Green Talks #14 – Turkiye, the global example of sustainability


Expert: Dr. Elif Balcı Fisunoğlu (Ph.D), Acting General Manager and Deputy General Manager of Tourism Operations and Development division in Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency, Türkiye

Is currently Acting General Manager and the Vice-General Manager of the Tourism Operations and Development division at Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA), which was founded by the Ministry of Tourism and by law and also representative of TGA at UNWTO Board of Affiliate Members. Her career in the tourism, travel, hospitality, meetings, and destination marketing industry spans over 25 years, specialising in tourism product development and destination and nation marketing. A highly regarded advocate for sustainable global tourism development with an outstanding reputation, Elif has held a broad spectrum of senior positions in corporate brands, NGOs, and DMOs in both Türkiye and Europe.


Grażyna Grot-Duziak: I read in the trade press that Türkiye has been successful in implementing various sustainable development initiatives, when did this start? What made you take this up? Who were the main stakeholders of this initiative?

At the beginning of 2022, we signed a collaboration agreement with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), which sets and manages global standards for sustainable travel and tourism. With this agreement, Türkiye became the first country to sign an agreement with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) at the government level and developed the National Sustainable Tourism Program. In this regard, our work has taken a pioneering step in global sustainability.

The national program was developed to ensure the sustainable growth of the tourism sector and to develop a shared understanding of Turkish tourism with the participation of all tourism stakeholders (NGOs, hoteliers, ministries, etc.).

As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been one of the biggest crises in the history of tourism in terms of its speed, scope, and impact. In the recovery process that started after the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed the increasing importance of resilience to crises. Today, we can all see that sustainability has become one of the most critical conditions for tourism, one of the driving forces of global economic growth, to be resilient for the future. Türkiye, which became one of the countries least affected by the pandemic by rapidly implementing the „Safe Tourism Certification Program” during the COVID-19 outbreak, is now determined to transform the tourism sector into a more resilient and inclusive structure with its responsible and sustainable policies.

With environmental issues such as the climate crisis becoming a prominent social concern, tourists exhibit environmentally conscious behaviours. When we look at tourism dynamics today, we see that global travellers and tour operators are seeking sustainable tourism elements. And as we all know, the most essential way to increase competitiveness in tourism today is to act in line with sustainability principles. Recognising this demand, the Ministry has introduced regulatory standards to the sector.

It is not very well known, yet it is important for many companies that organise MICE group trips.
From an ESG point of view, it is potentially an advantage for the destination.

Sustainability is a widely discussed topic today and will likely remain so in the near future. As participants/customers/tourists demand environmentally conscious activities, events are now being carried out with a focus on sustainability.

Managing and reducing the business’s environmental impact improves the quality and image of the services provided, reduces costs in the long run, and contributes to environmental preservation. Improving the performance of MICE group trips by striking a balance between economic, socio-cultural, and environmental conditions and minimising the negative impacts of their activities is possible. The current needs of customers/tourists must be met without jeopardising future generations by complying with certified Tour Operators that meet the requirements based on sustainability and continuous improvement principles. Being certified has helped the best travel brands attract customers and deliver exceptional, sustainable travel experiences.

We value having a recognised sustainability certificate in the MICE sector.

We organise events with a commitment to sustainability and adopt an environmentally conscious approach by creating sustainable routes during fam trips/press visits. We avoid organising events in locations where tourism has a negative impact and establish a code of conduct in situations that could negatively affect natural and cultural heritage sites, prioritising visitor management strategies to preserve and use sensitive areas responsibly. In our events and hospitality, we avoid food options that are mass-produced and potentially wasted. Furthermore, we steer clear of unsustainable event souvenirs.

We avoid plastic water bottles, individually packaged food products, and lanyards. Renting or purchasing reusable products is the preferred option. We know that handouts, posters, and business cards generate significant waste. Therefore, we use digital event programs, maps, brochures, and business cards. Reducing the printed material to a minimum or using recycled material is the way to set an environmentally friendly outline.

We accommodate our guests in certified hotels and encourage the use of eco-friendly transportation alternatives such as shared transfers, public transportation and, if possible, bicycles. When we have to use air travel during hospitality, we offset our guests' flight emissions and provide them with a digital certificate for the offset process.

