Ronald Sanabria
Ronald Sanabria

Interview: Ronald Sanabria, Consultant & Advisor, Sustainable Tourism

"The number one step to work with small and micro-entrepreneurs is demystifying what sustainability is all about, try to avoid complicated lexicon and words that only technical people can understand, and boil down best practices to common sense"

Ronald Sanabria, a native of Costa Rica, has worked with the tourism industry on certification, productivity, quality assurance and sustainability since 1992. He joined the Rainforest Alliance in 1998, first working with the Sustainable Agriculture Division. Two years later, he began leading the development of the Sustainable Tourism program. Ronald has coordinated projects in a dozen Latin American countries, supporting sustainable tourism training and technical assistance for hundreds of tourism businesses and community-based operations while also connecting them with the marketplace. He led the creation of the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas (STCNA) and chaired its secretariat from 2003 to 2010. He assisted in the creation of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and sat on its board of directors from 2010 to 2012. Currently, as an independent consultant, he supports governmental and UN agencies, conservation NGOs (including the Rainforest Alliance, Fundecooperacion and others) and tourism companies in sustainability-related projects. He also represents the Rainforest Alliance at the UN One Planet’s Tourism Program as a member of its Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Committee. Ronald was the recipient of the 2008 EXPOTUR Friend of Nature Award in recognition of his efforts to promote sustainable tourism in Costa Rica. During his time at the Rainforest Alliance, his team was awarded the Gallina de Oro award from the Costa Rican Association of Rural Community-Based Tourism in 2008 for its support assisting communities engaged in tourism; the Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award in 2009; and The International Ecotourism Society’s Innovation Award in 2010. In 2017, the Brazilian Association of Tour Operators in celebration of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development recognized his work at the Rainforest Alliance as the international initiative that has inspired changes in tourism development in Brazil. Since 1992, he has taught at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Costa Rica. A Fulbright scholar, Ronald holds a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from the University of Costa Rica and an M.A. in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University.

Ecoclub: Your native Costa Rica is a country greatly respected around the world as a regional oasis of uninterrupted democracy and peace for 70 years, as the cradle of Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism, a country which protects her forests and wildlife, produces nearly all electricity by renewable energy and finds herself steadily in the top ranks of the Happy Planet Index, even - or because - it is not the "richest" in GDP terms. Last but not least, a country which lacks a standing army! Is it accurate to guess that your Costa Rican heritage played a key role in your career choice and great success?

Ronald Sanabria:  Yes of course! And not just my heritage but my upbringing in general. My father worked in the coffee industry when I was a kid. Living part of my childhood in a coffee farm and experiencing the countryside somehow shaped my beliefs. But also, I think I was fortunate to be trained as an industrial engineer at the University of Costa Rica during a very special time. This was right around the Rio Summit and all of the developments around it permeated academic and business circles in Costa Rica. Somehow my university incorporated all these concepts of sustainability. into the official curricula, especially in my career. So, as I was finishing my studies, I knew that I was not going to be the typical industrial engineer working in a factory from nine to five or five to nine. But I rather wanted to invest my time, my career and my life in development and conservation efforts. And that's why towards the end of my studies when I had to develop my graduation thesis I decided to do it on applying industrial engineering tools for conservation; specifically, strategic planning in protected areas in one of the conservation areas on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. And that was sort of like the icing on the cake. From there I thought that "well, I need more training on environmental and development issues," which led to my Master's in Sustainable International Development. But you are right – this is rooted in my upbringing in my Costa Rican heritage. And that's the reason why I chose this career.

Ecoclub: So, how can we develop more Costa Ricas in an increasingly polarised and violent world where nationalists, racists and assorted strongmen are disrupting sustainable development and international cooperation?

Ronald Sanabria: Yes, you are right. You know, it could be very depressing to see what is happening around the world. And I guess in the case of Costa Rica it just reiterates the importance of wise leadership and people committed to bigger, grander causes rather than aiming at doing well in a four-year timeframe which is usually the case in the majority of our governmental elections. Costa Rica is what it is thanks to the efforts of many visionary men and women that made the right decisions at the right time, essentially aiming for a different kind of society.

