Does a destination’s sustainability performance influence its competitiveness? That’s the question we asked our panel of sustainable tourism experts. A question which is becoming more important – and receiving more attention – now that more and more cities and tourist sites are forced into crisis management mode due to tourism overcrowding and other issues affecting their quality and sustainability.
Below the panel’s answers (in alphabetical order – featured panelists are available as speakers or consultants).
Our main takeaways:
- Sustainability means competitiveness when it positively influences visitor experiences.
- Destinations with strong sustainability performance are more likely to attract investors.
- Sustainable destinations have happier residents, which means friendlier locals for visitors to meet.
- Tourism does not operate in isolation. It needs other industries and general place development to also be sustainable.
- Many other factors influence the competitiveness of a destination, including accessibility.
Promoting new ways of travelling for more emotional and meaningful holidays can improve competitiveness in a destination. The tourism industry needs more innovative products to connect travellers and the destination in a more experiential way, involving local sources. Experiential tours run by locals can influence the industry by changing market trends.
For example, “Cook like a local” experiences in Nepal have been a successful activity in Kathmandu, run by socialtours. Now, conventional tour operators have started to promote similar experiences.
I was fortunate to be one of the authors of Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals – Journey to 2030. This joint effort between UNWTO, UNDP, and other partners, was undertaken to empower and inspire decision makers to accelerate the shift towards a more sustainable tourism sector by aligning policies, business operations and investments with the 17 SDGs.
In the research, we found (to no surprise of many) that competitiveness is the key business driver of sustainability, since many CSR activities are related to improving business results by improving resource efficiencies and benefitting host communities. It was noted that more drastic measures are needed along the entire tourism value chain – not just amid the tourism private sector.
Working in this arena for many years and much more intensively as of late in my role as Director of the Guyana Tourism Authority, I have found that destinations committed to improving their sustainability performance improve both their competitiveness and reputation in the process.
When destination authorities understand and can quantify the socio-economic and conservation benefits associated with tourism, it helps to inform policy, protection of their tourism assets, and related investments from donors, businesses and governments.
Sustainability processes in destinations always involve a screening of the status quo, benchmarking with other destinations and identifying strengths and weaknesses in the destination. Furthermore, it includes a stakeholder management process with analysis and management of the stakeholder groups in the destinations.
Destinations may find positioning dimensions in sustainability or become more efficient in their tourism management. Collaboration of different stakeholders may lead to innovations and better tourism offers.
Therefore, a destination’s sustainability performance influences its competitiveness positively. A good example is the Alpine Pearls network.
I think that the significance of this is growing slowly in the eyes of the consumer. Two main areas are influencing this currently. The rise in awareness of overtourism and its visible impact on local communities and tourist holiday experiences. Obvious examples are Venice, Dubrovnik, Barcelona. As negative impacts of tourism are experienced more by the consumer, so in turn they will value better local practises and management, and this will improve both competitiveness and reputation.
The requirement of regional and national boards is increasingly less about destination marketing and more about effective destination management.
I imagine the tourism ‘industry’ used to resemble giant oil tankers ploughing their inexorable path with little evidence of any change in direction. Profit drove the engine; the more profit, the more competitive and powerful the ship, the bigger and better the reputation.
Back in the days of Corporations, that was the default business model.
Imagine someone mentioning the words ‘sustainability performance’ in the 1960s, it was seen as a fringe concern peopled by the idealistic socialist brigade.
Nowadays, competitiveness and reputation are framed around ethics. Sustainability is seen through the prism of ‘doing good’ and this generation of tourists rank sustainability and provenance much more highly in their choices.
From New York to Cornwall, from the Scottish Highlands to Costa Rica, destinations and travel companies all see the link between being sustainable and being reputable and competitive.
But sustainability still needs to be presented to the consumer in a way that enables destinations to make the most of it. Consumers know they want something better, something equitable and ‘good’. But they aren’t choosing a destination based on its ‘sustainability performance’…yet.
How a destination uses its sustainability performance to influence its competitiveness and reputation is down to linking those values and ethics which define a vision of integrity and a better future to the way in which it sends its message to visitors.
A consistent finding in the wider sustainability literature is that businesses that adopt sustainability as a core strategy also become more innovative, better places to work, and so more successful at attracting and retaining good staff. They have lower risk profiles which can lead to better deals with financial and insurance providers. It seems that a focus on improving sustainability both reflects and supports a focus on being a good business in all areas, and providing quality services or goods.
