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Digital archive of theses discussed at the University of Pisa


Thesis etd-03292024-191247

Thesis type
Tesi di dottorato di ricerca
Thesis title
Academic discipline
Course of study
tutor Prof.ssa Gori, Elena
  • online communication
  • sustainability
  • tourism
Graduation session start date
Release date
Tourism stands out as a pivotal sector for economic growth, and it is recognized as a key driver of the economy (UNWTO, 2023). Considering the great expansion of the tourism industry, it is important to evaluate its impacts on destinations and to recognize the limitations of resources when implementing strategies to preserve cultural, environmental and social heritage. The success of destinations, which are often reliant on their unique heritage, results from collaborative efforts among tourism stakeholders. Destination management organizations (DMOs), local institutions, economic operators, associations, tourists and citizens are all called to cooperate actively in defining shared solutions to achieve common objectives. Sustainable destination development requires coordination and collective actions among these stakeholders, with DMOs playing a crucial role due to their responsibility in managing and promoting the destination (Wagenseil et al., 2022). The development of digital technologies, coupled with government plans to enhance industrial competitiveness, has led to the digital transformation of human activities and is driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a socio-economic phenomenon that is profoundly changing interactions between social and economic actors (Mariani & Baggio, 2022). However, one of the challenges faced by tourist destinations is the ability to attract environmentally conscious tourists and develop communication strategies to encourage responsible attitudes and behaviours, as this represents an important component in promoting sustainable tourism (Han et al., 2018).
Based on these considerations, this doctoral thesis considers the sustainable online communication of different key tourism stakeholders and the alignment among them in promoting sustainable strategies. In particular, given the pivotal management and marketing role of DMOs, this study seeks to understand whether their sustainable communication influences local operators, who, in turn, enhance their offerings with reference to this dimension. The system generates value if the end user – that is, the tourist – also perceives sustainability as a characterizing feature of the destination. To do so, this doctoral thesis is divided into three chapters; each chapter consists of one paper.
Chapter 1 systematically reviews the literature on sustainable online communication. Indeed, despite the growing attention to sustainability and how it is conveyed through online communication and interaction, comprehensive efforts to map and systematize contributions published on the topic have, to date, been lacking (Ghanem & Elgammal, 2017; Spinelli, 2021). Research on online sustainability communication has been expanding considerably in recent years (Tölkes, 2020; Tiago et al., 2021), and there is thus a need to assess the literature to understand what has been studied and what remains to be explored. Grounded on these considerations, this paper has been guided by the following research questions: What has been done? What trends and patterns have emerged from the literature in the last decade? What could be done in the future? In this vein, the first paper addresses the current framework on sustainability and how it is communicated online through the adoption of a quantitative systematic review of the literature. More specifically, this paper is the first to perform a systematic review that, in line with suggestions provided by Pickering and Byrne (2014) and Pickering et al., (2015), offers a respectful characterization of the current research framework, thus providing valuable insights, outlining challenges and formulating an agenda for the future. Additionally, this first paper provides a theoretical framework that synthesizes the tourism stakeholders involved in sustainability communication, their interaction in conveying sustainable messages and the practices adopted, as well as the contextual factors influencing these processes, including territorial considerations and application domains.