We support local food chains by promoting working with fresh products from local markets or shops. When choosing venues, we know the importance of respecting nature and leaving a light ecological footprint. When selecting venues, we prefer socially, environmentally, and managerially responsible options such as UNESCO heritage sites, slow cities, and certified accommodations where it is possible

The MICE industry contributes significantly to the development of a destination. To contribute to this, we aim to maximise the positive impacts of tourism and minimise the negative ones.

A successful conference, meeting, or other event can be an effective marketing tool. Besides being a means for companies to effectively market their products and services to a specified target market, it can also promote the destinations to an international audience. This creates a stable tourism inflow to a nation and its sub-regions.

Showing business travellers the scenic points in the destination might even persuade them to return with their friends and family, which creates a perfect opportunity to build the reputation and long-term valuable growth of the hotels and tourist attractions.

In addition to contributing to a region’s economic growth, the MICE Industry creates millions of job opportunities. As business traveller demands continue to evolve, so do the tourism infrastructures of MICE destinations and, consequently, the number of opportunities created for locals.

It would seem to be difficult in your country, and yet you have successes. Is the tourism industry keen to get involved in these initiatives? How do you encourage participation in the programme?  Which regions are the most involved in it?

Türkiye has taken significant steps in sustainability, and its sensitivity to this issue is not new. In 2008, our Ministry implemented the Green Star, an environmental-focused sustainability certificate, and in 2019, the zero-waste regulation was introduced for all accommodation facilities.

The Turkish Sustainable Tourism Program has been developed in a phased approach to enable all accommodation facilities to begin implementing minimum sustainability practices regardless of size and capacity. The program, planned to be completed by 2030, has its first phase in 2023, the second phase in 2025, and the final phase in 2030, aiming to meet all international standards during this process. In the first phase, accommodation facilities will comply with 30% of the defined standards; in the second phase, 70%; and in the third phase, 100%, with all accommodation facilities certified as Sustainable Tourism by 2030.

The Ministry has implemented a pioneering legal regulation requiring all accommodation facilities in Türkiye to obtain at least a Stage 1 Verification by the end of 2023.

As of July 2023, over 300 facilities have achieved the 'Türkiye Sustainable Tourism Certificate’ fully compliant with the GSTC Criteria, while over 3000 facilities have earned the Stage 1 Sustainable Tourism Certificate. All facilities that have earned certification with 100% compliance under the program are announced on the Ministry’s and TGA’s official websites and Türkiye’s official tourism platform,

With these measures and regulations, Türkiye is taking significant steps towards sustainability in the tourism sector for the entire country. The goal is to reduce environmental impacts, preserve natural resources, and sustainably manage tourism activities.”

Starting with countrywide regulation and implementing it with all tourism industry stakeholders, it will already cover the most central aspects like venue, accommodation and travel options which are part of the MICE industry. The second part will be to put more regulations on the event base itself. An important part is that the main parts, like the international associations, are part of the sustainable journey. We are actively working on building the ground for organising a successful and effective event environment, but the events itself have to use all the opportunities to make it at the end a fully sustainable event.

Do tourists also benefit from them?

In today’s world, tourists are increasingly concerned about climate issues and seek travel options with lower emissions and negative impacts. When we look at global travel trends, tourists want to support destinations and businesses that align with sustainability values. Certified businesses meet this demand by emphasising sustainability in their communications and providing proof to consumers. As a result, travellers who choose certified accommodation facilities have the opportunity to leave a lower carbon footprint. We are aware of this growing demand.

Sustainability certifications also contribute to increasing consumer awareness. Certifications provide confidence to consumers as they demonstrate businesses' commitment to sustainability. This helps tourists make more informed choices and directs them towards sustainable businesses.

The National Sustainable Tourism Program contributes to respect for human rights, local culture, and the ecosystem. As concerns about the harmful impacts of travel and tourism increase, tourists prioritise businesses that provide trust through certification. Consumers and businesses gravitate towards brands that take environmental responsibility seriously and appreciate certified facilities. Facilities that prioritise social responsibility in line with sustainability standards also consider the satisfaction of employees and the local community. This program showcases businesses' compliance with specific sustainability standards and their positive contributions to local communities and the environment. In this way, tourists have the opportunity to choose businesses where they can travel more responsibly and ethically and leave a legacy during their travel experience

In conclusion, certified facilities offer tourists a reliable option and demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. This meets the desire of tourists to leave a low carbon footprint and positively impact local communities. Additionally, certifications enhance consumer awareness, contributing to the widespread adoption of sustainable tourism.

