Tourism ecosystems: A way to think about challenges and solutions to tourism development


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Ecosystem: A complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships in a particular unit of space.
Tourism: A social, cultural and economic phenomenon that entails the movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal, business or professional purposes.

I was part of a tourism ecosystem, once, when I built and operated a small lodge on the banks of the Nile in Uganda. While I was living in a tent in the bush building the lodge, life was simple: My little ecosystem was the land around the lodge and the tribulations of fending off monkeys and snakes by day and leopards, hippos, elephants and mosquitoes at night. The sun and rain beat down hard, and tools and workers broke down regularly. The generator was a particular pain in the neck.

Apart from supplies coming in, I was not really connected to the outside world. Money ran out for awhile and I had to rush to Kampala and persuade the bank give me a bigger overdraft (at 26 percent interest – thieves!).
Once the lodge was finished, I had to join another ecosystem: the world of registering the company, getting licenses, drawing up employment contracts, getting a bank overdraft, getting a tax ID number – all the elements of the enabling environment for me to do business. Then I had to join another one: I needed bums on beds, and I had to link my wonderful product to local markets; I had to develop promotional materials and packages; I had to interact and contract with tour operators and local travel agents to supply me business; I needed market access. 

Nile Safari Camp: home for two years

Then, guess what? My business plan wasn’t panning out. I didn’t get the occupancies or the rates that I projected from the local market. I had to step into yet another ecosystem: the world of international long-haul travel. I needed more and better-paying customers. I had to understand how the big international tour operators sold their product, what they were looking for in new product and how they contracted. I had to join another ecosystem to make that happen. Turns out my little product wasn’t enough to attract international customers on its own, I had to team up with other lodges and offer a fuller package; we had to cluster our products. I had to diversify and innovate and find ways to add value to my accommodation offer – birdwatching, fishing, guided walks, weddings and honeymoons, meetings and workshops. . . . Well, there are whole ecosystems around each of those market segments. You need to understand them before you can do business with them.        

Fast forward 20 years, and I find myself constantly drawing on those early experiences to understand the challenges of developing a tourism sector in any destination. Visualizing those challenges as part of multiple overlaying ecosystems that concern living, breathing, thinking and constantly interacting parts is critical to seeing the big picture. Tourists move around; they use local transport and roads; they pass through urban spaces; they visit historical and cultural sites and natural areas; they talk to people, interact with local businesses, stop to admire a view, watch animals and birds; they fly, swim, bike, walk, eat, drink, sleep; they shop, attend events, watch sports, go to shows, visit museums; they “do” and “experience” pretty much the same as local residents, and a lot more. Almost every experience a tourist has is an interaction with an ecosystem.
Tourists pass through and life goes on. The kicker is that, while they pass through, they leave money behind. They willingly, even happily, part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for a service or a good provided by a local person. It can be an amazingly efficient and painless system for transferring wealth. It’s compellingly pro-poor.

Each of these boxes (below) represents a whole set of players on the supply side who need to come together to contribute to the greater tourism ecosystem in any destination. If one or two boxes are not working, the whole system is in trouble.    

Sector Strategy and Policy 



Shaun Mann

Senior Investment Policy Officer

Join the Conversation

August 17, 2015

Thanks for sharing your story, Shuan. We are fortunate to have you in the team, sharing your experience with private and public sector operators in tourism ecosystems around the world.

August 17, 2015

Thanks for sharing your story, Shuan. We are fortunate to have you in the team, sharing your experience with private and public sector operators in tourism ecosystems around the world.

Ron Mader
August 18, 2015

Brilliant essay and unique look at tourism development. Let me know if you would like to participate in a live video hangout - - to discuss the application of the 'ecosystem' model.

Althea Yearwood
August 31, 2015

A good example which adequately explains, and at the same time raises questions as to the implications for tourism ecosystems if the functions of the parts of the system are not understood. Too many times the connections are not made early enough and there is dysfunction in the system which has detrimental financial implications.

Shaun Mann
September 01, 2015

Thanks for the comment. You've touched on exactly the point I was trying to get across. The implications of an unhealthy tourism ecosystem also extend to social, economic and environmental issues, the financial is really the tip of the iceberg. 

Scott Wayne
October 06, 2015

Shaun, great summary of the jigsaw puzzle-like ecosystem of tourism. Lots of "moving parts" which require lots of integration and coordination for maximum coordination and sustainability. Sustainability in all senses of the word -- environmental, social/cultural, economic/financial. For under-resourced emerging markets, realizing the very useful chart that you included is an uphill battle, one in which external expertise such as via the World Bank can make less of a battle and more of a sustainable success!

October 13, 2015

Thanks Scott. I think even awareness can qualify for "realizing". So often our clients are sectorally quite fragmented with regards to tourism and just an awareness of the other stakeholders in the ecosystem and the role they might have in efficient and effective service delivery is a huge breakthrough.

November 03, 2015

Very encouraging blog post.

March 19, 2016

interesting post about Eco tourism and it is more helpful for us. thanks for sharing your valuable experience.