The same applies to tourism destinations in that sustainability performance is already a critical element of a destination’s reputation, adding to a wider perception that such a destination is well-managed, clean, focused on quality experiences, likely to offer the best staff and to be innovative.
But in addition, a truly sustainable destination has as its primary aim the direct improvement (not some vague trickle-down argument from increased numbers of tourists) of the well-being of destination residents. This means that sustainable destinations have happier residents.
One of the consistent findings in destination image research is the importance of friendly locals/happy residents to destination attractiveness. So, sustainability actually underpins all aspects of a destination’s reputation.
Whether this currently directly contributes to competitiveness is a more difficult and complex argument, as competitiveness in tourism also means accessibility in terms of visas, ease of transport access and cost in terms of money and time.
It is unlikely that sustainability and a great reputation will overcome access issues, especially as many (not all but many) of the destinations that are currently recognized as sustainable are either remote from large tourist generating regions or very expensive or both.
There seems to be very little research on this, and there needs to be much more, since competitiveness is how many DMOs think. The wrong “competitiveness” metrics can send a place down the double highway to overtourism, which degrades reputation. True sustainability enhances reputation among certain markets. The question might be put: What happens to the destination without sustainability?
Competitiveness can be viewed through a number of prisms and it is well worthwhile looking at them – sustainability and competitiveness – from a couple of perspectives. For instance, The World Economic Forum for some time has had a competitiveness index (WEF TTRCR). This index looks at a number of macro-level factors including an enabling environment, travel and tourism policy and enabling conditions, infrastructure, and natural/cultural resources.
This approach really looks at whether the destination has the building blocks to be competitive and tends to be weighted to the supply-side. From this perspective, sustainability and competitiveness are complementary and mutually supportive.
Another way of looking at competitiveness is to consider whether the destination is competing strongly against other similar destinations for consumers. I know several sustainability experts that chafe at the WEF approach to competitiveness because of its lack of consumer focus.
Of course, even from this perspective, how you judge competitiveness is challenging. Does competitiveness from this perspective mean growth in visitors?? Almost certainly not. While this is the easiest metric – it is also the metric most likely to generate non-sustainable tourism development.
Nevertheless, sustainability can positively impact that consumer experience – providing significantly improved cultural or environmental experiences. As such it can improve yield (spend by visitors), reduce economic leakage and even lead to greater guest satisfaction.
The destination’s sustainability performance is the strategy put in place by the leaders of a destination and their many stakeholders, to make sure work is in progress in terms of economic development, social development and environmental protection for future generations.
That strategy and the many illustrations of the impacts, the actions put in place, permit to position the destination as a “smart” destination, one that makes economic profit while protecting the planet and caring for the people.
Competitiveness should be a key driver for any destination when it reviews its performance overall. If a destination is performing well in the broad sense of sustainability, then its competitiveness and reputation will be enhanced by what the visitor sees, experiences and shares with their networks. Briefly this will touch on the following;
- Social – maintaining the social license to operate with residents by including them in discussions and being proactive around managing the visitor industry, plus mitigating potential impacts on them and their communities. Visitors will meet friendly locals who appreciate and understand the importance of a vibrant visitor industry.
- Environmental – actively minimizing the impact of the visitor industry on its environment, which in turn can be very visible to visitors. This can positively influence their perspectives on the destination.
- Economic – visitors can see the tangible benefits of a vibrant visitor economy through the standard of services they are provided with and improved living standards of the host communities.
- Culture – Embracing culture. Visitors will have access to unique cultures and will be able to experience those in a respectful manner, hence enhancing in a positive manner their perspectives on the destination.
As the world continues to face unprecedented pressures, such as climate change, population increases, income disparities, poverty, pollution, etc., those protecting the planet will have an upper edge.
Travel is significantly dependent on a healthy environment, people, and climate — people travel to seek refuge, educate themselves, relax, and experience adventure, to name a few. If places are denigrated and their people living in unhealthy conditions, tourism will not succeed for the long-term.
Sustainability performance influences competitiveness subtly. Visitors/guests tend to leave with a better impression of a destination that is sustainable – when they see a positive use of resources in a productive way.
