The effects of climate change and overtourism on global destinations will converge over the course of the coming decades. Leaders need to start planning now for a world defined by overcrowding and limited resources.
As cities and destinations around the world grapple with overcrowding from increased travel and tourism, most remain at a loss for how to effectively limit the negative effects of overtourism while maintaining the strong economic benefits that come with increased travel.
At the same time, with the endemic threat of climate change on the horizon, cities and countries are working to become more sustainable and to better quantify the resources at their disposal. The two challenges are tied together, even if most destinations are unsure of what to do about both issues.
In the years and decades to come, the struggle to contain the ill effects of travel and the new challenge of grappling with the unpredictable impact of climate change will converge.
When cities become stressed, people will flock to the cities most flexible and well-prepared to thrive under a new status quo. Right now, the world is undergoing another type of shrinking thanks to the democratization of tourism and travel. Smart destinations will use tourism as a test case for quantifying and strategizing around the impacts of a future defined by limited resources and the abundance of people moving through cities.
The quest to develop frameworks and strategies to deal with increased tourism and an uncertain future are just under development now. Travel and tourism will serve as the test bed for change that will have long-lasting ramifications for the world.
“We don’t see a lot of destinations that actually take the time to plan,” said Leigh Barnes, chief purpose officer of Intrepid Group, a global tour operator. “Destinations were unaware of it. They just wanted the tourism dollar. Destinations where there’s a lot of preservation that needs to happen are proactive in that sense of limiting impact on their culture, but the impact on culture is pretty great [regardless]. You’re going to have a hard time finding a Venetian in Venice, so how authentic can Venice be today?”
The problem: There is a distinct lack of solutions based on data coupled with political challenges faced by destinations in even conceptualizing a long-term plan to control tourism growth with a focus on quality of life for residents. It is one thing to discuss the pollution of airplanes and cruise ships, for instance, but another to measure the stress put on cities and attractions by an increased number of visitors and the international cadre of workers who serve them.
As the effects of global climate change become more severe and unpredictable, the need for cities to adopt a data-based approach to management will become essential. Travel companies, too, have a responsibility not just to the travelers they serve but the destinations and cities they operate in.
There’s also no blueprint for building a smart city that automatically tracks tourist movements and resource use, despite the hype, meaning the path forward will have to be developed now by ambitious destinations and visionary leaders.
High technology and old-fashioned tourism strategies are now colliding in places as disparate as Tasmania, Barcelona, and London. What do destinations need to know, and do, in order to prepare for the future of not just travel, but life on Earth?
Overtourism and Climate Change
The global outlook for the impacts of overtourism and climate change is overwhelmingly dismal despite widespread calls to find solutions to both. The immensity of the problem is so huge that it can be daunting to even conceptualize a plan for the future.
Travel and transportation are suspected to account for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with consumer travel accounting for about half of those emissions. Air travel has doubled in frequency over the last 15 years, and is set to double once more by 2030, according to the International Air Transport Association.
With regard to travel, countless environmental impacts go untracked around the world. It’s easier to point to the carbon emissions produced by airlines or cruises than quantify the effect that a 10 percent annual increase in tourism has on Reykjavik’s stressed waste management system, for instance, or Barcelona’s troubled water supply.
This reflects the diversity of different political models and the complex web of bureaucracy developed to oversee destinations around the world.
In the midst of an anti-flight movement in Europe, the reality is that countless cities have already shifted to accommodate and serve tourists at the expense of local residents. The clock can’t be turned back to 20 years ago before the democratization of travel and the flattening effect that the global tourism sector has had on urban design and the individual business communities in cities around the world.
Tourism increases the need for workers, which while not technically locals represents a whole other issue, particularly in the European Union where hospitality and tourism workers routinely cross borders in search of stronger wages. There is also the matter of the supply chains that feed both locals and tourists, which will become stressed as climate change intensifies.
Greater consumer awareness of environmental and social impacts can only do so much when destinations themselves are reacting to political and economic pressure instead of planning for the future. The connection between economic growth and travel will come into greater focus as the impact of climate change becomes more severe.
We see the most impactful changes happening now in islands across the South Pacific, with Indonesia considering moving its capital from Jakarta to another city due to a combination of sinking ground levels and rising water levels.
Think of what the accelerating effects of climate change could mean for a popular tourist city like Miami, Florida. Rising water levels will not only decimate the city’s dynamic beachfront but also the entire hospitality sector that sells itself on access to the area. Port of Miami will be disrupted in a way that could make it hard for cruise ships to dock. A rise in inclement weather and tropical storms will make it harder to get a reliable flight in or out of area airports. There’s also the threat of a storm stranding travelers with no place to go, which already happens whenever a major storm hits.
