Our most recent Skift Call was about combatting overtourism, which refers to throngs of tourists overwhelming destinations beyond the ability of locals and cities to cope. The term, which Skift introduced, has become a go-to characterization within the travel industry and mainstream media.
As Skift overtourism expert Andrew Sheivachman asked in this piece, Proposing Solutions to Overtourism in Popular Destinations: A Skift Framework, “Why have some destinations thrown up their hands in helplessness in dealing with the deluge of tourists? And what have other destinations done to successfully limit the effects of increased visitation?”
On this Skift Call, we heard from Sheivachman, Skift tourism reporter Dan Peltier, Skift news editor Hannah Sampson, and Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. Epler Wood is also author of the book Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet, which was published earlier this year.
Here are five takeaways from the conversation:
Destinations Should Break the Funding Cycle.
Destinations get caught in a tempting situation: using their funds on marketing and driving higher visitation, which is one measure of their success. But if overtourism is looming, a destination will have to step outside that box, focus on advance planning rather than immediate rewards, and seriously rethink how to spend this money.
“So much of the funding that comes in from tourism to destinations actually goes toward taxes, which actually go toward marketing the destination,” said Epler Wood. “This is a vicious cycle that will be very difficult to arrest until they start to reconsider the tax funding that they do receive from tourists.”
Domestic Tourists Contribute to Overtourism too.
The democratization of travel is here, frequently in the form of dirt-cheap airfares. Low-cost carriers and the rise of basic economy make it easier for more people to take more trips, and that’s overloading some destinations.
But contrary to popular belief, this overload is not just coming from international tourists; domestic tourists contribute similarly.
“Cheaper air travel, especially in Europe, is leading to many more — primarily European — tourists swamping their own destinations. Sometimes we do have a picture of outsiders causing the problem,” said Epler Wood. “But in fact in India and China as well, we’re seeing the global middle class growing so greatly and travel becoming so accessible to all people that all destinations will have to rethink the number of people they’re going to be managing in the future. That’s the 21st century.”
The formation of the European Union, which made travel more fluid for many Europeans, is connected to overwhelming visitation in top cities like Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Other parts of the world like Southeast Asia might see the EU as a case study.
“In the EU, overseas tourists are of course a big factor in why cities like Venice and Barcelona and Amsterdam are experiencing visitor challenges, but really, 35 percent of it was from EU citizens and people traveling within the region,” said Peltier. “So really when other regions like Southeast Asia are thinking about making it easier for people to move about the region, that’s also something to consider.”
Tourism Isn’t Always an Economic Driver.
Strengthening the economy is every destination marketer’s favorite rallying cry, but it’s not always true that tourism fosters economic health. Sure, tourists come into town and spend their money, but a destination must spend a certain amount in order to accommodate each tourist, and sometimes that cost-per-tourist creeps up.
“What we see from all of the global institutions that look at economics of tourism is that they’re looking at gross impacts from the point of view of total dollars reaching the destination,” said Epler Wood. “What they don’t look at, and really is very difficult to even determine, is what is the yield, or what is the net to the destination. Early research into this shows that many destinations are actually losing money.”
Tourism Doesn’t Have to Stop, Just Slow Down.
Overloaded destinations may be tempted to panic and try to shut the tourism floodgates entirely, but everything should exist in moderation. There are shades of gray and even Iceland, the poster child for overtourism, can manage in stages. Iceland could even take a cue from New York City, which runs campaigns to spread tourists out to less-crowded areas of the city.
“When you think about a place like Iceland that is seeing 30 percent year-over-year tourism growth, if you were to just slow that down to 10 percent, five percent, there’s a better chance of being able to cope with the adverse effects of tourism,” said Sheivachman. “What you see in Iceland is a limitation on developing new hotels in the city center and you see that echoed in places like Barcelona.”
“I like to see tourism as a river,” said Epler Wood. “It can be either like a fire hose, like rapids, in which you’re seeing very rapid growth, almost flooding into an area, or it can be a slow stream, or it can be drip irrigation. I favor drip irrigation….It’s done by very good zoning and regional planning.”
“You’re never going to get rid of the flow,” said Epler Wood. She used Reykjavik, the hub for travel to Iceland, as an example.
“No matter what you do, you’ll never be able to divert all of it,” she said.
Barcelona Could Take a Cue From the Galapagos on Managing Tourists.
Oddly enough, it’s often large cities like Amsterdam with established infrastructure that are struggling most with overtourism, not delicate ecosystems like those of the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica. These latter two places receive plenty of tourists, but were forced to prioritize environmental protection and sustainability from the beginning. So, they’re actually pretty well set up to limit and manage tourism flow, though their remoteness certainly helps.
“There are other very stressed places that tend to be cultural monuments that come out in my research, particularly Angkor Wat and Taj Mahal,” she said, describing them as “two extremely stressed, highly important international destinations that don’t even have really a good plan in place yet.”