Travel Leaders Group, a major travel agency consortium, has joined forces with New York University’s School of Professional Studies to address overtourism. The broad initiative combines research, partnerships with destinations, travel advisor education, consumer outreach, and marketing.
The move comes as awareness of overtourism increases, and some travelers are opting for unique experiences instead of competing with crowds in the best-known destinations.
By teaming up with NYU, Travel Leaders has access to resources that include an “overtourism index” drafted by graduate students to help destinations evaluate whether they are facing overtourism. The index, claimed to be an industry first, provides a range of measurements, including economic factors, accessibility, accommodation capacity, societal issues, environmental concerns, local community perceptions, and media.
Additionally Travel Leaders is conducting research of its own, including a recent survey of destination marketing organizations to assess their views on overtourism and seek suggestions for alternate options to popular seasons and destinations. The agency group has also surveyed its own advisors to get their perceptions on overtourism and responsible travel.
Most of the destination marketing organizations surveyed (80 percent) have faced issues with overtourism and just over half (53 percent) said they have acted to address those issues. The top actions they cited were educating travel advisors on less-frequented areas or seasons and working with tour operators.
More telling, however, is the direct feedback from Travel Leaders’ own travel advisors: more than half have seen an increase in negative feedback from clients because of overtourism in destinations.
The overwhelming majority of advisors (82 percent) believe the travel industry should take a proactive role in addressing overtourism.
Adrienne Lee, director of programs and partnership for nonprofit social impact promoter Tourism Cares, noted that consumers are seeing the repercussions of overtourism, which is changing their perspective of many popular destinations.
“Travelers may not characterize it as ‘overtourism,’ but they are seeing the quality of their experience decline as the destination declines for the local community and natural habitats,” she said.
What Can Advisors Do?
Travel Leaders CEO Ninan Chacko believes the travel agency community has a major role to play in combating overtourism.
“The timing is right since we’ve already seen a trend toward experiential travel and a desire among travelers to go off the beaten path,” he told Skift. “There is a tremendous opportunity for travel advisors, working with supplier partners, to offer unique and hyper-personalized experiences to their clients. This is where advisors can really shine, by combining their knowledge of their clients with their expertise about destinations, to direct them to something they could not experience otherwise.”
According to the destination marketing organizations surveyed by Travel Leaders, one of the top strategies to deal with overcrowding is to provide education and information to travel advisors.
“We are already beginning to work with our destination marketing partners to develop B2B campaigns, itineraries, and marketing to promote lesser-known areas and off-season options,” said Chacko.
Tourism Cares Chief Impact Officer Paula Vlamings agrees that promotion of low-season visits is an effective strategy, but she also urges advisors to recommend secondary cities, “destinations that could really benefit from the economic impact tourism can provide but are often afterthoughts in a traveler’s planning process.”
Tourism Cares also encourages advisors to promote tour opportunities that are driven by social enterprises.
“These are often organizations that are run by nonprofits, community associations, or charities that are reinvesting proceeds back into community development,” Vlamings said. “Tours and experiences that are community-run have also, often, taken the wider perspective of tourism in the community as part of their planning process, so they are initiatives that have three-way benefits — for the traveler, the organization leading the tour, and the greater community who is being visited by the traveler.”
Faced with persistent demand for the most popular destinations, it’s hard for travel advisors to turn away business, Chacko acknowledged, adding that Travel Leaders’ aim is to find workable business solutions.
“We will continue to sell popular destinations, but increasingly will look to offer alternatives, whether it be off-season options, a side trip to a less-visited area, or an itinerary which includes unique elements,” he said “Those alternatives may be highly customized and may include more components, and, depending on the level of customization, may command a higher price.”
While some in the industry may be cynical about the intentions of travel agencies, Chacko believes there’s strong support for positive initiatives that address overtourism.
“We believe deeply that travel and tourism is essential to greater understanding between cultures and a major contributor to economies around the world,” he said. “Working together as an industry to look beyond mass marketing and volume-based success measures will go a long way toward broadening our perspective. First we examine and understand the problem, then we start to explore a variety of solutions.”
Tourism Cares’ Lee agrees that “there is great opportunity to utilize overtourism as a growing challenge in our industry as a force for good. A number of incredible social enterprises exist in many of the destinations which we travel to that are creating real positive impact for their communities at large. By investing in these tours and experiences as a way to see a destination, we are able to utilize our purchasing power to invest in real long-term change.”
Travel Leaders advisors believe the travel industry should be proactive in addressing overtourism, according to Chacko. This awareness, together with more awareness of social enterprises and the rise of voluntourism, points to an evolution in the way travel is promoted and sold, he said.
“These trends can lead to some very exciting developments if we seize these opportunities.”