Destinations at Risk – new research

New report shows destinations need new resources to tackle the “invisible burden” of tourism

A report published today by the Travel Foundation, Cornell University’s Centre for Sustainable Global Enterprise and EplerWood International describes how destinations must uncover and account for tourism’s hidden costs, referred to as the “invisible burden”, to protect and manage vital destination assets worldwide.  Failing to do so puts ecosystems, cultural wonders, and community life at increasing risk, and places the tourism industry on a weak foundation that could crack under its own weight.

The range of costs not currently accounted for include those needed to:

  • upgrade infrastructure beyond resident needs, to meet tourism demand
  • manage and protect public spaces, monuments, the environment and natural habitats
  • mitigate exposure to climate change risks; and
  • address the needs of locals affected by rising real estate prices, driven by the demand from tourism.

Either residents are left to pay these costs, or they are simply not paid, increasingly leading to environmental crises, spoiled tourism assets, and growing dissatisfaction among local residents. Destination authorities urgently need access to new resources, systems and expertise to ensure that, as tourism grows, the true costs of every new visitor are fully covered.

Amid increasing concern about “overtourism” and calls from within the travel industry for improved destination management, the report, Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, was commissioned by the Travel Foundation to better understand the challenges and constraints that national and municipal authorities face. It provides a thorough review of the risks that destinations face and the solutions urgently needed, including:

  • New local accounting systems that capture the full range of costs stemming from the growth of tourism, in place of an incomplete set of economic impact measures.
  • New skills and cross sector collaboration, underpinned by data and technology, to achieve effective spatial planning, manage demand for public utilities and services, and evaluate the availability of vital, local resources.
  • New valuation and financing mechanisms to redress debilitating underinvestment in infrastructure and local asset management and enable the transition to low-carbon destination economies.

The authors conclude that some destinations are more vulnerable to the invisible burden and should be prioritised. For instance:

  1. Where there is a high risk of climate change impacts (which would disproportionately affect a visitor economy) – for instance, island states.
  2. Where the rise of the global middle class is driving tourism growth at unsustainable levels – for instance, in Southern and Southeast Asia.
  3. Where there is a high percentage of economic dependence on tourism – for instance, in the Caribbean.
  4. Where the ability of local government to manage tourism growth is low, in terms of budgets and human capital – a problem that has been found in both advanced and emerging economies.

The analysis draws upon academic literature, case studies, expert interviews and media reports, and provides a wealth of examples of the invisible burden.  Cases are drawn from Thailand, Mexico, and the Maldives, as well as Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The report also gives insights into types of data-driven systems, such as GIS mapping tools and the Smart Cities concept, which can address growth issues and facilitate new forms of investment.

The free report is available at


Notes to Editors

To download infographics and to view the animation that supports this report, please visit

For additional information and clarifications about this briefing, please contact: +44 (0)117 9307176.

The report authors are:

  • Megan Epler Wood (Managing Director, Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program at Cornell University; Owner and Principal of EplerWood International);
  • Mark Milstein (Clinical Professor of Management at Cornell University)
  • Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst (Senior Researcher, EplerWood International)

With editorial support from, and consultation with, the Travel Foundation


The Travel Foundation is a charity that works in partnership with leading tourism organizations to improve the impacts of tourism and shape a positive future for destinations. Since we were set up in 2003, we have worked in 26 popular holiday destinations around the world.  Our head office is in the UK and we have a global network of project managers.

EplerWood International provides market-based approaches to sustainable tourism development in response to the rising global demand for sustainable tourism projects that meet economic development needs while respecting and preserving social and environmental capital. The firm provides innovative systems for business, NGOs, and governments to build competitive resource efficient economies that benefit all members of society.

The Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise is part of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. The Center’s work focuses on the vital role that businesses play in solving social and environmental issues through innovation, market development, and entrepreneurship. Faculty who work with the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise are at the forefront of research, teaching, and engagement related to helping businesses address these problems. The Center provides students distinctive experiential learning opportunities and collaborate with organizations to help to tackle the grand challenges of our time, such as climate change, ecosystem degradation, and poverty.



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