Data Technologies Are a Ticket to Sustainable Tourism

As the travel and tourism industry evolves and expands, data analytics could help manage its environmental impact.

By Jennifer Goforth Gregory

By Jennifer Goforth Gregory July 11, 2023

New air travel and lodging options have made it easier than ever to visit the Galápagos Islands. In 2000, just 68,989 tourists visited the Ecuadorian archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin in the 19th century. By 2022, that number had nearly quadrupled to 267,688.

To adventurers, that’s fantastic. If you ask environmentalists, however, what’s good for the travel industry may not be so good for the planet.

“Ecotourism has brought great economic benefit to Ecuador, and it remains the only practical way of supporting the Galápagos National Park,” the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association explains on its website. “Yet there are unwanted byproducts from the tourist industry, such as contamination from boat paint and engines, oil spills, overused sites, a drain on the fresh water supply, and the introduction of plants and animals from the mainland. All of these must be addressed for tourism to remain a positive force.”

Indeed, increased visitation has shone a spotlight on the remote islands for reasons other than their pristine beauty. Once known for their diverse wildlife, they’ve now become a poster child for overtourism.

And yet, the Galápagos Islands also are illustrating the positive impact of sustainable tourism — and sustainable tourism data.


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When planning and managing vacation packages, tours and cruises, tour operator Voyagers Travel carefully analyzes data from booking platforms, visitor surveys and visitor tracking systems to gain insight into visitation patterns. It then plans its itineraries strategically to distribute visitors evenly, reduce environmental strain and preserve the delicate ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands. Based on the data, the company may establish visitor quotas, timed entry slots or designated routes in sensitive locations. 

“Data empowers Voyagers to make informed decisions that prioritize conservation efforts,” said Andre Robles, managing director at Voyagers Travel

“Through data analysis of biodiversity and ecosystem health, we can implement targeted strategies, contributing directly to the preservation of the Galápagos Islands’ unique natural wonders.”

The Benefits of Sustainable Tourism

From Venice, Italy, to Machu Picchu, Peru, to Utah’s Zion National Park, overtourism is a challenge for destinations all over the world, many of which struggle to balance the economic benefits of sustainable tourism with the cultural and environmental costs.

The impacts aren’t just local, however. They’re also global, according to sustainable travel organization Sustainable Travel International, which says the travel industry is responsible for approximately 8% of global carbon emissions.


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Fortunately, travelers are becoming increasingly savvy about sustainability. Case in point: Over two-thirds of travelers (69%) seek sustainable travel options and almost 60% will pay to offset carbon emissions if the cost is in their budget, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

Like companies in many other industries, for whom sustainability and sustainability reporting have become imperative, travel operators are taking notice and responding. But even businesses wanting to improve sustainability struggle with how to best conserve the environment. Conditions often change, from wildlife at a given destination to the number of travelers heading there.

For the entire tourism industry — from attractions and hotels to tours and cruises — data can help companies make smarter, more sustainable decisions.

Putting Sustainable Tourism Data into Action

Like other industries, the travel sector is inundated with data that’s stored and processed in the cloud. From the number of visitors to their age, country of origin, spending habits, activity choices and more — including anonymized data from beacons and other sensors that record tourist traffic and behavior — there’s a lot of information to ingest that could help travel providers reduce travelers’ environmental impact.

With so much data available, however, it’s easy for companies to become overwhelmed or select the wrong data points to analyze.


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To measure sustainability effectively, data intelligence firm The Data Appeal Company recommends focusing on four types of data, in particular: environmental data (e.g., the presence of green areas, natural environments, level of marine pollution, air quality), social data (e.g., cultural heritage protection and enhancement, level of satisfaction with urban green areas, quality of life, accessibility, education, inclusivity), governance data (e.g., how institutions manage sustainable issues), and economic and overtourism data (e.g., the impact of tourist flows on the socio-economic scenario of the destination and the degree to which tourists can coexist with the local population).

“Accessing all this data simultaneously can be challenging. Still, [destinations] must do their best to select, track and monitor it over time, according to the goals defined in their sustainable strategy,” the company said in an article for the travel technology website PhocusWire, in which it presented the Italian region of Veneto as a leader in data-based sustainability. The region, it pointed out, operates the Federated Regional Tourism Observatory, a public and digital platform that helps tourism operators analyze local tourism trends.

“Sustainability is one of the most debated topics and simultaneously a daily challenge in tourism governance,” Stefan Marchioro, head of tourism for territorial projects and governance at Regione del Veneto, told The Data Appeal Company.

“In the tourism sector, sustainability requires a data-driven approach in destination management — i.e., finding and using objective and reliable information to shape new strategies and decisions around sustainable development.”

Targeting Carbon Emissions

For destinations and companies that use data effectively, one of the biggest opportunities is reducing carbon emissions, said Dr. Fabian Braesemann, a departmental research lecturer in AI and work at the Oxford Internet Institute, and one of the co-authors of the Oxford University study “Measuring Sustainable Tourism with Online Platform Data.”

“The tourism industry has to do its part in reducing carbon emissions, as traveling is a significant contributor to global CO2 emissions,” Braesemann said.


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When it comes to emissions, Germany is a model destination, according to WTTC, which said Germany is one of only a handful of countries that accomplished two goals simultaneously: growing tourism and decreasing its absolute emissions.

Together, WTTC reported, the German government and business leaders used data-based insights to create a more sustainable travel industry. Between 2010 and 2019, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased by an average of 1.1% per year. At the same time, tourism’s contribution to the German economy grew 1.5% per year. Without the ability to track these data points, German leaders would not know whether their efforts were working.

To mirror Germany’s success, Braesemann said tourism companies should start by gathering the data they have — everything related to their environmental impact — in a digital format.

“Once companies start to systematically gather, process and report data on their energy consumption, carbon emissions, etc., they can report these efforts towards more sustainable tourism to their customers and the public,” he explained. “In this way, they might be able to increase brand awareness and make their brand attractive to environmentally conscious customers.”

The Future of Sustainable Tourism Data

When it comes to harnessing data to increase sustainability and reduce overtourism, the travel industry is just getting started, according to Braesemann, who foresees more certificates and industry-wide indicators communicating the industry’s environmental impact and promoting sustainable tourism examples to reduce it.

“Once these data-based indicators are established,” he concluded, “I would assume that policymakers and industry associations will set themselves targets to reduce carbon emissions and other forms of environmental impact in the tourism industry.”

Jennifer Goforth Gregory is a contributing writer. Find her on Twitter @byJenGregory.

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