The impact of tourism: How can we all do this better?


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Tourism is growing, and growing fast. After surpassing 1 billion international visitors in 2012, we are expecting 1.8 billion by 2030. Tourism is growing faster than the global economy and, for the first time, the statistics for 2015 are expected to show that there were more trips taken to the developing world than to the developed world. But what does this actually mean?

Growth, on its own, is not enough. Destinations and their stakeholders are responsible for ensuring that growth is well-managed; that benefits are maximized; and that any negative externalities are minimized. This requires a continuous process of planning and management that evolves and that can be measured over time.

For the World Bank Group, our clients and our development partners, this process of planning and management is a central interest. How can we help these processes to deliver more and better development impact? What kinds of interventions or types of assistance will deliver the best results? How do you define the best results – for whom? – and how do we measure them?

Being able to demonstrate how the tourism sector contributes to the Bank Group’s twin goals of eliminating extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity is an imperative for all stakeholders. It’s relevant for national governments, sub-national state agencies, businesses (both multinationals and SMEs), multilateral development banks, NGOs, academics and think tanks. Moreover, it’s vital in helping guide future planning and development, gaining access to and applying for funding, and demonstrating progress to constituents at all levels.

Despite the great breadth and depth of existing impact information, however, serious concerns remain about the accuracy, complexity, gaps, comparability and sustainability of the types of the impact analyses that have been carried out.
The Bank Group’s Sustainable Tourism Global Solutions Group recently convened a thought-leadership event in Washington to begin a preliminary discussion about how all stakeholders can come together to try and address some of the current shortcomings. During the “Measuring for Impact in Tourism” event, we heard about a wide range of challenges for those working in this area and we began to map out the greatest gaps and issues.

As Anabel Gonzalez, the Senior Director of the Trade and Competitiveness Global Practice, said at that conference: “We want to be better at monitoring and evaluating our impact, we want to learn from others, and we want to contribute more effectively to tourism development.  I believe these are goals most of you will share. We invite you to join this discussion – and be frank, open and provocative.”The findings can be found in our report, “Towards More Effective Impact Measurement in the Tourism Sector: Observations and Key Issues,” which highlights a number of priorities. Some of those challenges concern the availability, quality and consistency of data; the high cost of impact measurement for SMEs; the proliferation of different systems; issues of attribution; quantifying notions of “value”; and the ability to communicate effectively to a wide range of audiences.

Some key areas for immediate follow-up and further analysis were also identified. They include:

  • Exploring the theory of change by examining more closely the proposition  that, when tourism growth occurs, those living in extreme poverty benefit and by digging deeper into what tourism growth really means for the poor, especially in terms of employment. 
  • Assessing the impact value of different types of tourism.
  • Assessing and developing the role of technology for data collection, impact measurement and communication.
  • Evaluating the use of training for better communication – including assessing what has been tried and what has worked and considering how it could be scaled up. 
  • Analyzing the necessity and practicality of improving collaboration among various actors, and assessing the alignment of frameworks along with proposals for greater alignment.
  • Developing ideas and proposals for the enhanced sharing and pooling of impact data.
  • Developing ideas and proposals for greater inclusion of SMEs.
The Bank Group is committed to advancing this agenda. As an international organization heavily invested in the sector, with a deep motivation to deliver change for the world’s poorest people, we aim to take a leading role in a number of key areas.  

Other major stakeholders have also shown their support. Harvard University and the University of Sussex have asked to host follow-up events. Wyndham Hotels, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Environment Program, the World Wildlife Fund and Sustainable Travel International have sought specific collaboration and partnership opportunities. The Bank Group will continue to convene meetings, promote dialogue, conduct research and publish relevant information – focusing our interventions on those areas where we’re well-placed to fulfill the twin goals of eliminating extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity.

The paper Towards More Effective Impact Measurement in the Tourism Sector: Key Observations,” is online and is now open for public comment. We welcome your thoughts and feedback, as well as your suggestions about how to take this agenda forward.Please submit your comments on the paper’s findings to the Comments section under this blog by March 4, 2016.



