Study scrutinizes global tourism’s push and pull

Cusco, Peru

May 21, 2019

Globalization isn’t just a phenomenon of trade.  Tourists increasingly have become international jetsetters, bringing the promise of prosperity, threats to the nature they come to experience and lots of questions about how to strike a balance.

Michigan State University (MSU) researchers are the first to analyze global tourism of 124 countries as a network using social network analysis – scrutinizing both the countries sending tourists to destinations as well as those destinations -- to investigate what drives environmental and socioeconomic tourism. The paper is in this month’s Journal of Travel Research.

The stakes are increasingly high. The proportion of the world economy occupied by tourism is rapidly increasing, accounting for approximately 10% of global GDP and employment in 2017. At the same time, many of the world’s natural tourist attractions are home to vast biodiversity, and provide and protect natural resources like water and clean air.

“The world is increasingly focused on protecting natural areas, which often also are attracting tourists,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, MSU Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and a co-author. “It’s important to understand how these natural areas are intercoupled with the rest of the world through international tourism.

Key findings of the social network analysis:

  • Not requiring visas and offering shared languages attracts international tourists.
  • Designated protected areas or World Heritage Sites didn't make them designated draws to tourists.
  • Closeness matters. International tourists are more likely to travel to destinations relatively close to their home – information that bodes well for protecting far-flung natural sites.

“There are many factors that come in to play in tourism,” said Min Gon Chung, a PhD candidate in MSU-Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “It’s important to discover that the goal of a beautiful or interesting area isn’t always to draw a maximum number of visitors from all over the world. Also it’s important to know what doesn’t draw visitors. That’s why a social network approach is so important – it  gives us a holistic understanding.”

Besides Chung and Liu, “International Tourism Dynamics in a Globalized World: A Social Network Analysis Approach” was written by PhD candidate Anna Herzberger and Kenneth Frank, MSU Foundation Professor of Sociometrics and Fisheries and Wildlife. All are members of CSIS.