If a destination is committed to sustainable development, positive effects can be seen. In regard to competitiveness, we can see that destinations that preserve their cultural and natural heritage can provide products that have an increased value to potential visitors.
Competitiveness can also be seen by potential investors that are willing to pay more to invest in such destinations, while their product will have a higher market value.
Sustainable destinations are also more likely to get noticed by different media, while they can relay to the topics that are more appealing to a broader spectrum of visitors.
Destination sustainability performance will mean competitiveness only if the public/tourists have a high level of awareness on sustainability issues. That’s why communicating sustainability practices is so important. First because those who understand its importance will value destinations (and business) that offer it. Also, because those who do not value it yet, will have the chance to understand its mechanisms and impact once they experience it.
In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits that a destination can enjoy pursuing to improve her sustainability is that those visitors that are not so responsible or beneficial to the destination can be filtered out.
Also, the higher the sustainability performance of a destination, the more it is capable of building higher resilience against tourism anomalies that are often influenced by political decisions and nature’s forces.
Destinations with visionary aims are more likely to be chosen over other factors, such as cost effectiveness and accessibility. Once the visitors enjoy the atmosphere of a green destination, they are likely to come back and tell others, which supports the competitiveness of the destination.
A destination’s sustainability performance influences its competitiveness in that it supports stakeholders and the whole destination to measure their cumulative impacts. It also helps to understand the possible measures and activities needed to mitigate the negative impacts of the touristic activities and to improve them. This also helps to make destinations more efficient.
The following is about climatic sustainability only, so a narrow interpretation, but a fundamentally important one. The big challenge for tourism destinations in a 2-degree Paris Agreed – future is to actively reduce dependence of CO2 emissions.
The big issue is transport to the destination and back home. Of course, the share of air travelling visitors will vary much between destinations. Destinations in areas with not well-developed road and rail networks will show high shares of air transport and remote islands may even reach almost 100% air travellers. But for the majority of destinations there is a choice! And that choice has mainly to do with the markets the destination tries to develop.
Many destinations deliberately aim at long haul markets and that of course is not sustainable with respect to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. One long haul visitor might have a carbon footprint of ten short haul visitors by air and even 20-50 visitors that arrive by train or coach!
Destinations with poor sustainability performance are likely to attract adverse media attention, especially at a time when the concept of overtourism is attracting high media attention. Bad media coverage is also likely to “rub off” on visitors to the destination, who can be expected to exhibit signs of frustration and annoyance when things go wrong, or when noticing that issues have not been dealt with that they have read about in the media.
Destinations with a high sustainability performance are more likely to attract quality investors. And with this investment will come greater numbers of higher spending visitors.
It depends on which markets we are talking about. Different markets care much more / less about different sustainability issues. Some of the highest quality / yield visitors do value sustainability as an important motivator and do show some willingness to pay more for it / or at least to accept a relatively higher price point for services across the ‘better cared for’ destination. E.g. middle/upper Western European travelers.
In volume terms, less sustainable destinations can actually be more competitive with the more price-driven markets in the short-medium term (e.g. Pattaya Vs Hua Hin). However, the destination will become embedded as a ‘cheap destination’. Some individual suppliers may be able to carve a higher value niche. However, many suppliers won’t earn enough profit from tourism to keep their businesses or the overall destination well maintained. So, it will gradually go into a downward spiral. This decline is cancer, not a heart attack. Gradually less satisfaction, more complaints… So, the question is ‘do tourism businesses really want to service very price sensitive clients in a declining destination over many years? Doesn’t sound like too much fun….
Destination competitiveness can be reached by having adequate measurements, which allow destinations to assess their performance and to benchmark it against other sustainable destinations. The question here is, what are the most reliable measurements? Is it Certifications from an accredited sustainable tourism body? Or are actions on the ground more important that have a real effect on the destination, but which don’t fall under an official organisation? Or, finally, could it be through gamification that destinations improve their performance when compared to others?
There might be a gap where a transversal platform would provide all these services, and where every stakeholder could use it according to their desired specifications. From sustainable event creation, to community support on the ground and always in alignment with the SDG!!!
When a destination has undergone a sustainability assessment, it means they have also thought about the wider issues, such as the external environment and social issues. This usually means that some sort of planning and management has taken place, rather than just a focus on growth of numbers.
