Destination sustainability: how to measure success

In partnership with The Place Brand Observer, we asked our global panel of sustainable tourism experts this:

What does it take for a destination to be considered successful, in terms of sustainability? How to determine and measure sustainable tourism success?

The panel’s responses highlight the many ways how success can me measured and further, what success really means to the organization in terms of sustainability.

To start, let’s explore the term success. This word has so many meanings to people, and in reality, success is established or achieved only through the unique boundaries of the person seeking to reach it. Subjective in nature, and powerful in its ability to differentiate socially constructed lines of ‘the haves’ and ‘have nots’, success shines light and is a marker for change, be it considered positive or negative.

Although there are many ways to conceptualize success, it seems that within the tourism industry some interpretations stand out, in order to help perform and plan for sustainability.

This brings us to the responses of our experts; we drew 5 themes from the panel:

  • sustainability is a journey
  • community well-being
  • holistic approaches to sustainability
  • metrics and standards
  • collaborations and partnerships

The key to a thriving tourism industry is addressing how tourism can benefit a community by elevating economic opportunities, supporting socio-cultural systems, and maintaining healthy ecosystems on which communities depend. Tourism does not ‘happen’ in an isolated social vacuum, it contributes and influences the social and ecological fabric of place, and if not managed intentionally, tourism only perpetuates the systemic issues felt within our communities, regions, and countries.

The tourism industry can no longer simply focus on “how many” tourists visit a destination, or even “how much” money was spent in one destination, as a measure of success. In fact, those measures are what led to some of the industry’s most pressing issues, such as overtourism.

So, what does success mean, in terms of destination sustainability? Let’s have a look!


Sustainability is a journey

“I think it is fair to say that sustainability is a journey – not a destination. It is a process, rather than an outcome. I expect that the best destinations would never feel that they have ticked off the box for sustainability and can now move on to the next thing. There are always ways to improve” – Jonathon Day

Only through time and continuous effort, as well as adaption, is sustainability effective. Raj Gyawali believes that sustainability is a process and “not an end result of something you do”. This speaks to a key aspect in sustainability work: it’s not just about what you are doing, but rather the “movement is what needs to be watched to know if a destination is successful or not”.

As tourism organizations (of any size) evolve and become increasingly aware of how they can contribute towards regenerative tourism practices, there is a sense of feeling overwhelmed on how to ‘be sustainable’. This notion of being successful at sustainability over time encourages practical implications for the efforts being done or being planned.

If a destination has committed to (say) undertake a sustainable destination approach as offered by one the certification bodies accredited with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), that can be considered a ‘successful start’. If they continue the process of becoming a certified destination, that’s another degree of ‘success’. If they can maintain that certification over time, that’s another degree of ‘success’. – Steve Noakes

If sustainability is a journey, then markers, or indicators, set through intervals of time, help clarify measures of sustainability success. Meaningful change is the fruit of our labor and operators, businesses, governments, and organizations are creating steps towards actionable and meaningful change over time.

For example, reducing carbon emissions and becoming carbon neutral is a task that cannot be completed immediately. It requires a multi-level government and stakeholder approach to ensure that social behavior, policies, regulations, and infrastructure are built into the plan. Further, it requires informing and facilitating community change and buy-in. Without community buy-in and awareness, we risk not effecting the change necessary to reap the rewards we want to see for the future.


Community well-being and voice

Authentic tourism experiences are the product of community pride, culture, and sharing stories that reflect the place and people. And from the experts’ perspective, the key to destination sustainability is resident well-being and quality of life.

Ultimately destination residents invite or accept tourists to their communities because they hope that this economic activity will improve their quality of life or their well-being. If tourism is not making a net contribution to destination community well-being, then it’s not a sustainable activity. – Gianna Moscardo

Gianna’s quote is impactful in that tourism, like any economic activity, should have a responsibility in how it impacts people within the community, and further the natural environment. A great way to calibrate sustainability efforts and initiatives is to build trust with community members; this includes all levels of the organization and residents. It is important to hear what people are saying in terms of their own economic and social well-being, but to also gauge the overall health of the environment and community.

