Applying doughnut economics to tourism in NL

As part of my PhD research at Erasmus University, I investigated the applicability of the doughnut model within tourism.

As part of my PhD research at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, I investigated the applicability of the doughnut model within tourism. What does it mean for a destination to be truly sustainable? How can the success of a destination be measured in ways other than just looking at visitor numbers and spending? Which statistics can be used for this? And who should be involved in this? In collaboration with seven destinations in the Netherlands, I tried to find answers to these questions. I did this by offering workshops based on doughnut economics. In these workshops, the theory was applied to the context of tourism. It was then translated into a vision for sustainable tourism, measurable units and/or action steps that the destination can implement in practice. The workshops were offered to Destination Marketing Organizations and/or Municipalities of cities in the Netherlands. The aim of the workshop was to work together towards a product that can be used in practice, for example: the basis of a tourism vision, strategy or an action plan. The workshops also formed the basis for a scientific publication: “Urban tourism transitions: Doughnut economics applied to sustainable tourism development”, published in the Journal of Tourism Geographies.

Tourism and doughnut economics
Following the line of thinking from Doughnut Economics, in tourism, the growth of destinations is also limited. No place can grow forever and host an unlimited amount of visitors. Unbridled growth in tourism causes problems that can be easily placed in the doughnut model.  Many destinations aim at growing tourism because of the economic benefits it can bring to both the city and its residents. But at some point, the positive (economic) benefits are outweighed by the negative ones. Due to overcrowding of the city, problems such as congestion, pressure on cultural heritage, conflicts over land use, and air pollution start to arise – the outer part of the doughnut. Simultaneously, aspects of the inner part of the doughnut are overlooked because residential living and affordable housing, for example, are at stake. The destination falls short in the social foundation. 

By applying doughnut economics to tourism, instead of focusing on growing visitor numbers or expenditure, the idea is to think about how tourism could contribute to social and ecological sustainability in the first place. With that, tourism is not a goal in itself, but a means to achieve other prioritized goals. The question then becomes: in what ways can tourism contribute to the social and ecological sustainability of a place? And are more or less visitors needed to achieve that?  We cannot grow forever, not as humans, not as the world, and not as a tourist destination. When a destination is emerging, growth can be good, but there should be a point when we realize a destination has flourished and at that point, the focus should not be to keep on growing. The key to a more sustainable and successful destination should then be sought in other parameters than tourist numbers and the amount of money they bring along with them.

How does applying doughnut economics to tourism work in practice?
During the workshops, the central question was how can tourism contribute to one or more aspects of the doughnut economics model. To know how tourism can contribute to the sustainability of a place, we should also know what is needed at the destination. The starting point is thus to investigate what the challenges of a given destination are and what is desired by its stakeholders, one of the most important ones being its residents. The next step is to think about in what ways tourism could be a response to these needs and challenges and to come up with specific projects or strategies that target them.


For example, if it is indicated that there are (too) little facilities like public transportation or shops, how can tourism contribute to that? If affordable living is at stake (partially) due to tourism, in what ways can tourism alleviate this pressure on the housing market? All of this belongs to the social foundation of doughnut economics in tourism. At the same time, looking at the ecological ceiling, we can include factors such as air pollution. How can tourism potentially add to improving air quality? Or play a part in reducing plastic pollution?

The strength of the doughnut model is that it holds the power to connect multiple aspects of the doughnut. One of the challenges is thus to look for ways to combine both social and ecological sustainability in projects. This could mean targeting at the same time air pollution and mobility (access to networks).  For example, at destination X, there is a lack of public transportation. This makes for a shortage in the social foundation because this causes reduced mobility for residents who cannot drive or do not have a car. By stimulating tourists to use public transportation more, the frequency of public transportation could be improved. Next to increasing mobility for its residents, this also contributes to reducing air pollution at the destination. In the first place because tourists are using public transportation, and second because the increased frequency might also stimulate residents to use this service more often.

What benefits are there in using doughnut economics in tourism?
The workshops aimed at making destinations rethink their tourism strategies. The workshops gave destinations a better idea of which aspects can be included when working on sustainable tourism development and how to link them to specific projects. As such, the doughnut economics model can serve DMOs, municipalities, and other industry players as a tool to envision sustainability in a more concrete and comprehensible way. 

The workshops enabled destinations to develop concrete ideas that are aligned with multiple aspects of the doughnut model, combining both social and ecological sustainability. In previous workshops, there were, for example, plans that address sustainability in a broader sense where tourism is used as a means to achieve other goals. Examples of this are the restoration of nature through tourism or using tourism to improve infrastructure and facilities. At the same time, some plans focus mostly on industry-specific steps (for example, reducing plastic in hotels) or mitigating negative effects (such as compensating CO2). While these may be relevant, they should be seen as parts of the bigger picture, as in itself they do not necessarily address the destination-wide challenges related to sustainability.

For some destinations, the workshop served as a first step into integrating more sustainability in their work on a day-to-day basis with smaller steps like adjusting website information about sustainable options or developing sustainable tours through the city. In other cases, the workshop formed the basis for a full sustainability plan or vision providing a concrete overview of all the steps to be taken by different stakeholders to achieve both social and ecological sustainability, based on the aspects of the doughnut economics model.






    Join the DEAL Community!

    Get inspired, connect with others and become part of the movement. No matter how big or small your contribution is, you’re welcome to join!