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Big Data – The impact of World Heritage Sites on tourism

How does UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) inscription affect tourist inflow in China? Tencent migration data study shows a 6.7-10% increase.


As the domestic and global tourism markets become increasingly competitive, destination cities use various measures to convince tourists of their tourism attractiveness. One salient practice among them is to have their properties inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage Sites (WHSs). Nevertheless, the empirical literature regarding the effect of WHS inscription on tourism economies is highly elusive, with evidence supporting and denying the effect. Our recent study adds to the debate by providing new evidence on the WHS-tourism nexus from the Tencent migration big data generated from hundreds of millions of Chinese smartphone users. 

WHSs and Tourism in China 

UNESCO began designating the WHSs in 1978 with the aim of protecting and preserving properties with outstanding universal values in the world. As one of the countries with the longest history and diverse cultures, China has been the second largest WHS country, with a total of 56 WHSs, just one WHS fewer than Italy. Meanwhile, China’s tourism industry experienced a boom after the reform and opening up in 1978, as Chinese people became richer. The nominal domestic tourism expenditures in 2019 were 56 times those in 1994, reaching 5,725 billion in Chinese Yuan (CNY) and growing annually at 18%, much faster than the nominal GDP. At the same time, tourist arrivals increased by 11 times. Hence, the tourism industry has emerged as an important sector in China. While it was reported repeatedly by Chinese media that rocketed tourist arrivals followed the enlistment of a WHS, it remains unknown whether the two manifest a causal effect between WHS inscription and increased tourism arrivals. China’s successful WHS inscriptions between 2015 and 2019 allow us to test the causal effect. 

Tencent Migration Big Data

Tencent migration big data is one of the most comprehensive and reliable data sets on the daily intensities of population flows between Chinese cities. By tracing the real-time location changes of hundreds of millions of smartphone application users, the big data team at Tencent corporation, a giant internet company in China, aggregated billions of location information and delivered daily population inflow and outflow heat indices between each city and its top-ten city pairs. We first collected the migration big data between April 2015 and May 2019. We then used the heat indices on two national holidays, Labour Day and National Day, to capture the tourist flow intensities between Chinese cities and their top-ten origin cities.

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Our Ways of Identifying the Causal Effects

We merged the data sets on WHS and daily tourist inflow intensity. We used a multi-dimensional fixed effects panel data model to estimate the influence of WHS inscription on city tourism attractiveness. This model allows us to isolate time-varying and time-invariant unobservable confounders by various fixed effects and city-specific trends, thereby uncovering the causal effect of WHS inscription on city tourism attractiveness.

The Impact of WHS Inscription on City Tourism Attractiveness

Comparisons of tourist inflow intensities among non-WHS, new, and old WHS cities show that new WHS cities have the most intense tourist inflow among the three city groups during the two national holidays. We then show that WHS inscriptions contribute to raising city tourism attractiveness. One WHS inscription in a city will increase the tourist inflow intensity by 6.7% to 10%. Moreover, WHS inscription also increases tourist outflow, the total intensity of tourist inflow and outflow, and the net tourist inflow intensity. Besides, we document that the WHS inscription has a more pronounced tourist inflow effect on Labor Day, which is usually shorter than National Day. WHSs attract increased tourist arrivals over days on each holiday.

This study confirms a tourism-enhancing effect of WHS inscription in China by using more comprehensive and reliable data on tourist flows between Chinese cities. It suggests that local tourism stakeholders use the WHS title to signal local tourism quality and develop tourism economies. Our results thus also call for an awareness of the over-tourism development based on WHSs, which may place precious properties under the threat of damage caused by human activities.

Suggestions for Future Research

While confirming the positive contribution of WHS inscription on city tourism attractiveness, we expect this study to be extended in two ways. First, the Tencent migration big data available to us is limited to each city and its top-ten pair cities. In other words, the data cannot capture the population flow intensities between Chinese cities and their non-top-ten pair cities. Hence, future studies are expected to use a complete data set of population flow between Chinese cities and to examine how sensitive our results are. Second, it is still unknown how the Tencent big data team calculated the population flow heat indexes. This means we do not know how many travelers each unit of these heat indexes represents. Consequently, we cannot estimate the tourism value of an additional WHS inscription, which is critical for the cost-benefit analysis of the inscription and needs to be determined in the future.


Journal reference

Gao, Y., Fang, M., Nan, Y., & Su, W. (2022). World Heritage Site inscription and city tourism attractiveness on national holidays: New evidence with migration big data from China. Current Issues in Tourism, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/13683500.2022.2073203

Yanyan Gao is an associate professor at the School of Economics and Management, Southeast University in Nanjing, China. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from Nanjing University, also located in Nanjing, China. His research interests include applied economics topics regarding the tourism economy, firm innovation, transportation infrastructure, particularly high-speed rail, and environmental policy in China. Dr. Gao has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals such as Research Policy, Tourism Management, World Development, and Governance.