I can mention many examples like the abolition of the army, the investments in education, the creation of the national parks, the reaching out to neighbouring countries to achieve peace in the region. Presidents, ministers, researchers, business people and NGOs have really led a different path for the country but that is all rooted in a strong leadership. And yes, of course, as you mentioned it is overwhelming to see what is happening with leadership around the world, but I am optimistic, and I know that things will come around. New leaders will come up and I am very hopeful about the new generations and see, for instance, how in tune they are in terms of environmental issues, equality, human rights and others that hopefully will reshape the kind of leadership we are seeing today into new vibrant leaders that will make the right decisions in the future.

Ecoclub: Now, moving to one of the organisations you support: Rainforest Alliance, established in 1984, is one of the oldest and, arguably, the world’s most successful and recognisable ecolabels in the agriculture sector and a wide range of consumer staples including tea and coffee. But despite your great success at the helm of Rainforest Alliance's tourism section, the tourism sector does not have a similarly dominant ecolabel, either by Rainforest Alliance or any other label. Is some tourism-specific complexity hindering ecocertification progress in tourism & hospitality? Is there a lack of demand or interest from tourists and tourism providers or just too much noise from greenwashers?

Ronald Sanabria: Yes, I would agree that the Rainforest Alliance brand is one of the most recognized brands and certification schemes in agriculture. When I first joined the organization, I was actually part of the sustainable agriculture program. And two years after I started leading the creation of the sustainable tourism part of the organization. But throughout all these years – almost two decades - of seeing the growth of the sustainable agriculture program, I have come to realize that there are certain elements that somehow contributed to the success and there are key lessons that can be learned in tourism based on successful schemes. Having said that, and I will get back to those lessons learned in a minute, when the Rainforest Alliance joined the sustainable tourism arena back in 1999 or so, there were already numerous certification schemes out there and that is the reason why the Rainforest Alliance, during the first few years decided not to create a certification program in tourism but rather invest time and resources addressing important gaps that we identified. Number one was the need to have an umbrella organization the same way there was a stewardship council in forestry or an umbrella organization for organic certification. Tourism did not have that and therefore there were numerous programs growing and trying to position themselves with very distinct standards, no common denominator among them and no agreement on the basics of sustainability in tourism. So, the Rainforest Alliance launched towards the end of 1999 an initiative to assess the feasibility of creating such an umbrella organization in tourism which over the years evolved and it is known today as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) (back then we called it the sustainable tourism stewardship council or something like that).

Throughout a decade of continuous investment from the organization in different shapes and forms, we addressed that specific gap with many other organizations that lined up for the same cause. Together with the United Nations Foundation and other U.N. agencies, we helped develop the global sustainable tourism criteria that the GSTC uses today. Certification programs needed to have an umbrella organization that will somehow regulate and help find that common set of sustainability principles to be able to have a more impactful reaction in the marketplace.

The second need that we identified was the need to create local capacity, particularly among micro, small and medium tourism enterprises (SMEs). And that basically led to the whole track of work within the Rainforest Alliance on sustainable tourism training, establishing partnerships with the private sector and local governmental agencies to further implement sustainability practices in SMEs. And then, the third need was to connect SMEs with the marketplace, especially leveraging the role of intermediaries (tour operators and travel agencies that are constantly creating products and positioning those products in the marketplace) and, with them, channelling travellers to specific destinations. We felt that it was imperative to bring them onboard and make sustainability part of their day to day operations. But most importantly to ensure that, in putting together tour packages and so on, those companies were using sustainable tourism suppliers in different destinations.  That basically led to the big part of my work which was the execution of projects in Latin America to help SMEs committed to sustainability connect with tour operators.

Ronald Sanabria working with the Community, in Tres Unidos, Amazonia, BrazilRonald Sanabria working with the Community, in Tres Unidos, Amazonia, Brazil

Finally, the other important need was the need to create networks, the need to connect with like-minded efforts. Actually, over my first four years at the Rainforest Alliance, I realized that there were many organizations out there trying to do the same and maybe addressing or trying to address the same challenges in different ways. The creation of networks was important, and that led to the creation of the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas that was later merged with the GSTC when the majority of its members became members of the Council. From 2003 to 2010 the network existed and was a great platform, at least for groups in Latin America, to exchange experiences and learn from each other not just on certification but also on many other aspects in sustainable tourism.