Chapter 2 investigates sustainable communication promoted online to understand how different stakeholders convey, perceive and promote the sustainability of a destination. This objective emerged in response to the increasing awareness of sustainability issues, which has prompted people to consider the impacts of their actions on the planet (Niñerola et al., 2019; Yamagishi et al., 2021). There is also a heightened recognition of the necessity to advocate for pro-environmental practices (Font et al., 2017; Penz et al., 2017; Dodds et al., 2020), which has compelled destinations to prioritize the development of environmental strategies and the promotion of sustainable behaviour. Consequently, it is important for all stakeholders to collaborate in fostering a clear understanding of the concept of sustainability which is intricately tied to effective communication and dissemination among destination stakeholders (Dabphet et al., 2012). This includes, among others, the sustainable communication of different tourism stakeholders and the effectiveness of online content for sustainable communication on websites that is crucial for developing and managing destination strategies (Tölkes, 2018; Rivera et al., 2021; Marchi et al., 2023). In this vein, the second paper addresses the following research questions: How do tourism stakeholders communicate sustainability online and to what extent do they do so? How can we measure communication in a sustainable context? How can we measure sustainable communication? To achieve these goals, Chapter 2 analyses the sustainability-oriented messages of 22 Italian coastal destinations promoted by different tourism stakeholders through the development of an automated tool. The context of the study is particularly relevant for two main reasons: (a) coastal tourism drives the tourism economy in Italy (Italian National Tourism Board, ENIT, 2019); and (b) the strong seasonality (concentrated in summer) has profound social, environmental and economic impacts on the destination (Alves et al., 2014). To achieve the research goal, the contents of the official tourism websites of the destinations, accommodation facility websites and reviews published by tourists were analysed through a mixed method strategy that combined qualitative and quantitative approaches. Contents were analysed through text mining techniques, and an ad-hoc dictionary was developed to assess online sustainable communication. The approach adopted was based on a semi-automated dictionary-building process (Deng et al., 2019), which combined a manual analysis with automated text analysis. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to explore the contents of different tourism stakeholders to contribute to the understanding of the development of sustainable tourism at a destination through the construction of a dictionary, which facilitated the systematic measurement of sustainable communication on a large scale and was applicable to large amounts of data.
Chapter 3, the final chapter, examines the sustainable online communication of various key tourism stakeholders to comprehend their alignment. This objective arose from the evolution of digital platforms and the need to adapt to new communication methods that have transformed communication and policies for destination development (Mariani & Baggio, 2022). The involvement of all stakeholders in the communication process through constant connection is vital to achieve an efficient communication strategy (Morsing & Schultz, 2006). In this context – and considering that previous studies have explored sustainable communication from a single stakeholder perspective (e.g. d’Angella & De Carlo, 2016; Maté-Sànchez-Val & Teruel-Gutierrez, 2022; Tanković & Mušanović, 2022) –this paper sought to analyse the interaction among multiple tourism stakeholders. It therefore addressed the following research questions: Is there an alignment in the communication among authorities/DMOs, local operators and tourists? Are DMOs able to convey sustainability to local operators and tourists? Acknowledging that the content communicated by stakeholders indicates their commitment and practices related to sustainable development (Tiago et al., 2021), the study introduced a novel approach to assess the sustainable online communication of stakeholders in 22 Italian coastal destinations. This innovative method combined text mining and regression models, while systematically gathering textual information from both the supply side (local authorities, DMOs, and accommodation facilities) and the demand side (tourists) of the tourism ecosystem. Specifically, the goal was to evaluate the correlation and influence of communication among these stakeholders. To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to analyse the interaction of these stakeholders and does so using an automated tool that incorporates the creation of the sustainable tourism dictionary and the application of an indicator designed to quantify sustainability. In line with the studies of Tian et al. (2023) and Li et al. (2021), the Tourism Sustainability Communication Index was developed using a weighting scheme to calculate the weight of each word – that is, the frequency–inverse document frequency (tf-idf). The combination of these methods ensures a robust analysis of the relationship between different forms of communication in the context of sustainable practices within the tourism sector, inspiring heightened awareness and active efforts among diverse stakeholders towards a sustainable transition (Tölkes, 2018; Bernard et al., 2023).
This doctoral thesis significantly contributes to a deeper understanding of the tourism development process in destinations, underscoring the pivotal role of sustainable online communication in fostering awareness and a sense of responsibility towards destinations. The findings highlight the critical importance of collaborative efforts among diverse tourism stakeholders to ensure sustainable communication that reflects strategies and illuminates the collective endeavours of stakeholders in achieving a sustainable destination.