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Expert Essay
Collaboration: Building Partnerships for Innovation and Success

How can collaboration and partnerships support the shift to sustainability? Consider the role of public private partnerships to promote innovation and overcome barriers to entry and/or regional collaboration as a mechanism to reduce risk? What are examples of success?

Melinda Watt
Melinda Watt
Vice President Relationship Management & Chief Scientist, EarthCheck

In the spirit of reconciliation, EarthCheck acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. EarthCheck recognises the Turrbal and Jagera people as the Traditional Owners of the lands at South Bank, where our headquarters are located. The region of South Brisbane, including Musgrave Park, is culturally significant to Indigenous Australians and was frequently used as a meeting place for visiting peoples from north and south of Meeannjin (Brisbane River).

About EarthCheck

EarthCheck is the world’s leading business advisory group specialising in sustainability and destination management for the travel and tourism industry. EarthCheck’s holistic approach to responsible tourism and its world-leading science enables destinations and operators to benchmark and certify their performance with confidence.

Through its Total Tourism Management™ platform, EarthCheck collaborates with clients to help plan for the future and guide the design, construction and operation of intelligent buildings and the responsible management of tourism destinations[1].

Collaboration: Building partnerships for innovation and success

EarthCheck is the world’s leading scientific and environmental benchmarking, certification and advisory group for the travel and tourism industry. For over 30 years, we have worked with leading research centres and universities worldwide to address the key sustainability and climate change issues facing tourism destinations, communities and enterprises. EarthCheck believes that what can be good for business can be good for the planet.

EarthCheck science and research, including our sustainability standards, were initially developed by the Australian government’s Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism (CRCST), established in 1997.

The objective of the CRCST was to undertake research and deliver knowledge and tools to inform policy and planning to support sustainable tourism businesses and destinations. To achieve this objective, the centre participated in extensive stakeholder consultation to frame three core research and development themes:

  1. Tourism planning and environmental management: The objective was to enhance quality tourism products, reduce compliance costs, ensure the sustainability of ecological and heritage values and deliver increased economic, social and cultural benefits to the community.
  2. Tourism technology, engineering and design: The objective was to develop cost-effective, low-impact technologies and engineering solutions for tourism developments and enhance travel and tourism competitiveness through better application of information technology.
  3. Tourism policy, products and business: The objective was to provide the research foundation for the strategic development of tourism in tourism markets, strategic marketing, impact assessment policy and planning frameworks and strategic management.

In the race to meet global climate targets, momentum is gathering. More and more organisations worldwide must communicate their climate impact and commitments to reduce it. Communicating effectively demonstrates compliance with national and international regulations and shows foresight and increased ambition. Well-managed and innovative engagement strategies can strongly influence an organisation’s image and brand. Still, above all, it is a powerful driver of change. Raising awareness, fostering partnerships and sharing innovative climate solutions can lead to real and lasting change.

Similarly, engaging the public and other stakeholders through responsible practices can contribute to your climate efforts’ success. Effective engagement fosters dialogue and unites people around the common goal of preserving our ecosystems’ climate and biodiversity.

Climate ambitions and actions are heterogeneous across organisations, sectors and geographical areas without commonly agreed-upon, standard definitions of, say, carbon neutrality or net zero at a corporate or organisational level. As a result, the language used to talk about climate commitments and actions is often highly technical, sometimes imprecise and even misleading. Therefore, the challenge is to be technically correct, accurate, and consistent with the latest climate science while being accessible to your stakeholders.

The next few years cannot be treated as business as usual. They herald a new period where societal, economic and environmental uncertainty and disruption have become the norm. It is now clear that regional and global climate change is a reality. Still, some other hazards and vulnerabilities need to be factored into our business plans. Standard operating procedures are now required to manage risk, build resilience and factor in adaptation and recovery responses.

With the gradual easing of travel restrictions worldwide, people will once again start to leave their homes in search of reconnection with the outside world and their own re-creation. Given that international travel will remain constrained for a considerable period (two to three years), local and domestic tourism will provide the green shoots in a post-COVID-19 environment. While it can be expected that people will initially start travelling to sites closer to home, as the broader economy opens up, this will gradually extend to longer day trips, overnight stays and extended breaks.

