The United Nations (UN) has declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. 2017 offers an opportunity to raise global awareness about the role of tourism; and this includes having a closer look at the potential that tourism offers as well as where new approaches or changes are required to improve sustainability.

Given the phenomenal growth of global tourism, it is more important than ever to ensure tourism leaves a positive footprint on the planet and its communities. Every year, over 1.2 billion people travel internationally, and the amount of people that take a trip within their own boarders is even larger. The Chinese domestic market alone is over 4 million trips per year and the US domestic market counts about 2.2 billion annually. What is the impact of all this travel?

Many claims are made about tourism bringing economic benefits and contributing positively to communities as an agent of change. Especially developing countries have high hopes for tourism as a vehicle for sustainable development. Three of the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals explicitly mention tourism. Inclusive and sustainable economic growth (SDG 8), sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12) and the sustainable use of oceans and marine resources (SDG 14) are all closely linked to tourism.

However, what you don’t measure you can’t manage. It is therefore timely for the global tourism sector to track its performance across a number of key sustainability areas. This is exactly what the Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard does. The Dashboard, developed by the Griffith Institute for Tourism in partnership with the University of Surrey, measures progress across seven important aspects of sustainability: poverty alleviation; equality of travel; carbon emissions; resource efficiency; gender equity; protected areas; and security.

To track the potential of tourism to reduce poverty, the Dashboard measures the share of international global tourism expenditure in Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States. Whilst the proportion is relatively small at 6%, it has been increasing steadily over the last twenty years. Monitoring key tourism trends is important for making informed decisions on policies, investment, management and marketing.

The Dashboard also provides a useful platform for researchers to understand macro trends and identify knowledge gaps. The data and their visualisation through the Dashboard highlight key challenges and paradoxes that require further investigation. Examples include the concentration of almost half of the global travel activity across only ten countries; or the trade-off between carbon emissions and development opportunities. As such, the Dashboard is also a call to the global tourism research community to help stakeholders tackle the difficult questions that need to be resolved for tourism to become sustainable.

Written by Professor Susanne Becken, Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism