Sustainable tourism image

Sustainable tourism

EUI-Innovative Actions (EUI-IA) Calls for Proposals are dedicated to topics aligned with the New Leipzig Charter and the European Union’s priorities, such as the green and digital transitions, as well as the Urban Agenda for the EU. 'Sustainable tourism' will be the one of the topics of the second EUI-IA Call for proposals to be opened in the end of May 2023.

Definition and context of the topic

European tourism is a vibrant ecosystem that, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, contributed to close to 10% of EU GDP, generated nearly 12% of the total EU employment and has made the EU as the world’s leading tourism destination. For many regions and cities across the EU, tourism is a key contributor to the economic and social fabric, providing jobs and income, often concentrated in regions with no alternative sources of employment and involving low-skilled workers. At the same time, tourism can be a powerful tool in fighting economic decline, unemployment and depopulation of destination areas, stimulating basic public infrastructure and services improvements, valorising natural and cultural heritage, and driving the digital and green transformation along the value chain.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented crisis for the tourism industry and destinations, exposing the vulnerability of the ecosystem towards internal and external shocks. The loss of revenue was especially detrimental for regions dependent on the sector, putting at risk millions of jobs[1], thus weakening its transformative potential. The capacity of the tourism ecosystem to rebound and invest has been greatly weakened by the pandemic, with the highest investment gap estimated among all industrial ecosystems. In addition to the revenue loss, skilled labour shortages in tourism is another challenge aggravated as a consequence of the pandemic. The current global context of the recession and energy crisis, caused by the Russian aggression on Ukraine, is also impacting significantly tourism businesses, SMEs in particular.

Aside from immediate crisis responses, mainly based on short-term employment schemes and liquidity support to SMEs, the recovery process is being driven by efforts addressing more structural vulnerabilities of the current tourism models as well as ensuring the sector’s long-term competitiveness, sustainability and resilience to the current and future shocks. Such longer-term measures are necessary to maintain Europe as a world-leading quality, sustainable, inclusive and innovative destination as well as to ensure the social and environmental sustainability and quality of life in touristic cities, towns and regions. Challenges such as high degree of seasonality and unequal geographical distribution in some destinations determine the fluctuation of revenues, employment and the under- or over-utilisation of infrastructure, services and resources. These have potential negative effects for host communities, the climate and the environment, firms in the sector. At the same time, both the fast changing expectations and demands of consumers as well as readiness of the businesses to transform are an opportunity to shift towards more sustainable, digital and inclusive ecosystem.

Tourism businesses and destinations should engage in climate action, for example, by applying circularity models, reducing environmental footprint, ensuring climate adaptation, applying sustainability schemes). Data-driven tourism services and stepping up the digital capacities of SMEs is essential for competitive businesses. Additional considerations towards equal opportunities, accessibility, affordability and creating a positive impact on local communities should shape the sector’s social dimension.

The European Commission supports the long-term green and digital transformation and resilience of the tourism ecosystem as described in the Transition Pathway for Tourism. Following a co-creation process, the Commission published this strategic roadmap for the sector at the start of 2022, describing the measures and outputs needed to accelerate the green and digital transitions and improve the resilience of the tourism ecosystem and inviting tourism stakeholders to engage and play their part in the initiative. Building on the report, the Council of the EU adopted conclusions setting out the European Agenda for Tourism 2030 and a corresponding multi-annual EU work plan to support Member States, public authorities and relevant stakeholders.

Other EU policy initiatives particularly important in boosting tourism competitiveness are the European Green Deal, the  EU Pact for Skills  and the EU Data Strategy.

EU Cohesion Policy, in particular through the European Regional Development Fund, has been traditionally an ally of the European regions in their efforts to add value to geographical assets and the cultural and historical heritage and support tourism in an efficient and sustainable manner. In the 2021-2027 programming period, the Cohesion Policy continues to offer a broad scope of support for sustainable tourism and an opportunity to support digital and green transformation, strengthening resilience and long-term sustainability of the sector under all Policy Objectives in view of the Transition Pathway for Tourism, and introduced specific objective dedicated to tourism (see below).

In addition, the topic contributes to and has interconnections with the Urban Agenda for the EU Thematic Partnership ‘Sustainable Tourism’. The Partnership focuses on issues related to tourism in cities that is a crucial component of a sustainable development of the urban economies.

The European Commission aims at reaching a balanced portfolio of projects meeting the highest quality standards while reflecting the geographical, spatial and demographic diversities of European cities. Project proposals are expected to be highly experimental, consequently not likely to be funded by traditional or mainstream sources of funding.

Relevance for and role of urban authorities

Sustainable urban tourism can be a driver for local development, contributing to all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, from fostering job creation, to contributing to sustainable and inclusive growth, bringing in investments and shifting to innovative and greener practices, to name a few. Such contributions ultimately reflect how a city develops and presents itself and improves conditions for both residents and visitors.

However, urban authorities are not only tasked to address the impact of COVID-19 in the sector and structural changes towards more sustainable tourism models but are faced with specific challenges posed in the context of sustainable urban tourism, such as the careful balance of needs of visitors and residents, congestion of tourism flows in cities, accessibility of public spaces and services, and specific environmental and social challenges brought by “over-tourism”. These challenges vary with the size of the city and their position in the industrial landscape and have implications for the wider region of the city and its connections (transport, public services, culture, network integration) with the surrounding area. Furthermore, while capital cities and bigger agglomerations may have more capacity to incorporate cutting-edge innovation in their approaches, including new solutions never tested before in the EU, innovation is important for cities of all sizes.

