Sustainability Change Maker Carolina Mendonça about the Azores, Sustainable Tourism, COVID-19 and more

By Nuri Max Steinmann.

Hi Carolina! You come from the beautiful Azores. How is the current coronavirus crisis affecting the daily life there? How are you dealing with the situation?

Hello Nuri! This virus affected the entire world population, and in the Azores it was no different. Of the 9 islands in the Azores, the island of São Miguel was the most affected, with the highest number of cases. Fortunately, so far, the Azores have not reached 150 cases, and we already have 107 cases recovered, with only 22 positive cases at the moment. These promising numbers would not be possible without strong leadership from the President of the Regional Government of the Azores, with strong preventive measures, with focus on the protection of Azorean citizens. We felt a great period of calm after the state of emergency was decreed, where people stayed at home, and most commercial establishments were closed, with the exception of hospitals and supermarkets. This resulted in a rapid detection in the virus transmission chains, which are now controlled, thanks to the excellent prevention measures of the regional government. One of the measures that I want to highlight was the mandatory quarantine at a local hotel for any passenger who disembarked in the Azores, in order to detect the disease. On the other hand, the economy has practically stopped and this has been felt mainly by those who depend on their small businesses to support themselves. The tourism sector suffered a sharp drop, taking into account that the air connections between islands, and part of those connecting the region to the mainland, were suspended. Furthermore, notable measures were also launched to support entrepreneurs, such as the simplified layoff and measures to retain their employees, fighting unemployment.
At the moment, we are in a state of calamity, and a new set of measures has been launched for a roadmap with criteria for a safe exit from the Pandemic COVID-19, which has been put to public consultation to promote the collaboration of all citizens in this roadmap. Of course, these measures will always have to be revised and may change depending on the progress of the disease. The reopening of spaces will have a different evolution from island to island, as not all islands were affected in the same way, with islands that did not suffer any positive case of the disease. In this process of reopening and resumption of economic activity,
the use of a mask is now mandatory in all situations of travel to commercial establishments, schools and public transport.
There is some anxiety in the face of an uncertain future, as it is feared that the cases of COVID-19 will rise again when we open air connections again. We will have to reinvent ourselves, and gradually return to a “new normal”, where people’s safety and health are always a priority.

You work in the sustainable tourism sector. Can you tell us a bit more about the sustainability projects that you are involved in?

First of all, I need to say that I love my job! Working for the future well-being of the Azorean citizens, and at the same time, for the preservation and protection of our cultural and environmental assets, it is such a fulfilling job! In my free time, I like to organize initiatives that involve the local community, in order to raise environmental awareness, like beach cleanups, contributing for a global positive impact, with local action.

Since my first internship at a local sustainable tourism lodge as chief sustainability officer, I gained experience during almost three years, that opened doors to other opportunities. Nowadays, I am involved in sustainable projects and initiatives of the Azores Government, which are having a great positive impact in the sustainable development of the Azores region. I want to tell you about two of the many projects of the Azores Government, which are: the certification process of the Azores and the Sustainability Charter of the Azores. You can check both here:

After the United Nations declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, recalling the potential of tourism to advance the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the Government of the Azores has committed to the certification of the archipelago as a sustainable destination. These 9 islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean are a destination with a European experience, internationally recognized as preserved volcanic island, with unique natural beauty and authenticity, with important levels of security and tranquility, offering a good diversity of activities both on land and at sea. So, the scenario was set for the Azores to be submitted for a destination certification process, under the rigorous criteria of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC).

It was an exhaustive process with lots of hard work, that involved many steps, including the collection of big data, both qualitative and quantitative. One of the central premises of the Certification Entity –  EarthCheck (accredited by GSTC) – is to keep in mind that “you can only manage, what you can measure”. The easy access of statistical information and the debate around the evolution of data, assume great relevance for decision making and continuous improvement, as the basis for any certification process. Under this process, the Destination Action Plan was elaborated and it defines a set of sustainable commitments to be achieved by government structures and private agents. This is a tool that defines the strategy that is assumed as a leadership commitment by example and responsibility for the future, where the tourist feels that the Azores are effectively a reference, in a destination where economic development is done with respect and in communion with the environment and culture, but mainly, through valuing people: the Azoreans and tourists.

