Indicators for successful engagement of tourism for sustainable development in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)

Proudly contributed by Kevin Phun

Share this

Sustainable development has now also become a term that is synonymous with how tourism development should take place. In the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), where specific developmental characteristics play out, what kind of indicators for successful deployment of tourism that makes development in the region sustainable are we likely to see?

Sustainable tourism indicators have always been used to inform, assess and evaluate conditions and situations. Going forward, indicators will serve also as a benchmark for stakeholders to focus on critical areas that contribute to a destination’s sustainability (Lee & Hsieh, 2016), and at times a strategic tool, if it has not been so already.

Sustainable Development and Tourism in the GMS Region

Perhaps, we should first look at the GMS as a destination that is unique, in terms of geographical makeup, cultural landscapes, specific environmental challenges and economic development issues. As a destination, the GMS has different groups of people with diverse socio-cultural and economic backgrounds, developing tourism sustainably may well mean different things to these different groups of people. Bounded by six countries, the socio-political landscape is therefore also different.

Tourism should be creating greater awareness of the developmental challenges the region face, which according to the ADB (2014) are issues like food scarcity, infrastructural shortage, deforestation, pollution to ecosystems etc. These issues directly and indirectly affect tourism’s growth. Indicators could play a part in how local tourism in the GMS region take action to tackle the above-mentioned crises/problems.

Jamieson, Goodwin and Edmunds (2004) stated that while poverty can be seen both as a local and individual problem it is also clear that national government policies have a significant influence on how tourism is used as a tool for development. An obvious implication on destinations like the GMS could be the formation of committees and perhaps at a more advanced stage, specific committees or sub committees at the national and/or regional levels that specifically look at tourism planning for the region in relation to developmental issues like poverty.

In addition, targeted and creative implementation of national policies by provincial and local governments may also be increasingly necessary, as developmental issues become more serious, intertwined and also complicated.  That may involve the private and the non-profit sectors, and local communities.

Potential Indicators of Sustainable tourism in Sustainable Development

Tourism then, is and should be able to create targeted opportunities for rural investments in the GMS region. A possible indicator for this could be the growth in niche forms of tourism, in specific rural areas in the region. Rural investments should not only be about infrastructure and physical accessibility, it should also be about protecting the intangible cultural heritage of places. The presence of specific policies related to investments in tourism in rural areas and intangible cultural heritage are hence useful and necessary evidences of greater involvement of tourism in contributing to sustainable development in rural areas.

The “formalisation” of the informal sector, who have long often been associated with pro-poor tourism will be another possible indicator of successful tourism involvement in sustainable development. The increase in specific interventions involving the informal sector, such as certification, involvement in training and skilling are examples of “formalising”. Policies that engage the informal sector more with tourism development strategies may prove to be a useful tool for tourism to engage with making development more sustainable. The engagement with the informal sector may well be a tool that makes the distribution of tourism benefits more equal.

Sharpley (2009) asserted that sustainable tourism development has the assumption that the tourist often carries environment concerns when travelling; one implication will then be that local places will have to develop more “responsible tours” to meet this demand. A potential indicator coming out from that will probably be the abandonment of “older” tours or tourist activities, and the creation of newer types of tours and activities. These newer tours may potentially also represent a shift away from traditional ways of doing things, and maybe also more modern solutions for traditional problems. A possible indicator coming out from that may also be the disappearance of jobs or forms of employment associated with certain trades that ceases or gets replaced by newer and more responsible ways of doing things.

If one of the goals of sustainable development is to create ways to increase relief from poverty, then sustainable tourism development in any place should find ways to broaden the avenues of opportunities for local people to do so, and to improve or enhance the potential positive impacts towards development. And in places like the GMS, where globalisation (like any other places) has begun to seep into the lives and culture of the people in the region, tourism development ought to find ways to halt the potential harm globalisation can cause. That is where policies and partnerships play a part.

Tourism should create ways for development to be more resistant to causes of poverty, and this requires the integration of knowledge and policies and of different stakeholders coming together.  For this to happen, tourism must intentionally and creatively create and manufacture such opportunities, also create greater linkages that could be a result of better understanding of how tourism relates with other industries. An indicator out of this whole thing is the presence of pro-poor policies that address causes of poverty and enabling measures to reduce it.

If seeking for equitable standards of living is somehow a subjective notion, then tourism should at least seek to provide ways for different groups of local people to improve standards of living. Hence, indicators involving policies that seek to enable that to happen and government involvement will often need to be present; the presence of policies formulated to enhance linkages between tourism and other industries, and to improve integration of various stakeholders’ needs are also reliable indicators. The presence of local associations and organisations, partly related to enabling the improvement of local peoples’ lives, will somehow be borne to support the above-mentioned objective.

