There's no question that smart precautions are needed to thwart the negative effects of overcrowding. The hard part is to start planning for this before the crowds have arrived. These important films will help you see what happens if you wait too long to implement regulations.
Think you can bring growth to your destination with some innovative marketing? Then you better start bracing for the success.
There are now at least four fascinating, important, and entertaining documentary films out that every destination marketing organization (DMO), big or small, would be wise to see.
Together these films provide a powerful glimpse — like watching another golfer putt first on a tricky green — on how make adjustments that will minimize the side effects that unregulated tourism inevitably brings.
The first film, called Gringo Trails, takes a look at the impact of global backpackers as they traipse around the world in a Lonely Planet-created bubble of banana pancakes, lattes, and youth hostels, snapping selfies, often wearing inappropriately skimpy clothing, and using up the local area’s delicate resources.
The film provides not just a courtside view to this phenomenon, but an understanding of their mindset and an idea where destinations have gone wrong while trying to meet these short-term needs without reflecting on the long-term implications.
The other three films, Bye Bye Barcelona, (entirely free on YouTube), Welcome Goodbye! (about Berlin) and The Venice Syndrome provide an in-depth look at how tourism has transformed three of the cities long heralded as examples of outstanding tourism marketing into papier-mâché cities that have lost much of their soul and look at some of the grass-roots movements of locals who are trying to reclaim their communities from the tourists.
The travel industry still has not really woken up to the damage tourism can do. And these films show the tourism equivalent of major oil spills. The habits of tourists combined with the enormous growth of the industry – the very things that have made tourism a thriving economic force – stand to cause the downfall of destinations, making them less appealing to potential visitors and locals.
DMOs might think of it this way: If your destination provides visitors with a great experience that makes people want to visit, that experience has value and needs to be protected.
At every tourism conference, DMOs make projections for growth, often to the enthusiastic cheers of the audience. The biggest trick may seem like reaching these growth targets, but the real challenge for significant long-term growth is how to regulate it in a smart way so that the destination doesn’t get crushed under the weight of its own tourists.
Between 1950 and 2012, the world population grew by 260 percent and during this same period, international tourism grew by 3600 percent. We’ve gone from 25 million international tourists to over a billion today. By all estimates, the growth looks to continue.
Take a second to imagine popular and already crowded destinations you’ve visited in recent years and try to picture them with ten times as many people — from backpackers to business-class.
The places that are already crowded will be more like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, the places that are increasingly popular will become disturbingly crowded and places with just some tourism are going to see some huge increases. At what point are visitors going to deem them undesirable to visit or will the locals revolt against this invasion? As the films demonstrate, it’s happening already.
Visit TripAdvisor’s site and enter the name of any major attraction and the word “overcrowded” into the search box and there are plenty of results. “Great attraction,” they’ll typically say, “too bad the experience was completely marred by the ongoing stampede of tourists.”
Gringo Trails shows a successful model of sustainable tourism, where the guides in a single Amazon lodge understand that the monkey in the forest is worth far more to them alive for visitors to see than as a single meal. Cities would do well to take this example to heart and implement some basic foot-flow and capacity policies for the sake of long-term revenue.
We put capacity limits on other things, even within the free-market model. When Beyoncé sells 100,000 tickets to a venue that has only 50,000 seats, they don’t cram 100,000 people into the venue; they add a second show. They don’t even sell 100 extra tickets and try to stuff these people into the venue; they say “sorry, we’re sold out, maybe next time” and see it as good PR that some will tell their friends that they weren’t able to get tickets.
When hotels fill up, they don’t put another guest in the room and tell guests to share a bed. When travelers rent a car, they don’t put another tourists in the back seat. When a flight is full, airlines don’t put someone on your lap (though RyanAir and Spirit Air are likely experimenting with the right fee).
At some point, destinations are going to need to say “sorry, we’re full,” and not just when they run out of hotel rooms, fill every Airbnb listing, and use every cruise ship docking space. By then it’s too late.
Destinations need to implement policies before tourist crowds start swarming. This means they need to figure out how to attract tourists and also how to limit their impact at same time, much like how Apple builds mobile phones in a way that’s at least somewhat mindful of what materials will be discarded. Or when airports put up that rat maze of ropes to organize lines before the airport gets busy.
The rope maze may not be much fun to walk when empty, but better that than the chaos of no ropes when the airport gets crowded. All airports have seemingly figured this out the value of this pre-emptive crowd planning. Now destinations need to do the same.
Doug Lansky is the Destinations Editor for Skift, an author and travel writer who has been published in dozens of major publications from The Guardian to National Geographic Traveler, an advisor for destinations, and an acclaimed keynote speaker at tourism conferences around the world. More at www.douglansky.com.
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Photo credit: Still from the film "Bye Bye Barcelona." Bye Bye Barcelona / YouTube