Myth or true: Following safety protocols will transform tourism operations less sustainable


Recently, I had the opportunity to see how safety protocols changed the tourist experience. I confess that, I had mixed feelings about that (sometimes feelings safe; sometimes felling at risk everywhere I went; feeling bad with generation of waste; feeling protected because my room wasn’t clean every day and at the same time bothered by all garbage accumulating day by day in the room. This situation made my think about the relation between safety protocols and sustainability.

Well, we have a new context, which called for new procedures and therefore generating new impacts. I’ve heard that safety protocols are not sustainable, because Hotels are now using more plastic and cleaning products for sanitizing surfaces.

When, we think about consumption of plastic to protect food or objects in accommodation establishments it’s refers a new procedure adopted and of course we can see that are more plastic being used, as plastic films or new packages than before. But in this case, is relevant to guarantee that consumption of plastic will really protect the guests and not used it just to give a perception of protection. According UNWTO, “Plastic film is not a sanitization measure in and of itself. If the wrapped-up remote control is touched by a member of staff who has not cleaned their hands, this could become a point of transmission of COVID-19:

  • Instead of wrapping in plastics, all items available for guests to use should be properly sanitized.
  • Equally, clear procedures should be developed to ensure that staff avoid touching any objects such as remote controls with unsanitized hands.
  • As a plus, this will avoid the need to properly dispose of the plastic film, which is a nonrecyclable plastic material.
  • Where items must be wrapped in plastic, these too need to be sanitized.”

But are the Hotels being more or less sustainable? Let’s reflect together about that.

First of all, safety is part of sustainability, including all kind of health risks and to prevent them is part of sustainability approach for all tourism enterprises that want be sustainable. Also, the government measures are very important. Nowadays, more than ever, tourism sector needs to move forward together adopting safety measures in compliance with laws and guidelines to prevent COVID 19.

ISO 21401 – Sustainability Management System for Accommodation Establishments contain a set of aspects, for all dimensions of sustainability. One of them is Health and safety of guests and workers, which describe “Accommodation Establishments shall implement procedures for continuous risk identification, risk assessment and the implementation control measures.”

How to recover tourism sustainably

Secondly, it is important to understand how sustainability works! The tourism activities have aspects, characteristics such as: consumption of water, guest satisfaction or local community. These aspects produce a several different impacts and risk and opportunities too. This is a dynamic process that occurs every day that and every business should try to control.

What companies normally do, is to implement control measures, reducing negative impacts and risks. But it is quite more complex than it appears, because the context always is changing and because we are talking about all dimensions of sustainability, which means that adopting control measures sometimes is a tradeoff.

When businesses are implementing safety protocols to protect tourists and workers, they are in fact, implementing new control measures. At the end of the day, which is important, is Hotel’s responsibilities to guarantee that guests are safe.

Thirdly, the process of identification, analysis and evaluation of impacts shall take account: negative and positive impacts; probability and consequence of each impact and relevance criteria

So, keep in mind, that it is part of the concept of sustainability the relevance and size of impacts. There is a correlation between size of impact and volume of consumption which depends on the occupancy rate, as well. More people, more impact.

Besides that, as everybody knows, the number of guests is smaller than before the pandemic. So, to say that a Hotel is more or less sustainable depends on the size and kind of impacts they have been producing.

But How this new context can be managed? How could Hotels be more sustainable? In my opinion, adopting a management system approach that will allow each Hotel to identify and control the risks and impacts which are relevant for their operation. In fact, I have noticed that those Hotels had implemented a management system were more efficient in adopting new controls and procedures.

Finally, I would like to say that the pandemic showed us that we can’t live without a holistic (or integrated) view of the world as a hole. We are more connected than we could have imagined. That’s why, I believe (more than ever) in the sustainable tourism approach for companies and destinations.

What is a sustainable hotel?


Nowadays, it is very common to find hotels with sustainability practices. The most common are those aimed at the use of water and energy, but there are many others related to waste, generating income for communities, promoting local culture, using biodegradable cleaning products, among others.

Staying in a hotel or searching on the internet is easy to locate these types of practices. But is a hotel that has 15 types of sustainability practices more sustainable than other which has only 3? Or, a hotel that has implemented sustainability practices for the use of water, energy and waste is more sustainable than another hotel that has implemented sustainability practices only for the use of energy?

In fact, there are certification schemes that use this premise to grant a label, establishing levels of certification: gold, silver and bronze. The hotel that has more sustainability practices receives more “points” and, therefore, receives a “better” label, for example, the gold label.[Certification of sustainable tourism]

However, this idea does not make much sense. Sustainability practices have the function of minimizing the negative impacts generated by the hotel, whether these are environmental, socio-cultural or economic. So, what matters is not quantity of practices, but how much the hotel has managed to reduce the impact generated. A given hotel may need to implement 5 or 6 sustainability practices to significantly reduce water consumption. However, another hotel may achieve the same result of reducing water consumption by implementing only 2 of these practices.[ISO 21401:2018 – Sustainability management system for accommodation establishments and Sustainable development Goals (SDG) from UN (United Nations)]

In addition, each hotel has its own characteristics (number of rooms, leisure infrastructure, type of plumbing, operating time, etc.) and the reduction in water consumption can be totally different from one hotel to the other. Thus, what matters for a hotel is to achieve its goal of reducing water consumption in relation to what it consumed before implementing sustainability practices. The number of practices adopted is irrelevant and the comparison between hotels, without the use of a standardized indicator, is unrealistic.

