New solutions needed to tackle ‘invisible burden’ of tourism

Locals bear the hidden costs of tourism; pictured, tourists to Vietnam going down a canal in traditional bamboo basket boats

There are hidden costs in tourism that urgently need to be addressed with new solutions, according to a newly released report, which also named South-east Asia among the regions most vulnerable to such “invisible burdens”.

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, according to the report by Travel Foundation, Cornell University’s Centre for Sustainable Global Enterprise and EplerWood International.

Locals bear the hidden costs of tourism; pictured, tourists to Vietnam going down a canal in traditional bamboo basket boats

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

The report’s authors argue that destination authorities urgently need access to new resources, systems and expertise to ensure that the true costs of every new visitor are fully covered as tourism grows.

Some “urgently needed solutions” recommended include:
– 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; and
– new valuation and financing mechanisms to redress debilitating underinvestment in infrastructure and local asset management and enable the transition to low-carbon destination economies.

“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,” said Megan Epler Wood, principal report author, Epler Wood International.

“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,” added Salli Felton, CEO, The Travel Foundation.

“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,” commented co-author Mark Milstein from Cornell University.

The authors conclude that some destinations are more vulnerable to the invisible burden and should be prioritised. These include island states, where there is a high risk of climate change impacts (which would disproportionately affect a visitor economy); South and South-east Asia, where the rise of the global middle class is driving tourism growth at unsustainable levels; and the Caribbean, where there is high economic dependence on tourism.

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