Do you think that the measures you have introduced have increased interest in your tourism offer? Do you measure this in any way?

Türkiye successfully implemented the Safe Tourism Certificate Program during the Covid-19 pandemic, making it one of the countries least affected by the crisis. Türkiye is committed to transforming the tourism sector into a more resilient and inclusive structure through responsible and sustainable policies.

Our National Sustainable Tourism Program has become a global example of sustainability. It has differentiated us from our competitors and increased Türkiye’s brand value. This program has initiated a transformation towards sustainability in the tourism sector, elevating quality standards and enhancing Türkiye’s competitiveness. It has strengthened international collaborations and increased our international visibility.

Today, leading industry players such as tour operators and online travel agencies (OTAs) prioritise certifications accredited by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). The fact that our program holds the „Recognized” status by GSTC and its criteria have been „Acknowledged” by GSTC is a significant achievement. This demonstrates international recognition of our program, showing its compliance with established standards in sustainable tourism. It increases trust in the program and makes it a preferred choice among tour operators and OTAs.

As concerns about the negative impacts of travel and tourism increase, certification provides a sense of safety. Consumers and businesses are increasingly drawn to brands that take environmental responsibility seriously and are satisfied with certified facilities. Facilities that are strong in sustainability standards also prioritise the satisfaction of employees and the local community.

Considering the growing demand for sustainable tourism, our program creates appeal for tourists who want to travel responsibly and sustainably, providing access to a larger market.

  • Since its launch in 2022, the program has contributed to the tourism supply, considering the increasing number of visitors. While Türkiye ranked as the sixth most visited country in the world in 2019, it rose to the fourth position in 2022. During the post-pandemic period, there was a 72% decrease in visitor numbers globally, while Türkiye experienced a decrease of 69%. After 2022, global visitor numbers reached 66% of pre-pandemic levels, and Türkiye has returned to pre-pandemic figures. Due to the faster-than-expected achievement of tourist targets in 2022, the figures were revised twice, and a target of 60 million tourists has been set for 2023.

Based on this data, it can be said that Türkiye’s sustainable tourism program has successfully fostered growth and enhanced international competitiveness in the tourism sector.

Which of these would you particularly recommend for incentive groups?

Starting with tour operators and OTA’s will again be a guideline for PCO’s, DMC’s and MICE suppliers to implement it into their daily proposal structures.
We as TGA are not directly measuring the impact, but we are in direct contact with the different regions. We recommend the incentive groups to get in contact with us the reach the right contact person in the region they want to organize the incentive group.

Is it also possible in Turkey (and if yes, where) for incentive groups to organise activities that directly support the local community or business, both physically and financially?

Of course, this is also possible in Türkiye as in any other destination. It depends on the events outline, how involved they want to be and what opportunities the region offers which match the incentive group.

Here we also are more than ready to help to find the right contact person for any group who wants to be more involved and wants to leave a positive legacy visiting our beautiful country.

We believe there are no limits on what you can do anywhere you need to get in contact with the right level of stakeholders and we will be happy as TGA to help find the right counterperson for any possible projects the incentive groups may have in mind.

Please name a few

Kars Cheese Route

Journey of Linen in Ayancık

Home of Aromatic Plants Köyceğiz

Troy Culture Route

A Day in Ovacık Village

Women Will Enlighten Perşembe

A Historical Break in Lycian Way

The Birds are Calling You

Four Seasons Foça

Explore Your Own Butterfly

Lavender Scented Village

Edremit’s Local Cuisine with Nar Kadın

Stonemasonry at Göbeklitepe, the World’s Oldest Temple

Arslantepe, the Heritage of Malatya
Safranbolu Souvenirs

İpekyolu Guesthouse

Traditional Seferihisar Cuisine

Let’s be a Misian

East Anatolia Tourism Development Project

Does the Convention bureau / Tourism Board support local and foreign agencies in the selection of attractions or activities that are carried out in accordance with sustainable development principles?

As mentioned, we will act as the first point of contact, help in communication with the regions and all needed communication to find the right counterparts to support the realisation of such activities.

Incentive groups interested in organising any event should always get in contact with the TGA team, we will support them in selection, offering options, and building the network to make the event a memorable experience for their participants of course with an outline to make it also a sustainable event following the sustainable development principles.

Do you agree with the statement that Turkey has been ahead of other countries in implementing environmentally friendly initiatives?

