Destinations need new resources to tackle the “invisible burden” of tourism

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A report published today by the Travel Foundation, Cornell University’s Centre for Sustainable Global Enterprise and EplerWood International describes how destinations must uncover and account for tourism’s hidden costs, referred to as the “invisible burden,” to protect and manage vital destination assets worldwide. Failing to do so puts ecosystems, cultural wonders, and community life at increasing risk, and places the tourism industry on a weak foundation that could crack under its own weight.

The range of costs not currently accounted for include those needed to:

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  • upgrade infrastructure beyond resident needs, to meet tourism demand;
  • manage and protect public spaces, monuments, the environment and natural habitats;
  • mitigate exposure to climate change risks; and
  • address the needs of locals affected by rising real estate prices, driven by the demand from tourism.

Either residents are left to pay these costs, or they are simply not paid, increasingly leading to environmental crises, spoiled tourism assets, and growing dissatisfaction among local residents. Destination authorities urgently need access to new resources, systems and expertise to ensure that, as tourism grows, the true costs of every new visitor are fully covered.

Amid increasing concern about “overtourism” and calls from within the travel industry for improved destination management, the report, Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, was commissioned by the Travel Foundation to better understand the challenges and constraints that national and municipal authorities face. It provides a thorough review of the risks that destinations face and the solutions urgently needed, including:

  • New local accounting systems that capture the full range of costs stemming from the growth of tourism, in place of an incomplete set of economic impact measures.
  • New skills and cross sector collaboration, underpinned by data and technology, to achieve effective spatial planning, manage demand for public utilities and services, and evaluate the availability of vital, local resources.
  • New valuation and financing mechanisms to redress debilitating underinvestment in infrastructure and local asset management and enable the transition to low-carbon destination economies.

Principal report author, Megan Epler Wood, said: “The Earth’s greatest treasures are cracking under the weight of the soaring tourism economy.  New data-driven systems to identify the cost of managing tourism’s most valued assets are required to stem a growing crisis in global tourism management.  With the right leadership, finance and analysis in place, a whole new generation of tourism professionals can move forward and erase the invisible burden while benefiting millions around the globe.”

Salli Felton, CEO of the Travel Foundation, said: “The invisible burden goes a long way to explain why we are now witnessing destinations failing to cope with tourism growth, despite the economic benefits it brings. It’s not enough to call on governments and municipalities to manage tourism better, if they don’t have access to the right skills and resources to do so. Destination managers need support to develop new skills and new ways of working that will enable them to move beyond tourism marketing.”

Dr Mark Milstein, co-author of the report, said: “This is a challenge of investing for the long-term health of a critical global economic sector. Future success will require collaboration among business, government, and civil society so that destinations are managed as the valuable, yet vulnerable, assets that they are.”

The authors conclude that some destinations are more vulnerable to the invisible burden and should be prioritised. For instance:

  1. Where there is a high risk of climate change impacts (which would disproportionately affect a visitor economy) – for instance, island states.
  2. Where the rise of the global middle class is driving tourism growth at unsustainable levels – for instance, in Southern and Southeast Asia.
  3. Where there is a high percentage of economic dependence on tourism – for instance, in the Caribbean.
  4. Where the ability of local government to manage tourism growth is low, in terms of budgets and human capital – a problem that has been found in both advanced and emerging economies.

The analysis draws upon academic literature, case studies, expert interviews and media reports, and provides a wealth of examples of the invisible burden.  Cases are drawn from Thailand, Mexico, and the Maldives, as well as Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The report also gives insights into types of data-driven systems, such as GIS mapping tools and the Smart Cities concept, which can address growth issues and facilitate new forms of investment.

The free report is available at invisibleburden.org.