Interview with Liisa Kokkarinen, Project Manager for Sustainable Arctic Destination at Visit Finland
It is a great and wonderful goal to make tourism in Finland sustainable. Liisa Kokkarinen is deeply involved in this programme. She is part of a team that helped develop the concept of Sustainable Travel Finland. Liisa heads the ‘Sustainable Arctic Destination’ programme, whose aim is to convince tour operators, travel agents and other tourism companies to support sustainable tourism.
Things we wanted to know from Liisa:
• Why is sustainable tourism important for you?
• What was the trigger for the Sustainable Travel Finland programme?
• How does the programme work?
• How can destinations and tourism companies benefit from the programme?
• What is needed for a destination and tourism company to join the Sustainable Travel Finland programme?
• How does the certification process to obtain the Sustainable Travel Finland label works? Are there third-party audits on-site?
• What are Liisas personal wishes or hopes for the future?
Why is sustainable tourism important for you?
Wow, there’s no quick reply to this! I have been active in human rights and environmental matters since a young age, and I guess it was my curiosity towards different countries and cultures that lead me into the tourism industry. Eventually, I started to think about how to combine my interests, and got educated in sustainable development and tourism.
The Arctic has always been my number one destination, and living, studying and working in the Arctic has truly opened my eyes to the impact of climate change. We are in the state of emergency, and I believe tourism as an industry has a great opportunity to drive positive change and create awareness.
For centuries, we have learnt from each other’s through tourism; the cultural encounters that happen during our journeys near and far, usually lead to better understanding and interest in different cultures, languages, food, ways of life, religion and so on. This is a positive change that can have a true impact; as you develop more open world view, this is what you bring up your children with, too! But we can do more than this.
We surely feel better in sustainable destination when we realise the good the local operators do, ensuring tourism benefits to the local community, economy, environment and employee wellbeing. These are the best take-a-ways, the long-lasting souvenir; a development anyone should plant back at home and in this way spread sustainable development for even greater good.
What was the trigger for the Sustainable Travel Finland programme?
Any industry in Finland is adapting to a more sustainable way of operating, and tourism is not an exception here. It is calculated, that tourism accounts for 5 tons, 8% of global emissions, and tourism should take the responsibility on this.
In the past, tourism has been relatively insignificant industry in Finland, but this has changed in the past decade or so, and I think this — the growth — was the real trigger. The economic growth, number of arrivals and tourism companies in Finland has been tremendous. This really makes us realise that we need to take some serious action before the growth turns against itself; be proactive before we start receiving signals on the negative impact of tourism.
On the other hand, our initial survey among Finnish tourism companies showed, that the voice of the tourism industry in Finland was unified: pretty much everyone wanted to have a national sustainable development programme. So we were also triggered by the industry: we responded to the industry need.
In addition, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, responsible for Finland’s updated tourism strategy for 2019-2028, has identified four priorities that will facilitate the sustainable growth and renewal of the tourism sector in Finland – first priority is supporting sustainable development. Visit Finland is one of the key partners to implement this strategy, and Sustainable Travel Finland is the tool to take the strategy into action.
Could you please tell us about the programme?
The programme is 3-dimensional. For tourism actors in Finland, the programme provides a comprehensive sustainable tourism development path: concrete tools to lower the threshold to adopt sustainable practices. For us, as a national tourism board, it provides a tool to promote sustainable tourism destinations and experiences in Finland. And for travellers and tour operators abroad it provides a label to make a responsible choice; an easy way to identify an operator who takes responsibility for the environment and community it operates in.
How can destinations and tourism companies benefit from the programme?
The benefits should be multiple. First of all, they can benefit from a free of charge sustainable development tool that helps the operators to make environmentally, socially and economically wise choices.
The programme includes educational components, so companies and destinations in the programme benefit from increased knowledge over sustainable tourism development — this is the social capital much needed in the future!
The programme demands everyone in the company to be involved, and researches show that employees in a responsible company are more dedicated and motivated — so ultimately the company can benefit from increased job satisfaction.
Finally, we provide marketing support for those companies and destination in the programme, so the companies and destinations with Sustainable Travel Finland label benefit from increased international visibility.
What is needed for a destination and tourism company to join the Sustainable Travel Finland programme?
Any tourism company or destination, of any shape or size, is welcomed by the Sustainable Travel Finland programme. No actions towards sustainability need to have taken to join the programme, but the company must be an existing one (so it needs to have a business ID), and in addition the company or a destination needs to have a dedicated person in charge of sustainable development, or in charge of coordinating the actions. This is part of our criteria 1, commitment.
What we learnt in our initial survey we carried out a couple of years ago among Finnish tourism companies, was that companies were highly interested in sustainable development, but it was no one’s responsibility. So actions were not moved forward or taken, as no one was in charge of sustainable development. This is what we aim to change — make sustainability an integral part of any tourism business in Finland. So to sign up for Sustainable Travel Finland programme, the company must name the person in charge, who then fills in the application to be in the programme.
Please explain to us, how the certification process to obtain the Sustainable Travel Finland label works? Are there third-party audits on-site?
One of the 7 criteria in Sustainable Travel Finland programme is, that the company has a certificate that supports sustainable development. We currently accept around 15 such certificates under the Sustainable Travel Finland label, and all these certificates provide auditing. In this way, we ensure, that there are third-party audits on site. All the other criteria in the programme is audited by Visit Finland, and we have a purpose-built digital platform to verify the set criteria is being met.
What are your personal wishes or hopes for the future?
To make sustainability tourism a mainstream thing. As consumers, it should be our right to have only sustainable options available.