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

On a long, skinny Icelandic peninsula, five small municipalities have teamed up to create a modest destination stewardship council and supporting network. Tiffany Chan, with Jonathan Tourtellot, explores the Snæfellsnes model of sustainable collaboration – a work in progress that has already earned a platinum sustainability rating.

A Council-and-Network Approach to Destination Stewardship

Iceland’s narrow Snæfellsnes peninsula pokes out 90km westward into the far North Atlantic from a point partway between Reykjavík and Vestfirðir (the Western Fjords). Its wild and diverse landscapes offer a blend of culture, nature, and history – waterfalls and lava fields, black and white sand beaches, an archeological site, a glacier-capped strato-volcano in Snaefellsjokull National Park, and rich cultural heritage woven into Icelandic folklore and history. The peninsula is a two-hour drive north of Reykjavík, putting it within day-trip range of tourists based in Iceland’s capital city.

Lots of tourists.

Iceland, “Land of Fire and Ice,” draws visitors from around the globe to observe the country’s gleaming glaciers, active volcanoes, erupting geysers, and cascading waterfalls. They come to hike in Icelandic parks and admire the dance of the Northern Lights. However, mass tourism did not reach this island nation until the last decade. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, Iceland received just under half a million foreign visitors in 2010 – still larger than the country’s population of about 330,000. Thereafter, growth of foreign overnight visitors increased annually, peaking at a high of 2.3 million in 2018 and around 2 million in 2019, right before the global pandemic – almost seven times the number of inhabitants. Iceland’s overtourism can contribute to ecological damage of the wild landscapes that visitors hope to see. Further, coachloads of tourists are not conducive to the wilderness experience itself.

The dramatic peak of Kirkjufell rises above the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, a location on the northern side of the peninsula made popular by the influence of Instagram. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

To disperse the masses, Iceland encourages visitors to explore more of the country, to go beyond Reykjavik and nearby day trips. Traveling slower and staying longer in each region is the responsibility of the traveller, but creating incentives to do so, and do so sustainably, fall to the destination itself. Snæfellsnes (“snow mountain peninsula”) has been at the forefront of sustainable destination development in Iceland. Certified by EarthCheck under Global Sustainable Tourism Council criteria, this regional standout employs a collaborative approach to sustainable tourism and destination stewardship.

Sustainability is Rooted in Nature

A significant portion of the Snæfellsnes population still lives on small farms. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

Unsurprisingly, the rapid growth in number of visitors through 2019 has affected Snæfellsnes. However, environmental protection and social responsibility are deeply rooted in this region of Iceland. Fishing is a very rich part of their cultural heritage. Residents relied on the fishing industry until tourism took over a couple of decades ago. The five Snæfellsnes municipalities, each different in size, form a small and connected community of less than 4000 residents. While most residents live in the towns, some 200-300 continue to live on farms, including one of the municipal mayors.

Overall, Snæfellsnes has taken a collaborative approach to various areas of sustainable development, including creation of Snæfellsnes Regional Park. The regional park was founded in 2014 by the five municipalities, nongovernment organizations, and other stakeholders to channel cooperation and share the area’s unique attractions with visitors and residents alike.

Additionally, for Snæfellsnes, destination certification was a step towards meeting sustainability goals. Snæfellsnes was the first European destination to receive an EarthCheck certification, in 2008. The certification program has been an effective project, keeping the environment, society and economy top of mind. According to the 10-year review on Snæfellsnes as an EarthCheck Destination, waste in landfills has been reduced by almost half, greenhouse gas emissions and energy performance are much improved, and the development of environmental programs and social initiatives have increased. Snæfellsnes Peninsula is now a certified platinum destination under the EarthCheck system.

Collaborative Governance

Collaboration in Snæfellsnes is based on an informal network of overlapping organizations.
• Byggðasamlag Snæfellinga is the destination stewardship council, made up of mayors from each of the five municipalities –- Snaefellsbaer, Helgafellssveit, Grundarfjörður, Stykkishólmur, and Eyjaog Miklaholtshreppur.
• Natturustofa Vesturands (the West Iceland Nature Research Center) manages Umhverfisvottun Snæfellsness (the Snæfellsnes Sustainability Program).
• The Snæfellsnes Regional Park, West Iceland Marketing, tourism unions, and the private sector are all involved in sustainable development as well.

Within this web of stakeholders, two particular individuals drive the sustainability effort in Snæfellsnes. Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir, at the West Iceland Nature Research Center, is the Sustainability Program Manager. She coordinates sustainability programs and projects, including the EarthCheck Certification. Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir, the Regional Park Manager, is equally involved in spearheading sustainability initiatives, as well as regional planning.

