The Global Destination Sustainability Index:

Creating better places to live, meet and

thrive in


Sustainable Destination Management trends, best practices and insights

October 29, 2019

IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index

“In a time of rapid change, standing still is the most dangerous course of action.” - Brian Tracy



The rapid acceleration of global developments, be it demographic changes, technological innovation, or resource consumption, is creating a precarious future. To gain an overview is crucial, as standing still might be dangerous, but swimming in the wrong direction risks suicide. The Global Destination Sustainability Index (GDS-Index) has written its 2019 Whitepaper to help destinations around the world navigate the complexities of a rapidly changing terrain.


Sharing Success Stories in Times of Uncertainty


We need success stories to fuel a more sustainable future, and by collecting best practices from destinations around the world the GDS-Index is sharing how the tourism and events industry can contribute to a more regenerative world. In brief: The 50-page report created by the GDS-Index describes and analyses five Mega-Trends, four Key Building Blocks for success, and eight Tactics for Change, to frame how the events and tourism industry can, and needs to, move beyond ‘business-as-usual’.




The GDS-Index was inspired and cocreated by pioneering members of ICCA Scandinavia working with Guy Bigwood and MCI

IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index

As a performance improvement programme, the GDS-Index is currently supporting more than 50 destinations to lead the change. It has become clear that destination management organisations (DMOs) can act as transformational agents to create a more regenerative culture in their city. Through a destination wide approach, DMOs can catalyse action by soliciting and converting stakeholder input into a multi-year masterplan, and then facilitating the required collaboration to have that plan succeed.


As it stands, social inequalities are rising, environmental degradation is at an all-time high, and climate change is becoming increasingly disruptive. The melting of the arctic ice is going into overdrive, and we are on track to see temperatures increase 3-5C by the end of the century. This will increase the number of climate refugees to around 200 million by 2050 (UN, 2017), and devastate the global system of food production. The world population is projected to increase to 9.7 billion people by 2050 (UN, 2019). 97% of this growth will come from emerging or developing countries. In the next five years artificial intelligence, robots and technology will dramatically change how we work, play and organise events.


Moving Forward



We have to become better at recognising the changes that are required to create a regenerative, instead of a destructive future. Organisations that understand these colliding forces, and those that can build a business fit for the future will be more competitive, profitable, and leave a lasting legacy for society and the planet. Those that don’t adapt will fail. The bigger risk is that if we don’t change then we will all continue to race towards extinction. The tourism and events sector is placed in a pivotal position – we are not limited to one industry, but can serve as catalysts for positive change across all industries.


The remainder of this article will look the trends shaping the industry, and then propose a framework that destination management organisations (DMOs) can use to create a better, more sustainable, and regenerative future for their city.


IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index

Our World Is Transforming


Increasingly shaping the future of destinations and the world in profound ways are ‘megatrends’. The GDS-Index proposes that five of these megatrends are particularly relevant to cities, and that DMOs must better understand and react to these forces, in their destination’s development strategy.


Climate Breakdown


As scientific predictions about the human impacts on climate become more accurate, social movements are rising to demand that governments provide a safe pathway to stay below a temperature rise of 1.5C. As the business model of our industry is reliant on flying, a practice that contributes to more severe and frequent climate disruption, we have to actively reimagine the very foundations of our industry.





Demographic Shift



Social Change


It is also significant that people are living longer, and wealth inequality continues to be on the rise. For DMOs this could result in a shift of their target audience, and calls for ensuring a fairer distribution of income from the tourism and events industry for locals.






IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index

Building Blocks for a Better Future



“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”Warren Buffett



Given the sheer scale of ‘wicked problems’ such as pollution and ageing demographics, we often feel helpless when it comes to taking action. Nonetheless, it is crucial that we do, and in-line with Buffet’s words: it is even more important that the kind of action we take is appropriate for the problems and trends we are facing. This section will describe the four Building Blocks that Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) will have to use if they want to stop patching a chronically leaking boat, and instead design a new and more resilient vessel to navigate the complex currents of change.


Take the Lead


While assigning responsibility for complex problems is bound to be a complex matter, it is important to realise that we have to go beyond finger pointing. We have to take action. All top DMOs of the GDS-Index realised that they can and should play an active role in developing the environmental, social, and economic strategy of their municipality. Be it Goyang in South Korea, or Ljubljana in Slovenia, to be a successful and sustainable destination it is imperative to take the lead.


Integrate Sustainability into Core Business Strategy


Sustainability can no longer be viewed as a vehicle for promotion. Instead, sustainability needs to be embedded into the very core of a DMOs strategy. While the concept of sustainability is often convoluted, the key take-away is that all three bottom lines (economic, environmental, social) need to be considered. It is the systemic nature of sustainability which requires DMOs to think about how they can support the sustainability, and eventually the regeneration, of a society, economy, and the environment from the get-go, not as an afterthought. Gothenburg has been pioneering this approach, and is recognised as the overall leader of the GDS-Index.


Develop a Masterplan


Short term tactical initiatives that have little more than a PR focus are no longer good enough. True leadership for DMOs and other stakeholders can only stem from a forward-thinking strategy. In other words, we must develop a sustainability masterplan that can catalyse, accelerate, and inspire long-term positive change. This plan also needs to embed an iterative and reflexive process that will allow it to evolve beyond a 5-year vision. The ultimate goal is the creation of a clear roadmap to direct how an organisations’ practices can transform, while being responsive to the unpredictable future we are facing.


