International Sustainable Tourism Initiative

The International Sustainable Tourism Initiative (ISTI) was the first research unit at Harvard University focused entirely on sustainable tourism.  Based at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, this unit explored how to improve science-based measurements and policies for management of tourism impacts.  All ISTI research efforts are now complete and no further research programs will be initiated.  Additional information on ISTI’s research results will be posted to update final publications and resource materials on the site when available.

Between 2014-2018, ISTI developed joint research efforts with: the Harvard Kennedy School on questions of policy, the Harvard Business School on questions of ecotourism business models, impact investment, and ESG metrics producing 3 case studies at HBS; and the Harvard Graduate School of Design on questions of using participatory planning for sustainable tourism smart destinations, via online Geodesign applications- work that continues at Harvard Extension. 

ISTI research opened the doors to the different Harvard Schools and fostered collaboration and innovative solutions to managing tourism sustainably.  This was achieved via exchange between faculty, staff, and hundreds of students from around the world.  The primary research projects, detailed here, were achieved with the assistance of Harvard Extension students, Teaching Assistants, Faculty aides, Capstone students, and Alumnae of the Harvard Extension Sustainability degree program. 


  • Research on Smart Destinations led to classes which applied a GIS mapping systems, Geodesign, to develop landscape, culture, and density sensitive strategic plans for tourism, while establishing on-going monitoring of fresh water, coastal landscapes, ecosystems including beaches, wildlife, and cultural and social capital.

  • Research on Tourism & Climate Change led to the first fully tested and advanced, science-based framework, the HEAT-D Framework, to monitor the cost of maintaining destinations and managing the future impacts of climate change. 

  • Research on Governance led to full collaboration with policy experts on how taxation, sustainable financing, and public private collaborations can be designed to respond to the pressures on destinations in the 21st century.
  • Research on Ecotourism as a sustainable conservation business enterprise in Southern Africa, led to 3 case studies published by Harvard Business School.

ISTI’s research program, designed by Megan Epler Wood based on her 25 years of experience in the field, was launched under the leadership of Dr. Jack Spengler who was Director of the Center for Global Heath and the Environment 2014-2017 at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. ISTI’s formal research program was presented at COP 22 in 2016 in Marrakech, Morocco, for the first United Nations session on tourism and climate change at a COP event.  This garnered a grant from the German Government under GIZ in 2017-2018.

Through ISTI’s work, Harvard researchers and students explored and consulted with a wide range of experts on current themes and challenges for the sustainable tourism global agenda. 

International Sustainable Tourism Initiative
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