Invisible Burden of Tourism on Infrastructure in Secondary Cities

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The Asia Pacific region boasts a range of secondary cities that are also some of the world’s top tourist destinations, such as Siem Reap, Yogyakarta, Luang Prabang and many others. Before COVID-19, travel and tourism generated $2,971 billion and was a key economic driver in both primary and secondary cities in the region.

While the tourism industry is struggling to survive through this difficult time, there are unprecedented opportunities to Build Back Better with sustainable infrastructure projects that will create more value and better respond to local residents’ needs.

CDIA has a vested interest in the intersection of tourism and sustainable infrastructure development in the post-COVID-19 world as many secondary cities in Asia and the Pacific aspire to grow their tourism industries and create sustainable infrastructure projects. As such, CDIA has invited renowned sustainable tourism expert Megan Epler Wood to lend her insights about tourism’s unseen burdens on infrastructure and how a deeper accounting of tourism externalities can assist cities to better integrate sustainability and climate resilience factors into the planning and development of future infrastructure projects.

Thank you for joining us for this interview. First off, could you tell us about yourself and your work?

I am a research analyst, systems thinker, consultant and owner of my own consultancy, Epler Wood International. I am Managing Director of the research program, Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program at the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the SC Johnson College of Business of Cornell University. I have also led sustainable tourism research and courses at Harvard. In these focused exercises, we explored how to create technology-driven, data-oriented asset protection solutions for tourism destination’s sustainability needs. This work is now being followed up with a new Destination Management certificate program together with UNWTO and supported by GIZ.

Can you tell us about your work in “Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism” – like, what are some of these “invisible burdens”, and how do they affect urban infrastructure?

Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden is a report I worked on with collaborators at Cornell and the Travel Foundation which revealed that there are many unaccounted-for destination costs – an “invisible burden” – which are largely not being generated by the tourism economy to provide local infrastructure and protect eco and socio-cultural systems for tourists and local people.

The report gives many examples of unaccounted-for costs, which include greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, maintenance of natural ecosystems and restoration of ecosystems, renewable energy and water costs, solid waste management and wastewater management, and socio-cultural asset maintenance and restoration. For example, many tourism destinations in Asia, in particular, lack wastewater treatment and solid waste management facilities, and have growing issues with the use of scarce water. Consider Bali in Indonesia – an island with abundant water resources — which has documented problems with overuse of freshwater resources in tourism zones. Boracay in the Philippines was closed, due to an overflow of waste – caused by a lack of waste management, and Phi Phi Island in Thailand was also closed due to a lack of sanitary infrastructure which caused pollution of its pristine waters. While the private sector often benefits from tourism’s growth, these issues all place a financial burden on local governments and tax payers to upgrade infrastructure and protect local environments and livelihoods.

What are some of the lessons learned from this report? How can cities, especially secondary cities in Asia and the Pacific, address these invisible burdens?

Many cities aspire to deliver on economic growth from their tourism industries. As such, they are an important target for determining how to manage the invisible burden, because they are often the most dependent on the tourism economy. Yet, most lack the tax resources to manage the heavy, seasonal use of limited infrastructure typical of tourism. The tendency is to leave the management of tourism areas to the private sector, but this has left vast gaps in infrastructure. The main lesson learned is to help municipalities to better govern their tourism economy by determining exactly what is required to create sustainable infrastructure for both tourists and local people.

Isn’t “sustainable tourism” just about product design, like new ecolodges and community-based tourism? What is the value of integrating tourism development into the larger urban development aspirations of cities?

It is easy to confuse “ecotourism” and “ecolodges” with sustainable tourism. While creating ecotourism economies can provide an important jump start to regions with attractive natural assets, ultimately we have to integrate tourism into larger-scale sustainability strategies. Doing so will ensure there is adequate infrastructure to manage increasing tourism loads, and that close attention is paid to the needs of local people in tourism communities. In addition to infrastructure, this necessarily includes governance and institutional development. This is especially so for urban areas whose infrastructure is already under immense pressure from rapid urbanization, to say nothing of growing tourism numbers.