In this way, the ideal is for the hotel to establish a measurable goal to minimize the impact generated, for example, to reduce water consumption by 5% this year and, from this, use an indicator to measure current consumption (Liters or M3 of water / guest / night).

Using this logic, the hotel will be able to connect sustainability practices to business management, making decisions that generate actions to minimize environmental impacts (reducing water consumption) and economic impacts (reducing costs), as following:

Example of the basic logic for Sustainability Management

Aspect of sustainability  

water consumption


Impact of sustainability  

reduction of natural resource


Sustainability goal  

to reduce water consumption by 5%


Sustainability practices  

to install water flow reducers in showers; implement a program to change towels every 2 days and establish an inspection routine to identify leaks from the facilities


Sustainability indicator  

Liters or M3 of water / guest / night


Result (before practices)  

150 liters / guest / night (March 2019)


Result (after the practices adopted)  

142.5 liters / guest / night (March 2020)


Final result obtained  

5% reduction in water consumption



Finally, we can say that it does not matter the amount of sustainability practices adopted, but the management of sustainability.

To learn more about Sustainability Management see ISO 21401 – Sustainability Management System for accommodation establishments.


How to practice the eight principles of sustainable tourism?

Considering the principles of sustainable tourism how companies and destinations should contribute with them? See it:

  1. Manage sustainable tourism effectively


Make sure that sustainability is an intrinsic part of your strategy. Decisions should be based on this perspective, and the impacts from these decisions need to be addressed.


Create an organized group, committee, or board that is tasked with having the private and public sector participate in working on ideas about sustainable tourism. This group has to be suitable to the size and scale of the destination, and include defined responsibilities, oversight and implementation abilities for managing local environmental, economic, social and cultural issues.

2. Guarantee the rights of local populations


The rights of the local community, especially traditional populations, need to be respected within the organization’s operations and practices


Ongoing programs need to be offered to communities involved in tourism so that they can improve their understanding of the opportunities and challenges involved in this activity, along with the importance of their sustainability.

3. Conserve the natural environment and its biodiversity


Set the visitor capacity and adopt activities that have a minimum environmental impact, preserving the natural areas and protecting the flora and fauna while conducting their businesses.


Make considerations for policies and programs involving the protection of Destination areas and establish relevant control and management tools that are derived from studies on any impacts involving visitor capacity and engagement in management related to the biome and biodiversity of the natural environment. Use public policies to stimulate measures for minimizing water and energy consumption, reducing solid waste generation, treating effluents and conserving the natural environment where they conduct their activities.

4. Consider the cultural heritage and local values


Support and communicate initiatives on understanding, enhancing, preserving, respect for, and promotion of, local cultures.


Work on a policy and system for assessing, rehabilitating and conserving natural and cultural sites, including constructed heritage (historical and archaeological) and rural and urban visits.

5.  Stimulate the social and economic development of tourist destinations


To the highest extent practicable, employ workers (employees, subcontractors or freelancers) from local or regional communities. Commit to benefiting from people and local production, encouraging quality and sustainability. Support and train people from local communities to offer their services and provide materials to the organization. Encourage the procurement of local products and encourage tourists to consume them.


Incentivize local businesses to provide employment for the local population, including vocational training opportunities, job security and fair wages for all. Lend support to small and medium-sized local businesses, help promote and develop sustainable local products and fair trade based on the culture of the region. Monitor the direct and indirect economic contribution that tourism has on the economy of the destination and report it to the population.

6. Guarantee the quality of the products, processes and attitudes


Define and maintain a procedure to identify tourists’ expectations for the products and services offered and include a method for responding to complaints and suggestions received on a consistent basis.


Monitor, avert and publicly report any crime, safety and health risks. Monitor and report on visitor satisfaction and, if necessary, take steps to improve it

7. Stimulate the safety and security destinations


Offer safe products and services, with a focus on managing the risks associated with activities engaged in by tourists. Establish emergency plans, whenever pertinent, in order to respond to unwanted circumstances that may affect the safety of tourists.


Recognize risks and adopt measures to maintain safe and secure environments for promoting tourism. Support and provide assistance to tourists in the event of unfortunate situations that could affect their safety.

8. Take legal compliance into consideration


Comply with and respect the applicable laws related to the impacts generated by your business. Plan and implement measures to prevent any detrimental impacts on the local culture from your activities.


Consider adopting legal provisions that encourage sustainable tourism development, seeking to minimize its negative impacts and leverage the positive impacts.