Climate change, poverty and sustainable tourism

Another indicator is the increasing presence of attempts to integrate climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies into sustainable tourism practices. This could be done in response to combat and adapt to climate change impacts, for the benefits of social and cultural aspects of local peoples’ lives. This could in turn spur the emergence of a revival of traditional knowledge, especially in locations where cultural heritage is strong. The effects of climate change adaptation on local cultural heritage, including intangible cultural heritage, could also be something the GMS increasingly may focus on, in years to come.

For pro-poor tourism to be seen to be active and successful in the GMS, more pro poor tourism Development Zones could be something that the GMS can implement, for sustainable tourism or pro-poor tourism strategies. The advantage of this is that opportunities for specific sustainable tourism development can be found and resources can be specifically channelled in such zones.

Poverty and development are wide ranging issues, and so sustainable tourism strategies should be wide ranging to encompass issues such as climate change adaptation and its limitations, food scarcity and gender inequality, amongst others. The relationship between development and poverty is naturally complicated, and hence sustainable tourism strategies cannot follow a fixed template. That said, the implication on policy makers would be that of having a good knowledge of how tourism interacts with a wide range of development concerns and possibly also livelihood strategies of the poor. The indicators that reflect the successful implementation of sustainable tourism in development will most likely be those that reflect diversity and interdependence between development and poverty.

Jamieson, Goodwin and Edmunds (2004) contended that the livelihood strategies of the poor sometimes consist of subsistence activities which cannot easily be assigned any monetary value. That said, indicators should also encourage and even prompt stakeholders to consider external or non-local forces, like climate change adaptation and its potential impacts to poverty reduction initiatives.

Sustainable Development through Tourism: Importance and Challenges

Sustainable development through tourism has been of growing importance as more are recognising tourism’s potential in boosting a community’s quality of life by looking at long-term development of tourism resources that meets present needs while ensuring future, continued use (Weaver, 2006). While numerous indicators may surface to reflect possible success of sustainable tourism, the challenge here could be the objectivity of indicators, as Buckley (2012) asserted, that stakeholders may have to consider and even accept indicators that may be beyond their perceptions on sustainability (Buckley, 2012).

Following which, sustainable development through tourism faces the difficulty of managing expectations while working towards multi-level stakeholder cooperation. Zeng and Ryan (2012) notes that rural villagers are generally accepting of the changes that tourism may bring but have the danger of harbouring quixotic expectations of benefits that tourism can contribute to the community’s development. This would then considerably lower their support for any tourism and development activities, impeding overall progress towards potential sustainable development.

Consequently, while identifying indicators is indeed pivotal in contributing towards sustainable development, it is also crucial to take into consideration the process in which these indicators get decided upon; after all, inclusivity is a big part of sustainable tourism development.


As developmental challenges increase in complexities, sustainable tourism policies will have to be more development related, interconnected with other sectors and industries, and even respecting local cultures and destination specific issues. Because resources are often scarce and issues at times large, indicators should no longer only indicate but they may need to be integrated into developmental strategies. Indicators will need to tell us not just what could be happening but also why.


Written Kevin Phun – an academic and occasional practitioner in responsible tourism, with minor contributions by Jael Teh, graduate, Murdoch University.



Buckley, R. (2012). Sustainable Tourism: Research and Reality. Annals of Tourism Research, 39(2), 528-546.

Greater Mekong Subregion Environment Operations Centre (2018). Greater Mekong Subregion Core Environment Programme. Accessed <>.

Lee, T. H., & Hsieh, H.-P. (2016). Indicators of Sustainable Tourism: A Case Study from a Taiwan’s Wetland. Ecological Indicators, 67, 779-787. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolind.2016.03.023

Sharpley, R. (2009). Tourism Development and the Environment: Beyond Sustainability? Earthscan.

Walter Jamieson, Goodwin, H., Edmunds, C. (2004). Contribution of tourism to poverty alleviation; pro=poor tourism and challenge of measuring impacts.

Weaver, D. (2006). Sustainable Tourism: Theory and Practice. New York Routledge.

Yáñez-Arancibia, A., Dávalos-Sotelo, R., Day, J. W. (2014). Ecological Dimensions for Sustainable Socio Economic Development, WIT Press.

Zeng, B., Ryan, C. (2012). Assisting the poor in China through tourism development: A review of research. Tourism Management, 33, 239-248. doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2011.08.014

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this