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Module 1

Introduction: Sustainable tourism certification 

In this first module we explain the general need for sustainable tourism development and the basics of certification. To start with, this module briefly explains the concept of sustainability and introduces the impacts of tourism.

What does sustainability mean to you? Have you already engaged with this topic? Perhaps you are already implementing measures to reduce your plastic waste or water consumption - privately or in your company - to minimise your impact on the environment? But how can these efforts be objectively assessed and measured? And why is it so important that tourism becomes more sustainable? In this first module, we will provide you with initial answers.

This module is about:

  • What does sustainability mean?
  • Potentials and challenges of tourism
  • The role and function of sustainability certification

What is Sustainability?

The climate crisis and global biodiversity loss are one of the most pressing challenges of our time. It is clear that we must take determined action to limit global warming to a safe level and to secure a liveable future for future generations. But sustainability is more than its ecological aspect. While the economic dimension strives to permanently ensure a stable economy and added value, the socio-cultural component focuses on securing the basic human needs as well as a more just distribution of prosperity.

With reference to the concept of the triple bottom line, the aim of sustainability is to achieve a sustainable balance between planet, people and profit - while not exceeding the planetary boundaries.

Source: German Federal Government, 2016.

There is no single global agreement or universally valid definition for sustainability. However, various frameworks, standards, and initiatives aim to promote sustainability in different sectors and regions around the world.

Currently, the United Nations Agenda 2030 for sustainable development with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provides the leading framework for countries and organisations to work towards achieving sustainable development in a range of areas, including climate action, biodiversity, and social justice.

The following considerations regarding sustainability can be highlighted to bring us closer to the concept:

  • Sustainability is a multidimensional concept (social, ecological, economic) = balanced.
  • Sustainability is a dynamic concept that evolves over time = relative.
  • Sustainability is the outcome of participatory stakeholder processes = subjective.
  • Sustainability must follow scientific knowledge (e.g. Science-based targets: 1.5°C) = objective.
  • Sustainability can be interpreted as the degree of achievement of political objectives (e.g. SDGs, national sustainability strategies, human rights).
  • Sustainability must set priorities.

A concept that has many facets. To meet the global challenge, measures and practices must be implemented at all levels: nations, all types of destinations, including mass tourism and various niche tourism segments, as well as tourists can contribute to sustainable development.

Potentials and Challenges of Tourism

Tourism is a significant economic sector with the potential to create jobs and generate revenue for local communities. However, it also poses a number of environmental, social, and cultural challenges.

Potential benefits of tourism include:

  • Job creation
  • Promotion of regional economic cycles
  • Contribution to environmental protection and nature conservation (e.g. through identification of the value of natural areas, entry fees)
  • Improvement of infrastructure and public services in tourism destinations
  • Increasing awareness and understanding of different cultures and ways of life.

Challenges associated with tourism include:

  • Environmental degradation and impact on natural resources (water pollution, high water consumption, high land use, and soil sealing!)
  • High energy and greenhouse gas intensity (tourism mobility!)
  • Pressure on local cultures and traditions
  • Poor working conditions and violation of human rights
  • Food-related issues (buffets, high meat/fish consumption)
  • Overtourism and overloading of infrastructure in popular destinations.


of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributed to the tourism sector, of which approximately 24% are from the accommodation sector.


litres of water per day is the average tourist consumption in the EU.

Approximately 12%

of workers in the EU are employed in the tourism industry.
Therefore, tourism is considered a driver of anthropogenic climate change. Tourists consume three to four times as much water per day as a resident in a destination. The European tourism industry comprised of over 1.8 million mostly small and medium-sized enterprises.

Sources: EEA, 2009 & EURSTAT.EU/TOURISM.

To tackle these challenges and maximize the advantages of tourism, it is imperative that all stakeholders, including the public and private sectors, local communities, and tourists, work together in a collaborative manner to implement sustainable tourism practices that minimize negative impacts and maximize positive benefits.

Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization as "tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities".

Sustainability Certification

So far, we highlighted that the concept of sustainability has various facets and that sustainable development of tourism is necessary.

To establish and implement sustainable management practices consistently and effectively, the following requirements can be derived:

  • Minimum and exclusion criteria
  • Orientation towards benchmarks
  • Determination of priorities
  • Development processes that move at an appropriate speed in the right direction.

Certification systems are a central tool for providing a framework for these requirements. They standardize sustainability and enable measurement and verification of sustainability in tourism. Certification of sustainability performance is therefore often described as helpful in supporting tourism businesses and destinations in their sustainable development.

Certifications are standardized systems that aim to promote the implementation of sustainability practices. Sustainability certifications are awarded to tourism companies and services, as well as destinations, to demonstrate that providers voluntarily implement measures that go beyond legal requirements to avoid negative impacts on the environment, society, economy, and culture of travel regions, thereby supporting sustainable tourism development.

The core requirements of most certification systems include the implementation of sustainable management processes, limitation of resource consumption (energy and water consumption), reduction of waste (food and non-recyclable waste), utilization of renewable energy, and implementation of information or awareness-raising measures for guests and staff.

Certified companies thereby make an important contribution to the sustainability goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Responsible Consumption and Production.

Source: UN SDG goal 12.

Further Information

You want to deepen your knowledge? Here we have summarised further information for you:

  • TOURISME GOOD PRACTICE, collection of actions to be implemented for a sustainable tourism development: click here.
  • UN SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS, the 17 goals: click here.
  • UNWTO, Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals – Journey to 2030, Highlights: click here.
  • TOURISM FOR SDGS, a platform developed by the UNWTO: click here.
  • FUTURE OF TOURISM, an initiative of various international tourism organisations for more sustainability in tourism: click here.
  • ONE PLANET SUSTAINABLE TOURISM PROGRAMME, promotes knowledge sharing and networking opportunities: click here.

After the question "why?" has been answered, the following module (2) will go into detail on the various aspects of sustainability certification.