These changes would decimate the city’s leisure travel market, leading travelers to select other destinations for their once- or twice-annual vacation. Business travel, too, would trail off as companies choose more reliable locations for meetings and events.
Hotter temperatures in general will lead to increased pressure on the health and happiness of local residents, making many traditional vacation spots less attractive for tourism during summer months. This summer has widely been the hottest ever recorded in Europe, posing a threat to the health of children and elderly residents around the world.
Outside travel, this phenomenon will lead to a downward spiral in economy activity, real estate prices, and affordability for residents. Experts predict that when the first major disruptions happen in major metropolitan areas, the impact will be akin to a major environmental disaster. C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group estimates that 70 percent of global cities are already experiencing the effects of climate change in some form.
Experts say the future is already here — it’s just not everywhere yet.
“Where it really hit home for me was recently on a trip to Myanmar, to one of our community-based tourism projects; one of the reasons they were looking for tourism is because farming and agriculture was no longer sustainable because of climate change,” said Intrepid Group’s Barnes. “They weren’t getting as much water, the land was changing. So to see it on the ground like that really [showed] that people everywhere are becoming more aware and have to change their habits. Customers are more aware, but whether or not they believe it or want to act on it, that’s different.”
Travel is inherently political, as much as the industry pretends travel is a right and access to cities or resources are vital in the contemporary world. Politicians and local leaders tend to treat travel as an external force they have little control over, pushing or pulling various levels to increase or decrease demand, when in reality travel, economic development, sustainability, and the culture of a place are intimately related.
The impact of business travel for meetings and events also plays a role. Events are notoriously wasteful, particularly when it comes to plastics use and excess food waste. Holding your event in a popular destination is seen as a boon for ticket sales and attendance; Barcelona has skyrocketed to become the city with the most conference attendees in 2018, according to the International Congress and Convention Association, with overtourism hotspots Paris, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen also landing in the top ten for global cities.
Business travel reduces the seasonality of visitation, spreads visitors to weekdays instead of weekends, and increases the environmental impact of the travel sector on cities. What is seen as an economic boon by politicians and business leaders becomes a constant drain on the environment and vibrancy of destinations. The need for remote destinations to move goods via air cargo operations contributes too.
This is yet another reason why cities can’t simply reduce flights or require visitors to pay for passes; at stake is every destination’s access to the realm of global commerce as a battle takes place to compete for corporate office locations and financial power.
The challenge for destinations is to build for the future with a focus on sustainability, and the travel sector itself will play a key role in establishing new norms and limits. From the perspective of the travel industry, those most engaged on the ground have the most to lose from these disruptions but also the ability to operate more sustainably with new practices.
Progress on the Ground
Global tour operators, who often rush into popular markets with little regard for their impact on local communities, bear much of the blame for the rapid pace of change in popular destinations.
There is also the question of what exactly happens when those who design tours look outside of established destinations; the definition of sustainability is subjective, of course, and visiting a small town to spare a larger one is becoming more common.
“As companies, this is what we can do: work with communities and build product from the start in a way that’s sustainable,” said Yves Marceau, vice president of tour operator G Adventures who is in charge of developing new itineraries and products. “In other words, as I build stuff, I have to start thinking, ‘What’s the capacity of this town before I destroy it?’”
Barcelona is one of the flash points for the global overtourism debate right now, but according to Marceau, the current conversation neglects the longer-term view of how it exactly happened. A lack of planning by local authorities coupled with the economic reality of austerity bringing a need for new revenues are just as culpable for the overtourism problem as the mobs of tourists themselves or rise of low-cost carriers.
“Fifteen years ago, the city of Barcelona was desperate to attract tourism,” said Marceau. “They were spending a lot of money sending tour operators into Catalonia to develop tourism. They spent a lot of money attracting cruise lines to the Port of Barcelona to make Barcelona a turnaround port for Mediterranean cruises, and they were quite successful at it.
“The problem is they got so successful that growth outpaced the ability of the city to house all the tourists and to deal with the numbers they were getting in the city. Now the City of Barcelona basically every year says, ‘We don’t want you. Don’t come.’ It went from, ‘We want you, we want you,’ to ‘We don’t want you. Don’t come.’ There was very little planning in the middle.”