The Snæfellsnes EarthCheck Green Team celebrates 13 consecutive years of certification. [Photo courtesy of Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir]

Although several tourism councils and stakeholders make up this informal network, they all share common goals when it comes to the future of Snæfellsnes. To address issues in the region, meetings are called, often in neighboring farms. The community comes together, and the discussions begin. As Ragnhildur puts it, “the beauty of our work is cooperation. ‘Þetta reddast’ is a common slogan in Iceland, meaning ‘it will work out.’” The community is committed and invested in the sustainable development of Snæfellsnes. Ragnhildur continues: “Those who have moved to Snæfellsnes and are involved with tourism have never seen such strong tourism collaboration in a rural area. This is especially true of those who come from other rural areas. They are impressed with the work that we’ve done.”

Sustainable Management as a Community

Oftentimes, political changes alter the course of sustainability progress. In Snæfellsnes, an election is held every four years. If not re-elected, the mayors all change at the same time, which can delay certain initiatives, but it does not impact the destination management plan in a significant way. However, multi-stakeholder involvement doesn’t come without challenges. Every municipality is different in size, funding and resources, with the smallest being 66 people with a tiny budget. There has been formal and informal dialogue about the potential of combining two municipalities, possibly even all five.

Regardless, sustainable management involves broad cooperation of parties and public participation. Snæfellsnes Regional Park (not to be confused with Snaefellsjokull National Park), is a joint effort by the municipalities and tourism stakeholders. The governing bodies include a Founder’s Council, under which a Steering Group and Working Group work in collaboration. Additional consultants assisted with landscape assessment, regional plan development, and project management.

Sharing a common vision allows for cooperation through environmental conservation and promotion.

Multiple parties are also involved in regional planning. Over 200 people from various groups and stakeholders come together, including the five municipalities, a local planning committee, and a local steering committee. The five municipalities appoint a regional planning committee to overlook zoning under their supervision. Every municipality has an individual plan, which must also align with the regional plan.

The snowy destination of Bjarnafoss receives an environmental award in 2018. [Photo by Heimir Berg]

The municipalities are financially responsible for the social services and schools within their own community but collectively take care of the Visitor Center, the history museum, and the sustainability program, including the EarthCheck Certification.

The regional park is funded by municipalities, the tourism union, the workers union, and farmers associations. Through the regional park, Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir is responsible for training staff and running the Visitors Center. Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir oversees the EarthCheck Standard and sustainability program, holding courses at the center. The Visitor Center is located at Breiðablik, the entrance to Snæfellsnes. It is open daily and provides tourists with trip planning information to help guide their visit within the region.

Most residents share an understanding that protecting natural resources benefits the entire community, but there are limits. “It would be great to have more happening in the Visitors Center, but once the work has been done, reality hits. You have to hire employees, pay for electricity costs and all that comes with running the center,” says Ragnhildur. “When the five municipalities come together, they also have to consider money that is needed elsewhere, such as building a kindergarten.”

Projects & Activities

The Regional Park is working on two important projects:
• Taking the initial steps for applying to become a UNESCO Biosphere destination.
• Destination branding and marketing under the “Choose or Stay” policy.

Choose or Stay is a national strategy for converting daytrippers from Reykjavík into overnight visitors. In Icelandic it rhymes: veldu eða vertu. It encourages visitors to travel slower, either by choosing just one site for a day trip or staying longer to see more. The approach helps create a circular travel route around Snæfellsnes while avoiding congestion due to large tour buses.

To further disperse tourists, a categorical system was created whereby a list of 28 popular locations is labelled A, B, C or D, based on various risk factors for the environment and the visitors. Visitor-ready locations with appropriate infrastructure in place are labelled A, while B is still in progress, C is a wishlist of places that they want to market to be visitor-ready or at least heading in that direction. D is for sensitive places where they don’t want visitors. This system helps manage the number of people visiting each location. Overall, it is going well and helps manage crowding by spreading people out.

Búðakirkja, the Black Church of Búðir, has become a popular destination for photographers, who travel to the rural southern side of the peninsula to capture its beauty. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

Measuring Progress in Rural Iceland

When asked how Snæfellsnes measures success, Ragnhildur responded: “We discuss results at our annual meeting. We ask everyone at the meeting for input. We work together and see Snæfellsnes as a whole, which is better when it comes to funding and finishing projects. At the same time, Guðrún and I often reject projects because we have to be selective.”