Now, back to the lessons learned from certification in other sectors vis-a-vis the situation in tourism: firstly, value chains in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and other are less complicated than those in tourism: they have a smaller number of players, while the channels are more direct in most of these products. In tourism, you have a significant number of players interacting in different stages, selling and purchasing tourism services in many different ways. The very nature of the tourism industry makes it more complicated.

In terms of rolling out one single certification scheme with one single credible brand given the multiple options available out there, our thinking was that vast size of the industry actually requires many organizations to help and then shifted towards the creation of that umbrella organization (the GSTC) as I mentioned before. Now the GSTC exists and has the potential to help address some of those challenges. I might be wrong, but I do not think that we will ever see a unique recognized certification brand/seal in tourism the same way you can see it in other sectors but rather brands that can be strengthened by a “godmother brand”, the GSTC brand. The GSTC accredits the different schemes so the industry can more easily identify credible, strong certification programs.

Another lesson learned from looking at other industries is the fact that, in industries like agriculture, it has been precisely the intermediaries, the companies in the middle of the value chains that have helped achieve the recognition of specific brands. I do not think that the Rainforest Alliance on its own or any other certification scheme will be able to solidly position a brand in the marketplace without the strong involvement from companies in the value chain that place certified products in the marketplace, that can create public awareness, that can educate consumers, that can create consumer demand for certified products. Those visionary companies in the banana, coffee, chocolate and other sectors acquired very bold commitment in terms of getting out to the marketplace saying, "we are trying to do the right thing, and this is the scheme that we have chosen to certify our suppliers and this is what it means.". Working with the leaders in the industry where the certification program is active, with those companies that represent a significant volume of purchases, is instrumental to achieve more recognition. So, we need more of that in tourism. We have the possibility of an endorsing brand that can attest for the credibility of the programs, which is the GSTC's brand. But we need more and more companies to publicly commit to GSTC accredited certification programs. I know there are some pioneers on that front like the TUI Group that has publicly endorsed schemes accredited by the GSTC, but we need more of that. We really do and then work with those companies to use the brand in their campaigns.

Ecoclub: With reference to its upcoming Botswana summit, what new initiatives should GSTC undertake to expand and accelerate sustainable tourism certification?

Ronald Sanabria: Well, following from your previous question, I hope that the GSTC can strengthen efforts to bring onboard companies that can have a significant impact in the marketplace. How do we engage more intermediaries, large umbrella organizations, consortia of operators, hotel chains and others to adhere their businesses to duly accredited certification schemes under the Council? That is what we need. That kind of leadership in the private sector that will say "Yes! We’re committed to sustainable tourism and the way we're doing this is by making sure that our companies, our suppliers are certified by a credible accredited program under the GSTC."As I said before, I know that there are some companies doing that already, but we need more companies committed to this type of support. Then, based on that level of public commitment, start leveraging more the brand. We need to encourage companies that are certified under GSTC-accredited schemes to use the GSTC brand to help position it further in the marketplace. I also hope to be able to discuss during the Summit other things like support for SMEs and from UN and other agencies that can bring the clout that is necessary for the GSTC to grow.

Ecoclub: In recent years, as anthropogenic climate change has globally been accepted as a scientific fact, there is a proliferation of sustainable tourism networks, agreements and declarations and this generates a comforting feeling that tourism sustainability has become mainstream, both in the high (online) street and the corporate boardroom. It is still unclear, however, if greener press releases issued by powerful corporations also reflect real and permanent green changes in their operations. In this context, what new elements or initiatives does the recent Kasane Call to Action, which you helped develop, bring about and why should laggards in public and private sectors take this call seriously?

Ronald Sanabria speaking at the Foro de Turismo, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, MexicoRonald Sanabria speaking at the Foro de Turismo, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, MexicoRonald Sanabria: Oh yes, you’re absolutely right. Nowadays we see, over and over, that big marketing pockets can go far in terms of portraying a sustainability image, a green image out there. And we know that if we scratch the surface a bit, we can find very little content to back up those sustainability or green claims. That is precisely the reason why I strongly believe in the importance of certification. I know there are many other ways that companies can use to green their act but, ultimately, only third-party independent certification can help attest sustainability claims and avoid greenwashing. In the Kasane Call to Action, there are indeed recommended actions that talk about the use of certification tools and the importance to choose internationally recognised certification programs. I see the Kasane Call to Action more as a list of important priorities that are not just "blah blah" but a list of concrete actions that companies, governmental agencies, academic institutions, NGOs and travellers can implement today to further their commitments to sustainability. Sustainability certification is one of those actions but there are many others. Based on my experience, sometimes it is challenging to portray the scope and range of possible actions a company or a destination can undertake to become more sustainable over time, and the Kasane Call to Action provides you with that, a list of things that need to be done, which in turn makes it a useful self-assessment checklist.

