Although not known by many, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories (INSTO) has played a pivotal role in monitoring and promoting sustainable tourism practices across the globe. Since its inception in August 2006, this remarkable initiative has significantly contributed to the development and maintenance of responsible tourism destinations, making it a leading example in the world of sustainable tourism. As of August 7, 2023, the UNWTO INSTO network has grown into 38 observatories around the world. Particularly in recent years, the network has experienced a swift expansion, driven by the surging awareness of sustainable practices among consumers, tourism-oriented enterprises, and local governments alike. Regrettably, there is still no officially recognized observatory in Japan.
The Yangshuo Observatory in Gulin, China, stands as the first ever INSTO observatory, established in August 2006 and has been continuously monitoring the local tourism situation for 17 years. With the guidance of esteemed expert Dr. Jigang Bao, a UNWTO Ulysses Prize holder and the support of Sun Yat-sen University, the observatory continues to monitor long-term sustainable development of Yangshuo to this day. The author was horned to be invited by the Yangshuo government, UNWTO Monitoring Centre for Sustainable Tourism Observatories (MCSTO), and Sun Yat-sen University to attend the 2023 Training Programme for eight observatories in China in June 2023. This event marked the first in-person international conference for the INSTO community since the pandemic.
At its core, INSTO aims to foster sustainable tourism development through a threefold approach: data collection and analysis, capacity-building, and knowledge dissemination. The network brings together various stakeholders, including governments, academic institutions, private enterprises, and local communities, to collectively work towards a common goal of achieving sustainable tourism practices.
One of the key highlights of INSTO’s notable journey has been its ability to establish a robust system for data collection and analysis. Through the implementation of sustainable tourism observatories in different destinations under the INSTO framework, these observatories have been able to gather essential data on visitor numbers, resource consumption, waste generation, tourism seasonality, employment, accessibility, and other critical indicators. This data-driven approach enables destination management companies (DMOs) and local governments to make informed decisions and implement effective policies to minimize negative impacts while maximizing positive contributions to local economies and cultures.
Unlike many other international sustainable tourism communities, INSTO does not provide any labels or certifications to the participating destination and tourism businesses. However, the lack of certification labels does not diminish the network’s significance. On the contrary, the data-driven, fact-based approach, and commitment to transparency have garnered recognition and respects from the global tourism community, evident from the increasing number of observatories in recent years. The openly accessible research findings, annual reports, and best practices are widely shared and acknowledged, influencing policies and practices worldwide.
Sustainability is not a one-time achievement; it cannot be checked off like completing an exam to receive a certification. It requires ongoing commitment, adaptability, and responsiveness to changing circumstances, which has proven to be crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. By monitoring the impact of tourism over an extended period, INSTO ensures that destinations and stakeholders remain accountable for their sustainability efforts and continuously improve their practices.
As a tourism think tank based in Tokyo, Japan, we hope to one day to help DMOs and tourism businesses to bring INSTO to Japan and work together to improve our sustainable tourism practices.