Travel leaders are at least starting to admit there might be a problem with unmanaged mass tourism, but many are still in denial about the real reasons it has become such a big issue.
For years, few in the travel industry wanted to acknowledge the fact that tourism might actually have some drawbacks .
Governments, tourist boards and cruise lines were happy to pursue growth without thinking that their actions in certain destinations might have consequences.
Stories, though, began to emerge of angry locals protesting the ever-rising influx of visitors to their towns and cities, and slowly but surely they forced those in charge to finally address the issue.
At Skift, we’ve been way out in front on overtourism, documenting its impact in places like Iceland and we recently proposed a framework for a series of our possible solutions. Not all of them will be popular but they have potential.
Now, leaders of travel companies and some governments are belatedly starting to take notice, and at the recent World Travel Market London tourism bosses gathered to discuss the topic. As you’d expect there was a mixture of spin, denial, and the odd example of a forward-thinking policy.
Those present had wildly different interests and maybe that is part of the problem. Not everywhere is suffering from too many tourists.
Barcelona and Venice, with their millions of high-spending visitors, are looked on with envy by some. But the problem is only going to get worse. The middle classes in places like China and India are getting richer and as they do they will copy what their counterparts in Europe and North America have been doing: travelling for leisure.
In 2016, there were 1.2 billion tourist arrivals across the world and by 2030 this number is forecast to increase by 46 percent to 1.8 billion. The travel industry needs to come up with some answers before it is too late.
Below are excerpts from the discussion at World Travel Market London.
Greece: Extending The Season
Tourism has been one of the bright spots for Greece in recent years. A government debt crisis left its economy in ruins, but visitor numbers during that time stayed stubbornly high. According to Minister of Tourism Elena Kountoura, tourism has been successful because Greece extended its season into the European winter months.
“We [managed] to prolong our season, which was very important to us, so as to be able to satisfy all the tourists through a longer period of tourism. Not only through the summer season but though the year,” Kountoura said.
Hotels on the popular island of Santorini were persuaded to stay open during the winter of 2016/17, which helped tourism numbers in December, January, February, March and April make double-digit increases.
Sharjah: Planning for the Future
The Emirate of Shajah is one of those destinations that has not yet been impacted by mass tourism. According to Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority, this gives the destination the advantage of being able to promote tourism while also taking steps to ensure it doesn’t’ repeat mistakes made by others. This means improving its road, rail, air, and sea infrastructure and “thinking 100 years ahead.”
Silversea Cruises: Venice has Perception Problem
The cruise industry has taken a lot heat in recent years for the way it transports thousands of guests and unleashes them on a single destination in one go. As cruises ships have gotten bigger, so has the problem.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Venice, where these megaships tower over the historic city. Angry Venetians, upset at the damage these behemoths are doing, have forced the Italian government to take action, meaning that from 2021, ships of a certain size will have to dock away from the center.
Silversea’s ships aren’t anywhere near that size and chairman Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio doesn’t believe his company is guilty of aiding overtourism.
“The problem with Venice is a problem of perception of danger to the city, the mass presence of ships, its not so much cruisers… My cruisers leave a lot of money, average spend is $700 per night per person,” he said.
He believes the anger from locals stems from some tourists not spending money. “What the people of those cities don’t like is thousands of people coming in everyday and not leaving anything.”
Airbnb: The Right Kind of Tourism
As with cruise lines, Airbnb has found itself singled out for being part of the problem. The company has been accused of aiding gentrification in driving up rental prices for locals.
Airbnb’s head of policy, Patrick Robinson, maintains that the company is actually helping combat overtourism by “bringing new guests… who are staying in different parts of cities.”
“Sixty-nine percent of guests to Amsterdam using Airbnb last year stayed away from the city center. More than 80 percent of the homes booked in Prague last year on Airbnb were outside the main area of Prague. When locals guests stay locally they spend locally,” he said.
“In Barcelona, for example, you have this combination of a very vibrant longstanding urban center with an incredibly popular tourist destination and that presents unique challenges for that city of Barcelona. The Catalan government and companies like Airbnb are trying to work through and figure out how we develop solutions that empower local people, allow them to make extra money and spread tourism well outside the normal zones.”
The problem for Airbnb is that not everyone agrees.
World Travel and Tourism Council: Context Is Key
Gloria Guevara, the president and CEO of the World Travel And Tourism Council, had an interesting take on Barcelona.
“I went to Barcelona before tourism. There’s a chapter before and after,” she said.
“It was high crime rate, high unemployment, it was a pretty sad city to tell you the truth in the 80s.”
For Guevara, at least some of the problem is down to the failure to “communicate the benefits with the locals.” She pointed to Miami as a city that had done a good job in maintaining a dialogue with the local community.
“Miami is the largest home port in the world how, you don’t feel overtouism there,” Guevara said.
“They have the right public policies they have good planning, they work very closely with the private sector and they engage with the community.”
Mexico: More Room to Grow
Despite Mexico being the eighth-most visited country, tourism secretary Enrique de la Madrid believes it is in fact “under-visited.”
The problem the country has — and it’s something it shares with countless others — is that tourism is very concentrated with 80 percent of tourists arriving in only five destinations.
Around 10 million Mexicans work directly or indirectly in the sector, and de la Madrid is keen to see the industry grow.
“Tourism is so good that we have to be able to receive more tourists all over the country,” he said.
Like the expansion of the tourism season highlighted by Greece, expanding reach is an attractive response to overtourism. In this case, not only does it solve the problem in one area but it also spreads the benefit of tourism. And, most importantly, the money it brings in for governments goes up not down.
Costa Rica: A Social Purpose for Tourism
While most countries are happy to talk about the impact of tourism, Costa Rica is the first to use a dedicated metric to try and measure it.
In 2016, the government started using the Social Progress Index – which measures a number of social and environmental indicators to try and paint a picture of of whether a particular country is meeting the basic human needs of its citizens – in 10 of its tourist centers.
Costa Rica’s mnister of tourism, Mauricio Ventura Aragón, said the country wanted to “really measure what tourism is doing to the communities.”
“So you can really measure if the people in the touristic centers are living better… than [the people] in the rest of the country,” he said.
Of the 10 pilot communities, eight had a higher SPI than the rest of their respective provinces or area. And in a household survey, 92 percent of respondents in these communities said tourism was good for the community, according to Aragón.
And because the SPI looks at 50 indicators, it means the government can pinpoint exactly what to do and therefore “improve the quality of life.”
Costa Rica, it seems, is one of the the few countries to get things right. For tourism to truly work it must serve the communities it takes place in and not solely the outside stakeholders.
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Photo Credit: The Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic. The city has become increasingly popular with tourists over the years, thanks, in part, to low-cost flights. sergejf / Flickr