The colour of sustainable tourism

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Por Rick Gould
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As tourism outpaces other industries – international tourist arrivals increased by 6 % in 20181) – the sector is experiencing a revitalization. Adventure, responsible and green travel are reinventing the way communities, ecosystems and economies interact. We examine how ISO standards are supporting this trend.

Tourism creates jobs – lots of them. In fact, 1 person in 10 is employed in a tourism-related job. As travellers become more prosperous, and travel more accessible, it is estimated that the tourism sector could outperform the global economy over the next decade. It’s no surprise, therefore, that most destinations seek to expand their tourism sector for a larger slice of the pie.

Group of men and women rafting on a river.The tourism industry is also important in building a culture of peace between countries and is ideally placed to contribute to many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) working towards a fairer, more equitable world. When it is well managed, tourism provides an incredible economic boost to host communities. Yet negative effects on the environment are inherent to the industry. With increasing numbers of travellers flocking to the same sought-after locations, resulting in overcrowding and stretched facilities, the emission of greenhouse gases, waste generation and degradation of local ecosystems are almost impossible to control.

For all the many destinations that have tourism strategies in place to help alleviate poverty and conserve their natural and cultural heritage, just as many world heritage sites, which are recognized by UNESCO for their outstanding universal value, have no adequate management plan to prevent the adverse impacts of tourism. This begs the question: can tourism ever be sustainable? ISO is working towards that end.


It all started on a peninsula…

The Sinai Peninsula embodies adventure tourism. Every year, millions of tourists flock to this triangular desert for its sunshine, famous coral reefs, and to trek within its mountainous interior. Martin Denison, a keen scuba diver, first visited the Sinai desert 40 years ago. He aimed for the Red Sea, a haven for divers because of its breathtaking coral reefs and captivating multicoloured fish. Denison made his passion for the deep a profession, as a trainer, instructor and dive leader. His work later led him into standards development, becoming the convenor of the ISO working group that developed 11 ISO standards for diver safety, training and dive centres. These standards have since become the lingua franca for divers and diving centres worldwide.

In recent years, Denison has headed a working group in ISO technical committee ISO/TC 228 for sustainable tourism to develop two new standards focused on sustainable diving. The numbers for Sharm El Sheikh – the small city at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula – vividly explain why we need these standards. “Forty years ago, there were just a handful of buildings there and three diving centres in the whole peninsula,” recalls Denison. Now Sharm El Sheikh is a city with an international airport, dozens of hotels and a population of over 70 000. “About 1.6 million divers and snorkellers visit Egypt every year and now there are around 300 diving centres,” he says. The Sinai alone boasts 141 diving centres, as well as some 130 liveaboard diving boats, to meet the demand for underwater adventures.

Tourist attraction in Egypt.
Scuba diving in the Red Sea on the coast of the island of Tiran is a tourist attraction in Egypt, where instructors are promoting diving techniques that preserve and protect coral reefs.

A deep dive into the world of standards

Diving, like any other outdoor activity, can have significant environmental impacts if not controlled. As the sport has increased in popularity, this in turn has highlighted the need for sustainability, or the diving sector will undermine the aquatic foundations that support it.

With that in mind, under Denison’s convenorship, a dedicated working group in ISO/TC 228, Tourism and related services, is busy preparing two standards for sustainable diving. The first standard, ISO 21416, Recreational diving services – Requirements and guidance on environmentally sustainable practices in recreational diving, describes what diving centres and services need to do to conserve and even enhance the aquatic environment. The standard includes several examples of best practice, such as how diving centres need to conduct activities (e.g. deterring divers from feeding or removing aquatic life) or how to operate boats in a way that does not damage the environment. For example, ISO 21416 specifies that boat pilots must use moorings instead of anchors, which can damage corals.

People snorkeling in blue waters above coral reef, Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt.
Snorkelling sites in Egypt are famous the world over due to the diversity and abundance of coral reefs.

The second standard, ISO 21417, Recreational diving services – Requirements for training on environmental awareness for recreational divers, is based on the premise that if divers are aware and understand the environmental impacts of diving activities, then they will be better placed to control them. So the standard describes how divers can either eliminate or minimize both potential and actual negative risks to the environment. It also formalizes the theoretical knowledge that instructors and divers need to receive before and during the dive, and will form the basis of training courses.

Additionally, the standard outlines the positive impacts divers can have on the environment, such as using their diving skills to clean up waste, take part in surveys of aquatic life and create artificial reefs. “We wanted to address activities that other standards did not cover,” explains Denison, “such as proper conduct of diving activities, like operating dive boats. The standard will also describe how to interact with aquatic life; for example, not collecting, hunting or feeding aquatic life,” he adds. Moreover, it will include measures for conserving heritage sites, such as wrecks and artefacts, which are popular with divers.

So how will diving centres and training providers apply ISO 21416 and ISO 21417? The Ministry of Tourism in Egypt, for example, employs a number of inspectors to assist diving centres in meeting the requirements of the many ISO standards for recreational diving. “The new sustainability standards will be no exception, as I am convinced that diving operators are well aware that tourists are much likelier to return to an intact, pristine underwater environment than to one that has suffered from bad practices,” emphasizes Denison.

The working group developing ISO 21416 and ISO 21417 has been widely represented. “We have had representatives from training organizations, diving centres, the consumer protection sector, marine biologists and other scientists. We were also happy to have the professional input of a United Nations Environment Programme group called Reef-World, which developed the Green Fins standard for responsible diving near coral reefs. They were very positive about the final drafts,” he enthuses.

