The winners of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)’s Tourism for Tomorrow awards were announced earlier this week, recognizing the global leaders in sustainable tourism best practices. This past February I had the privilege of serving as an on-site evaluator for one of the finalists – Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC). I spent three days on the island of Sentosa, meeting with various stakeholders and learning about the new sustainability initiatives taking place in this complex and fascinating destination.    

Sentosa Island, a small island off the mainland of Singapore, was reserved and developed exclusively as a tourist destination in the early 1970’s. The island itself is a micro-chasm of the country of Singapore, and to understand its sustainability journey, I had to first understand the mindset and goals of the early developers. Early decisions were driven by rapid economic growth and urbanization plans for the country and the desire to create a very pro-investment, pro-business environment. With rapid development and over 19 million visitors in 2011, I’d say they’ve achieved great success!

With such a proven business model in place, why would an island like Sentosa even want to become more sustainable? With a new CEO and development plans for a large-scale integrated resort in place, Sentosa realized they needed to start planning for the island’s long-term sustainability.  In 2009, a “Green Plan” was developed to prioritize a number of sustainability initiatives. As a result, they’ve seen renewable energy and recycling programs reduce their energy consumption and produce less waste. The construction of a green boardwalk has made it easier for residents to walk and ride bikes to the island, thereby improving their health. They’ve preserved the greenery that residents have grown to love by maintaining 45% green space on the island, with forest restoration efforts and the reintroduction of indigenous flora and fauna, along with strict monitoring to ensure cleaner water and air quality. Heritage buildings have also been restored and re-purposed. While there have been challenges and work still remains to be done, sustainable development for Sentosa has meant achieving the right balance of economic growth while also creating a quality living environment for residents. Sustainability is not just about the environment anymore. It includes economic and social aspects, such as creating a thriving local business scene and ensuring that all segments of society can benefit from tourism.

How does an already developed destination like Sentosa Island, or a large city for that matter, actuallybecome sustainable? While the benefits are apparent, it is true that there is no clear “road map” for becoming a sustainable destination. Tourism is a complex industry with many independent actors – implementing sustainable tourism requires costs and trade-offs that may be viewed different from different levels within the industry. So how does a destination manage it all? Each destination community must determine what balance of environmental, social and economic activity meets their current and future needs. The most successful destinations are those who plan for their own success, and have a long-term and continuously evolving strategy that defines and refines how to become and remain sustainable—as well as competitive—within the market. Once these plans are in place, successful destinations are also those who utilize education and tangible benefits as a means of encouraging sustainable tourism adoption among all stakeholders. 

While there will always be challenges when it comes to initiating change, the good news is that there is a growing body of information available on sustainable tourism best practices. Organizations such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council are also trying to address these challenges by developing a list of criteria for destinations to follow.

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Posted by Jordi Pera

Jordi Pera is an economist passionate about tourism, strategy, marketing, sustainability, business modelling and open innovation. He has international experience in marketing, intelligence research, strategy planning, business model innovation and lecturing, having developed most of his career in the tourism industry. Jordi is keen on tackling innovation and strategy challenges that require imagination, entail thoughtful analysis and are to be solved with creative solutions.

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