Without any doubt, this is a collaborative process that involved many stakeholders and regional partners, working closely with the community so that, in an integrated and inclusive way, we can achieve social, economic, environmental and cultural balance. Finally, the on-site audit performed by EarthCheck auditors, guaranteed total transparency and demand throughout the process, that included the review of all documentation and data collected in the Benchmarking phase, as well as the official visit to three islands in the archipelago, chosen by Earthcheck. The commitment with the certification process of the Azores was made in 2017, and after two years of severe hard work, the Regional Government announced the EarthCheck Silver Certification, in GSTC Conference at Terceira island, in December 2019, and we are now the first archipelago in the World to achieve a sustainable tourism certification, under GSTC criteria. This is an ongoing process, and a certified destination may never consider that its work is done. We will keep working towards an even more sustainable tourism for the Azores, and all Azorean people.  

The other project of the Azores Government, is called the Sustainability Charter of the Azores, and this project arises from the concept that business is a vital partner in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This initiative aims to be an agent of change for sustainable development in the Azores through the dissemination, implementation, monitoring and reporting on Sustainable Development Goals and encouraging collaboration and forming partnerships. Subscribing to the Charter is to undertake a public commitment with a responsible and transparent management, guided by the implementation of the sustainable development goals and with the eyes placed in the future. This Charter already has more than 100 subscriber entities, and more than 300 sustainable commitments. This is a really big step for the Azores and it’s business.

How sustainable is tourism sector in the Azores? What needs to change?

In order to answer to this question, we had to measure the destination performance with regard to sustainable development. The certification process included a Benchmarking phase – an exhaustive survey of quantitative and qualitative data in the various key performance areas (energy, C02 emissions, water consumption, protection of biodiversity, transportation, solid waste management, management of harmful substances, cultural social and economic management), in order to demonstrate compliance with the demanding sustainability criteria of the Region. The collection of these data allowed the elaboration of a Benchmarking Report, which places the Azores destination in the various key performance areas, comparing it to other already certified destinations. So, if you ask me how sustainable are the Azores, I can show you that the Benchmarking report positions us as:

  • The reference destination with the highest percentage of habitat conservation area;
  • The reference destination with the highest percentage of green area;
  • The reference destination with the lowest percentage of theft and robbery;
  • The destination where the waste indicators sent to landfill per person are lower than the average of this unique core of destinations;
  • The destination where the drinking water, bathing and indoor water quality indicators are practically the maximum of all destinations.

Of course, there is a lot that still needs to be done. The Regional Government recognized that, and committed with the certification process of the Azores as a sustainable destination. With data, Government sectors can measure the destination sustainability performance, and identify where we are and make informed decisions to take action to be better positioned in the future in terms of sustainable tourism.

Since the opening of the aerial space to the low-cost companies, one of the biggest concerns is the tourism pressure, and the capacity to keep preserving the environment, and assuring the quality of life of the Azoreans. There was, in fact a huge growth in overnight stays in the past years, but statistics show us that the region still has capacity of growth, continuing to guarantee the quality of life of the Azoreans. The tourist flows need to be more dispersed along the nine islands of the Azores, instead of focusing more in just one or two islands. Of course that, to achieve this, the regions need to improve others sectors, like transportation. Another concern has to do with agriculture, a very important sector for the Azores economy, that has a negative impact in the soil, polluting it with agrochemicals.  Fortunately, there are many actions in the Destination Action Plan to address this issue, such as the reduction of the livestock density, incentives to convert from intensive to extensive livestock rearing, Promote desk studies for GHG assessment in various types of animal production.

This a process that is only in the beginning. The objectives in the Destination Action Plan need to be implemented, and we must have in mind that this is a marathon, not a 100 meters run.

A lot of tourists come to scuba diving or whale watching in the azores. How do you see these industries?

The first thing you need to know is that Whale Watching started not so long ago. In the 19th century, the Azorean people were still hunting whales for their value in oil, meat and bones. With the rise of new technologies and environmental awareness, the whaling industry in the Azores began to decline in 1960s. Nowadays, and thanks to the Bern Convention, whaling has stopped, and is absolutely prohibited the capture of marine mammals in Portuguese waters. Most of the whaling heritage has been maintained and restored and since 1997 it’s been used for cultural, touristic and sport purposes. The transition from whale hunting to whale watching was a smart move for the Azores, and other regions followed our example. Whale watching now represents one of the main tourist attractions. Even though this turnaround in history had a happy ending for whales, we can still identify some negative impacts in Whale Watching industry. The increase of tourism demand with the direct consequence of the increased number of boats means a greater pressure in the dolphin and whale population. There is also scientific evidence that the noise pollution of the boats can have a negative impact in the behaviour of this marine mammals.

On the other hand, I believe that scuba diving in the Azores is a less intense activity with less negative impact. The boats are usually smaller than the ones used for Whale watching, and there is a limited number of people per dive. One issue here is the overfishing, that compromises the biodiversity of the sea bottom in certain areas, and worsens the diver experience. The Azores marine resources are a great asset and must be protected, and that can only be achieved by a sustainable exploration of this resources. With the goal to promote international recognition of sustainable practices of the Azorean fishing sector, it is the Government intent to Certify the Azorean Fishery.