John Perrottet

Senior Industry Specialist

Beril Benli

Junior Professional Associate

Join the Conversation

Susanne Becken
February 23, 2016

Thank you, this is a very useful summary report and outlines some of the key gaps. Several observations:
- Macro versus micro: I think we need to distinguish those two levels clearly, because there are different stakeholders, metrics and research methods. E.g. we are using CGE models to assess the role of tourism in economies (e.g. export value, job creation, tax revenue) etc, which gives a good indication of tourism's potential to alleviate poverty at a national level, but we may use in-depth (possibly qualitative) approaches to understand local-level effects, for example income distribution, changes in culture and community structures etc. A PhD student of mine is undertaking research on tourism as a change agent in a tourism-dependent village in Fiji - the balance it not necessarily all positive - even though total income has increased. He also compared this village to a non-tourism (traditional) village which had less monetary values, but was overall more resilient and intact on a range of other dimensions.
High level tracking versus management-oriented monitoring: I think we need both. As you know, we are working on a Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard (Griffith and Surrey University) to monitor global trends. The Dashboard is well on its way and will help to give an overall assessment of areas that trend well and those that need improvement. However, this does not replace detailed monitoring of, say carbon emissions or employment practices, at the company or destination level.
Third-party certification: There are a lot of schemes out there that are very light-weight. They do not provide sufficient guidance on how to measure/monitor, and they do not require external auditing. Auditing is very important - not only because it enhances the credibility, but also because the audit process actually usually reveals little errors, misconcpetions, inaccuracies, potentials for further improvement - all of which help the business to do better. Companies are quite used to financial auditing - why not sustainable auditing.
Climate impact: the Achilles heel of tourism is the carbon footprint. Whilst I understand the focus on poverty one must remember the aim to achieve a decarbonisation of tourism. After all, if tourism contributes about 5% to global GHG emissions, it is also 5% responsible (in theory) for impacts - which as we know exacerbate poverty.
Big data: we have started several projects involving big data, and some of the issues that are raised in the paper could be addressed by linking existing databases for 'deep learning' and also better integration. This presents a cost effective way and if an organisation took responsibility it could become an open source resource. I am happy to elaborate.
All the best, I am looking forward to hearing more and hopefully I can attend one of the next meetings,
Susanne Becken
Griffith University

John Perrottet
March 01, 2016

Thank you so much for your detailed comments and suggestions, we will incorporate your feedback where appropriate for the final version. You reference to big data and the complexities of getting it right are very pertinent and it is certainly one of the ways forward that we would like to explore in more depth. If you have any further thoughts or ideas for collaboration, please send them to [email protected]. Many thanks again!

Geoffrey Read
February 24, 2016

Helpful Summary
Para 1 It would be important to also mention the impact of national tourism, as this may have a far larger impct ( negative and positive) it would be most productive to look at the China local tourism experience and impact.
Para 7 A key area which needs assessment is the need for and impact of investments in physical and policy interventions. Policy and action to put in place Sustainable services and infrastructure is a sine qua non for success.

Edward Manning
March 01, 2016

I support the need for a common tool and language to address sustainability for the many aspects of tourism. The work which we did to establish indicators was done as a sensitivity instrument as well as a potential tool in defining which factors were most essential to sustain in destinations. The subsequent work on GSTC criteria was done to try to establish expected standards for a destination which considered itself to be sustainable. Taking this further as an evaluation tool will add value and it might be helpful in 2.5 to explicitly recognize the potential for formal evaluation - both of projects and state of destinations regarding key criteria. The assumptions relating to attribution for any individual initiatives are always problematic; we have had some successes by scaling evaluations to the aggregate level where collective attribution is easier to measure (but not to allocate) when asssessing the results of investments or program initiatives.
One current challenge globally is trying to aggregate information from destination and or national sources to be able to do higher level analysis and portrayal of the impacts of the tourism sector. I would mention the idea of satellite accounting which is in use in some nations to try to measure levels of tourism and of impacts at larger scales.
With regard to limits of acceptable change, the addition of sensitivity analysis of impacts at different levels of change (both to perceived levels of disruption and to documentable ecological and social impact) would be another means to refine what is really meant by tourism impacts. Indicators of both perceived impact and perceived response can be useful.
I would note that UNWTO has begun a series of observatories which can serve as potential laboratories to test some of the mentioned techniques and tools.