Additionally, there are plenty of evaluations. Following an action plan of what Guðrún and each municipality is doing, there is an evaluation at the end of the year to discuss how each project will proceed, with environmental and social factors in mind. The EarthCheck certification also requires an annual third-party performance audit. The benefit of being one of two areas in Iceland with certification (the other being the municipalities in the Westfjords), is the joint effort within the entire community. Many decisions in Snæfellsnes are directly linked to being certified, ensuring continued progress toward sustainability.

Commentary

As a council made up of mayors, the Byggðasamlag Snæfellinga seems to serve technically as the core of the informal network of overlapping organizations that address destination stewardship in Snæfellsnes. Threats of overtourism are weighed against a desire to grow.

“Twenty years ago, there was little tourism. Residents lived off the fishing industry, along with farming and agriculture. We are traditional and old fashioned, but we have deep roots. We want new inhabitants and companies to come to Snæfellsnes. This is the luxury of having a low population of residents,” says Ragnhildur.

The Iceland Regional Affairs Conference held in Snæfellsnes in 2018. [Photo courtesy of Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir]

Tourism started to increase about 20 years ago, but more rapidly within the last 10. Sustainability seems to have proceeded as well, if haltingly. Snæfellsnes tourism enterprises that are certified have seen results, such as savings from energy efficiency and other best practices. However, getting business to become certified is a challenge, according to the two managers. Businesses are small and mostly rely on busy summer periods. It is costly and takes time and resources to get certified and audited. Since there is little competition, it is not very compelling.

Economic, cultural, and ecological factors all come into play. “With elections bringing in a new board of municipalities, it is kind of political,” says Guðrún. She lists the major challenges:

  1. Politics
  2. Budgets to finance the program
  3. Mobilizing the community
  4. Reaching out to inform visitors – Mainly because of budget limitations, the villages don’t have the resources, the marketing, the informational signs, nor anyone for managing tourism.

Some say it would make sense for the regional park to manage all of it, but that will take more resources and collaboration. Meanwhile the certification consultant, EarthCheck, provides some measure of continuity, if tipped strongly toward environment over social and cultural sustainability. Snæfellsnes’s current governance arrangement may seem somewhat messy, but the destination is of manageable size, there is broad cultural support for sustainability, and the outlook encouraging. Perhaps that Icelandic aphorism does apply: “It will work out.”

Palau: A Conservation Culture

The Micronesian nation of Palau has been gaining a reputation not only for trail-blazing conservation measures, reports Tiffany Chan, but also for putting the brakes on irresponsible mass tourism. Now they’ve set their sights on carbon neutrality.

[Above: The Rock Island archipelago, a major tourism draw for Palau. ]

Micronesian Archipelago Leads the Way in Pacific Stewardship

Children of Palau
I take this Pledge
To preserve and protect your beautiful and unique Island home.…
—The Palau Pledge

The tiny island nation of Palau is known worldwide for its marvelous environment – turquoise waters, unexplored lands, biodiversity – and for the innovative regulations that have been implemented to ensure its pristine condition.

This Micronesian country of hundreds of islands, however, has been facing many challenges due to high-volume tourism growth and a dramatic increase in budget-oriented travel. Tourism accounts for approximately 31% of Palau’s GDP, as well as 38% of jobs in Palau’s private sector. In recent (pre-Covid) years, annual visitors to Palau averaged almost seven times greater than the local population. Prior to 2014, higher spending consumers in the diving market fuelled tourism in Palau. Thereafter, a large spike in pre-packaged travel groups from China resulted in lower in-country spending and a shift towards mass-market tourism.

Tourists enjoy the Milky Way, an often crowded mud bath in the Rock Islands.

As identified in the Palau Responsible Tourism Policy Framework 2017-2021 by the Bureau of Tourism, “dramatic increases in visitor arrivals within the past two years and the rapid proliferation of budget-oriented tourism development to service those visitors have led to concerns about devastating consequences on the industry, environment and society.”

A Conservation Leader

Led by a president focused on natural conservation, Palau is on the path to discourage mass tourism and promote destination sustainability, with innovative policies and initiatives, such as:

    • The world’s first shark sanctuary, created in 2009. Given that half of the world’s oceanic sharks are at risk of extinction, this sanctuary protects an area about the size of France where commercial shark fishing is banned.
    • The world’s sixth-largest marine sanctuary, established in 2015 to protect 80% of its maritime territory, meaning no fishing, or other uses such as drilling for oil, in an area of tuna-rich ocean.