What challenges for sustainable tourism in the Azores do you see in the future?

After the arrival of this pandemic, I believe that the greatest challenge the Azores faces now is on how to welcome tourists again, opening restaurants and other services, in a safe way both for tourists and for the Azorean people. This is a huge challenge that the Azores and other destinations are now facing, and probably the first strategy will be to promote internal and regional tourism.

Apart from this virus that is affecting us all, the World (and that includes the Azores) is clearly facing a big challenge called climate change, and tourism plays an important role here. Travelling to the Azores will always imply an associated carbon footprint, because you can only get here by airplane or ship. Saying this, I believe that one of the challenges we face is the adoption of sustainable tourism practices in the destination, by each one of the actors of this complex system. Reducing seasonality is another challenge we face in the Azores. The Government of the Azores has been working to mitigate the effects of seasonality on the tourism sector, with an effort jointly undertaken by public and private entities, in order to generate wealth and reduce unemployment during the low season and help all islands grow in an equal and sustained manner.

Tourism is indeed a very complex system, with many independent actors, and that is why it needs a strong leadership with policy makers collaborating with the DMO to implement sustainable tourism programs – and this is what is happening in the Azores now. Sustainability and tourism must be holding hands in the future in order to achieve positive change in tourism practices. Apart from the challenges identified, is important to find solutions and opportunities, making tourism a tool for global sustainable development.

Everyone is a tourist at some point. What is your advice on sustainable and responsible travelling?

Being a responsible traveller starts when you are booking your trip, and choosing which destination you want to travel. Do some research about the country or region you are travelling to, and learn how can you help the local communities and the environment. For instance, if you are a responsible traveller flying to the Azores, read more about the sustainable initiatives undergoing in the region, and know how can you be involved.

  • For example, did you know you can now plant some trees to compensate your carbon footprint when coming to the Azores?
  • Would you like to help the local community and promote the local economy? Then look for products with the stamp “Marca Açores” or “CORES”.
  • Would you like to take a souvenir with you? Visit our local handcrafts store! You will be promoting both local economy and culture.
  • Help us achieve our goal for less carbon emissions, and choose our public transportation instead of renting a car.
  • Are you in favour of less plastic? So do we! We are islands, surrounded by sea, and we definitely want less plastic here – so bring your own reusable water bottle, and refill it with our tap water! It is delicious, and very safe to drink.
  • You can also collaborate with us and be part of the sustainable process at

I have been to the Azores in 2017 on a research trip. I was absolutely amazed by the pure beauty and diversity of the islands. Which are your favorite spots?

This is the hardest question here! I absolutely LOVE these islands. Since I was just a kid, I always felt very lucky to be born in a place like this. If there is heaven on Earth, is the Azores. I was also lucky enough to be able to travel and meet all the nine islands. I will start with my favourite spot in the Island where I was born – São Miguel – a 50-meter-tall waterfall, very hidden in the middle of a place called ‘Lombadas’. Don’t try to adventure and discover it by yourself, because the only way to visit this is doing canyoning (contact a local company for that). But I can tell you, is worth the time and effort! The waterfall is absolutely gorgeous!

In the central group, apart from the super wonderful experience of climbing Pico mountain, I also loved visiting Furna do Enxofre, at Graciosa Island, one of the largest volcanic caves in the World!

In the Eastern Group, I recall visiting “Gruta dos Encharéus” a beautiful volcanic cave in the coastline of the Island. You can only visit it by boat, but I assure you it is an amazing experience. Hard to Forget!

It is 2050 – what is Carolina Mendonça doing and how will the Azores look like?

Even though I am a very anxious person about the future, I tend to live in the present and to cherish all the small good moments life has to offer. Thirty years ago, the first renewable sources already existed, and many governments in developed countries started to implement sustainability policies. Now, we are facing an even biggest crisis than COVID-19 – a climate change crisis – because we have already crossed the planetary boundaries and we do not know if it is possible to go back. So, I have no idea how my life will be until I reach my 60 years old. What I can tell you is that my priorities right now are to act in a way that I can shape the future I want for tomorrow. I believe our future is our responsibility. And now, it is my responsibility to keep being involved in all the sustainable projects and initiatives I can, applying my know-how and experience, helping to shape the future I imagine for the well-being of future generations. Where I picture myself 30 years from now?

Happy, and doing what I love the most – working to have a positive impact in our future!

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