Marceau gave an example of how he integrates the prevention of overtourism into G Adventures’ planning. He discussed tweaking a recent tour of the U.S. South to avoid New Orleans and instead send tourists to a small town in Kentucky to mix and mingle with residents. The move would reduce the burden on New Orleans while also offering a more intimate experience to guests. Of course, should the tour become too popular, a second Kentucky location will be necessary to prevent disruption in the initial town.
He also admitted to the need for commodity tourism, which is easier to plan and more lucrative, to help the company meet its financial goals. Most tour operators don’t bother to find a balance, though.
The planning piece is what gets lost in the overtourism conversation, according to industry experts. It’s one thing to react, and another altogether to proactively plan and iterate toward future sustainability. A world obsessed with damage control, in other words, needs to come up with a plan.
When it comes to planning destinations, complexity and competition between various governmental and business groups can make collaboration difficult. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution due to the complex web of public, private, and public-private organizations that have formed in varying fashion around the world.
Overtourism driving away locals through high prices and cultural erosion is a natural extension of politicians representing business interests instead of constituents. Destinations are inevitably devalued in the eyes of tourists after a particular place has been too popular for too long. The lack of demand can lead to lower prices for tourists that make it even harder for destinations to grapple with core issues like overcrowding and the impact of economic growth on locals.
“Initiatives can be led by some folks who are passionate about problems that they’ve observed and want to implement strategies, but they don’t last,” said Megan Epler Wood, founder and president of Epler Wood International and author of Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet, in an interview earlier this year. “The problems haven’t been heeded. We see now that this is going to start affecting the industry reputation and destination reputation. It already is. That could absolutely begin to devalue how much tourists pay to go to overcrowded places, which could cause only the cheapest kinds of tourists will go to places that are devalued … it is possible to see deflation in our field, and we believe as terms of growth, that deflation will be a real problem.”
It goes beyond the confusing alphabet soup of destination marketing companies and convention and visitors’ bureaus. Destinations that tax visitors to support their marketing efforts have an incentive to keep jacking up visitor numbers, of course, but marketing organizations differ greatly from other bodies tasked with actually regulating tourism. Room taxes also grant undue influence to the hotel community.
“A lot of destinations are now realizing: We’re actually going to need to do something or lose it,” said Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Destinations International. “Many have already lost a lot of their values or uniqueness or had to take drastic measures like the Philippines did, or Thailand as well, by closing destinations, taking really drastic measures to try to take control of what’s happening. There’s still a lot of destinations that don’t even know where to begin. One of the biggest issues that I see is governance, the leadership. It needs to actually take control.”
Zapata also lamented a lack of critical literature around building progressive and effective governance models for cities and countries around the world. Tourism groups don’t have insight into sustainability metrics, if they are even available, and utilities aren’t often concerned with tourism growth increasing energy or resource use.
Groups that are passionate about limiting tourism and the effects of gentrification often face stern headwinds when confronting governmental and industry players.
Take a look at the recent situation in the Netherlands, where locals in Amsterdam are fighting back against tourists while a coalition of industry groups and governmental agencies are slowly mulling over widespread change to the country’s tourism policy.
Or Venice, where gentrification and protests against cruise ship tourism have done little to stem the flow of tourists into the city.
Even in overtourism-stricken Barcelona, Catalonia’s main airport plans to expand capacity by 15 million travelers through 2026 despite more than 80 percent of visitors to Barcelona arriving by flight in 2017.
There’s a serious disconnect between the reaction of locals to pressure from increased tourism and the politicians who support destructive policies at the behest of business leaders.
Is There a Tech Fix?
The challenge facing destinations is twofold, then. First, an effort has to be made to track and manage local resources. Second, based off this increased intelligence, is devising a forward-looking plan to manage tourism over the long-term.
If leaders aren’t going to limit access to their destination, then something has to be done on the ground level to measure and adjust the impact of tourists.
Destination marketing organizations, which are tasked with promoting tourism, tend to be funded by a variety of sources tied to travel itself. Room taxes, flight surcharges, a tax on local businesses, and subscriptions from partner members are just a few of the methods used to pay for marketing a destination to potential visitors.
Destination marketers, though, are skilled at promoting a destination, not managing one. The goals of growing tourism, as we know, may not actually be in line with the political situation or reality on the ground in neighborhoods. Commodity tourism pays the bills for these organizations, so the research and reports they fund tend to stress the economic upside of tourism instead of the disruptive effect of tourists on cities and attractions.
The collaboration piece often proves intractable depending on the political situation in any destination.
