" I personally do not think that you can have sustainability without equality "

Agata ZborowskaAgata ZborowskaAgata Zborowska has over 10 years’ experience in variety of roles in Travel & Tourism sector and has worked with both small and large organisations in the UK and internationally in the areas of Responsible and Sustainable Tourism, Business Travel, Travel PR and Marketing and Event Management. Native to Poland, Agata has lived in the United States, Scotland, England and Malaysia. She has a Master’s degree in International Tourism Management from Napier University in Edinburgh and Bachelor’s Degree in Geography from Wroclaw University in Poland. Sustainable tourism, along with adventure and food travel, is one of her biggest passions, with particular interest in sustainable destination management and planning, gender equality and women empowerment through tourism. Her current role is as a project manager championing sustainability through the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards programme and development of sustainability policy and other initiatives within the World Travel & Tourism Council.

ECOCLUB.com: Please tell us why and how did you get into this field and about your current role

Agata Zborowska: I have been in the travel industry for over 10 years, working across different roles and moved into responsible tourism a few years ago when I briefly helped with Wild Asia’s Responsible Tourism Awards while travelling the world. Personally, I have been interested in sustainable tourism for much longer and I have grown up in a very environmentally conscious family. The need to protect the nature has always been part of my life thanks to my mother who taught me to respect the world around us from early days, both the nature and people. I am currently a proud Project Manager, championing sustainability through the prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow Awards programme and other initiatives within the World Travel & Tourism Council. I am responsible for the end to end delivery of the Awards programme to raise awareness about the importance of sustainable tourism within the Travel & Tourism Sector.

ECOCLUB.com: Amid a proliferation of international tourism awards in recent years, please tell us what makes the Tourism for Tomorrow awards special and if small, local, independent tourism outfits should apply - do they stand a chance of beating the global and powerful tourism brands?

Agata Zborowska: The Tourism for Tomorrow Awards has been running for over 20 years now, of which for the last 12 years under WTTC’s umbrella. The programme is of a very high standard thanks to the experience gathered over the years, professional expertise of the Tourism for Tomorrow judges, transparent judging processes (explained below in Q3), which includes on-site evaluation, and the level of PR exposure our finalists and winners receive. Until very recently the Awards have been the only programme which actually sends auditors to the shortlisted projects or organisations, which makes the judging process very thorough. Can a small, local business apply? Absolutely! There seems to be a perception that only large corporate organisations apply for the Awards programme, but many of our finalists are medium and small, family-run firms which are truly inspiring. For example, one of our 2014 finalists Chepu Adventures Ecolodge, in Chile, is owned and managed by a husband and wife, Fernando and Amory. Another finalist from 2015 is a small lodge run by two people, Mayah and Jefferson: Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort & Nature Reserve in Guatemala.

ECOCLUB.com: What measures are in place to preserve the high quality of the Tourism for Tomorrow awards in terms of transparency and so as to avoid conflicts of interest in terms of judges selection, on-site visits and sponsors?

Reality Tours and Travel, Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Community Category Winner 2015: Bipin, a guide, explaining their work to guests in the Community Centre.Reality Tours and Travel, Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Community Category Winner 2015: Bipin, a guide, explaining their work to guests in the Community Centre.Agata Zborowska: The transparent judging process is the key strength of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards. It is a five step process which includes: (1) Initial checks by WTTC staff as soon as applications arrive in our inbox, (2) Finalist selection by our Finalist Committee (15 judges, 3 per category), (3) Desktop research – a further research and checks of all shortlisted organisations to ensure no issues or concerns exist, (4) On-site visits – are the key and confidential part of our judging process. Each finalist is visited by an on-site evaluator whose role is to assess the applicant, verify the claims made in the organisation’s initial application and identify any additional issues that add to or detract from the claims made by the organisation and compile a final report, (5) Winner selection – winner judges select the 5 winners (one in each category) based on all the documentation collected, including the on-site reports. The Awards’ judges are carefully selected, independent experts in the area of sustainable tourism coming from different professional backgrounds. The judges are selected on the basis of global geographical spread to ensure a balanced representation of the different regions. Our Lead Judge Professor Graham Miller who leads the judges, ensures that the rigour is maintained throughout the process. The integrity and transparency of the judging process is critical to the success of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards. All judges, individually and collectively, are expected to recognise the need on their part to be careful in avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest in fulfilling their responsibilities. Judges must recuse themselves from reviewing or discussing any Award applicant where such conflict may exist. Our sponsors support the programme and its existence through financial funds, but are not involved in the judging process in any way.

ECOCLUB.com: One of the distinguishing marks of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards are on-site visits. How do these on-site visits by judges actually work? A judge can surely spot a non-existent solar panel but can s/he fully and accurately verify intangible and qualitative elements in a short period of time?

Agata Zborowska: Each one of our shortlisted finalists is visited by an on-site evaluator whose role is to assess the applicant and verify claims mentioned in their original application form. It’s important to note that the role of the on-site evaluator is to enable the Winner Selection Committee judges to make a final decision regarding winners; onsite evaluators do not make any decision at this stage. Instead they conduct a review of the organisation via all documentation available and other secondary material, speak with both referees provided by the organisation, speak with suppliers, customers, residents, government officials and peers, visit the organisation’s headquarters to speak with staff with a range of seniority across different departments and visit the sites where the organisation operates, to later compile a final report which is handed to the Winner Selection Committee. While sustainability can often be imprecise and complicated, it is important to understand that applicants should be able to provide evidence of their claims and present them to the on-site evaluator. The on-site visits tend to be quite intensive, full on days over a period of 3-7 days (depending on the type and scale of a project) to allow the on-site evaluator to gather vast amount of information and speak to as many people (stakeholders, suppliers etc.) as possible to ensure that the report gives the most comprehensive overview of both tangible and intangible elements of a project/organisation. It is also worth noting that the on-site visits are usually very positive and reveal even more positive impacts of finalists work, than they have originally claimed in their applications!