Our current research indicates that hygiene, general visitor safety and cleanliness will be front and centre for all destinations, precincts and businesses in the next months as we move into a reset-and-recover phase. Spending time with family and friends will increase in importance, and visiting them will be a key motivator for travel. The great outdoors are likely to boom as travellers shift their preferences and avoid crowded places, while enjoying the benefits of nature on mental health.

It is now clear that after COVID-19, the conscious consumer will begin to scrutinise every aspect of a destination, business and supply chain. Some organisations will genuinely achieve these aims, others will falsely claim they have and some will simply not care. Some would like to but don’t know how. One way of rewarding the businesses or destinations that truly comply with these goals is by giving them credible (independent) third-party recognition.

At its core, certification is a way of ensuring that an activity or a product meets certain standards. In the tourist industry, different organisations have developed certification programs measuring various aspects of tourism: (a) quality, for the entire tourist industry, (b) sustainability, also for all sectors, (c) ecotourism, for sustainable tourism that takes place in natural, protected or fragile ecosystems, and (d) health and hygiene, also for all sectors.

Certification sets standards and helps distinguish genuinely sustainable (and/or hygienic) tourism businesses from others that make claims that cannot be substantiated or merely indicate a desire to act in a specific way. This helps to protect the integrity of these concepts.

Certification is not an end in itself. It is one of several tools for motivating businesses and others to improve their environmental, social and economic performance. The rewards it offers them are sometimes tangible and sometimes not.

Our experience has shown that certification has helped many businesses improve. Undertaking a certification process is educational. Many certified businesses have stated that one of the greatest benefits of the certification process was to teach them the elements of sustainability (risk, resilience and hygiene included) in their operations and focus their attention on the changes they needed to make. A successful company tends to be more efficient and attract more clients. Certification is also reported to lead to more engaged and supportive employees.


‘Having a reliable environmental management system helps us to benchmark against global businesses, and sustainable projects are highly valued by tourists.’

—Fabian Arriaga, operations director, Alltournative


Alltournative is a specialist tour operator guiding ecological and adventure expeditions throughout the Riviera Maya in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The company began its sustainable journey with EarthCheck in 2012. Its dedicated team fosters an appreciation of the Mayan peoples and their unique cultures, ensuring that visitors act responsibly and respect the local communities and natural environment. By genuinely promoting the natural treasures of Mexico and establishing authentic programs for cultural and ecological preservation, Alltournative is committed to achieving economic and sustainable development for local communities.

Enhancing the development of Mayan communities in the region has helped local people transition from subsistence agriculture to generating a more sustainable income. Alltournative hires 100 percent of its staff from the local community, and 100 percent of service contracts are awarded to local contractors. In addition, Alltournative purchases perishable goods solely from local producers. These strategies benefit local communities, inject economic value into the region and boost its growth.

Alltournative also encourages local Mayan communities to embrace their ancestral heritage. Providing employment opportunities and engaging with local adolescents has helped minimise migration to major cities for work and the possibility of cultural dissolution.

Indeed, numerous forms of ‘rethinking’ tourism and its purposes have been proposed over the last few years. Slower, more purposeful tourism and ensuring that tourists pay their fair share of the direct and indirect costs it generates are under consideration in numerous jurisdictions. For tourism, important new paradigms, including restorative and regenerative tourism, need to be seen in the context of longer-standing sustainability initiatives. These, in turn, must sit within the broader context of all human activity and speak to more comprehensive sustainability goals.

At the destination level, there is an increased focus on destination management and the integration of tourism with agendas for local development and well-being. At the core of this are essential questions about the key indicators to measure tourism’s impacts. Following the Brundtland (UN-commissioned) report Our Common Future, sustainability became a clarion call across all resource sectors, including tourism[2]. Many would argue that sustainability has become a rhetorical term and has failed to attract real attention. Notwithstanding, as human-induced environmental pressures have become more pressing, the existential goals of living ‘within planetary boundaries’ have been manifest in ways that focus on the need to ‘restore’ past damage and ‘regenerate’ natural systems. It would be easy to get lost in the language of ‘sustain: restore: regenerate’, but we should note that these are largely expressions of the need to draw only on a sustainable harvest of natural capital, to step beyond immediate needs and give back to (restore) natural capital and ecosystem services.

