Tricolage Becomes the First GSTC-Certified Tour Operator in Japan
– Interview with Co-Founder and CEO Benjamin Wong
On December 28, 2022, sustainable travel and events consultancy Tricolage became the first tourism business in Japan to earn certification from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. This prestigious certification is reputed for its high standards for environmental and social impact and a rigorous, third-party review process.
As Japan reopens its borders to foreign tourists, visitors are searching for authentic experiences that support local communities, while company trips now require a rigorous standard for green travel. As a consequence, both travelers and businesses are increasingly looking to experts who meet the best possible criteria for sustainability.
We sat down with Tricolage co-founder and CEO Benjamin Wong to discuss the intensive certification process and what it means for the future of sustainable tourism in Japan.
What is GSTC certification and why did Tricolage pursue it?
Benjamin Wong (BW): For tour operators, hotels, and destinations, the GSTC is the most respected global sustainable tourism standard. There are 38 different criteria and 174 indicators in areas ranging from community engagement to labor rights, protecting cultural heritage, minimizing carbon footprints, and more.
There are other, less rigorous certifications out there, but we decided to shoot for the highest possible standard and the most respected certification available. Unlike many other businesses who want to get GSTC-certified because their customers require sustainability certification, we sought out certification to strengthen our own sustainability practice.
Tricolage is unique because we provide bespoke tours for overseas travelers as well as consulting services to local Japanese governments looking to develop sustainable tourism in their regions. As the only GSTC-certified tour operator and consultant in Japan, we’ve proven two things. First, that we’re among the foremost experts in the region on operating tours that follow a first-rate standard for social and environmental impact. And second, that all aspects of our business operate at that same level of sustainability.
What was the process like? What challenges did you face?
BW: First, we had to choose the certification body to conduct the third-party audit. For that, we selected Control Union, a leader known globally for its high standard and integrity, especially when it comes to sustainability.
Since we’re a small business, certification was a big challenge for us. Everything we do needs to be documented—our responsible purchasing policy, how we set sustainability targets, how we measure the impact of our tours. Then we need independent evidence to back up that we actually run our business in the manner detailed in all those documents.
To get that evidence, an auditor spoke to our customers and stakeholders to verify how we operate. The auditor flew in from Greece to conduct an office review and joined one of our tours to see our product in action. It was a rigorous, intensive process, but that’s a good thing.
What feedback did you receive from the auditor?
BW: The auditor was impressed how we didn’t just try to tick the boxes word for word. For example, one GSTC criterion is that you need to make your sustainability policy available. Some businesses choose to put an abbreviated copy of the policy on their website. But we proactively share the policy with our external and internal stakeholders: contractors, clients, and partners on the ground. We want our stakeholders to know our policy and give them the opportunity to offer feedback. We also customize the policy for every tour. So we’re going above and beyond the requirements for many of these certification criteria.
We did have some areas in need of improvement that we addressed. Before the audit, we didn’t have a formal process to assess the environmental and social impacts of our tours. Every one of our tours is completely customized, so creating this assessment was a serious challenge. But now we have a formal process to identify potential negative impacts of our tours and take action to mitigate them.
How was Tricolage able to qualify for such a high-standard certification?
BW: A key reason is that we work with local tourism organizations (DMOs) when planning our tours. Our close working relationship with DMOs, who have a deep understanding of the needs and challenges of the local community, allows us to guarantee that our lodgings, restaurants, and suppliers are locally owned and support the regional economy whenever possible. It also helps us discover little-known, authentic experiences to offer our clients.
In addition, we actively work with our suppliers to make improvements. So we start by looking for hotels and suppliers that have a sustainability certification, but we don’t stop there. We send suppliers our own questionnaires to ensure that they meet our sustainability criteria and then make suggestions to help them improve.
Are we in a new era of sustainable travel in Japan?
BW: In Japanese business, there is a saying, okyakusama wa kamisama (“The customer is God”). But in sustainable tourism, the customer isn’t the only stakeholder—you also have the local community and the planet to take care of.
In the last few years before COVID, Kyoto began to suffer from over-tourism, which led to a love-hate relationship with tourists. At the same time, international travelers are increasingly looking for more meaningful and conscientious travel experiences. With the significant increase in inbound travelers and the negative impact of over-tourism, the Japan Tourism Agency developed and published the Japan Sustainable Tourism Standard for Destinations (JSTS-D), based on GSTC criteria, to help destinations operate more sustainably. And while the Japanese tourism industry recognizes the need to improve sustainability, there is an urgent need for practitioners who already possess the knowledge, expertise, and experience to help destinations and operators meet this new, higher standard.
We contribute to this overall effort by sharing our knowledge of sustainable tourism with our industry partners. That way, together, we can create the sustainable travel products and services that travelers and resilient, revitalized destinations need in this day and age. When it comes down to it, we’re here to create happiness not just for travelers, but also for communities, the local economy, and the planet.
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