State of the Planet

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Developing a Sustainable Tourism Industry in China

Last week, members of the Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management traveled to Huizhou, China, to present their initial findings for a study on the relationship between the tourism industry, sustainability, and economic development.

Along with 15 other cities, including Rochester, Detroit, Melbourne, and Amsterdam, Huizhou won the 2015-16 IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, winning recommendations from top IBM experts on how to make their city smarter, more effective, and more strategic. The Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management is building on IBM’s technological recommendations to provide best practices and metrics for developing a tourism industry that is sustainable both economically and environmentally.

Deputy-Secretary Zhou discusses the meaning of a sustainable tourism industry with Kelsie DeFrancia, Program Manager.

Dr. Dong Guo, associate research scholar and associate director of the research program, and I presented the first stage of research on developing a sustainable tourism industry to city officials, including representatives from government bureaus in tourism, development, statistics, transportation, and science and technology, as well as IBM representatives. Ms. Zhou Haiying, deputy-secretary of Huizhou, remarked on the importance of developing the tourism industry in diversifying their economy, referencing cities like Detroit that were almost solely dependent on their manufacturing industry and then struggled when that industry went under.

Situated in the central part of the Guangdong Province, the city of Huizhou is a famous historic and cultural city within the Pearl River Delta. Huizhou is well-known for its abundance of natural resources, and there are more than 900 “scenic spots” in the city and surrounding Huizhou region. With several national-level development zones, a modern transportation network, and rich natural resources and cultural attractions, tourism is an important and promising industry for the long-term economic development of Huizhou.

West Lake, in the center of urban Huizhou, is an important natural and cultural landmark.

Tourism, perhaps more than any other economic activity, however, has complex relationships with both nature and cultural heritage, as it depends on the availability and quality of those resources. As Huizhou increases local economic activity, an influx of tourism could lead to the degradation of those resources, subsequently threatening continued tourism as well as local sustainable development. Additionally, an increase in economic development could threaten the environmental health of the city, as seen elsewhere in China. Sustainability is therefore an important factor to ensure the long-term success of the tourism industry in Huizhou.

In China, tourism represents just 2.6% of the country’s GDP, providing 22.7 million jobs directly and another 41 million indirectly. By 2023, however, it is expected that the tourism sector in China will be the largest in the world, and so this sector represents a significant opportunity for economic growth. Huizhou has already taken steps to increase tourism activity, by developing beach communities and substantial marketing campaigns, and is already ahead of China with about 8% of its GDP represented by the tourism industry. Still, when looking at other cities and regions with similar natural attractions, the city recognizes that there is room for growth.

In recent years, Huizhou has significantly developed the coastal area of Xun Liao Bay to boost their tourism.

The tourism industry has an advantage over other sectors in that natural and cultural attractions are raw materials with relatively few associated costs and, when managed correctly, little danger of exhaustion. However, measures for the proper planning and management of tourism development are necessary, as unsustainable tourism practices and an influx of visitors can lead to degradation of the environment and local lifestyles. These problems often arise because of insufficient planning and lack of tourism facilities.

In our review of other cities seeking to comprehensively address tourism growth, as well as those that have attempted to incorporate sustainability considerations into the expansion of their tourism industry, we found that strong and integrated management systems are necessary for successful sustainable tourism. Additionally, controlled development, especially in nature-based tourism, allows for future growth and minimal environmental degradation. Cities that have maintained this balance successfully have also ensured that the needs and goals of all stakeholders have been considered, including both the public and private sectors.

Dr. Dong Guo and Kelsie DeFrancia join Huizhou deputy-secretary, IBM representatives, and city officials to present initial findings for a study on sustainable tourism.

In next stages of research, we will use sustainability as a lens with which we can analyze tourism growth and see how sustainability can be utilized to develop concrete indicators for Huizhou in reaching its tourism and economic development goals. By examining the environmental considerations the city must incorporate into its tourism planning in order to, one, protect its natural environment and cultural heritage, and two, maintain the tourism industry’s long-term economic success, we will determine critical elements to success and expanded reach. We will develop best practices for the developing tourism industry, and will recommend a concise set of indicators that can be used to measure progress.


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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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