The intense media coverage of overtourism during high summer season makes sense, but putting the onus on travelers to solve it misrepresents the deeper issues at play.
It’s summertime, and media outlets around the world are suddenly fixated on overtourism. While the topic has long since entered the mainstream, not a day goes by lately without a legacy media outlet weighing in.
A glance at the recent headlines would make it seem as though it’s a problem that has sprung up in the last two weeks, rather than in the last decade.
Overtourism is a complex phenomenon that has implications for the climate, infrastructure, housing markets, and politics at both the national and local level. It’s also the shared responsibility of countless sectors of travel: aviation, hospitality, cruise, and destination marketing, to name a few.
You wouldn’t necessarily know that reading some of the season’s hottest takes, which are often framed around putting the onus on the travelers themselves, rather than fully taking into the scope the scale of the overtourism dilemma.
“Too many people want to travel,” points out The Atlantic. “If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?” asks The New York Times. And the Washington Post reminds readers, “You can avoid being one of them.” The overtourists, that is.
Some of these takes, like The Atlantic’s, equivocate so much as to have no thesis: Tourism is bad, but also it’s good. Others, like the Times’, present a kind of ethical hand-wringing that feels too high-minded to be relevant to the majority of travelers making decisions about where to go in 2019. Travel content, of course, is a powerful search play for online media companies, breeding a variety of content aimed for clicks instead of nuance.
People want to travel and they’re going to do what they want, especially since most go on vacation just once or twice a year.
Justin Francis is the founder of UK-based activist travel company Responsible Travel. He says these stories, while predictable, can dodge harder questions.
“Sadly, the summer season of overtourism stories is becoming one of the most predictable events in the annual tourism calendar,” Francis said. “We see a mixture of problems and potential solutions, but more of the former. Solutions are based on better management, regulation technology, and diversification — which often just spreads the problem.”
Go Overcrowd Somewhere Else
A popular tactic suggested in another piece by The New York Times is that tourists can combat overtourism by skipping cities like Barcelona, Venice, or Amsterdam by heading to Seville, Treviso, and Gouda instead. As a travel recommendation, it makes sense — and may indeed result in a less crowded August getaway for the consumer. But addressing the problem of overtourism at the level of the visitor is to misunderstand its magnitude.
Shifting the problem elsewhere reduces it only marginally — and can often set up outer-lying secondary cities for an onslaught of visitors they may not be prepared for. Did anyone check with Treviso that it was prepared logistically for its New York Times write-up? Day trips to the quaint town an hour away will not change the fact that dozens of budget flights still arrive in the most impacted cities every day.
As Salli Felton, CEO of the UK’s The Travel Foundation, told Skift in March, making travel sustainable shouldn’t really be the tourist’s primary responsibility. “As the greatest profiteers from tourism, the industry and destination authorities hold an undeniable responsibility for ensuring the tourism products and services they sell and supply have net positive benefits,” she said.
A good example of this is how the Philippine government has begun regulating cruise ship visits to Boracay Island after the destination and its residents were overwhelmed by the negative environmental impact of relentless waves of tourists. Cruise ships have been banned during peak seasons, and alternative island destinations have been sanctioned in a measured way.
Of course, it’s natural for media outlets to cover people thronging to popular destinations at the time of year when most people — at least in the northern hemisphere — take vacations. As Skift Research found in April of this year, negative media sentiment about overtourism in Iceland over a four-year period “rises during the peak summer months of maximum tourist arrivals, correlates well with other data points (e.g. visitor arrivals and tourism employment), and tracks well with traditional opinion polls.”
The flurry of coverage at one time of year can be a misleading way to understand the problem. Destination marketers have already been taking steps to reduce shoulder seasons by encouraging off-peak travel. Summer-pegged coverage of overtourism belies the fact that it’s a problem that’s rapidly becoming season-agnostic. But that reality doesn’t lend itself so well to Bloomberg headlines warning readers to “prepare for another summer of overtourism.”
Overtourism is an issue that’s tied to the policies and regulations destinations put in place year round, not just in late June. As many popular destinations switch from focusing on boosting tourism numbers to figuring out how to manage the number they have, that will only become truer.
As the World Travel and Tourism Council said in a recent report about cities’ readiness for tourism growth, the locations that are best equipped to cultivate a sustainable tourism industry are ones creating policies that “priori[tize] the liveability of cities, ensures there are clean air and water, excellent education, affordable housing, good transport connectivity, and access to parks and green spaces for residents.”
Making a city or travel destination more equipped to deal with visitors often means improving life for residents first. That’s a more complex story that doesn’t lend itself so well to clickbait and alarmist headlines.
Photo credit: Tourists crowd a busy street in Venice. Davide Gabino / Flickr.com