Basically, you can look at the actions that are listed and assess your own company, your destination to check what are the things that are already implemented and the things that are missing and then define your own priorities. The beauty of the Kasane Call to Action is that it was developed with input from many people from different parts of the world the things that need to be done today to further sustainable consumption and production in tourism. As you know, the circumstances and the conditions vary significantly from one country to another, from one destination to another, from one company to another. So, it is not appropriate, I would say, to determine a unique set of priorities for the world. I think that each one of us (as individuals, companies, destinations and countries) can choose based on our own reality and that is what the Kasane Call to Action offers. Yes, they are all urgent actions but then you can choose the ones that are suitable for your needs and your capacity. I feel honoured to be part of the team that helped develop the Kasane Call to Action with inputs from the UN One Planet Network and beyond.

Ecoclub: You have been directly involved with hundreds of projects so far, but if you were to pick just one, your favourite, the most genuine, sustainable tourism project/product/service/experience which one would it be and why?

Ronald Sanabria: Well, that is the toughest question because I simply love everything that I have done! One of the projects that stand up is a project t we implemented thanks to the support from the Multilateral Investment Fund of the Inter-American Development Bank a while ago. Thanks to that support, on the one hand, we were able to help more and more tourism companies implement sustainability practices in five Latin American countries for four years and, on the other hand, engaged tour operators and intermediaries in sourcing more responsibly and giving priority to sustainable suppliers from those five countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru).

In all those countries, over the years we were able to basically plant the seed about the importance of sustainability, educating the tourism sector, working with governmental agencies so they could embrace and support sustainability actions. I would like to believe that this specific project played a key role in helping these countries do great things in sustainability that have lasted until now and actually have grown significantly. I think we were right on, arriving at a time when such efforts were needed, raising awareness, demonstrating the importance that sustainability has for businesses, and also helping governments realize the importance the tourism industry has in terms of t income generation and as a tool for conservation and local wellbeing when developed responsibly. I learned a lot through that project. I learned about the countries and sustainability in general, the issues, the challenges but I was also constantly inspired by the commitment of specific individuals within companies or government agencies that were truly making a difference. From that project, I regained enthusiasm to continue doing what I do. I realized that there were many people out there thinking along the same lines and exercising their leadership to achieve a change in this industry. Nowadays, years after, it is wonderful seeing many of them in leadership positions and doing great work in sustainability.

A current project that I am very excited about is in the State of Quintana Roo, Mexico, supported by the TUI Care Foundation, where I am assisting the Rainforest Alliance’s education team train educators in sustainable tourism so they can, in turn, bring that knowledge to their classrooms so future tourism leaders, employees and tourists can learn, early on, what sustainable tourism is all about. Very exciting!

Ecoclub: Based on your in-depth knowledge and hands-on experience with implementing best practices in tourism, what are the key secrets to convince micro and small entrepreneurs, who typically have very little time and money to spare, that training/retraining/hiring, be they about quality assurance, environmental impact, social responsibility or customer satisfaction, are essential for success and not luxuries which are only relevant to, and can only be afforded by, larger companies?

Ronald Sanabria: I think that the number one step is demystifying what sustainability is all about and try to avoid complicated lexicon and technical words that only technical people can understand and boil down the message about sustainability practices to common sense. Many micro and small companies actually do not realize that a lot of the things that they are doing are directly aligned with sustainability practices and that they actually do not need to mirror things that larger companies are doing, simply because their practices generate less impact. Helping them recognize the good things that they are already doing is the starting point and, from there, try to raise the level implementation of other practices that might be necessary. Based on some of the projects that I consider most successful, it is important to allow entrepreneurs of small companies to live the tourism experience, to get out of their own place and visit other companies of all shapes and sizes to exchange ideas and learn from each other. It is very powerful when you get the message from a peer, from another company, small or large, that is struggling with the same issues, so recommendations come from somebody that speaks the same business language.