A sustainability assessment also ensures a holistic approach and – while not necessarily evaluating its competitiveness – it is more comprehensive.
An example would be Whistler, Canada, who did a 20-year sustainability assessment (although have since lapsed). They know their competitive advantage. Especially relating to development, community wellbeing and environmental assessments they know where they stand.
If you look at current examples from around the world, the answer to this question will be mostly NO INFLUENCE on competitiveness. A classic example here would be Costa Rica – great reputation as a sustainable destination, but does it really influence competitiveness in the whole scheme of things, and whether people prefer to go there or elsewhere? Not a lot… Does it have a great reputation – YES… and that is a great PR stunt of course.
Bhutan is another classic example. Has a great reputation – happiness, minus carbon footprint etc – which it got mainly by a very good, focussed and sustained PR of the country. But how competitive is it really? That is a different set of parameters.
But the world is changing, and the demand is changing. More and more people want more experiential trips and the parameters that traditionally influenced competitiveness are changing – which will make the answer to this question very different in a few years’ time. At least, that’s the hope – for the sake of making sustainability mainstream.
I don’t think a destination’s sustainability performance has any real influence on its competitiveness. I do think that the promotion of a destination’s image as sustainable, however fanciful, fictional and lacking in hard evidence this may be, may well influence a few more people to visit, and will probably gain valuable publicity in appropriate media coverage as being a “good green” place to visit.
In reality, most tourists have no way of assessing the degree of sustainability of a destination, so why should they accept what the destination claims? Most of the “green” schemes are greenwash, some improvements, always welcome, are made, but no consideration of the carbon costs of getting to the place, of bringing non-local food, facilities etc to the area is normally included.
So, short answer, really, not much if anything. More rewards from publicity and claims.
In the short term, a destination’s sustainability affects its performance most notably when it impacts the visitor experience. An obvious example is Iceland. Having travelled there nearly ten times since 2006, I’ve seen first-hand the degradation of the country’s primary USP – solitude, experience of vast swaths of magnificent landscapes with no one else to impede your view. Well that’s no longer the case.
However, before the country sees any marked decline in visitation, all things remaining equal, there’s real concern that it will first experience a ‘see it before it’s gone’ repercussion. This factor, in combination with the destination’s high price point, has begun to impact its competitiveness against other, somewhat similar destinations.
If the presumption is that a ‘successful’ destination is one that makes money for the local tourism-related businesses, generates employment opportunities and generates income for the government, then being commercially ‘competitive’, is essential. That means it needs to attract and satisfy potential visitors.
If the socio/cultural and environmental attributes of the destination are not ‘healthy’, that will lead to dis-satisfaction (examples: local community irritation from tourist numbers or behaviour, traffic congestion from tourist transportation, pollution from the waste generated by local hotels etc).
So, I think there is a strong argument for the role of sustainability as a crucial determinant of the competitiveness of a tourist destination. An example is the damaged reputation of Boracay in the Philippines, which has been closed for up to six months after reports that the waters off its white-sand beaches had become a “cesspool” due to overcrowding and development.
I am not sure there are immediate benefits in terms of competitiveness. Destination sustainability is more of a long-term process that starts with internal communication, that is, a destination’s tourism businesses, the DMO and numerous other stakeholders working together for their region’s long-term future. It is important to understand that this cannot work for tourism in isolation. For example, if you have highly industrialised agriculture in a rural area, it is next to impossible to turn it into a sustainable tourism destination.
The same if there is no sustainable transport or effective biodiversity conservation. But tourism destinations that have started to tackle these challenges also improve the quality of their tourism offer and thus become more competitive in the long term.
Sustainability is, of course, an extremely complex concept, whose elements have different importance for tourists. Beautiful scenery, authentic culture, or local dishes are related to both sustainability and quality of the tourist experience, and thus immediately acknowledged by the demand. But when we talk about climate protection, lower resource consumption or fair wages, then a destination has more difficulty to “sell” this to the market.
What I am observing to a certain degree is that destinations that are not booming turn to sustainability as a way to (hopefully) achieve higher growth, and this is indeed an opportunity for them if they are sincere about it and do it well. But I would like to see more sustainability efforts in destinations with higher visitor numbers, because this is where sustainability is needed the most.
The increasingly negative effects of unmanaged mass tourism and the current discussion on overtourism will hopefully change this pattern.
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