Ronald Sanabria, Rainforest Alliance

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Ronald Sanabria. Photo: Ezequiel Becerra

Ronald Sanabria, leads the Rainforest Alliance's sustainable tourism programme, representing them at multiple forums including Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the UN. He was also featured in Condé Nast Traveler’s “Power Issue” as one of the 10 most influential guardians of sustainable tourism. In light of this month's theme on destinations, we thought we'd pick his brains about the state of sustainable tourism...

Tell us a bit about your current role in the Rainforest Alliance? 

I lead the Rainforest Alliance´s sustainable tourism program, which mainly works with tourism businesses and destinations, as well as governmental institutions, in capacity building projects. We have come to realize that one of the main bottlenecks in furthering sustainability efforts is lack of access to information and know-how. So, we are determined to help bridge that as much as we can. Some examples of the projects I am managing now include a partnership with the Costa Rican System of Conservation Areas to help provide training to their staff as well as communities neighboring ten key national parks so they can provide environmentally responsible services to tourists visiting such parks. Another example is working with several governmental agencies and local organizations in assisting community based operations in Oaxaca, Mexico, implement sustainability practices and get better connected to the market place. And another examples is working with the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute to insert sustainability aspects in its national strategic development plan. So, a wide range of exciting projects!

Why does the Rainforest Alliance think it's important to work with the tourism industry?

We are committed to biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods by transforming the way specific sectors use the land and natural resources, the way they do business and the way we all behave as consumers. In other words, we have a very pragmatic, market-based approach to conservation. About 15 years ago we decided to launch a program in tourism because of the importance this industry has in many of the places where we want to fulfill our mission. Tourism has become one of the top industries in many countries, primarily developing ones, where nature can be protected and people can benefit from environmentally and socially sound tourism development. Today, more than 3.3 million hectares of forests and other important ecosystems are better protected  through the efforts of many companies and governmental agencies involved in our programs. But very importantly, sustainable tourism can bring needed resources to communities that are committed to keeping their forests standing and their wildlife safe but need to make a living! If it wasn´t because of tourism, we probably would not have many of the protected destinations we have today.

For us, travel and tourism also represent a vehicle to educate and raise awareness among consumers. When you travel you become aware of many issues that you might take for granted back home. I have personally come to appreciate even more the natural wonders that my home country (Costa Rica) and neighbouring ones have by visiting places and learning about the treasures we must protect. Tourism, practiced right, can help educate people about becoming more conscientious consumers and better world citizens.

What are the biggest challenges when working with tourism and sustainability?

Some of the main challenges facing the sustainable tourism industry today are:

  • The industry is focused on measuring the number of arrivals to destinations and jobs created, rather than the sustainability of the tourism resources or the number of local jobs created and amount of community income generated.
  • Destinations are often negatively affected by visitation rather than positively affected (precisely because of the wrong metrics to measure success).
  • Government tourism plans in many cases also lack metrics, or the enforcement and incentives for sustainability.
  • The industry is fragmented and stakeholders are not necessarily working together to create a shared, bold agenda.
  • Despite the many examples of the impacts of unsustainable tourism development around the globe, the patterns continue to repeat over and over.  It is like we cannot learn from the headaches others have gone through…
  • There seems to be a perceived notion of never-ending supply of destinations and attractions so key players are not necessarily committed to the sustainability of the destination where they operate at a particular point in time. In other words, many companies will not commit to the long-term vision that sustainable development requires. Some come in, take as much as they can and leave to the next best destination in line. That cannot continue happening.

In your many years of experience, how are these challenges best overcome? 

We need to join forces and stop working separately. We need to recognize that sustainability in tourism can be complex and we need many different areas of expertise and decision-makers from different sectors (industry, governments, NGOs, academics, media) to interact in order for solutions to take place. Businesses and in some cases countries, need to put aside their individual competitiveness strategies to focus on working jointly for the welling of the destinations where they operate. When that happens, the sustainability agenda moves forward faster. For example, our Sustainable Tourism Program has humbly helped to address and mitigate some of these challenges by contributing to the development of the following:

  • Global criteria for sustainable tourism that are now being used by hundreds of businesses and governments worldwide.
  • A Global Sustainable Tourism Council that recognizes standards and accredits certification programs.
  • Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability (TOPS), a network of tour operators that are working to promote sustainable tourism practices throughout Latin America.
  • Sustainable management plans on a national level in countries such as Nicaragua and on a site-specific level for locations such as the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru.
  • Access to know-how and exchanges among more than 7,000 tourism entrepreneurs in Latin America.

What are your top three sustainable tourism initiatives?

That is the most difficult question! I literally have dozens of examples from companies, colleague NGOs and government agencies that have inspired me over the years. Even though our work has focused in Latin America, I would not be able to pinpoint just three. However, I have to say that I am very proud of the progress countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico and Nicaragua have made in embracing a long-term sustainability agenda in tourism. Then you have very specific examples from companies and destinations trying to making a difference (see

How has sustainable tourism changed in the last 5/ 10 years?

One of the main changes that I have seen is that the sustainability agenda that a decade ago was primarily seen among small ecotourism companies operating in the middle of the rainforest and a handful of countries, for instance, is now being embraced by mainstream businesses, governments and the media. You can now literately see sustainability programs/actions everywhere; from CSR efforts at a company level, to strategic national plans that embrace sustainability principles, to UN declarations like the Rio+20 adding language on sustainable tourism. Another important change is the access to information about what is happening in every corner of the world thanks to social media. Any bad or good news about tourism-related developments can quickly travel really far, which I believe is now starting to lead us into more consumer awareness.

What is the future of sustainable tourism? 

It will become the norm rather than the exception. We have a while to go but we will get there. Hopefully it will not be too late for the wellbeing of many destinations that desperately need help. I believe consumers will get to understand what is truly at stake and will act on it. That is now being facilitated by the growing access to information via Internet and social media. Such consumer awareness might be the push we need in order to accelerate the efforts many companies, governments and NGOs are pursuing.  I also think we will see more consolidation and alliances between sustainably programs. Good examples are ITP, the Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism (GPST) and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). And hopefully better measurements of success!

What top tips would you give to hoteliers looking to become more sustainable?

  • Open your doors to partnerships. Other share your concerns and are willing to help.
  • Recognize the role you have in enabling change, even when local circumstances play against you.
  • Invest in providing training on sustainable practices to your staff.
  • Don’t limit your measurements of success to the traditional financial bottom-line. Measure the true impact of your operation has if you want to remain competitive and sustain your business over the long run. And then use those measures to retrofit your plans and actions.
  • Share, share, share what you have learned with others. Think that if others in your destination do well, everybody will be better off.
  • Join organizations that can help you access new information or help you disseminate what you have learned.
  • Be creative in terms of marketing! A bit of fun rather than guilt-charged explanations about sustainability can go a long way and convince many more consumers.
  • Enjoy the journey and aim at a bit more each time, so we can continue learning and moving forward.

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2 Responses to Ronald Sanabria, Rainforest Alliance

  1. Pingback: Interview with Ronald Sanabria, Rainforest Alli...

  2. Very insightful, thanks. Spot on both the call for collaboration among countries, and that sustainability is slowly but steadily become mainstream. Just yesterday we published a post on sustainability at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, which shows just how seriously even major hotel corporations now take the sustainability issue.

    And of course the Good Country Index by Simon Anholt manifests the growing awarness and pressure for government collaboration, moving beyond domestic policies. This is especially important for tourism.

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