      Unique among responsible tourism pledges, the Palau Pledge is the entry visa stamp – and directed to the next generation.

    • Introduction of the “Palau Pledge” in 2017, the world’s first mandatory eco-pledge. This signed promise, stamped in the passport of all incoming visitors, is a pledge to respect the environment and preserve it for the “children of Palau.” The pledge received almost 6000 signatures within the first two weeks.
    • A “reef-toxic” sunscreen ban restricting the manufacturing and import of sunscreen containing toxic chemicals that lead to coral bleaching in 2018, followed by a world-first ban on selling harmful sunscreen products in 2020.
    • Palau joined the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) in 2020 along with 13 other world leaders, in a commitment to sustainably manage 100% of national waters by 2025.

To ensure compliance with environmental responsibility, the Responsible Tourism Education Act was passed in 2018. Apart from endorsing the Palau Responsible Tourism Policy Framework, the Act requires tourism businesses to provide visitors with environmental education, conservation awareness and sustainable options, such as reusable alternatives to disposable plastic cups, straws, and containers.

How did Palau do it?

These conservation efforts and mitigation measures are largely led by Palauans in both the public and private sectors. Various groups outside of the government have pushed for each of these initiatives and made it successful by collaborating with the government to create laws and regulations, along with the assistance of international partners when needed.

According to Ivory Vogt, a Palauan sustainable tourism consultant, “The essence behind our conservation and mitigation policies stem from our traditions and culture. These ideas can be reflected in Palauan words like bul, which means to restrict the use of a natural resource to allow it to regenerate over some time, and mengereomel, meaning to conserve a resource in a way that you replant what you harvest, so you always have a good supply of it.”

The main tourism authorities in Palau are the Palau Visitors Authority and the Bureau of Tourism. The former plays the role of marketing and the latter in regulating the tourism industry. Prior to 2021, the Bureau of Tourism was part of the same Ministry, called the Ministry of Natural Resource, Environment and Tourism.

Aspiring to Become the World’s First Carbon-Neutral Destination

It seems clear that Palau is a pioneer in addressing environmental sustainability and tourism management issues with innovative solutions, and its most recent development is no different. Apart from overtourism, climate change is one of the greatest threats to Palau. With most Palauans residing, working, and producing food in low-lying areas, the global rise in sea level will be devastating for the island state, not to mention tropical cyclones, typhoons, and severe weather patterns posing massive threats to the livelihood of vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

A taro patch, key source for the Palauan diet.

To improve climate resilience, the Bureau of Tourism is collaborating with Sustainable Travel International, Slow Food and the Palau Pledge to make Palau the world’s first carbon-neutral tourism destination. This program is led by the Bureau of Tourism with the assistance of several international partners, such as the TaiwanICDF. By aspiring to be a carbon-neutral tourism destination, Palau will have to market the program to their visitors and encourage them to offset the carbon footprint of their trip.

Building on previous sustainable tourism efforts, the program began in August 2020 with a value-chain analysis, and later data collection from tourism-related businesses and a needs assessment with a small group of local food producers. The goal is to mitigate the tourism-based carbon footprint by promoting local food production along with a carbon management program for travelers. Less reliance on imports and a redirected focus on local food production allow for better food security and local economic opportunities, all while lowering CO2 emissions.

A national dish, demok (taro leaf soup) is favored by visitors.

To compensate for tourism-associated emissions, visitors will have the opportunity to voluntarily calculate and offset the carbon footprint associated with their trip through a digital platform. Using 2019 arrival numbers, a projected $1 million could be generated through the calculator if all visitors offset their trip. The contributions would then be reinvested into conservation projects and certified carbon offset initiatives. Due to COVID-19 and the transition to a new government administration, the Carbon Neutral program is still in progress, with the hopes of the calculator being completed soon.

A Pioneer in Conservation

Within all of Palau’s initiatives, the people and biodiversity of Palau come first. Overtourism has taught Palau the importance of prioritizing high-value tourism. In today’s climate, destinations that once suffered from mass tourism have been given an opportunity to rethink how they will handle the pent-up demand. For the sake of building a more resilient and regenerative tourism economy, COVID-19 recovery plans must not ignore the intersection of climate change and sustainable tourism development. Palau’s latest initiative in carbon neutrality is a destination-level approach that can act as a guiding model for other destinations. Balancing tourism growth with climate action is a difficult feat to accomplish, but with countries like Palau taking the lead on such initiatives, there is hope that other destinations can implement similar initiatives into their climate action strategies, while also fostering sustainable economic growth.