Family snorkeling underwater.

Eco-friendly retreats

Like many holiday destinations, the settlements of the Sinai Peninsula have grown rapidly into large resorts. All these buildings can have significant environmental, social and economic impacts. For this reason, at the end of 2018, ISO published ISO 21401, Tourism and related services – Sustainability management system for accommodation establishments – Requirements, a new International Standard that helps the hospitality industry reduce its impact on the environment, promote social exchange and make positive contributions to local economies. This standard is based on the same High-Level Structure now applied in all ISO management standards, such as ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, meaning it can be easily integrated into any existing ISO management system.

So what prompted its development? The answer lies across a continent and an ocean to the west of Sinai. In the early part of this century, there were growing concerns about the negative impacts that the tourism sector, especially hotels, could have on the environment and society in Brazil. Alexandre Garrido, the Convenor of the working group that developed ISO 21401, takes up the story. “ISO 21401 was built based on Brazilian standard ABNT NBR 15401, which the Brazilian hotel industry has applied since 2006,” he explains.

“In 2003, we launched a project to look at sustainable tourism and decided to start with hotels. We formed a wide-ranging group including travel specialists, representatives from the hotel sector, trade associations, NGOs, communities, government and agencies, deciding to approach sustainability through management systems,” explains Garrido. The working group considered best practices, embedded these within a management system structure and the result was ABNT NBR 15401.

The Brazilian standard was so successful that ISO/TC 228 adopted it as a basis for the new ISO standard. The aspects covered by ISO 21401 include biodiversity, energy efficiency, conservation, waste management, effluents, emissions, water use, resources, work conditions, cultural aspects and the needs of native populations. “ISO 21401 is a specific sustainability management system standard that covers all dimensions of sustainability, providing a modern vision for accommodation management,” concludes Garrido.

Sustainable adventures

Along with diving, ecotourism and other types of adventure travel have mushroomed. So in 2018, based in a proposal from Portugal, ISO published ISO 20611, Adventure tourism – Good practices for sustainability – Requirements and recommendations. This standard describes how adventure tourism organizations can operate sustainably and promote benign practices for both participants and local communities. Environmental sustainability, for example, can be upheld by careful planning and risk assessment, such as using renewable energy sources, having an awareness of waste regulations and areas with fragile ecosystems.

ISO 20611 also demonstrates how communication between the host, participants and local communities can be used to raise awareness of sustainable practices such as recycling, as well as informing the local community as to why adventure tourism is beneficial. For example, operators may wish to educate the local community in skills that enhance the tourism industry, which in turn further strengthens relationships.

So what types of environmental impacts motivated ISO/TC 228 to develop the standard? “In both adventure and ecotourism there is a potential risk to increase the flow of tourists in destinations without the necessary measures in place to mitigate negative impacts in these areas, especially fragile ecosystems. The standard both promotes the conservation of natural habitats as well as developing respect for the communities who receive tourism,” explains Leonardo Persi, who led the working group that developed ISO 20611. In other words, the standard fosters a win-win.

Tourists, pilot and guide on a boat excursion, Pantanal, Brazil.
Boat excursion for wildlife watching in Pantanal, Brazil.

Pillars of performance

Like ISO 21401 for sustainable accommodation, we can discover the origins of ISO 20611 in Brazil, supported by similar proposals from Portugal’s national standards body. “In 2004, we were having a growing number of accidents, including fatalities. At that time, the Brazilian Ecotourism and Adventure Tourism Association (ABETA), together with the Ministry of Tourism and SEBRAE – the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service – decided to develop new standards in adventure tourism to address these risks. This work is ongoing and, today, we have 38 Brazilian national standards for adventure tourism in the portfolio of ABNT, ISO’s member for the country,” explains Persi.

The first standards focused on safety, such as a management system standard for adventure tourism (ISO 21101) and a standard dealing with information to participants (ISO 21103). However, since 2014, sustainability has made an increasingly bigger image on the tourism radar, so Persi and other like-minded people began working on the combined environmental, social and economic theme, the three main pillars of sustainability. The result was ISO 20611.

Back view of tree teenagers riding horses.
Horse-riding in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands area, located mainly in Brazil, is a popular tourist activity.

“This new standard brings good practices for adventure tourism activities, specifies requirements and provides recommendations to apply them,” adds Persi. So how have travel companies received the standard? According to Persi, the tourism sector and its stakeholders are highly cohesive in Brazil. He reports that travel companies in particular support and apply standards. “The first paradigm was to ensure that small companies – which make up 98 % of the sector – could successfully apply the standards,” he explains.

That way, all interested parties had their role in the adventure tourism and ecotourism market, making it possible to offer participants a better service. “Besides that, if all adventure tourism operators conserve the environment, then we can maintain the communities involved and work to improve the social, cultural and biodiversity of the places adventure tourists visit,” he concludes. Exploring the world is a privilege and it needs to be sustainable so we don’t destroy the very things that make it so appealing and rewarding.

By all accounts, tourism has the potential to be sustainable, with the goodwill of all and a little help from ISO standards.

1) “International Tourist Arrivals Reach 1.4 billion Two Years Ahead of Forecasts”, UNWTO press release, 21 January 2019

Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Editor-in-Chief of ISOfocus