Sustainability Challenges in Tourism Explained: #1 Inadequate Metrics and Definitions of Success

Published 09/08/2017
Inadequate metrics and definition of success: tourism sustainability challenge

Inadequate metrics and definition of success: tourism sustainability challenge

Tourism and sustainability: hardly a day goes by where a news item about (the lack of) sustainable tourism management doesn’t cross our virtual editorial desk. Now that sustainability has become mainstream in tourism discourse (although unfortunately not in tourism practice), we all have a pretty good idea of why it is so important for a functioning tourism industry and enjoyable travel experiences. So what is hindering tourism businesses and destinations from becoming more sustainable, faster?

Which are the key challenges of making tourism businesses and destinations more sustainable?

The answers are manifold and often depend on local circumstances at the destination. Not every destination faces the same challenges, just like not every tourism business – hotel or tour operator – has to tackle the same issues on the sustainability front. But there are also challenges which affect everyone who is part of the tourism ‘system’.

In our interviews with tourism and sustainability professionals we often include a question about which they consider the main challenges regarding tourism sustainability. Among the many (and very diverse) answers so far, we’ve identified 10 themes and areas of concern. We’ll discuss each of those in separate posts over the next weeks.

The first challenge: inadequate metrics and definitions of tourism success.

Sustainable tourism challenge #1: inadequate metrics and definitions of success

For Anna Pollock, founder of the Conscious Travel website, the single biggest challenge – and at the same time opportunity – is “to re-define success and shift the purpose of tourism from simply growing and doing more of the same, to enabling all its stakeholders (guests, hosts, employees, suppliers)… to truly flourish.”

She suggests that “once you change the purpose of a living system (and that’s what tourism is) everything changes”. That said, the way tourism changes does not need to be dictated by a checklist of activities, she emphasizes. Rather, “the form of change and adaptation will reflect the unique characteristics of the people in a place and will emerge from the constructive interactions of its participants.”

Linked to this is the observation of Nada Roudies, General Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism in Morocco, that for a more sustainable tourism to be possible, destination marketers need “to move from a logic of [sustainability as] niche product, targeted at small and specific segments, to a global approach involving all the stakeholders.”

Distinction between tourism growth and development is often misunderstood. (Jafar Jafari)

For Jafar Jafari, Professor of Hospitality and Tourism at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and founder of the academic journal Annals of Tourism Research, one thing is clear: “usually the distinction between growth and development is misunderstood” and this is at the core of “whether a country wants more tourism (growth) or prefers sociocultural/ecological sustainable tourism (development).”

Along similar lines argues Ronald Sanabria, Head of Sustainable Tourism at Rainforest Alliance in Costa Rica. For him, “the tourism industry is overly focused on measuring the number of arrivals to destinations and jobs created, rather than the sustainability of the services at those destinations and how the local community benefits.”

Because the wrong metrics are used, tourism often ends up negatively impacting destinations. (Ronald Sanabria)

Reflecting on his tourism sustainability work at the Rainforest Alliance, Ronald reports that there are still tourism companies without a long-term vision, which is a must for sustainable tourism. These companies “come in and take all they can, and when they have destroyed a destination, they move on.”

Albert Salman, founder of the Green Destinations network, shares those concerns. In his words:

Globalisation is continuing. In search of quick wins, many destinations try to attract more visitors, new types of visitors (e.g. Chinese) and try to adapt to them. And they accommodate franchise chains and the global fast food sector. I hope that many destinations will refuse to give up their own character. If not, I hope the population will revolt, like in Barcelona and Venice.

Often, lack of data and thus limited knowledge contribute to a situation of inadequate metrics and success measurements in tourism. Salli Felton, CEO of the Travel Foundation in the UK:

Whilst a reasonable amount of research has been done to consider the economic contribution tourism makes to a destination, very little work has been conducted to measure the broader impacts of tourism (including environmental and social). As a result, there is a lack of knowledge around the real impact tourism is having on destinations and a corresponding inability to manage these impacts in a positive and proactive way.

Like Anna Pollock, Salli is convinced that if addressed adequately, this challenge of insufficient data and location-specific knowledge can become an opportunity for tourism. The (sometimes hyped) concept of ‘smart city’ or ‘smart destination’ comes to mind.

Measure tourism impact, not just benefits! (Salli Felton)

Over in South Korea, Mihee Kang, when asked about the key challenges ecotourism faces in her country, tells a very similar story:

Here in Korea the government often wants to see the economic growth or focuses on the increased tourist numbers. Ecotourism can’t make money instantly as it requires stakeholders’ agreement and participation and small scale development.

At the core of all this is the problem that officials often treat tourism as something that is separate from local or regional development. In Mexico, for instance, that’s exactly the key issue preventing a more sustainable tourism scenario, tells us Beatriz Barreal of Sustainable Riviera Maya.

Tourism policies and strategies should not be considered separate from local/regional development! (Beatriz Barreal)


Our first takeaway from those issues linked to tourism sustainability challenges at a macro, systemic level is that tourism and local/regional/urban development have to follow the same vision and strategy (which can be achieved through strategic place branding).

The second key insight for us is that collecting data to measure tourism impact, not just benefits, is important to be able to train, convince and (re)educate place officials – policy makers and enforcers (the trendy ‘smart’ city/destination concept is a prime opportunity to achieve this).


Lack of a long-term, holistic view is the topic of our next post (#2) on the key challenges preventing tourism businesses and destinations from becoming more sustainable.

Articles on sustainable tourism challenges published so far:

Please note that the information and views set out in this article are those of the authors (interviewees) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the organizations they work for.

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