Measuring the Success of Tourism – It’s not All in the Numbers

“Tourism acts like fire.  If used right, it can change the world for the better.  But if it gets out of control, its powers can be highly destructive.”  Those are the wise words of Costas Christ, one of the world’s most renowned sustainable tourism consultants, shared in a meeting at National Geographic last month.  His comments come at a time where increasingly tourism in many destinations is becoming unsustainable.

At the Cayuga Collection, sustainable tourism is successful tourism.  Here are our thoughts on what it should look like and how it should be measured.

Sustainable Growth in Tourism: Less is more

Over tourism has been a hot topic in the news over the past year. Even in Costa Rica – see our take on that here. Photos of upset residents protesting against being overrun by tourists are becoming an increasingly common sight on social media, and their reaction is justified.

Unfortunately, most countries still measure their tourism success by focusing on the total number of arrivals, and tourism ministers are primarily judged by the year on year growth of these figures. With some numbers getting out of control however, it’s fast becoming an inappropriate measure.

How about evaluating the Quality of Tourism as opposed to the Quantity of Tourists visiting a country as a measure of success?

Seasonality:  Not everybody between December 22nd and January 5th please!

A truly sustainable destination manages demand carefully and ensures year around visitation, with particularly close attention paid to peak season.  Of course, this can prove challenging.  Factors such as weather and school vacation times play a big part in dictating demand.  However, segment specific marketing and rate incentives can help ease the impacts of seasonality.  One positive effect of more balanced tourism throughout the year would be employment security for staff.  At the Cayuga Collection we employ ours year round – here’s we keep our staff on even in low season.

Beat the crowds. It is possible to visit beaches in Costa Rica where you won’t see another person for hours.  But at the same time, this beach is probably very crowded during Christmas Vacation.

Tourism Clusters:  Why does everybody flock to the same places? 

Most tourists that visit Costa Rica consistently end up in three or four geographical areas.  Those are Tamarindo or Guanacaste, Arenal or Monteverde, Tortuguero, and Jaco or Manuel Antonio.  Why is that the case?  Is it the pre-packaged trips that tour operators offer?  Do visitors prefer to stick to places their friends have also been to?  Is it because these places are where you’re “supposed” to go?  We’re not sure.

One thing we do know however is that going “off the beaten path” to destinations like Uvita and the Osa Peninsula often offers a much more authentic experience.  Visitors enjoy a memorable stay for all the right reasons, and these lesser-known destinations benefit greatly themselves from the visits.

Leave the tourism clusters behind and explore more remote destinations.  It might be a bit harder to get there, but it will be worth your while.  Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula.

The Challenge:  How do you measure the “quality contribution” of a tourist to a country? 

While there’s no set way, one of them is to measure the average amount of money that each tourist spends per day.  It’s straightforward and could be a good indicator.  Another could be to measure the percentage of money that each tourist spends that stays within the country or community as opposed to leaking out of the country, for example to international tour or hotel operators.  This is more difficult but still possible.

How about also looking at the quality of the tourist’s interaction with the country?  A sunshine-seeking tourist for example who stays within the walls of an all-inclusive hotel and has no contact with the locals other than a bartender would score low.  Meanwhile, a visitor to an ecolodge who participates in nature tours, visits local communities and is interested in learning about the culture first-hand would certainly score more positively.

How about a soccer game with the neighbors as part of your family vacation.  Beats the interaction with locals on a ‘swim up bar’ in an all inclusive resort, doesn’t it?

While we don’t offer a clear solution here, we think that the measures of tourism success need to be revisited.  At the Cayuga Collection, we support growth, but not at all costs.  And in the case of Costa Rica where we’re based, we prefer to work with a model based on quality rather than quantity.

What’s your idea of successful tourism? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

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