ECOCLUB.com: Some green proponents hold the view that big, multinational tourism corporations and chains can be economically sustainable but not really environmentally or socially sustainable. On the other hand many smaller local outfits seem to face the opposite problem, as economic sustainability escapes them. What is your personal view?

Agata Zborowska: No two organisations are the same whether they are small or large, but certainly building a sustainable model for your business includes financial stability. Without the economic sustainability and advance planning, you simply cannot build a long-term successful business, especially if it involves, and affects, multiple stakeholders. That’s why monitoring and evaluation is so important in making positive change. We have seen a change in the importance of sustainability in tourism businesses over the last years, which is on the one hand driven by the acknowledgement of businesses to adopt sustainable business practices to be able to grow the business over the long term; on the other hand it is driven by the consumer, the traveller, that is becoming more environment conscious and starts favouring travel destinations and companies that can demonstrate that they are giving back to the community or nature through their business offerings.

ECOCLUB.com: What is your personal understanding / definition of what sustainable tourism is and what it is not. Should human rights and employee rights be included in Tourism Sustainability, or do you believe it should mostly stick to environmental impacts?

Climbing Cape Town's Table MountainClimbing Cape Town's Table MountainAgata Zborowska: To me sustainable tourism is tourism that acts as a force for good – brings economic, environmental, social, cultural benefits to the destination and businesses in that destination and engages tourists. To answer the second part of your question, environment is at the core of sustainable tourism, however humans have to be included in sustainable management of companies and at the destination level. People have the power to change things, for both themselves and for the environment which they are inevitably part of, whether they like it or not! I also personally don’t think that you can have sustainability without equality. How can a business or destination be sustainable if it excludes employees or residents from the process? Favouring one group of people over other? It’s simply not going to work in long term and that is not what a sustainable model is about. Sustainability is a term that does not only apply to environmental impacts but it also means giving back to communities, preserving local traditions and cultural heritage. The World Travel & Tourism Council acknowledges sustainability in Travel & Tourism through their Awards programme but also pushes for leadership for the future of the sector, which means responding to the demands of the increasing numbers of travellers in the face of shrinking natural resources; it reflects the needs of employees and destination communities – it is a vision that understands the need to balance people, planet and profit.

ECOCLUB.com: What is your evaluation of the progress of sustainable tourism In your native country Poland?

Agata Zborowska: As visitor arrivals to Poland have consistently grown over the recent years from 12.5 million in 2010 to 16 million in 2014, sustainability becomes increasingly important. However I feel that Poland is only slowly waking up to the need for sustainable tourism. Ironically, almost 50 years of communism, the ideology where ‘common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes’ is at the core, did not build a society where trust and collaboration is on the agenda. It did exactly the opposite. In sustainable tourism you need trust to build partnerships to make positive change. People and organisations in Poland still need to learn that working together and collaborating across administrative regions and between governmental agencies, non-profit organisations and businesses is the key to achieve sustainability. That is not to say there are no great, innovative projects in Poland and organisations working hard to make positive change and educate the country about all aspects of sustainable tourism.

ECOCLUB.com: Please tell us some more about these promising sustainable tourism projects in Poland and how can one visit them.

Agata Zborowska: Few examples from Poland include Bialowieza, The Biebrza Valley and Wetlands – Wildlife Sanctuary, both promoting conservation and preservation of species unique in this part of Europe, education of tourists and youth as well as community engagement, or The Silesian Tastes Trail which brought together variety of stakeholders from the Silesia region in southern Poland to help preserve old traditions, cultural heritage and unique cuisine. To get to the first two locations, you would need to fly to Warsaw and travel further east, The Silesian Trail is well connected with Katowice or Krakow airports nearby.

ECOCLUB.com: If you were to choose one favourite sustainable tourism example / case study in each of the countries where you have lived which one would it be and for what key reason?

Agata Zborowska: I lived in UK, US, Poland and Malaysia but I don’t really have a favourite example from these places. I have seen so many great Tourism for Tomorrow Awards winners and finalists over the years, each of them has an inspiring story to tell and I am not in a position to pick only one! For example all of our five 2015 winners are true change makers in their field, Reality Tours & Travel in India doing outstanding community work in Mumbai’s slum, Ljubljana in Slovenia being a great example of a sustainable city, Soneva Group based in Maldives & Thailand with their innovative approach to protecting environment & developing new ways to fight waste, ILUNION Hotels in Spain with their commitment to make tourism more accessible for both employees and tourists, and TripAdvisor with their large scale GreenLeaders programme. 

ECOCLUB.com: The deadline for the 2016 Awards has now passed. Do you have any reference material so that those who wish to apply for the next years awards can start preparing?

Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Ceremony 2015Tourism for Tomorrow Awards Ceremony 2015Agata Zborowska: The Tourism for Tomorrow Finalists for 2016 will be announced in mid-January 2016 with winners officially named during the prestige Awards Ceremony, part of WTTC’s Global Summit in Dallas, Texas on 7th of April 2016. More information about finalists will be included in the beginning of 2016 on the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards website: http://www.wttc.org/tourism-for-tomorrow-awards/ 

The next Awards edition will launch in September 2016. Potential applicants can:

 ECOCLUB.com: Thank you for your time and best wishes for your future work in sustainable tourism.