What would happen if one day we woke up and realised how we measure impact wasn’t working? In general the tourism industry has assessed and continues to measure tourism sustainability by an individual establishment’s impact. One definition states “To improve sustainability, companies can…include sustainability management systems that enable an organization to identify, measure, monitor, and control its environmental, socio-cultural, and economic impacts.

A sustainability management system is part of the overall management system that includes organizational structure, activities, responsibilities, practices, procedures, processes and resources for developing, implementing, achieving, reviewing, and maintaining a sustainability policy. A sustainability management plan sets standards and procedures, responsibilities, performance criteria, resources, and work practices that protect the environmental, socio-cultural, and economic needs of a community, ecosystem, habitat, or protected natural area.” [1]


Using Melaka as an example (by virtue that I’m currently based here), a town with a population of approximately 900,000 people, yet in 2016 had 12.4 million visitors with the majority being domestic tourists. There are just over 22,000 hotel rooms from around 500 hotels not including AirBnB rentals. However only one hotel, with 151 rooms, has any form of sustainable certification.

This scenario is not unusual for Malaysia or Asia or any other emerging market. This is despite there being over 200 different sustainable or eco-tourism certifications available. The jungle of labels and the lack of systematic reviews is a challenge, not only for the customers, but also for the industry itself, in terms of overall credibility, market values and actual environmental effects and impacts.[2]

‘Sustainability’ has focused on each individual establishment’s environmental impact and endeavors to measure that through complex reporting systems either voluntary or via expensive accredited third parties. To try and make it more inclusive it has included ‘community, ecosystem, habitat, or protected natural area’ as part of the sustainability criteria.

A single quantitative measure of sustainability in tourism remains elusive, because of difficulties in: definition, what to include; accounting, comparing different impacts in commensurate terms; and analysis, tracking social and political mechanisms. Despite these uncertainties, it is clear that mainstream tourism, like other industry sectors and the human economy as a whole, is far from sustainable. Most tourism enterprises adopt only those practices that improve profits or public relations. [3]

Once again the question to ask is how can a Circular Tourism Standard (CTS) change anything? Let’s say these 500 hotels embraced a CTS and if each room generates 1 kg of recyclable resources each week we will have 22,000kgs of recyclable resources recovered that currently goes to landfill or incineration. Just from one town. Just in one week. Remember nearly 16% of Malaysia’s GDP comes from tourism.

Collectively that is a lot of impact. Individually many hotels, especially small establishments will not move towards any kind of sustainable environmental impact assessment program because it’s too hard, too expensive and too much effort. A 5 room B&B with only 5kgs recycling resources per week will feel insignificant unless it has the potential to earn extra income from certification and be recognized by an online booking site as being a ‘Recycling Hotel’. Even if all 500 hotels in Melaka were certified as sustainable – then what? Would that impact or influence the businesses that provide goods and services to these establishments?

We surveyed 100 tourists in Melaka, admittedly a minuscule number out of 12.4 million, and found that if there was no extra cost for being ‘green’ most people would prefer a hotel that, at the very least, participated in recyclable resource recovery. Respondents also felt that online booking sites should do more to highlight a hotel’s sustainability credentials making it easier for travellers to make choices.

If putting out their recyclable resources is all an establishment can manage, with the housekeeping able to gain extra income from selling recyclable materials, then so be it. It’s important to note that a CTS is not focused only on recyclable resource recovery we just need a starting point.

From this small beginning we can progress and create business models that may show hiring hotel linen (product-as-a-service) is cheaper then buying, then we may have a better chance of assessing and reducing the environmental impact of the half dozen linen hiring businesses than 500 hotels in a town. How about the circularity of electronic equipment, phones, white goods and food waste as part of an establishment’s operations? The list goes on.

More importantly an IT system we have been working on would allow us to monitor and measure these elements in ways other sustainability standards cannot achieve. The fee to be accredited with a CTS can then be significantly reduced.

Of course we have not included rampant development that often has devastating environmental effects on places, and which can only be curtailed through civil society and willing governments. In its current form CTS is still weak and why we are interested to strengthen it via a collaborative process.

We are intending to integrate a trial CTS in with our Recyclable Resource Recovery pilot (Version #2) we are currently working on here in Melaka. Although Version #2 is still a few months off it’s why we are seeking industry input.


Note: This article is written in response to constructive feedback received and posted on our website Keep Asia Beautiful ‘Developing a Circular Tourism Standard‘. Written by Ms Adrienna Zsakay, Executive-Director – Circular Economy Asia.

[1] Global Tourism: Achieving Sustainable Goals, 2011

[2] Hanne Haaland & Oystein AAs, ‘Eco-Tourism Certification – Does it make a difference? A Comparison of Systems from Australia’, Costa Rica and Sweden, Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism, Vol. 10, No 3, 375-385, 2010.

[3] Ralf Buckley, ‘Sustainable Tourism: Research and Reality’, Griffith University, Australia. Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 39. No. 2, 2012.

[4] Cartoon from Land Use & Environmental Impact Assessment

[5] Product-as-a-Service diagram from Renilde Becque