Q&A with CB Ramkumar, GSTC Board Member,  South Asia Director and Member of India Working Group (IWG)

GSTC-India Working Group Team Member, Freeda in a tête-à-tête with Ram about the future of GSTC-IWG as they celebrate one-year of the IWG and look forward to the promotion of Sustainable Tourism and Sustainability as a way of life for the tourism and hospitality ecosystem in India.

Freeda is also the Consulting Editor, Sustainable Tourism for Conscious Carma.

Q. What is sustainability, sustainable tourism to you?

Sustainability mirrors the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the subsequent guidelines in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are endorsed by all the countries around the world. Following the global guidelines from the UN, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) identified important directions for tourism. The guidelines list not just environmental sustainability, but Environmental, Social, Cultural and Economic sustainability. The whole idea is to ensure that tourism prospers as an industry. At times it is felt that Environment is all-pervading; but while it is important, it is not the only facet to focus on. For tourism to drive itself on the best path, the ‘four-pillar’ framework is important.

Environment, Economic, Social and Cultural sustainability aspects take us forward in an all encompassing and holistic way. If we look at the environment, it is not about just changing from a regular bulb to a LED. It is beyond that. When one looks at Economic sustainability, the focus is not only on the legality of the establishment, it is beyond that. Similarly social sustainability; incorporates within itself, local employment, and the commitment from the society/community around the tourism product. Resources for the ‘commons’ which will surely get used by the tourism product need to be done in a sustainable manner. It is the symbiotic relationship that matters.

If we look at cultural sustainability, it is involving the local community to showcase the local culture and the ‘mores’ and ‘folkways’ which then needs to be interpreted for guests to understand and take back as memories. The local cuisine, the food, and the gourmets’ delights, will surely add value to the destination and its people, the community who are an integral part of the tourism ecosystem… The fourth pillar, yes, is the Environment which by itself is a large pillar, and along with the other pillars of holistic sustainability, brings in the domain of sustainability. Sustainability builds business.” Sustainability is capable of building of adding value to the balance sheet. The perception that becoming sustainable is ‘expensive’ is a wrong perception. Sustainability builds business and this is the mantra that will help the tourism business to move ahead.

Q. What about the Tourism and Hospitality Industry, like FHRAI, IATO, TAAI and others their understanding of GSTC and Sustainability options?

Very pertinent question…we need to have conversations with the industry stakeholders and get them to understand the larger nuance of Sustainability, its cause, the impact. We at GSTC can help in this. The GSTC-IWG welcomes conversations with the industry bodies to help remove misperceptions surrounding sustainable tourism.

Q. I recently met with a faculty member of Tourism and Hospitality in a university and was stunned to see they were not aware of GSTC and its ideals. How should the outreach to Educational Institutions be structured by GSTC and the IWG?

This is another area that we need to proliferate. I was till recently a one-person army of GSTC in India. Now with three experts joining in; it is interesting to see, how we work out and ensure spreading awareness about sustainable tourism in general and the role that GSTC can play in this. I have tried my best to connect up with the Leading Tourism and Hospitality Higher Education Institutions in India, but have not been very successful. We want to work along with educational institutions and create sustainable tourism curriculum. The India Working Group (IWG) members are trained in the GSTC criteria, which will be able to share relevant information with stakeholders.

Q. What is the way forward for GSTC in India and the how will the India Working Group (IWG) forward the important agenda of GSTC, Sustainability and Sustainable Tourism? 

With the expansion of the team in India, we at IWG are hoping to engage with the Tourism and Hospitality ecosystem, to spread awareness of the role of GSTC to the stakeholders. The outreach needs to be stronger and we are working towards that now. The working group will help with the qualitative articulation of the GSTC ideals to the Indian Tourism and Hospitality ecosystem

Q. Do you think Certification should be voluntary and/or mandatory for the various constituents of the Indian Tourism and Hospitality scenario. How has the Federal/State Tourism structuring impacted the proliferation of Sustainable Tourism?

Mandates that force the private sector are undesirable. Certification decisions should be voluntary and the stakeholders should be made to understand the benefits that they will accrue over a period of time, for their own business first, and then for the region and country. Tourism is a state subject. But India, with its central federal structure, has responsibilities to give direction to the States. Part of the directions can be to incentivise certifications by the private stakeholders. The Gujarat Tourism draft policy for instance speaks of concessions for those who are certified by GSTC and GSTC equivalent certifications. The Indian Tourism Administrators and the Policy makers have made efforts; but the actual actions have not happened in the ground level. It is nice to see Sustainable Tourism being mentioned in the last three Tourism Policies in India. We are a large democracy with all our poverty alleviation priorities. But we now need the political will and start to focus on aspects of sustainability that concern the tourism industry. We at the GSTC-IWG are confident of that, though India has been a tough ride till now, India is a Culture rich country, and we are the cusp of global change, and we have the opportunity to catapult India to the top league of Sustainable Tourism.

Q. Certification, how does it work, if someone in India wants to go in for an Ecolabel? 

The first step is for organisations to go through the freely available GSTC criteria and start to comply with them. Once the enterprise feel ready, then they can approach a certifying body and start the process. The auditors will then come over to the enterprise and conduct their audit. If this is all satisfactory, then they move towards certifying the organisation. So the cost will depend on how ready the organisation is to ensure that the auditors spend very little time at the organisation during the audit.

Q. Benchmarking Sustainable Tourism in India; is it feasible or should India create an opportunity for itself and which would be the top-five countries that India can emulate?

India is a huge country and does not need benchmarks from other nations. We need to work and understand for ourselves and this will be the gamechanger that the world would have ever seen. We are still walking the baby steps, but we at GSTC are confident that we will realise the potential.

Q. What is one big advice for the travel and tourism fraternity? 

“Travel forever” is a mantra that we at GSTC follow. During Covid, the Foreign Travel Arrival (FTA) into India dropped to ‘zero,’. The post Covid India, is seeing a rise in domestic travel. Besides, more Domestic holiday makers are looking at Sustainable Options as per a Booking.com survey. Let’s then, speak about Sustainable Travel, and Travel Forever.

Read the interview in Conscious Carma Magazine, Volume 2 Issue 4 May-June 2022

Learn more about Sustainable Tourism