Carolina Mendonça, Coordinator of the Tourism Destination Sustainability Structure – Azores DMO takes stock of the first two years of the certification of the Azores as a sustainable tourist destination and states that the Region is working to achieve Level II of the Silver Certification, reaching the Gold Certification in 2024.
AO. Two years after the Azores achieved EarthCheck’s Silver certification as a sustainable tourist destination, what practical effects is this certification having, whether at an economic, business or environmental level?
CM. The idea behind the certification process is not to achieve perfection, but to demonstrate that the destination is committed to developing continuous improvements in favor of sustainable economic, social, cultural and environmental development. The effects are visible. From the outset, it increased the reputation of the destination, highlighting the image of the Azores at an international level, as the first and only archipelago to achieve sustainability certification in accordance with the strict criteria, internationally accepted, of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).
The Azores are increasingly asserting themselves as a leading reference destination, and the certification reinforced this strategic positioning, giving greater notoriety and competitive differentiation to the Region, responding to the requirements of international tourist demand for non-massified destinations, of nature and by authentic experiences, with an immersive contact, but with respect for local communities. It is evident that this brings benefits to the Region as a whole, where the government, businesses, the local community and tourists benefit.
For the effects to be visible in the short, medium and long term, the process requires the involvement of several agents, and this was an almost immediate positive impact, due to the dedication, collaboration and involvement of the various local partners for a common goal. The Destination’s Sustainability Action Plan is the result of this collaborative work, in defining a set of sustainable commitments that the various entities proposed to work on in the definition of goals and objectives, aiming at the sustainable development of the destination, which most of the actions of 2019 have already been completed. We have already seen improvements in the various pillars of sustainability. Sustainability commitments and progress can be found on our website: https://sustainable.azores.gov.pt
In addition, the Azores Sustainability Charter, which was created in 2017, with 41 participating entities, and already encompasses 160 subscribing entities, with more than 500 commitments, towards the sustainable development of the Region related to the effective management of resources, reuse of materials, the preference for purchasing local/regional products, the implementation of an ethical purchasing policy, which has been promoting the circular economy, the social and ethical responsibility of companies, and the protection of environmental heritage.
AO. What has been the role of the Tourism Destination Sustainability Structure – Azores DMO (Destination Management Organization) in the dissemination of this certification and its application?
CM. Azores DMO works under the Regional Secretariat for Transport, Tourism and Energy, and coordinates the destination’s sustainability efforts, using the Tourism engine as a catalyst for sustainable development. It is a huge teamwork and collaboration, where everyone is part and work towards for a common goal. Within the scope of the Azores DMO Structure, several sustainability work groups were created, and we promoted various moments of consultation with local agents in all-region (nine islands). We have also promoted various education and awareness-raising actions on sustainable tourism issues in the school community. We use social networks such as facebook and instagram to promote our work and interact with the local community, especially with younger people.
AO. This year, the Azores will be again subject to an audit to verify compliance with the sustainability criteria. From the experience gathered since 2019, what are the advantages and threats for the Azores in this process at the moment?
CM. In addition to the various awards of international recognition, the Azores also have a vast portfolio of products that have allowed it to support a sustained and high-quality tourist development. The differentiating character of the destination is combined with the fact that we are going through the second year of the certification process, which brings us the benefit of the lessons learned from the first audit of the destination. We also gathered a set of evidence of progress and improvements since the first audit, which makes us feel better prepared, with a reinforced team from Azores DMO, to receive an audit this year with a view to achieving Level II of EarthCheck’s Silver certification. We prefer to call it challenges instead of threats, and in the Azores we still have several challenges to overcome. Sustainability is an ongoing process, and we must have the humility and responsibility to work on continuous improvement in the various areas that are part of the destination’s sustainability.
AO. Are the Azores able to aspire to EarthCheck’s Gold Award? And when will they be able to reach the maximum level of certification as a sustainable destination?
CM. EarthCheck’s regulations define 5 levels of sustainability, and each time we climb a step in that level, the process becomes more demanding, since every year we must demonstrate improvements compared to the previous year. In order to achieve Gold Certification, we still have to climb 3 steps from the current Silver Certification. We are currently working towards achieving Level II Silver Certification, and we estimate that in 2024 we will be ready to achieve Gold Certification.
Maintaining a sustainable destination requires a commitment from all residents, public entities, government and companies, as these are the true protagonists of the destination’s sustainability. The government has an essential role in defining and implementing policies that foster economic balance and prosperity, social well-being, quality education, corporate health, and the conservation and protection of the environment. Companies can assume their social and ethical responsibility towards the environment and people, and bring innovative solutions, leveraging enormous benefits for sustainable development, including for the health and well-being of society; and of course, residents and tourists themselves must adopt responsible habits and behavior, thus contributing to the sustainability of the destination. Through this holistic approach, where everyone takes responsibility for their actions towards for a common goal, we believe that not only we can achieve Gold Certification, but above all, we will be able to contribute to a more sustainable Region where the Azorean as well as those who visit us, are the greatest beneficiaries of this process.
AO. Azores DMO intends to create a sustainability award for tourism companies, rewarding good practices and taking carbon offsetting measures for trips to the Azores. How are these intentions going to be realized?
CM. An upgrade to the existing Azores Miosótis Program, in line with the internationally accepted standards of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), will allow us to create a certification scheme for tourism companies that is internationally recognized. Regarding travel carbon offset measures, we will collaborate with the Regional Secretariat for the Environment and Climate Change, in order to find solutions for this purpose, quite possibly through projects such as LIFE IP Climaz, which aims to develop a set of actions, facing the challenges of mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
AO. Did the Covid-19 pandemic and the major changes that occurred in tourism last year reinforce the assets of the Azores as a sustainable tourist destination?
CM. According to the latest sustainability report from Booking.com (the online booking site with the largest customer base), 83% of global travelers believe that sustainable travel are key, and 61% of respondents say that the Covi-19 pandemic made you want to travel more sustainably in the future. The results indicate that the Azores are very well positioned in the face of this trend of tourist demand at national and international level. The fact that the Azores have been holders of this certification since December 2019, allowed, in a year and a half particularly difficult due to the disastrous effects of the pandemic on a worldwide scale, to place our Region on the map of the safest and most sustainable destinations, which facilitated the journey the coveted resumption of tourist activity this year.
Source: Açoriano Ocidental