Now, in terms of the sophistication of business practices, you are right mentioning the importance of quality assurance, customer satisfaction and good marketing for SMEs- all of that is absolutely necessary. Building those skills is where the biggest challenges lie. Small companies probably generate very little environmental impact and usually have a strong positive social impact because they are family-owned companies, or they might be community-based operations. The challenges are more in professionalizing the management of the businesses. Luckily, there are now many organizations, private and public, that support capacity building. It is also crucial to find creative ways to establish partnerships with those academic or technical institutions with resources from governmental agencies and NGOs to deploy and roll out this type of assistance for SMEs, but avoiding all those techie words, the jargon that basically does not lead anywhere.

Ecoclub: You mentioned capacity building. There is an ongoing criticism in some tourism industry circles, that there a skills' gap, namely that the universities produce tourism, and sustainable tourism, in particular, graduates with a mostly irrelevant, too abstract, skill set. As a University Professor in Industrial Engineering who is also a tourism professional, a consultant and a vocational trainer in tourism, and thus is in a unique position to offer an objective assessment, do you agree that there is such a gap, and if so, is it a problem? Should sustainable tourism academic training become more pro-market, include more vocational elements and placements as hospitality departments already do? Or rather, should more companies realise that skill-building is an ongoing process that in any case cannot end at the university (and which after all serves a broader purpose for the betterment of society rather than the narrow and ephemeral company interests) and cooperate with specialist training providers?

Ronald Sanabria: I absolutely agree that academic training needs to get more practical. Just based on my own experience as a student in industrial engineering and then later as a professor at the University of Costa Rica, the more practical learning you can incorporate in your classes the better. When I studied industrial engineering, for every single course in the career we had to do a practical project in a real company. All projects were evaluated from a business perspective and from an academic perspective. Over five or six years of studying industrial engineering, I cannot recall how many projects I did in many different companies! As a matter of fact, many of them were in tourism companies like restaurants, travel agencies, tour operators and hotels and so on and through those projects I learned a lot! By the time I graduated, even though I was not graduating from a tourism department, I already had experience working with tourism companies on specific issues and utilizing specific tools to address those issues in a practical way. I hope more and more tourism companies can open their doors to students, so they can gain practical experience on how sustainability efforts get implemented in the real world. I think it is crucial for universities to find the right partnerships and be able to provide that kind of practical support to their students but also to be able the properly design the curriculum to ensure that there is as much practical training inserted therein as possible. The more we do that the better we will be in the future with the new professionals in leadership positions.

Ecoclub: Indeed, and a final question: at an era where job security has vanished in most countries, with increasing unemployment and employees changing companies ever so frequently, you are still with the same organisation where you started as an intern, rose to the highest echelons and gained international recognition and numerous prestigious awards in the process. Do you have any relevant career advice, particularly on the value of company loyalty in these volatile times, for graduates wishing to follow in your sustainable tourism steps?

Ronald Sanabria: You are right! I joined the Rainforest Alliance as an intern. I am no longer a staff member, but I am working as a consultant for the organization in specific projects. Of course, the Rainforest Alliance will be forever in my heart and there will be a part of the Rainforest Alliance forever in my life. I am fortunate to be supporting now a couple of Rainforest Alliance’s projects related to tourism and one in the banana sector. Maybe in the future, there will be more. I am also supporting other organizations that I believe in and that I care about. But the point is, going back to career advice, I think the reason why I lasted so long at the Rainforest Alliance is that I was sticking to what I love. I know it sounds cliché, but I truly believe that if you love what you do, if you are committed to doing a certain thing and you stick to it, you will be resilient, you will be able to motivate others and inject enthusiasm around what you do. If you are happy with what you do, if you believe and honour what you do, it becomes contagious to others!

That would be my number one recommendation but equally important is finding the right home for your dreams. The Rainforest Alliance was the perfect home for my professional desires, for what I wanted to do furthering conservation and development through sustainable tourism. The Rainforest Alliance with its mission to transform the way we use natural resources, to transform business practices and consumer behaviour to achieve conservation and to improve people's lives, was my perfect home. So, for all the students that are reading or listening to this interview, I would say “think very clearly on what you want to do, how you envision your life and stick to it, and invest time finding the right place for you to do what you need to do to make your dreams come true.”