John Perrottet
March 02, 2016

Thank you Edward for sharing your views with us. We would like to further discuss and collaborate on the issues you address. If you have any further thoughts, please send them to [email protected].

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
March 03, 2016

On Tourism Impacts
Concerning: Towards More Effective Impact Measurement in the Tourism Sector
First, our compliments to the WBG Sustainable Tourism Global Solutions Group on this excellent paper and on the World Bank’s willingness to evaluate the use of tourism for development in a sustainable and responsible context.
We have one general observation and only a handful of comments on specific parts of the report.
General observation:
A fundamental truth often overlooked or underappreciated in tourism development discussions is this: The ultimate tourism product is the place itself.
The character of the destination—its people, its natural and cultural assets, its aesthetic appeal—comprises the unique selling point on which inbound tourism depends. (The only exceptions are purely manufactured attractions, such as Disneyworld or the Las Vegas Strip.) From the point of view of long-term sustainable economic development, distinctive identity of place ensures market differentiation, whereas look-alike beach resorts, for example, can be easily undersold by another destination that offers the same thing cheaper.
The commendable goal of shared community prosperity through tourism thus requires taking care of the shared community assets that support it. This is a litmus test for truly sustainable tourism. Conventional tourism development sometimes fails the test; sometimes it may even degrade those assets. Inversely, when those assets are threatened by other internal or external pressures, responsible but fragmented tourism interests may fail to rally in defense of the character of their place.
Specific comments, by section:
§2.2 Reinforces our general observation about protecting tourism assets. It is important to recognize that there comes a point of diminishing returns when numbers of tourists exceed carrying capacity, a.k.a. limits of acceptable change. This has already occurred at numerous World Heritage destinations.
§2.6, 2.7 “…The best possible outcome for their economies and their communities.” We believe this impact must be measured not only economically, but in terms of social factors and protection or enhancement of tourism assets, whether real or intangible.
§3.6 We agree that impact metrics need to be aligned among stakeholders—a term that should include those often omitted as stakeholders, such as the destination residents and the tourists themselves. It is critical that impact metrics are measured on a continuous basis in order to maintain a successful, proactive destination stewardship plan. Continuity may therefore require that the destination government be willing to share oversight with independently selected nongovernmental members of a stewardship council.
§3.10 The “compelling” convenience of dodging complexity by relying on quantified economic value does not negate the need for other impact reporting as well. Impact assessment should include not only social factors for local populations but also impacts on the evolving character and quality of the types of tourism being employed. This is especially important for such unquantifiables as tourism effects on cultural preservation/degradation and the all-important but often overlooked matter of aesthetics: Is the destination becoming more—or less—attractive and appealing? Polls and surveys of both local and visitor opinion are one way to acquire this data.
§4.2 We are pleased to see these systems included in the report. They are frequently overlooked by economic development authorities worldwide.
§4.3 We would also call attention to the detailed, European-based Green (or Sustainable) Destinations rating system, a still-developing database that is striving to establish a holistic system for measuring destination stewardship.
§5.3 (and 6.3i) This excellent point identifies and opportunity for deploying Bank expertise—i.e.,: analyze tourist spending per footprint, determine where the money goes and its effects along the value chain, both positive and negative.
§5.4 We wholeheartedly concur. Different types of tourism can have greatly varying impacts, both positive and negative.
§5.6 This point cannot be overemphasized. Tourism is an effective but dangerous tool. As often noted, it is a “fire that can cook your food or burn your house down.” The need to guard against negative and even self-destructive impacts should permeate WBG work in this area.
§6.3 As a developing information and resources clearinghouse, the Destination Stewardship Center seeks ways to further help WBG achieve the commendable purposes outlined in this paper, and in helping to fill these gaps. While all seven named areas are of interest to us, §6.3ii,iv, and v are well suited to our current range of expertise and available resources, as is 6.4:
§6.4 Among many additional topics worthy of attention are indigenous and minority tourism, tourism in the interest of public education, crowd-sourced citizen-science and observational reporting, and many others.
Additionally, some destinations that have already adopted a sustainable-tourism vision nevertheless still urgently need a toolkit for designing and implementing it. Several organizations (including our own) have developed components for building such plans, with the goal of ensuring that destinations have rapid access to practical knowledge, resources, and markets. Presumably, the Bank itself could contribute to such toolkits with guidance on access to funding. The end result would be a process for destination stakeholders to create economically responsible stewardship and development plans custom tailored for their own unique sets of assets.
--Jonathan B. Tourtellot
Sponsor and Portal Editor, Destination Stewardship Center
Founder & Director, National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations 2001-2010