Türkiye stands out not only in environmentally friendly practices but also in other dimensions of sustainability, such as the socio-economic and cultural aspects of sustainable tourism. Türkiye and GSTC have set an example for the world by developing a national sustainable tourism program in collaboration with the government. This program has accelerated a sustainable transformation in the tourism industry, restructuring the accommodation sector and the entire tourism industry.

The program encourages environmentally friendly initiatives starting with accommodation facilities by setting goals to reduce energy, water, waste management, and greenhouse gas emissions. The aim is to reduce environmental impacts in the tourism sector and achieve sustainability goals.

Furthermore, the program considers the social and economic dimensions, promoting the participation of local communities and businesses in sustainable tourism activities. This includes strengthening the local economy, preserving local cultural values, enhancing community well-being, and supporting social responsibility projects. Sustainable tourism activities are thus carried out with the involvement of all stakeholders, promoting a more balanced and equitable development of the sector.

These efforts demonstrate that Türkiye is a leading country in sustainable tourism, setting an example for the world. By prioritizing sustainability in environmental practices and socio-economic and cultural dimensions, Türkiye is accelerating the transformation of the tourism industry.

Do you often receive requests for proposals that take sustainability into account?

After introducing the program, we realised we had made a significant global impact. We have received invitations to speak at conferences, seminars, and events focused on sustainable tourism. We have been invited to sustainable tourism-themed fairs. We have even been approached by start-ups designing sustainable products. These are all reflections of the success and impact of your national sustainable tourism program. The industry is aware that we are a contact point for sustainable actions as well as a contact point in starting their sustainability journey.

I have been elected as a member of the GSTC Board of Directors. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has selected Türkiye as the host destination for the Sustainable Tourism Conference 2023, which they organize annually in different countries. This is a significant indicator of our international recognition. Your expertise and leadership role in sustainable tourism have been acknowledged globally.

These invitations and collaborations demonstrate the success of your program and the value of your efforts in the field of sustainable tourism as well as for a sustainable roadmap for the future of the MICE industry We aim to leverage these opportunities, collaborate with more stakeholders, and continue to maintain our leadership role in sustainable tourism to further progress.

Could you explain your efforts to spread sustainable tourism studies throughout the country?

We have included all stakeholders in the tourism industry in spreading sustainable tourism practices throughout the country. We have established industry criteria for the accommodation sector nationally, covering all 81 provinces with different economies, cultures, geographies, and traditions. These criteria were developed in collaboration with national and international stakeholders, considering the preservation and promotion of tourism resources. Meetings were organised to educate the sector and create awareness for sustainable tourism. These meetings have helped raise awareness and sensitivity among actors in the tourism industry regarding sustainability.

As a result, a national sustainable tourism program that complies with international standards was created and implemented. This program has transformed the concept of sustainability from a voluntary approach to a mandatory practice involving the government. It demonstrates Türkiye’s leadership role in sustainable tourism and the government’s commitment to sustainability.

What is your goal in your sustainable tourism roadmap?

We are implementing various strategies and measures to promote sustainable tourism in domestic and international markets. We focus on marketing activities to promote natural and cultural tourism values and draw attention to this issue. Efforts are being made to increase the number of UNESCO-designated heritage sites, promote intangible cultural heritage, increase the number of Blue Flag beaches, and enhance the number of certified sustainable facilities. Our goal is to pioneer a growing market by promoting sustainable tourism products and increasing demand for these products.

To increase the visibility of sustainable tourism options, we are creating sustainable routes and encouraging accommodation facilities to be bicycle-friendly. We also work on preserving and developing local cultural values such as local gastronomy and unique handicrafts, making it easier for tourists to access growing sustainable tourism products and services and facilitating their ability to find environmentally friendly travel options that align with sustainable tourism values. Through GoTürkiye, the official tourism platform of Türkiye, we provide access to facilities with sustainability certificates.

We strive to inform providers seeking more sustainable practices and provide guidance on best practices. In this way, we aim to increase awareness in the sector’s service providers and consumers. Our main objectives are developing joint projects and establishing collaborations with industry stakeholders to reach a wider audience with sustainable tourism products. We are working to increase information sharing on sustainable tourism and transform Türkiye into a sustainable destination and an attractive centre. Our efforts are to promote sustainable tourism products such as tangible and intangible natural, cultural, and human-made heritage and strive to be at the forefront in a growing market by increasing demand for these products.