Regardless of the size of the destination, a deep understanding of how tourism is contributing positively to help improve the welfare of the residents must be indicated and publicly shared. – Masaru Takayama

Some of the most influential voices are those who work at the coalface of tourism. Those voices need to be incorporated into the feedback loop, rather than always hearing from the management or executive levels:

I think also that destinations should avoid stereotypical definitions and measurements and try to get a more ‘bottom up’ sense of what local people think and feel and experience. Often these questions are funneled through an academic prism, or measured in an unrealistic way, or answered only by certain people at a certain ‘level’. I believe that, in order to get a ‘buy in’ from the whole community, you need to trust the views of the whole community – even if they may know little academically about concepts like sustainability. – Gavin Bate

Less generic and more specific: while sustainability should be incorporated into multiple areas of tourism operations and planning, it also needs to be specific to the community’s needs, and issues.

Gavin’s point really shows the breadth and span that should be included when measuring and implementing sustainability initiatives. Further to his point, applying global standards and practices is great, but they should be adapted to meet the unique challenges that communities are facing.

Tourism is a system embedded in a larger socio-cultural system. The likelihood of success of sustainable tourism implementation is significantly increased when tourism is taking place in a destination community that is committed to sustainability; a community that is concerned about the environment – has recycling programs, supports renewable energy etc. – and is conscious of social and heritage issues, thus empowering tourism to adopt sustainable tourism principles. – Jonathon Day

Others added further consideration on how building buy-in at the community level can assist the tourism industry in realizing its sustainability goals. Brian Mullis suggests incentivizing businesses to improve safety, quality and sustainability practices to meet visitor expectations and achieve ready-to-export standards.

Incentives can be practical solutions, but also come with challenges, therefore should be thoughtfully considered to ensure meaningful change, and self-sufficiency as objective.


Holistic approaches to sustainability

Planet, people, profit. A term that most of us have probably heard. But how often do all three of those words get included at the stage of planning and implementing destination sustainability programs and initiatives? Another way to think about the 3Ps  – as Philippe Moreau shares in his answer – is the framework adopted by ‘The Long Run’, based on what they call the 4Cs (conservation, community, culture and commerce).

Whether it’s the 3Ps, the 4Cs or a variation thereof, we can all agree that there is no ‘quick fix’ to the sustainability challenges our societies face, and that is because of the interconnectedness and complexity of each issue.

Sustainable tourism is a “wicked problem” – each response, though guided by general principles, will be unique. And each action will generate unique responses, and often unearth new issues. The best destinations learn from the best examples and apply the ‘learnings’ to their own situation. – Jonathon Day

Jonathon’s point further explains the complex and systemic challenges sustainable tourism and the industry as a hole face. Wicked problems are issues so complex and dependent on so many factors that it is hard to grasp what exactly the problem is, or how to tackle it. Wicked problems are like a tangled mess of thread; it’s difficult to know which to pull first. Gender equality, security of food and energy supply, climate change and poverty can all be classed as wicked problems.

Interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary research is an essential aspect for innovation when thinking about wicked problems. Gavin Bate suggests:

…rather than just the simplistic view of economic benefits bringing more money in…..intangible factors are often best seen through the medium of stories and anecdotes and public comment. So I would say the measurement of sustainability should not be so empirical but more holistic. Less generic and more specific to an area or region.

Using a mixed method of both qualitative and quantitative inquiry offers robust information and helps to show the larger picture of a destination sustainability challenge or issue.

Amine Ahlafi also commented on the importance of the “symbiosis between [human] and nature”, and how that relationship should be considered the “capital of a sustainable destination”. Amine further says that this relationship should not be limited to ‘one-off actions’. Rather it should be “seen in all the links of the value chain of the tourist product and in a strategic way”.

To echo Amine’s perspective, Gianna refers to the capitals approach to community well-being:

…community well-being depends upon a healthy ecosystem, a vital and diverse economy and a sense of social well-being and these are in turn based upon good stock of natural capital, social capital, human capital, cultural capital, financial capital, built and political capital. So, destinations need to measure some aspect of all these capitals as well as resident support for tourism to demonstrate if they are sustainable or not.” – Gianna Moscardo


Collaboration & partnerships

Because of the nature of the tourism industry, having so many sectors (transportation, food and beverage, accommodations, adventure, travel trade etc.) it has long involved collaborations among different actors. When these partnerships and collaborations work well, they can be an effective way to enhance interactions among tourism players and work towards achieving sustainable development.

A destination that is addressing its main issues related to maintaining and improving environmental and cultural resources, and is working towards sustainability with stakeholders and community, is a successful destination. Probably the best way to measure its success is to evaluate and continuously improve a participative action plan of the destination management organization with the stakeholders. – Natalia Naranjo

Anna Alaman speaks about the multi-sectoral nature of the tourism industry and how “we can be dispersed in so many touristic issues (economic, environmental, socio-cultural) that sometimes we lack creating and measuring impact on any”. Anna’s point emphasizes exactly why partnerships and collaborations are an important approach when thinking about and planning for sustainable tourism development.

