One of the world’s biggest economic activities, tourism drives wealth, employment, and regional development.

In 2018, international tourist arrivals reached 1.4 billion, while total export earnings from international tourism reached USD 1.7 trillion, or almost USD 5 billion per day on average, according to the latest data from the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Despite these results, the long-term sustainability of the industry faces important challenges in terms of making the growth model compatible with the quality of life of local communities, especially in cities or mature destinations.

A recent UNWTO report on overtourism in cities recognized the need for the sector to “ensure sustainable policies and practices that minimize adverse effects of tourism on the use of natural resources, infrastructure, mobility and congestion, as well as its socio-cultural impact.”

Consequently, the tourism policy paradigm should shift from a growth-oriented model to an approach focused on the quality of this growth and its compatibility with the quality of life of residents.

A new generation of tourism strategies

In recent decades, tourism policies have focused on attracting tourists and maximizing the positive impacts of tourism in terms of employment and income, with emphasis on marketing and tourism promotion.

Now, “destination management” has emerged as a policy topic and, more importantly, governments and destination-management organizations are actively engaging in the practice.

An OECD report underlines how sustained development of the sector depends on the ability of destinations to promote adaptations to economic, social, political, and environmental trends, highlighting the emergence of integrated policies—with the participation of the private sector and local communities—in order to promote more inclusive growth.

In Portugal, tourism has very positively contributed to the Portuguese economy, generating higher revenues and employment.

In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of this positive contribution, two years ago the Portuguese government launched Tourism Strategy 2027, which defines the vision for the Portuguese tourism industry for the next decade: “To affirm tourism as a hub for economic, social and environmental development throughout the territory, positioning Portugal as one of the most competitive and sustainable tourism destinations in the world.”

Developed in an open process with many participants, Tourism Strategy 2027 proposes an ambitious agenda, with the principles of sustainable tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals as its DNA. The strategy sets objectives for each of the three pillars of sustainable development: economic goals cover specific growth targets in terms of overnight stays and tourism receipts; social goals include seasonality, workforce-skills improvement, and residents’ satisfaction; and environmental goals are related to best practices in energy, water, and waste management.

Underlying this vision is the principle that tourism should be a vehicle for promoting the country's balanced development, deconcentrating tourist demand to less-developed regions throughout the year and adding value to local communities.

At the same time, the strategy aims to position Portugal as a leader in tourism of the future: a sustainable destination with a cohesive territory; an innovative and competitive country that values work and talent; an inclusive, open, creative country to visit, to invest in, to study in and live in.

New tools for monitoring (new) strategies

Making tourism more sustainable is a continuous process of making optimal use of environmental resources, respecting host communities, and ensuring viable, long-term economic operations, providing fairly distributed benefits among tourism stakeholders. This is a complex activity, with a number of economic, environmental, social, and political challenges, which require adequate management and evidence-based public policies.

And it’s far from easy to monitor the impacts of tourism. Efforts by international organizations such as UNWTO, OECD, and Eurostat have led to significant progress, including the establishment of international standards and tools such as the Tourism Satellite Account, which helps to understand the growing economic importance of tourism.

However, monitoring efforts have focused mainly on economic aspects, leaving behind the social and environmental impacts that, as we have seen, play a key role in the generation of sustainability-oriented tourism policies.

UNWTO’s initiative Towards a Statistical Framework for Measuring the Sustainability of Tourism (MST) will be an important tool to provide integrated information on sustainable tourism and to help destinations understand their social and environmental impacts.

Nevertheless, tourist destinations are already confronted with the need to develop public policies to promote sustainability, which requires new approaches in terms of generating data and guiding decision-making processes.

In the case of Portugal, the implementation of Tourism Strategy 2027 required the development of a sustainable tourism indicators system, enabling tourism policy evaluation and providing the private sector with instruments for making strategic decisions.

Those 34 indicators followed recommendations from international organizations like UNWTO and Eurostat and cover economic, environmental, and social pillars, using existing and comparable data sources. These indicators are available to relevant tourism stakeholders through TravelBI, a free and open data platform provided by Turismo de Portugal.

Finally, the new generation of tourism strategies requires a completely new approach in terms of data to enable real-time decision-making, especially of crisis management operational decisions, and broaden the dimensions of destination management. Ultimately, technology, and data generated by the rise of the digital economy, can make destination management more efficient and improve tourism’s sustainability.

Global tourism experienced steady growth for more than six decades, benefiting from the rise of technological advances that have made travel easier and cheaper. Now, it is time to use technology as a tool for managing tourist flows and improving the experience of both visitors and residents.

For more insights and analysis on how 140 countries performed, read the World Economic Forum's 2019 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report here.