GIS & Sustainable Tourism


Tourism is a great way for travelers to enjoy the benefits of their hard work throughout the year, the celebration of a marriage or achievement, or to simply change up scenery a bit. GIS technologies and techniques have the ability to explore opportunities to either 1) explore new sustainable tourism innovations or 2) to make an existing tourism opportunity more sustainable.

If you currently are running a new sustainable tourism business OR are interested in making your tourism business more sustainable, you may be interested in the following information.

New Sustainable Tourism Opportunities

With GIS, we now have the ability to cheaply explore novel tourism ideas with scientifically-backed geographical data that can help protect the ecosystem and enhance your sale potential. Starting from scratch can be a daunting task but enhancing financial risk v. reward and ecological respect can both be pursued with careful use of mapping techniques. One such example would be an airship-based ecotourism route service– a subject which I have briefly explored for the Puget Sound area of Coastal Washington.

The concept behind an airship-based ecotourism route service is simple: explore a high-end, value-added transportation service that can highlight the many biological and ecosystem wonders available to the Puget Sound area of Coastal Washington. By providing a novel alternative to transportation around the region, high-end consumers will be able to traverse gorgeous country-sides just above treetops in a a lighter-than-air vehicle, potentially reducing fuel consumption when compared to airplane and rental car options! Trained nature guides can point out and discuss the various ecological gems over areas passed at much closer distances without severely disrupting the region’s inhabitants.

How does GIS help? By using biodiversity data available through the US Geographical Survey service ‘Biodiversity Information Serving Our Nation’ (URL) or BISON, businesses have access to millions of observation on bio-diverse areas around the country. GIS users can take this data and map out ‘biodiversity hotspots’ that will most likely drum up excitement for passengers.

By next analyzing tourism market access over the same area, we can identify city connections that will gain the access to the largest tourism markets that already exist. This reduces the risk of starting up a business in a dead-end area and enhances the options for tourists already spending time and money in a given area. For simplicity’s sake, tourism spending was analyzed on a county by county level in the following map.

Finally, piecing the two bits of information together helps paint a data-driven methodology for exploring real opportunities for success in what is a novel business market. The result of this analysis provided the following cities as the most likely to succeed in such a novel business pursuit: Seattle, Bremerton, Snohomish, Everett, Kenmore, and Tukwila. Bellingham and Friday Harbor make an appearance but the red indicates low viability in the current analysis.

More information on this project can be gleaned from my graduate course report completed in early 2019 (URL). GIS technologies and techniques can be used for this and other innovations without the need to blow large investments into high risk endeavors!

Making Existing Tours More Sustainable

Many businesses tout themselves as a ‘green tour’, a ‘sustainable tourism adventure’, or ‘eco-friendly’ without thoroughly exploring the impacts their services and products burden local ecosystems with. Businesses that don’t really evaluate their impacts may be “green-washing” their business- a term that means the business is pretending to be green but really isn’t. Some studies report that tour watching vessels may disrupt feeding behaviors of whales (URL) or dolphins (URL) as they search for food; shorebirds (URL) and sea turtles (URL) have been reported to be extremely sensitive to disruption due to tourism activities at certain times of the year.

Outdated Map of SRKW Critical Habitat: URL to Original NOAA Report

How does GIS help us here? By using GIS, Federal agencies in the US have been able to map out critical habitat areas of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (above map- URL) and help paint give a visual to tour boat operators that are already following Be-Whale-Wise (URL). GIS can likewise be used to identify sensitive areas along hiking trails where foot traffic might need to be severely reduced before irreversible damage disrupts the business or to modify operations to reduce pollution burdens experienced by local indigenous communities who have to deal with tourists’ trash.

Whatever the environment, GIS provides a world of opportunity to really help a business become more sustainable, compliment the environment in which it operates out of, and ensure the local ecology- and thus business viability- will have a more stable future as we all deal with the added challenges of climate change and global & local market disruptions