One way to frame effective collaborations and partnerships is through the United Nations Development Goals. Goal 17, for example, aims to ‘revitalize partnerships for sustainable development’. The targets within this goal speak of the importance of multi-sector partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries.

Brian Mullis’ perspective aligns with SDG 17 in that he feels that “foster[ing] inter-ministerial and multi-stakeholder collaborations and establish[ing] and implement[ing] structured, mutually beneficial partnerships across the tourism value chain” can lead to measured successful sustainability in tourism.

Taking this a step further, the United Nations assert that there should be ‘inclusive partnerships’ among the private sector, civil society and government, based upon ‘…principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre’.

Peter Richards in his contribution to the panel emphasized these same values, while commenting on the importance of “cross-sector consultation / collaboration / concrete actions which show that people from different corners can work together.”

However, inclusive partnership can be difficult to achieve. When multiple organizations and groups allay together, there are at times tensions around a unified vision and ways of operating, thus leading to potential clashes between long-term goals for sustainable development projects.


Metrics and standards that address community needs and issues

There are many governing and certifying bodies in the world that support and encourage sustainable tourism best-practices. While their approaches and requirements may not necessarily be equally good, it is a consensus among our panelists that using some sort of metric or global standard to measure against is needed and should be considered best practice for sustainable tourism development and success measurement.

Adopt the Green Destinations Standard, and at least implement those criteria that are applicable and feasible for your destination. – Albert Salman

While adopting global standards is a good start, many experts spoke to choosing indicators and sustainable initiatives which are relevant to the destination. For instance, if overtourism is not a localized issue, then it might not be necessary to have resources allocated for it. However, overtourism should be accounted for in long-term strategic plans, so that it does not become an issue in the future.

Destinations need to set their own relevant sustainable KPIs. At the Slovenian Tourist Board, we have established the Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism (GSST), which serves as a tool for destinations and service providers to evaluate and improve their sustainability endeavours, based on global criteria. – Maja Pak

The development of strategic plans for a destination seems to be the ‘ground zero’ for realizing and implementing sustainable tourism development. These strategic plans are formulated to address local issues and reflect the concerns of residents – while still taking global sustainability best practices and guidelines into account.

As Rachel Dodds points out, “without metrics or indicators establishing a baseline, nothing can be measured.” To her mind, “this should be in the form of a policy or plan that has specific, measurable indicators outlining acceptable limits of change (LAC). A multi-stakeholder approach should be taken to establish these.”


In summary

Sustainable tourism development is not just a trendy word to include in your quarterly destination performance reports. It’s about a genuine concern and care for the social, ecological, and cultural systems that the tourism industry is embedded within and depends on. Tourism has the power to contribute towards sustainable development and can support mitigation plans for the complex challenges our societies face.

As we heard from our expert panelists, ‘having’ success as a sustainable tourism destination takes several factors for consideration. First, in order to adopt sustainability into destination development, one must understand that it is not about ‘checking a box’ and ‘reaching’ a sustainability designation. Rather, sustainability happens over time. It takes time to achieve meaningful change, at a macro and micro level.

Once perception of sustainability has shifted from being considered a destination to it being more of a journey, it is important to utilize partnerships and collaborations to achieve common goals and objectives. Those can assist in leveraging resources in order to build awareness and community buy-in. Without community infrastructure and support it can be hard to implement effective sustainability measures.

Community well-being is at the heart of sustainable tourism. Without a healthy community and ecosystem, tourism cannot be successful in the long-term.

Lastly, ensure you build strategies and plans to help guide the efforts being made. Without a standard to follow, baseline measures, and continuous recording, there is no evidence of sustainable tourism successes. Listen, learn, set goals, set metrics, implement, record, evaluate, and re-set!


This thematic summary of panel answers was written by Genevieve Huneault, Principal Consultant at Social Root Consulting. If you would like to engage with the Sustainability Leaders Project, help out or ask the panel a question, please get in touch.


To read the full responses of the expert panel, please click here.


More about the destination sustainability panel here – including previous sessions and answers to some of the most pressing issues linked to making tourism more sustainable.

Destination Sustainability: How To Measure Sustainable Tourism Success?
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