Sustainable tourism strategies in urban centres need not be limited to the city itself but may also actively enhance connections with smaller surrounding areas and towns, thereby reducing pressures on the urban centres and creating more opportunities for the entire region. Nevertheless, cities are in a unique position within the tourism ecosystem landscape, also applying wider policy and legislative frameworks to boost the recovery and transformation of the tourism sector towards more sustainable and resilient models. On the one hand, cities as tourism destinations in themselves encompass unique tourism ecosystems and bring together a network of tourism stakeholders, multiple attractions and diverse types of visitors within a comparatively small area.

On the other hand, urban authorities can complement existing tourism policy and regulatory environment by implementing place-based tourism policies within an overall vision for urban development. By introducing unique solutions and comprehensive policies for the promotion and management of sustainable tourism, cities can set an example for smaller towns, villages and regions that are more dependent on tourism for their economy, particularly in terms of reducing overdependence on a single sector and combining tourism economic activities with other investments and job creation efforts for diversification to other sectors.

Prompts for urban authorities

  • Diversifying the tourism product towards varied forms of smart, sustainable and accessible tourism, digitising tourism services, expanding its geographical and seasonal outreach for a more balanced annual economic and cultural cycle, and catering to a wider range of types of visitors, as well as contributing to the livelihoods of local communities;
  • Driving the green and digital transformation of the tourism sector within the urban setting, including the transition towards circular economy, smart tourism business models, and climate adaptation, in close cooperation with digital and green upskilling and reskilling opportunities, matching skills and qualifications sought in tourism;

  • Fostering social inclusion and innovation through tourism, including by supporting accessibility and affordability measures, and social economy tourism enterprises that facilitate the creation of resilient and sustainable jobs with a special focus on the inclusion on vulnerable and marginalised groups;

  • Innovative destination management models based on real-time data of tourism flows, especially in view of addressing overcrowded tourism sites and achieving a more balanced and distributed approach, including through collaborative digital platforms and innovative, sustainable and inclusive urban tourism routes;

  • Strengthening the role of cities as gates into the wider tourism regional setting, especially in lesser-known regions with high tourism potential, through fostering urban-rural linkages in the tourism context, including by capitalising on cultural assets and heritage sites in the proximity of urban centres and surrounding areas;
  • New tourism governance models, including participatory and collaborative tools to enhance local and stakeholder participation, crisis management measures, innovative data collection mechanisms, systems to manage the pressure on public resources and public services, and measures addressing social and housing needs, cost and quality of living considerations.

Cohesion policy targets

  •  Specific objective 4.6 for a more social and inclusive Europe by “Enhancing the role of culture and sustainable tourism in economic development, social inclusion and social innovation”;
  • Specific objective 5.1 for a Europe closer to citizens by “fostering the integrated and inclusive social, economic and environmental development, culture, natural heritage, sustainable tourism and security in urban areas”.

Result and output indicators

Project proposals will be assessed, among other criteria, on their ability to achieve credible results and on the soundness of their methodology to measure these results.

In their applications, urban authorities may refer to any of the indicators listed below, whenever relevant for their project ideas. The list is not prescriptive or exhaustive. It includes generic indicators that do not correlate explicitly with the subject matter of the call but which use can be of help to express tangible results. Such indicators should be complemented by indicators relevant to the specific project.

Urban authorities remain free to define their own project specific indicators, while considering those listed, in order to reflect in the clearest and most convincing way the changes which their project has the potential to accomplish. 

Output indicators

  • Number of cultural and tourism sites supported (measurement unit: cultural and tourism sites)
  • Enterprises supported (of which: micro, small, medium, large) (measurement unit: enterprises)
  • Destination management organisations supported (measurement unit: organisations)
  • Value of digital services, products and processes developed for enterprises (measurement unit: euro)
  • Infrastructure supported (new, renovated, reconverted or modernised) (measurement unit: supported infrastructures);
  • New equipment created and/or supported (measurement unit: new equipment);
  • Population covered by projects in the framework of integrated actions for socio-economic inclusion of marginalised communities, low-income households and disadvantaged groups (measurement unit: persons);
  • Participations in joint actions promoting gender equality, equal opportunities and social inclusion (measurement unit: participations);
  • People supported (trained, upskilled, accompanied or assisted) (measurement unit: persons);
  • Stakeholders involved in the preparation and co-implementation of the project (measurement unit: participations of stakeholders).

Result indicators

  • Visitors of cultural and tourism sites supported (measurement unit: visitors/ year);
  • Percentage of visitor attractions that are accessible to people with disabilities and/or participating in recognised accessibility schemes (measurement unit: percentage of attractions accessible);
  • Jobs created in supported entities (measurement unit: annual FTEs);
  • SMEs introducing product, process, marketing or organisational innovation (measurement unit: enterprises);
  • New enterprises surviving in the market (measurement unit: enterprises);
  • Number of enterprises supported to register to EMAS (measurement unit: enterprises)
  • Number of enterprises supported to apply for EU Ecolabel or other EN ISO 140024 type I ecolabels or equivalent voluntary labels, which are independent, multi-criteria based and third party verified (measurement unit: enterprises)
  • SMEs participating in destination governance activities (measurement unit: participations)
  • Users of new and upgraded digital services, products and processes (measurement unit: users/year)
  • Level of participation achieved in the engagement with local communities (information, consultation, co-creation, co-decision) (measurement unit: percentage of the local population engaged).

[1] UNWTO (2020), ‘World Tourism Barometer’, Volume 18, Issue 6, October 2020,