GSTC Progress Indicators



The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) are an effort led by a coalition of more than 30 diverse organizations and businesses to come to a common understanding of sustainable tourism, and will be the minimum that any tourism business should aspire to reach. The Criteria were developed over a nearly two-year period with the input of the world’s leading tourism experts, academics, and members of the private sector, through an extensive public consultation process.

The resulting set of 37 criteria is organized around four main themes:

•    effective sustainability planning;
•    maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community;
•    enhancing cultural heritage;
•    and reducing negative impacts to the environment.

Although the criteria are initially intended for use by the accommodation and tour operation sectors, they have applicability to the entire tourism industry, and many of the indicators are applicable to other sectors.

The criteria indicate what should be done, not how to do it or whether the goal has been achieved. The indicators in this document are recommendations about ways of measuring compliance with the criteria. They are not the only ways of measurement, but are designed as a basic set of parameters that can be applied in most places in the world in most circumstances. In many cases, they may need to be adapted to regional differences and industry sectors. Nevertheless, insofar as these indicators can be used as a rough worldwide baseline, it will be possible to compare performance among businesses and regions.

This overview includes general background and information regarding indicators and indicator development, focusing on a set of draft indicators.  It does not include several important related topics including guidance documents, best practices and benchmarking. Guidance notes listing recommended best practices for specific indicators as well as more specific instructions on the sustainability issues are being developed by the GSTC Partnership committee specifically devoted to the creation of educational tools and resources. Benchmarking is briefly outlined below and best practice benchmarks for the indicators from existing programs and systems will be included as future guidance documents are developed.  Because tools for monitoring and evaluation (analysis) are critical for indicator data to become knowledge, the GSTC Partnership is exploring various self-assessment solutions to assist Criteria users and should be available before the end of 2009.

The indicators presented here are not meant to be the definitive set or all-inclusive, but provide a solid sample set for users of the GSTC in developing their own indicator sets.  The end of the document contains a glossary of terms, specifically explanations of terms which have a subjective meaning and may vary by geography or have different implications based on the institution to which they apply.

The Indicators for the GSTC

Rationale for Indicators

Specific knowledge is required to understand the link between tourism activities and its effects on the natural, built, sociocultural, and economic surroundings. By collecting and using data based on this knowledge, changes can be monitored and decisions made, to reduce risks to the business and the destination. 

Benefits of good indicators :

  • Better decision making thereby lowering risks and related costs
  • Clearer identification of emerging issues allowing for proactivite prevention
  • Quicker identification of negative impacts allowing for corrective action
  • Better evaluation of business’ progress and performance
  • More informed implementation of plans and management activities
  • Reduced risk of planning mistakes due to better identified limits and opportunities
  • Increased external accountability
  • Increased opportunities for continuous improvement

The indicators presented here are not meant to be the definitive set or all inclusive, but provide a solid sample set for users of the GSTC criteria in developing their own indicator sets.  Although busy executives and managers wish for a simple universal set, this is almost impossible because of the purpose and nature of indicators. As mentioned above, indicators must frequently be adapted to local conditions and industry sectors. Water conservation and re-use, for example, is critical in desert areas, but may have little importance in rainforests. Thermal insulation and heating efficiency is critical for energy use in temperate and boreal areas, but is less important in the tropics. The requirements for a large 5-star resort may differ from those for a 2-room family-owned bed and breakfast. Nevertheless, the basic principles of the indicators are universal and only require local and sector adaptation. 


Indicators are simply bits of data that signal (or indicate) progress (or lack thereof) towards objectives.  Thus, the selection of the indicator for a specific criterion depends directly on the objectives.  These in turn are determined in terms of many other factors such as geography, size, and/or location.  

Indicators must be developed with the input of the stakeholders for whom they are intended. Indicators can be defined in different scales based on their purpose: geographical (local, national, regional) spatial (short medium and long terms); type (quantitative/qualitative or performance/process), pressure/state response, and others.  Thus, it is important that the indicators have an explicit, defined purpose, scope, and set of users that is communicated as a whole to internal and external stakeholders.

For the GSTC indicators, the scope is defined as large and small hotels and tour operators in developed and developing countries, urban and rural settings, over the long term. Obviously some criteria – and thus the associated indicators – may only be applicable in specific cases. For example, a large hotel in the center of Paris is not likely to need a code of conduct for indigenous peoples or have much interaction with pristine natural areas. However most of the criteria and most of the indicators will be applicable in a wide variety of settings and conditions.

Purpose of the GSTC Indicator Set:

  • Synthesize indicators from existing sustainable tourism initiatives, including certification and verification programs, and national and international frameworks.
  • Provide GSTC users sample indicator sets to be adapted to meet their specific objectives.