For example, I led a team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health International Sustainable Tourism Initiative (ISTI) on Djerba Island, Tunisia, which created a framework for tracking data sets required to measure the Invisible Burden.  The final report demonstrated with pinpoint accuracy that tourism drove up energy usage, water demand, beachfront development, and waste generation at the expense of local needs. These findings ran contrary to national decision makers’ opinions that tourism was providing strong economic benefits while not seriously increasing municipal costs for the island.  Our data also showed tourism was undermining resilience to sea level rise and causing significant increases in GHG emissions per tourist.

If tourism is an aspiration for cities, why is it important to integrate climate resilience and other sustainability factors into urban infrastructure projects?

Climate resilience must be a primary concern for sustainable tourism planning. As we all know, the situation is increasingly urgent. Tourism communities have a special reason to pay attention to the problems of sea level rise, droughts, and more frequent wildfires. All of these problems destroy the market. There is no option but to prepare, and that can be done via a very astute set of measurements and monitoring, which look at the requirements for small cities, with tourists and locals in the future. This is why the Invisible Burden report advocates strongly for a more holistic accounting, and also where the adoption of frameworks that measure GHG emissions per tourist can play a decisive role.

What is the role of public-private partnerships for developing sustainable tourism infrastructure?

Public-private partnerships are going to be essential. Local authorities will require specialized data on per-tourist usage of key resources and energy to justify new infrastructure finance.  A combined effort between government and the private sector can be the primary first step to agree on the data required, such as energy use and GHG emissions and water and wastewater usage per tourist.  As the per-tourist infrastructure data is gathered, it can be supplied to private sector associations, as was done on Djerba Island in the Harvard ISTI project. This opens up the opportunity to jointly set targets for tourism destinations in compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. Such data can ultimately be gathered via sensors, and once established regular reports can be provided to the regional and national-level governments and to all of the private sector participants in the program. Industry associations could receive a regular annual report and work jointly with the government to set and meet resource usage and GHG targets. None of these actions are being taken at present by cities to measure the tourism uses of their vital resources and infrastructure. In small cities, a project of this nature could revolutionize the oversight process for tourism growth, via transparency and public-private goal setting using the infrastructure data described. One of the most important benefits is that the private sector will have the facts they need to understand not only their own internal costs but the actual costs for the tourism destination’s infrastructure. If this happens, the public sector can more easily design attractive public-private finance structures for full participation of all relevant parties.

How can sustainable tourism contribute to building climate resilience?

Resilience cannot be just a tagline. It will require investing in the protection of coastlines by using dunes and other natural barriers. Resilience will mean having local, alternative energy sources feeding a local grid. Resilience will mean ensuring that solid waste and wastewater are managed to prevent both GHG emissions and the despoliation of local resources and human health. Resilience means, determining what natural capital we need to preserve, such as coral reefs, as our highest priority – to both maintain fisheries and provide a buffer to storms. There is so much we need to prepare for. The time is now.


 About the Interviewee: Megan Epler Wood is the author behind the book Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet (2017) and the report Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism (2019) which deliver solutions for deficits in economic development, socio-cultural preservation, and environmental management common to many tourism destinations. Through her university affiliations and private consulting practice EplerWood International, she has designed net positive regional tourism development projects working in more than 25 countries with support from the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), IDB, GIZ and USAID.

About CDIA:

Since its 2007 establishment, CDIA has supported 113 cities in Asia Pacific and leveraged $11.3 billion worth of infrastructure investments from its project preparation studies.

CDIA is offering a series of Virtual Clinics every month as a continued commitment to help cities in the region to become more sustainable and climate resilient through infrastructure development. City officials are invited to learn more about the Virtual Clinics and register here:

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or views of CDIA or any of its staff, implementers or funders. The aim of the interview is to assist with the development of sustainable infrastructure that meet the demands of both local people and visitors alike in secondary cities in Asia and the Pacific.

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