“There’s a lot of disconnect; you have a lot of different ministries that come into play, a lot of different actors that come into play, and getting everybody aligned is a big challenge,” said Zapata. “Sharing data, sharing information, standardizing information also is a big issue. There’s definitely a process that you can follow when it comes to analyzing: What do you offer as a destination, what is your unique value proposition. You first need to define: Okay, where do we fit in, what do we offer the world, how are we different? Because if you fall into the trap of just offering the same things, just, for example, the Caribbean Islands. If you offer the same thing, then you don’t differentiate yourselves.”
Zapata mentioned recent work in the South Pacific where despite a need to reduce things like energy and water use, island destinations have no idea where they actually stand with respect to quantifying their resource availability and use. It’s impossible to set sustainability goals, it follows, if you don’t even know where you stand today.
In a recent report, Epler Wood and her team explored the greater need for geographic information system mapping among destinations. The technique allows managers to view information from various data systems mapped onto the geographic location they’re in charge of. Instead of staring at spreadsheets or charts, they can see a real-world view of the various impacts on tourism sites.
“Some things are not owned by any member of the supply chain; they rely on public resources like beaches, bays, islands, mountains,” said Epler Wood when the report was released. “These are all public resources that are often managed by different agencies. But when we looked at the question of how tourism literature looks at planning from the point of view of [geographic information system] mapping, we found a 20-year gap in the literature. That was very startling to me.”
The report breaks down what’s tracked by destinations, showing that much of the emerging concerns around sustainability remain a blindspot. Renewable energy consumption, in particular, is an increasingly important area that destinations don’t necessarily have insight into.
|Currently Tracked||Typically Not Tracked|
|Airports||Greenhouse Gas Emissions|
|Transportation Networks||Maintenance of Natural Ecosystem|
|Communication Networks||Restoration of Ecosystem Services|
|Non-Renewable Energy Sources||Renewable Energy Costs|
|Non-Renewable Water Sources||Renewable Water Sources|
|Waste Water Management (in Developed World)||Waste Water Management (in Emerging Economies)|
Source: Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism
When it comes to monitoring data and reacting in real-time, the rise of smart cities will play a crucial role going forward. But much like the complex web of organizations that govern and manage tourism in any given place, developing and implementing smart city technology is complex and untested.
Using sensors, analytics, and algorithms, authorities can track and manage various utilities like energy use and waste management. Things like traffic flow can be adjusted, while open data technology allows citizens and community groups to create applications to better understand and navigate their city.
Existing systems, though, are a patchwork; many European cities have been developing smart city networks for years, while other major cities have ignored the trend completely. Innovation districts, where teams of engineers and creatives work to develop new solutions for leveraging data, have proliferated without much impact on everyday life for locals.
These new systems often don’t talk to each other, operate on different standards, or are inscrutable to those without experience coding or managing data. Smart technology doesn’t guarantee a comprehensive look at the impact people are having on their location.
“You need to share that infrastructure, so if you want your tourism to [take advantage of smart technology], you don’t need to build it separately,” said Jesse Berst, chairman of the Smart Cities Council, a tech industry group. “When you piggyback on other infrastructure, that’s where you really start to get insight. You can see where visitors are going and what they’re buying. In some cases, you can hand out cards so they can go in and get 10 percent off somewhere, it can guide you to your next location or suggest interests within the city. It might be a museum admission, but all the things you buy at the museum, gift store, or the other economic development mechanisms are tracked.”
If a city is only tracking locals, it’s missing a major piece of the puzzle when it comes to congestion and spending trends. It also leaves out the impact of the often-temporary workforce that serves tourists during peak periods. Travel and tourism, though, are not a core focus for cities when they develop a smart city infrastructure. Locals come first, and for good reason, but with international travel set to surge, visibility into the behavior of travelers will grant stakeholders a more comprehensive window into a community’s dynamics.
“It’s been important for cities to include visitors in their smart city planning,” said Berst. “Cities have to really think about not just their citizens but anybody who spends a lot of time in their city, so there’s a lot of workers who you really want to be planning for and with them as well, who may be there for a day or a week or so, but again it’s so that you get the really big impact.”
Tracking tourists and figuring out their behavior is extremely difficult. They’re not going to use the same apps as locals, and many are routed through cities to locations and businesses that are determined by someone else. Cruise lines, in particular, are notorious for routing passengers to friendly businesses that send back a cut of revenue, limiting the actual positive impact of visitors on the local economy. If a passenger reports spending $100 during a shore excursion on a paper survey handed out at the end of a trip, it can be impossible for officials to figure out how much actually enters the local economy.