Megan Epler Wood
March 03, 2016

A Good Overview
Thanks for bringing together the information on impact monitoring.
I suggest a review of all the monitoring programs, for use by decision makers, based on a set of criteria that includes measurability of the indicator. As a representative of two university research programs, I have had the opportunity to review most of these monitoring systems and have had students study the applicability of these systems to real life government and business situations. A short report by Cornell on a number of the systems in 4.3 was done in 2014 in collaboration with STI to understand how viable these systems were for the future of sustainable tourism decision making. We would be happy to share this report.
In terms of next steps, we believe at Harvard and Cornell that the use of measurable indicators, which can be reported on globally, using advanced cloud based technologies for sharing information, would transform tourism planning. A report that compares all existing indicators and narrows them into measurable categories which can be tested in the field through a variety of regions, could move this forward. (The agriculture sector achieved this type of comparison and it has been very effective)
In 5.2 there is a discussion of how to incorporate externalities into the measurement of tourism economic impacts and we agree this is crucial. Assessing externalities can be done initially through existing data systems which can be deployed. For example at Harvard we use the state-of-the-art multi-regional input/output methods combined with a unique and transparent database on social risks and opportunities, the Social Hotspot Database (SHDB). The SHDB includes over 90 indicators collected from over 250 sources, and covers 5 main social impact categories.
In 5.5 there is the concern that tourism still needs to sell itself as a growth and poverty reduction tool. Given the new Accor Planet 21 report and the TIMM report, both of which were undertaken by large corporations, it might not be as necessary as the WBG thinks, as the corporate community is increasingly becoming effective at making this case.
In 5.6 we do agree that these measurement tools are based on positive impacts. There can certainly be systems that would review the net impacts, and in fact a new balance sheet system for governments to assess the cost of managing destinations, using accounting principles, is now being investigated by our team at Cornell to discover how we can properly account for tourism assets in supply chains in future, and ensure they are protected. A study is beginning on that this semester at the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise.
6.3 We agree that the role of technology for impact collection is critical, and at Harvard we have been able to test geodesign systems as introduced in 4.3.7 to demonstrate how effectively they can empower local governments to deploy planning systems in a cost effective manner working with their own citizens. If development organizations begin to assist local municipalities by financing training and technology transfer this could revolutionize local capacity to manage tourism.
We look forward to discussing how to create global, cloud based impact measurement systems which use measurable indicators which demonstrate impact. We also highly encourage a focus on local government, to give them the capacity to manage their resources including water, solid waste and waste water. These actors lack capacity and often budgets to manage their own destinations at the municipal level, and there will be a need to assess how to pay for necessary infrastructure to ensure sustainability urgently in the very near future.
We look forward at both Harvard and Cornell to enhance and provide academic resources, academic cooperation and global on-line training capacity to make tourism planning more cost effective, global and effective both by training young professionals to carry out work, and to help local institutions to manage their own future.

Jim Sano
March 05, 2016

One of the take home lessons from this week's Conservation Travel Lab is investments in the tourism sector must create incentives for governments, communities, the private sector to conserve their natural and cultural tourism assets. Why? In the long term, product differentiation and the quality of the traveler's experience is paramount. It lays the foundation to create tourism product which truly benefits disenfranchised communities.