Scope of the GSTC Indicator Set:

  • Balanced and comprehensive coverage of the 4 Pillars of Sustainable Tourism
  • Not all-encompassing and should be supplemented by other management tools
  • All indicators are either process or performance based

Users of the GSTC Indicator Set:

  • Primary users are large and small hotels and tour operators in developed and developing countries, in urban and rural settings, inclusive of additional stakeholders with different informational needs.

The following criteria have been considered in developing the indicators:

  • A simple measure on the GSTC using SMART principles∗: a balance of measurable and credible indicators which are also simple enough to be achievable.  Overly complicated or technical indicators are not only difficult for users to understand and interpret, but are also not very effective in communications.
  • Currently in use by sustainability initiatives including sustainable tourism projects, certification programs, verification programs, UNWTO, Global Reporting Initiative and many others
  • Ability to use as benchmarks for comparison over time
  • Ability to use in ratios, such as per guest night, per sales or turnover, etc.


It is critical to test indicators ahead of time from the communications perspective to ensure that what is collected will be easily communicated, understood and have communications impact. 

The communications strategy for the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) indicators must be thoroughly planned during the initial stage of any strategy. Organizations, programs and other stakeholders should ask the following questions:

  • What will the results sound like?
  • How will the data be used?
  • Who will the results be communicated to and will they understand the terms and definitions?
  • Will all of the information be available to make a convincing and credible case to the target audience?
  • When and how often should the results be communicated?

These issues should be resolved at the inception of any M&E program because once the data is collected necessary information, scope, specificity or scale may be missing and it may be too late to adapt the results to answer any of the above questions. The reporting data may be too technical for the audience or, conversely, too general to be useful.


Benchmarking in this context is the comparison of a business’s performance in a given area (such as water consumption) with those of similar businesses. Benchmarking permits identifying the best industry practices at a given moment.  The GSTC indicator set is not intended for benchmarking.  However, it is recognized that benchmarking is an important management tool.

“Many of the world’s highest ranked companies regardless of industry, continuously benchmark themselves against competitors and peers from other sectors. Why? Because this helps fuel their drive for continuous improvement. Not only does it help by indicating how efficient and how effective you are compared to your peers, but it also focuses you on how you could be even better.” - Even Frydenberg, Vice President of Sixsigma Europe, Africa and Middle East, Starwood Hotels and Resorts

Benchmarking is a standard by which something can be measured or judged and allows a company to compare itself against others in its industry sector. By aggregating current standards, it thus monitors its own improvements over time to focus priorities or communicate good (or bad) practices. While indicators are the basic tool for benchmarking, the data points of measurements that they produce will supply measurement not just for the individual organizations but against some goal or standard. 

Why benchmark?

  • Contributes to improved use of resources
  • Focuses management on processes that may be falling below industry average or represent a disadvantage to the company
  • Indicates areas of comparative advantage that may be used for marketing
  • Lowers costs by assessing effective cost-saving techniques and technologies that will help improve performance.
  • Maintains a businesses’ performance level above minimums indicated in impending legislation and prevents regulation penalties
  • Improves staff morale by showing concrete examples of improvement as a result of invested time, energy, and resources
  • Reduces manpower and operating costs
  • Helps control costs and manage risk through the identification of liabilities and weaknesses

There are numerous attempts to use benchmarking processes to compare sustainable tourism operations, assess best practices, and identify best-in-class. However there are relatively few fully fledged sustainable tourism “benchmarking programs” – a tool or service designed to provide information on a relevant indicator of environmental (or occasionally social) performance that takes into account the specific sector of the tourism industry or the operating (environmental or political) climate.  The best known international benchmarking programs for tourism are TourBench ( and EarthCheck (, although other national and local initiatives exist.  TourBench is free of charge, whereas EarthCheck is based on an annual fee.

Most other tourism benchmarking programs tend to be focused almost solely on the accommodation sector (particularly large hotels) and are dominated by western standards (developed world) or upper star ratings (e.g. Hilton and Scandic’s HER system, Benchmarkhotel system). Many of the benchmarking programs are internal tools only used within a hotel chain (Intercontinental group, Accor, Fairmount, Westin, Starwood etc.), and information on the “standard” or type of data collected is not publicly accessible or available. 

Benchmarks in the tourism sector are currently available for:

  • Electricity and energy consumption in kilowatt hours (kWh) per square metre of serviced space.
  • Fresh water consumption in litres or cubic metres (m3) per guest per night.
  • Waste production (kilograms per guest night and/or litres per guest night).
  • Progress in converting CFC-using refrigeration and air conditioning equipment as a percentage of total equipment.
  • Waste water quality for hotels that treat their own waste water, using either Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) or Total Suspended Solids (TSS) of the treated waste water.




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