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More than heads on beds: metrics for sustainable tourism

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: image © One Photo / dreamstime.com


European Travel Commission boss Luís Araújo is keen to push travellers to "adopt greener options and pay closer attention to their impact on the environment and local communities." All good, but the tourism industry also needs to do its bit, and that means nudging national tourist boards and providers of tourism services into adopting better performance metrics. Counting heads on beds is too crude a metric to support a shift to more sustainable tourism.

Were you to run a small hotel or guest house, how might you assess the success of your business? Clearly the level of profit at the end of each financial year is a decent metric, but not one that’s so easily tracked on a week-to-week basis. But you would surely take into account a variety of other factors. One might be the level of customer satisfaction, once so elusive to track, but these days so easily monitored through online feedback tools. But people like hard numbers so the metrics which remain enduringly popular ultimately revolve around heads on beds, ie. how many overnights were recorded.

Now let’s shift gear and think about the same issue at a national level. Or even at an international level. The European Union keeps an eye on these things as does the European Travel Commission (ETC), which in mid-February suggested that European tourism in 2022 will be around twenty per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

The latter suggests an impressive rebound from the darkest days of the pandemic, and actually masks the fact that some countries like Britain used restrictions on mobility (like testing and quarantine) to protect and support their domestic tourism industry.

ETC is able to draw on a wealth of data from its 34 member organizations, most of them national tourist boards. Yet ultimately the key metrics shared in ETC’s excellent research documents revolve around heads on beds. How many people arrived? How long did they stay?

But is the creation of a competitive and resilient tourism sector really only about heads on beds? Are there other, better metrics which we should be considering?