Become a Master of Collaboration


The complex processes that contribute to the creation of a sustainable destination require a close examination of the key industry stakeholders in a specific region. From locals to visitors, from business to civic actors, everyone that is affected and that influences the industry needs to be included in the process of building a more sustainable future. It is through systemic collaboration that expertise can be shared, awareness raised, and innovation fostered. It follows that in order to reimagine the industry through meaningful conversation, DMOs will have to master the skill of facilitation.


Tactics for Change



“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”Peter Drucker



Deciding on the right actions to take, solely using the four building blocks, can be challenging. For this reason, the GDS-Index has collected eight Tactics for Change from the success stories and best practices of its member destinations, three of which will be described here. These serve to showcase the innovative and forward-thinking achievements of our industry, and hope to inspire more DMOs to move beyond doing things right and to start doing the right things.


Promote the Food Revolution




IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index

Ljubljana: Locally Grown Food Exchange


The capital of Slovenia, and European Green Capital in 2016, realised that restaurants in the city were not using enough local produce. To tackle this issue, they started an initiative that brings together local suppliers (farmers, producers) and buyers (hotels, restaurants). Not only did this professionally moderated exchange facilitate inter-personal meetings, but it also created long-lasting relationships and produced a catalogue listing what local suppliers had on offer and what buyers needed. The Locally Grown Food Exchange started in 2018 and has now become a biannual event. It continues to grow in both participant number and the elements that it comprises – for example in January 2019 a monthly list of seasonal ingredients and the farmers that can supply them was created by Ljubljana’s Department of Environmental Protection.



IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index

Thailand: Tackling Food Waste


By building on the success of its Farm-to-Function programme, the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) developed a Food Waste Prevention programme to educate and encourage the Thai business events industry to reduce food wastage. Deeply aligned with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals it seeks to combat hunger, reduce waste, and mitigate climate change. This third party audited standard is articulated around nine key pillars that include policy, staff awareness, and the implementation of a food waste monitoring system. It has been piloted in 10 hotels so far, and already accumulated over 530,000 EUR in cost savings, and reduced carbon emissions by 383 tonnes.


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Incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)


The SDGs are more than a set of 17 goals – they represent a roadmap for the future that has been created in the biggest consultation of UN history, and emerged from the input of over 7 million individuals. While they are promoted as the most comprehensive attempt to steer the nations of the world towards a sustainable future, the SDGs also offer a systemic framework for guiding any entities actions, including those of DMOs. Through its diverse and holistic set of progress indicators, the SDGs allows us to effectively map current initiatives, improve our strategy, and measure our achievements.

IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index


In this tourism and events strategy, the core message is that tourism is not a goal in itself, rather, “tourism is a means to a sustainable end”. The entire strategy has been built upon the structure offered by the SDGs, with the added benefit being that this structure also serves as a tool for measuring success. By inviting all of Copenhagen’s events and tourism stakeholders, from hotels and event organisers to NGOs and universities, the voices of the entire value chain were listened to in a holistic fashion.


Copenhagen gained second place in the GDS-Index last year, and this strategy has played a crucial role in their success. Through its efforts, and by using the SDGs as a framework, it has now become a destination that attracts people and conventions for being a sustainability champion.


Measure your footprint and set science-based reduction targets


The profound impact the tourism and events industry can have on a city, a region, and the entire world, is becoming more and more visible: be it the mountains of waste left behind after an event; the carbon emissions of flights; or cities suffering from over-tourism. We have to become better at measuring our current footprint, project this into the future, and with a 5 to 10-year strategy guide future developments. Making informed decisions, based on scientific-research, will be the only way we can create effective initiatives to reduce the negative impacts of our industry on both planet and people.


IMAGE: Global Destination Sustainability Index

Sydney: A Roadmap for becoming a Sustainable Destination


The creation of Sydney’s 5-year strategy, “Making Sydney a Sustainable Destination”, developed from a comprehensive analysis of the entire city. By conducting intensive research, the hospitality sector was identified as having both the largest impact and the largest capacity for change. More specifically, it found that the hospitality sector is currently responsible for 21% of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions, 14% of water consumption, and 47% of the city’s commercial waste. Using this scientific data clear actions and targets were identified and integrated into Sydney’s strategy. The strong foundation that was created by meticulous research, also resulted in the creation of the “Sustainable Destination Partnership” which brought together 40 industry stakeholders to collaborate and ensure the strategy’s success.




Sustainable destinations are better destinations. They aim to create a regenerative future by thinking holistically, and involving all stakeholders in a transparent process. Case studies, like the Food Waste Prevention Programme of TCEB, highlight that being a sustainable destination does not have to cost more. But, leaving a worthwhile legacy for future generations has no price, and it is high time for destinations to realize their pivotal role in shifting the current unsustainable trajectory of global developments. By understanding the Megaforces that shape our industry, adopting fundamental Building Blocks for success, and adjusting the eight Tactics for Change to fit their unique context, DMOs can leave behind a worthwhile legacy for generations to come. However, simply removing straws is not enough - a major redesign of the industry and its operations is required.





To read about the five Tactics for Change not covered in this article, and peruse the Whitepaper in more detail, you can download it for free by following this link:









Noah Joubert is a Sustainability Associate, and Guy Bigwood the Managing Director, of the Global Destinations Sustainability Index.


The mission of the GDS-Index is to engage, inspire and enable destinations to become more sustainable places to visit, meet and thrive in.


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