Measuring what matters in tourism

Measuring what matters in tourism

“The way we construct … indicators has huge consequences for how we organise our economy, what kind of policies we implement and how we organise our lives”

Ha-Joon Chang

Increased local economic prosperity, an improvement in the quality of life, an enhancement of the natural environment, access to diverse employment opportunities, an increase in pride in culture and traditions.  This is the promise that we make when we develop tourism in any destination anywhere in the world.  It is the reason that tourism has been viewed in a favourable light by Governments and development agencies.  It is the belief that communities buy into when they start to develop tourism.  It facilitates the dream of unsullied cultures, welcoming hosts and pristine environments that tourism businesses sell to their customers.  In essence, this promise lies at the core of our product.  The significance of the promise is such that any casual observer would expect the tourism industry to have a wealth of mechanisms to ensure it is fulfilled.  The casual observer would be wrong!

More than a century of mainstream tourism development has rendered this fantastic industry one of the most economically significant on the planet (or the most economically significant if you prefer – depending on whose data you trust).  Measurement has been core to delivering change in the industry.  We have an impressive array of complex algorithms at our finger tips against which to assess the economic benefits of tourism.  The development of processes to record, benchmark and set targets for environmental issues has been crucial to driving reductions in energy and water consumption.  The tools that can be used to measure the extent to which we fulfil our promise to the communities in the destinations that comprise our core product are rather more limited and very under-utilised.

There have been some excellent initiatives in this area, of which the European Tourism Indicators System for Sustainable Destination Management is just one.  But these initiatives are data hungry and feeding them at a time when the public purse strings in all but the wealthiest of countries are stretched to breaking point (or beyond) is little more than a pipe dream.  If we really want to improve performance in this area we need to take a different approach to measuring what really matters.  This approach must be:

  •  Sufficiently cheap to make it affordable to enable widespread use by private and public sector organisations on a regular basis
  • Focussed on a small number of key issues that will indicate the direction of change
  • Replicable, using a commonly understood range of methods that can be used by different business and across different destinations to identify those in which social stresses may already be or will potentially undermine the quality of the tourism experience
  • Sufficiently robust to guide decisions about investments within specific destinations (for example, a decision to invest in training for local staff to support promotion into senior management roles) AND to ensure those investment decisions deliver quantifiable and tangible benefits
  • Sufficiently credible to support claims about social impacts of tourism
  • Capable of annual reporting year-on year by a range of different organisations, thus providing evidence of the direction of travel over time.

Even two years ago, the quest for such a data set would have seemed impossible.  However, there is a new glimmer of light on the horizon.  As corporate responsibility reporting in the industry matures, it seems that there is a new impetus for metrics to assess the extent to which we fulfil our promise and this is coming from the private sector with some companies (such as TUI – always in the vanguard) already actively pursuing measures of their social impact.

We (the New Economics Foundation, Conscious Travel and RHP) think that with a little help and some cross fertilization with the existing quality of life studies (from the OECD), the Gross National Happiness (think Bhutan) and other tried and tested indicator sets (including the data about employee diversity that is already held by the HR divisions of most large companies) there may be some scope to develop a small number of metrics.  With luck, these will be suitable for integration into the reporting processes of any company or destination in a cost effective way and will provide one step forward in measuring the extent to which we fulfil on that elusive promise.

The New Economics Foundation, RHP Ltd and Conscious Travel are hosting an event for the industry to refine how we can “measure what matters in tourism” in London over the summer.  If you would like to contribute to the debate, please email [email protected] or [email protected]

This article was first published on Linkedin. It is reprinted with permission of the author. Read the article on Linkedin here: Measuring what matters in tourism | Rebecca Hawkins | LinkedIn

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