Over time, there has been an increasing focus on human-centred pressures, especially as the global community seeks more significant development equity. Several commentators argue that biodiversity and human development goals are the ‘iceberg’ sitting below the current climate crisis. Underpinning this is the pressing need (heightened by the ongoing COVID pandemic) to rebuild relationships between humans and the environment, reaffirming the anthropological paradigm that humans exist and progress by living within nature’s limits rather than dominating them. It is through these broadening goals that we at EarthCheck continue to evolve our indicators.


‘The journey with EarthCheck began in 2003 when we started the process to become an environmentally certified and more sustainable community. Our work with EarthCheck gave us a head start to focus on sustainable destination management using quality control, discipline and compliance as tools.’

—Guðrún Magnúsdóttir, Project Manager, West Iceland Nature Research Center


Snæfellsnes is a 90-kilometre-long peninsula located in western Iceland. Recognised for its natural beauty and diversity, Snæfellsnes is a surreal combination of spectacular mountains, towering waterfalls, sandy beaches and friendly communities. The Snæfellsjökull glacier-capped volcano is the jewel in the crown. It is a magical place woven in history, enchantments and Icelandic sagas—the focus of Jules Verne’s science fiction novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth and, more recently, a backdrop in the Game of Thrones series. Iceland has captured the imagination of many a traveller as a mythological destination that offers deep connections and rich experiences, a holiday with lasting impact!

Snæfellsnes became the first EarthCheck Sustainable Destination in Europe and, in 2018, achieved EarthCheck Platinum Certification. This milestone marked 10 continuous years of measuring and managing greenhouse gas emissions, energy, waste and water consumption, and social impact.

Determined to preserve natural and cultural assets, address local community issues and enhance well-being, the Snæfellsnes municipalities of Eyja-og Miklaholtshreppur, Helgafellssveit, Grundarfjarðarbær, Snæfellsbær and Stykkishólmsbær, together with the Snæfellsjökull National Park, established a shared policy of sustainable development to invest in people and training, as well as economic and social infrastructure.

Affectionately known as ‘Iceland in a nutshell’, Snæfellsnes is a traveller’s dream, with breath-taking scenery and a sparse population of 4,000 people. Life centres around fishing, agriculture and tourism; however, 80 percent of businesses acknowledge that tourism is their primary source of income. In 2018, the number of tourists was double the local Icelandic population. The Snæfellsnes community knows that tourism can be detrimental if not carefully managed.

Since Snæfellsnes joined the EarthCheck Sustainable Destinations program, the local community has played a key role in the area’s sustainability journey. ‘In the beginning, we had to convince the community to be more aware and involved in our projects’, says Project Manager, West Iceland Nature Research Center, Guðrún Magnúsdóttir. ‘Nowadays, thanks to increased global awareness and the reach of our sustainability program, more local businesses, organisations and individuals want to be involved and have started their own environmental initiatives.’

The local workforce, community services and natural resources are a priority for the municipalities—protecting cultural heritage and the individuality of each community and promoting job opportunities and local businesses. Working closely with stakeholders has ensured a more collaborative process and respect for laws and regulations regarding resource control.


Communication is instrumental for community engagement to enhance relationships, educate tourists, reduce waste, conserve water and save energy. As Magnúsdóttir  puts it, ‘We’ve learned that one of the best ways to reach our goals in most of our key performance areas is with social and cultural management—the best way to see positive development in our indicators is with outreach. Which is challenging, but nevertheless effective.’

In an important sense (and the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated this), tourism is but one sector within a larger socioeconomic context. Tourism’s goals are now being challenged to address more than sustainable harvest, to ‘give back’ (restore or regenerate) environmentally and socially. Tourism is uniquely placed to advance this goal. When grounded in the nexus of people and places within a framework of a ‘duty of care’ befitting host-guest relationships, rich natural and cultural experiences can be the cornerstone of more purposeful tourism experiences.


[1] EarthCheck home page, earthcheck.org.

[2] World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: United Nations, 1987).







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