A global surge in tourism, driven by the growth of low-cost carriers and middle class families across the world who are beginning to vacation abroad, has had deep ramifications for the world’s most popular destinations. Some have tried to manage tourism by limiting the ability of tourists to stay in cities or pushing less popular areas as bona fide tourist destinations. The jury is still out on whether these destinations will be able to effectively manage tourism, or will continue to struggle in the face of mounting backlash from their citizens.
Last week we released our annual travel industry trends forecast, Skift Megatrends 2017. You can read about each of the trends on Skift, or download a copy of our magazine here.
As it turns out, you can have too much of a good thing.
This year’s lesson involves Iceland, where we sent a reporter this summer to watch the crowds of tourists emerge and fill Iceland’s most popular sites to the bursting point. This nation of 330,000 welcomed 1.7 million people in 2016, and the fact that it’s near impossible for a local to rent an apartment in Reykjavik is not a detail captured on the tourist map.
Iceland is just at the beginning of being reshaped by the forces of the global travel industry, and its leaders are aware that they need to do something. At Skift Global Forum in September, Visit Iceland’s director Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir said, “I wouldn’t say we have a crazy problem at the moment. It’s not just about bringing tourists, it’s about being sustainable as well. I mean, tourism is important for Icelanders and we’re starting to realize it is the biggest industry and we need to be careful how we treat it… We need to be careful about our lifestyle and sustainability around nature.”
Since our story this summer, nearly every major media outlet — from The New York Times to the PBS NewsHour — has written their own version of the story. All of a sudden, overtourism is on everyone’s radar.
We’ve been talking about overtourism since Skift launched in 2012, and back then we started by looking at Elizabeth Becker’s groundbreaking work Overbooked. She looked closely at multiple destinations, but none stood out like Venice, Italy.
The city of water has become a city of visitors where it’s easier to find a knock-off Louis Vuitton purse than a loaf of bread. It hasn’t improved since Becker’s book came out; city residents marched through the streets in November to protest dramatic population loss, cruise ships, and rapidly declining quality of life.
It’s not all doom and gloom, since various destinations are approaching their challenges from different angles. Part of the solution to overcrowding and the negative influences of tourism have been a policy of directing travelers out of hubs and city centers to suburbs and lesser-known neighborhoods.
For the last few years, New York has balanced its influx of tourists by pushing a five-borough strategy that gets visitors out of Manhattan and into Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods they wouldn’t have set foot in 10 years ago. It’s a release valve that spreads the tourist wealth, and disruption, around the city. NYC & Company has done it through compelling content and partnerships with local stakeholders, many of which have helped revitalize public spaces throughout the city. And while the majority of Airbnb’s listings are in popular neighborhoods, it has played a role in getting visitors to new neighborhoods and demonstrating to hoteliers that smaller properties in previously ignored neighborhoods may be a good idea after all.
In Spain, a nation that’s seen its tourist numbers hit new heights every year, they’re attempting a political approach in some cities. Barcelona is foremost among those, where a narrow core of the city has become a Lollapalooza of tourism and locals regularly spray paint “Tourist Go Home” on walls. The current mayor rose to power on a populist wave that demanded action. So far we’ve seen limits to approvals on new hotel construction and a crackdown on vacation rentals and Airbnb. As strategies go, it’s more reactive than prescriptive, but it’s a response that locals have rallied behind.