Flying the Way Forward in Sustainable Tourism?

by | 06 Dec 2019 | Stay Grounded activities

Instead of fueling flights, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council should walk their talk and work towards sustainable tourism that rapidly reduces aviation, demands an open letter by the Stay Grounded Network.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) hosts its global annual conference as fly-only event on the Azores, from 4th-7th December. The GSTC manages the global baseline standards for sustainable travel and tourism (GSTC Criteria), and uses “Navigating the Way Forward in Sustainable Tourism” as slogan for the conference. The meeting brings 250 participants from 42 countries to the archipelago situated about 1500km from Portuguese mainland in the Atlantic Ocean. Stay Grounded resents the hypocrisy of hosting a fly-only event to debate sustainable tourism and challenges the GSTC for their decision in an open letter. 

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Terceira Island, Azores, about 1500km west of Portuguese mainland in the Atlantic Ocean (photo: nyuhuhuu)


At the beginning of the conference, the GSTC awarded the Azores as first archipelago in the world with the certificate of sustainable tourism destination. In the meantime overnight stays on the Islands are roaring: 326.000 in September 2019, a plus of 11.9% in comparison to September last year. In times of climate crisis, can a destination be(come) sustainable when its visitors arrive by airplanes or cruise-ships?

Read our open letter here

Open Letter to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GTSC) 2019 Global Conference: “Navigating the Way Forward in Sustainable Tourism” held on 4th-7th December 2019 on Terceira Island, Azores, Portugal

From Stay Grounded, a movement of people, communities and organisations from around the world dealing with the multiple impacts of aviation. Stay Grounded represents 150 member organisations on all continents, working together to bring forward a just, environmentally sound transport system and to rapidly reduce air travel. Even more organisations, including large networks such as Friends of the Earth International, support the Stay Grounded position paper[i].

Vienna, December 5th, 2019

Mr. Randy Durban, CEO
Mr. Luigi Cabrini, Chair of the Boards of Directors
Global Sustainable Tourism Council

Dear Mr. Durban, Dear Mr. Cabrini, dear GSTC members,

Flying the Way Forward in Sustainable Tourism?
Instead of fueling more flights, we demand that the GSTC walks its talk and works towards sustainable tourism that rapidly reduces aviation.

As the Stay Grounded Network, we note with astonishment and disappointment that your conference on the development and promotion of sustainable tourism is being held on Terceira Island, part of the Azores archipelago, far out in the Atlantic, about 1500 km from the Portuguese mainland.

Despite of the initiatives that have been taken towards the prevention of mass tourism on the Azores, paving the path towards sustainability on the remote and ecologically sensitive Archipelago is a very challenging task. The carrying capacity of nature and the social network with its local economy, is already strained by tourism and should be protected through slow travelling and limits on tourist numbers to avoid overrunning small communities and delicate natural balances[ii].

Since the liberalisation of the aviation market between the Portuguese mainland and the Azores, tourism has been booming and the passenger numbers increased by 78.3%[iii] within four years (2014-2018), provoking a sharp increase in motorized transport due to rental cars[iv], the construction projects for new supersized hotels in sensitive areas[v] and the spread of the so-called local accommodation that cannibalises the residential market and makes it more and more difficult for locals to find adequate and affordable housing[vi].

Even though on the one hand regulations (such as on hotel constructions) have been introduced, on the other hand a growing number of low-cost and overseas flights undermine any positive move towards sustainable tourism: Can a destination be(come) sustainable when its visitors arrive by airplanes or cruise-ships?

To put it in perspective, the Lajes Airport on Terceira Island lies about 1600 km from the next airport on the Portuguese mainland in Lisbon, the main hub for flights to the Azores. A round trip from Lisbon to Terceira in Economy class will account for a climate impact of 632 kg of CO2 which is more than a quarter of the climate-compatible annual emissions budget for one person, including all of his or her daily activities[vii]. Of course, many of the visitors have to take even longer or connecting flights.

As the goal of your event is the promotion of sustainable tourism, how can you claim to represent sustainability guidelines and at the same time choose a destination for your conference only accessible to participants by flying – the most climate damaging mode of transport directly accelerating global heating? Even more shocking, flying for a fleetingly short stay? Whilst we acknowledge that you enable remote participation via live-stream, we feel that you lose credibility by not making sustainability of your flagship annual event a priority, stressing the urgent reduction in emissions aligned with climate justice principles.

Having in mind the problems that tourism in remote destinations causes locally, the carbon footprint of air travel in general and the intention of your organisation to promote sustainable tourism; we suggest that in order to follow your slogan and truly ‘navigate the way forward’, future conferences should be held in locations easily accessible by overland transportation, particularly rail. Developing a new travel policy may be a constructive way to do this. GSTC members should commit to zero emissions and set good examples. Shifting to other modes of transport and shorter distances could open up a new window of opportunities for true sustainable travelling. Please have a look at our position paper at and we invite you to consider signing-up to support it as an organisation.

Yours sincerely,
Mira Kapfinger
Co-Founder and Campaigner
On behalf of the Stay Grounded Network



[ii] see:;

[iii] see:

[iv] see:

[v] see:

[vi] see:

[vii] source of calculation:


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