GSTC European Regional Meeting in Athens

Athens, Greece - 1 December 2016 ( The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) European Regional Meeting took place on 23-24 November in Athens. The historic Zappeion Conference & Exhibition Centre (built in 1888 for the first modern Olympics) next to the National Gardens was an inspiring venue for this high-level conference focusing on sustainability, which attracted over 200 participants, including many GSTC members, from 16 countries.

Presenters ranged from international household names like WWF and TUI, to up to date local government representatives and new local grassroots initiatives like the Paths of Greece, a social cooperative engaged in reviving Greece's old pathways. Presentations were also made by experts from leading ecocertification initiatives, recognised by or linked to GSTC including Travelife, Green Destinations, TourCert and FEE Green Key.

Luigi Cabrini, Chair of the GSTC Board of Directors opened the conference briefly explaining the need for sustainability and sustainability certification in tourism, also mentioning the example of overtourism in Barcelona.

Dimitris Malliaropoulos, Chief Economist of the Bank of Greece analysed the difficult few past years of the Greek economy as it contracted by 25% and proposed that the recovery strategy for Greece should prioritise sustainable tourism, rather than the traditional sun and sea model.

Gerasimos Damoulakis, Mayor of Milos island, and Head of the Tourism Group of the Central Union of Greek Municipalities, voiced strong support for the certification of tourism destinations and stressed that the needs and interests of the local community should not be ignored or displaced by tourism development. On a separate note, he tried to explain how Milos, a small island, is performing a balancing act between sustainable tourism and mining and has achieved full employment and quality of life in a country where official unemployment hovers around 23%.

Randy Durband, CEO of GSTC, analysed the general aims of GSTC, the progress of the GSTC Criteria for Hotels and Tour Operators and the Criteria for Destinations, the new Training programs as well as the aims of this conference. Following a question from the audience, he clarified that GSTC will be joining the ISEAL Alliance at some stage.

Tom Johnston of TUI Group stated that hotels that have certifications have higher customer satisfaction and that the multinational aims to request certification at some point from all of its suppliers. 

Professor Xavier Font made an interesting, live Skype presentation on marketing and communicating sustainability practices, cautioning against over-moralisation and moral licensing and creating guilt to one's guests.

Among many other interesting presentations, most which can be downloaded for free (see link at the end) was that by Fivos Tsaravopoulos, Manager of the Paths of Greece, a social cooperative enterprise dedicated to researching, reviving, repairing and promoting traditional footpaths in cooperation with local municipalities, throughout Greece.

The last panel, moderated by GSTC Board Member Dr Ioannis Pappas (and coordinator of the event along with Mr Roi Ariel, GSTC's Communications & Events Manager and Ms Victoria Zoina of Green Evolution), was arguably the most interesting as it discussed the practicalities and the progress of implementation of standards and certifications to destinations and enterprises.

Randy Durband's closing speech rewarded those who stayed until the very end, as he highlighted the need for cooperation, the usefulness of meeting face to face, and the humility which is required from all those involved in the sustainable tourism sector so as to progress towards all these lofty goals.

The event was attended by well-known ecotourism professionals including Mary Mulvey, CEO of Ecotourism Ireland and GSTC Country Representative in Ireland, Nikki Rose of Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries and Fouli Papageorgiou, Head of Prisma Centre for Development Studies and of the Greek Ecotourism Society. It was also encouraging to see many young students from BCA, a local hospitality college, who had come to learn about sustainability as well as assist with the event. The acoustics of Zappeion do need getting used to, but thanks to a novel interactive web app, Conferience, questions from the audience were efficiently gathered. 

The event’s carbon footprint was offset by the carbon offsetting sponsor Green Evolution SA, so as to turn this into a ‘carbon neutral event’ under the CO2 NEUTRAL SEAL scheme. During the event, usage of plastic was reduced to a minimum and excess buffet food was donated via the ‘We Can’ (Μπορούμε) organisation.

The event illustrated that there is an ever-growing supply of interconnected and sometimes competing sustainable tourism certification initiatives and a gradual, if rather slow increase in consumer recognition and demand for their services, including from some major tour operators. For its part, the GSTC seems to be making progress in terms of putting some order in this creative chaos. The provision of quality, transparent, honest and affordable ecocertification, as well as related training and information is of paramount importance for a genuine adoption, rather than co-option, of sustainable tourism by the mainstream tourism industry.

To download most of the presentations click here 

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