With hype for the United Nation’s international year of sustainable tourism for development in 2017 encouraging conversations with major travel brands, many leaders within the travel industry feel they’re still not doing enough to address issues of overtourism and unsustainable impacts of travel around the world.

Attendees of the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Bangkok this week were asked, “How well does the travel and tourism sector actively tackle the issues of mass tourism and its impact?”

The result: more than 50 percent of respondents polled during a Summit session indicated that the industry “isn’t doing very well” in addressing this issue.

“Badly” garnered the second highest percentage of votes as many respondents were C-suite executives and key decision makers of some of the world’s largest and most influential travel companies.

Lack of planning by travel brands and government officials has been the biggest misstep in why sustainability and overtourism are increasingly dire concerns of the industry, said Alex Dichter, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company who is currently conducting research on tourism’s impact on destinations.

Some 1.8 billion people crossing international borders each year within the next decades won’t be an issue, said Dichter. “The issue is that while tourists come from everywhere they don’t go to everywhere,” he said, speaking during the Summit on April 27.

Cities such as Venice, for example, have front row seats to the problem. “In Venice, some days there are nearly twice as many tourists as residents,” said Dichter. “Clearly in some places where there isn’t an actual problem, there’s a perceived problem. In Barcelona and Venice, locals are reacting quite aggressively to the influx of tourists. It puts strains on public transport and infrastructure.”

Places like Machu Pichu, said Dichter, are both historical assets and economic assets. “Having a plan is a good start yet 96 of 229 natural UNESCO sites don’t have a tourism management plan in place. “The sense that we’re getting from interviews we’re doing with industry leaders is that there are a wealth of ideas here,” he said. “We just need some structure around these ideas and I do see the beginning of a path forward.”

Not Having a Tourism Plan

Greediness and ignorance are to blame for some destinations and governments without any tourism management plans in place, said Edmund Bartlett, the minister of tourism for Jamaica. “Unfortunately, tourism that has done so much for the economies of so many countries over the last 50 years has had the least attention paid in terms of policy formation, strategy, planning and allocative arrangements,” he said while speaking at the Summit.

Many countries have only recently begun to structure tourism as its own ministry within the government. The U.S., for example, still lacks an official secretary of tourism. ” In many countries, tourism is connected to the ministries of economic affairs, culture, science, commerce and so on,” said Bartlett. “Very few countries have stand-alone cabinet ministers for tourism. That’s part of why things are just happening now.”

But while travel brands are — in theory — meant to work with government officials to implement sustainable practices, their hands are tied in some cases.

“We’re still waiting for Venice to decide what they want to do with large cruise ships and cruise ship visitors,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, at the Summit while addressing concerns that cruise lines are some of the biggest culprits for tourism problems. “We voluntarily no longer bring ships into Venice that are more than 96,000 tons. And in Barcelona, for example, most of the visitors to the city aren’t cruise visitors.”

Duffy said Carnival’s work with destinations is a partnership and that the cruise line considers whether a port has a tourism management plan in place before it decides to sail there. “I think frankly as we’ve grown rapidly during the past 10 years, we do need to take a level of accountability and responsibility to make sure that when destinations or governments don’t have a plan, we need to understand what their plan is before we jump in,” she said.

“I think frankly as we’ve grown rapidly during the past 10 years, we do need to take a level of accountability and responsibility to make sure that when destinations or governments don’t have a plan, we need to understand what their plan is before we jump in,” said Duffy.

Duffy’s claim that accountability is important is particularly relevant in China and why the cruise line continues to expect strong results for Asian sailings. China is one of the fastest-growing cruise markets as “130 million Chinese outbound travelers are a new phenomenon,” she said.

With Jamaica, however, there was little accountability in the past. “We just wanted the cruise ships to come in, the planes to arrive and hotels to be built,” said Bartlett. “And so we didn’t pay enough attention to carrier capacities and key sustainability issues. You don’t realize that you also need to build the infrastructure to support tourism.”

“Tourism happened, it wasn’t planned,” he said, especially at some of the island’s top beach resorts. “Now we’re trying to recover ground and reorganize ourselves.”

Humans, of course, aren’t the only ones impacted too many tourists. Biodiversity and how wildlife and plant life, in some instances, are suffering from tourism is often left out of tourism discussions, said T.P. Singh, deputy regional director of Asia for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, while speaking at the Summit.

Carnival’s Attempt to Curb Overtourism in Some Destinations

With many Venice and Barcelona residents are furious about the crush of tourism, Carnival has already taken steps to bring ships to other ports traditionally underserved by tourism.

The cruise line still sales to Venice but also sales to smaller ports such as Bari in Southern Italy, for example, said Duffy. “But people don’t necessarily want to go to Bari,” she said. “For many people, Venice is the place to go and the place that’s been marketed.”

It’s always been about having a marquee destination on cruise itineraries, said Duffy. “The draw is if I’ve not been to Europe or Italy, I want to see Venice,” she said. “But I’m happy to see all of these other places. How do we find the right balance?”

Duffy said 25 million people will take cruises this year and that even in Barcelona, Carnival is still encouraged to bring in ships. “We’re opening a new cruise terminal in Barcelona and while the people of Barcelona may be up in arms, we’ve been working with the port authority and government officials in Barcelona for some time to build this new terminal,” she said.

There is a Silver Lining to Overtourism Discussions

Duffy said she’s optimistic about combatting overtourism but Carnival and other cruise lines and travel brands had many challenges in the last couple of years and shifting ports and itineraries are often more connected to crises and disease outbreaks, for example, than the need to spread tourism to new areas.

“If we don’t consider the impact that we have, then what do we have to offer as a company that provides the experience of seeing the world?” said Duffy.

The fact that sustainability is being discussed at all is a positive sign that the industry is moving forward on the issue, said Maria Damanaki, global managing director of oceans for The Nature Conservancy and former European Union Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

“Ten years ago for the tourism industry, sustainability was not talked about as a real challenge,” Damanaki said while speaking at the Summit. “It’s also easy to put the blame on governments but the private sector has to do its own part. The biggest challenge for Venice in the next decade won’t be tourism, it’ll be climate change.”

And Carnival and some other travel brands already fly, sail or have opened properties in tertiary destinations generally off the beaten path that could positively benefit from increased tourism. “The first step is you have to have a view on capacity,” said Dichter. “Certainly in tourists sites that are wonders of geography such as the Galapagos, capacity controls are really the only answer. But if we look at cities, part of the answer has to do with spreading the wealth.”

Southern Italy’s economy could use more tourists, for example, as cities in the region aren’t typically on most travelers’ bucket lists, Dichter said. “The spreading the wealth notion is not just about taking the pressure off overtouristed destinations but also giving a benefit to undertouristed destinations.”

Travel brands, however, can’t force travelers to go where they have no desire to go and the decision makers in distributing tourism to new areas will ultimately be travelers — not brands desperate to tell a new story.

Photo Credit: Travel industry leaders feel sustainable sustainable practices still have a long way to go at their companies. Pictured is Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, speaking about the topic at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Bangkok on April 27, 2017. World Travel & Tourism Council / Flickr