Tracking people in great detail when they are in a destination is an emerging field, although tourist tracking is often done by digital marketing companies in order to help their clients sell to travelers who meet certain criteria or have visited certain web sites.
The next two sections will focus on the approaches of two very different destinations to wrestle with better quantifying and managing tourism.
Beginnings of Tourist Tracking
In the remote Australian state of Tasmania, a debate has brewed about the shape the island’s tourism policy should take as global travel expands. Should the small state turn to cruise ships and commodity tourism to improve its economy, or pull back and develop more high-touch attractions to bring in a smaller, wealthier group of visitors?
In 2016, a group of tourism researchers at the University of Tasmania were trying to figure out how to best track and monitor tourists on the ground. It followed that more information on where tourists are would allow tourism officials to better manage demand for the state’s most popular attractions and empower stakeholders to better plan for the future.
The resulting data and analysis, as well, could help the state’s leadership more effectively plan a tourism strategy for the future. The project, called Tourism Tracer, would go on to be one of the first successful attempts to track travelers effectively using technology and leverage the data from their behavior to inform policy.
“We had to do it ethically; we can’t do a Cambridge Analytica on people, we can’t do a Strava,” said Anne Hardy, who led the project as associate professor of tourism and sociology at the University of Tasmania’s School of Social Sciences. “We can’t unseal the data to make money out of it or anything like that… We knew that we couldn’t just go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, can I track you?’ We had to make it palatable, too, and we had to give them back something, because you can’t ask someone to do something which is really invasive and just go, ‘Oh, it’s for the goodness of the world,’ because the majority of people are just going to say no. Especially tourists.”
The program worked like this. Visitors were offered a mobile phone with free data connectivity upon their arrival at Tasmania’s airport outside of the state’s capital in Hobart. If they accepted, the phone would securely track their movements while they were in destination traveling around. At the end of the trip, they would hand the phone off and be able to receive a visualization of their trip from the Tourism Tracer team. The free mobile data was funded by a grant the group had received.
The data collected, in essence, allowed the researchers to go from analyzing points on a map to seeing the lines drawn between all the individual points. Beyond that, it showed how long visitors truly stayed in each destination and how they routed themselves throughout the island. Much to their surprise, it turned out free mobile data was an effective perk to get travelers to agree to being tracked on their trip. In the end, thousands of travelers participated in the program.
“We were totally stunned that we’d done this… we’re just a bunch of nerdy researchers,” said Hardy. “We had this information, which was down to 10 meters of accuracy of where people went. That’s when [the tourism community] got involved and was very excited about it. They just didn’t know where people were going. They knew that there’s 10,000 people here, and 100,000 people there, but how do they get from point A to B?
“The research then could branch out. You could tell operators where people went before they went to their business, and after it. You could tell national parks how many people were using trails. We had a lot of surprises come out of that. It could tell how fast people were driving. We found cohorts of tourists were taking extreme risks driving fast, particularly Australian tourists. We could see them driving late at night. We found that 13 percent of people, for example, were driving between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.”
The data ended up available to the public in anonymized fashion, with a nifty visualization showing trends in how visitors behave when they enter Tasmania.
The project came to an end when the group ran out of funding to procure data from mobile carriers, but the technology has since been commercialized through a company named Gulliver that has begun to partner with destinations for pilots programs in Skane, Sweden, and Hokkaido, Japan. The latest version of the technology embeds into an app instead of a stand-alone mobile phone, as well.
While the researchers hope that commercializing the technology will lead to increased funding for the group’s upcoming efforts to leverage technology in destination management, others in Tasmania say the technology shouldn’t be sold to fund future research.
Looking back on the project, Hardy came to the realization that there is a major need for destinations large and small to use technology instead of surveying travelers after their trip.
The potential to nudge tourists away from overcrowded areas with digital suggestions has huge potential as well. One can imagine destinations offering an app with local resources and visitation options that will proactively suggest travelers avoid overcrowded areas based on aggregated, but anonymized, location data from other users. The future is not quite here, but almost.
“There’s an overreliance on paper-based surveys, but I feel optimistic,” said Hardy. “The way forward has to ensure technology is palatable, it’s used with consent, and that it’s very open with the tourists about why we’re going to do this. ‘We’ve got this app, we are struggling with crowding. If you put this app on, we’re going to help you avoid the crowds.’
“We have to use tech sensibly, openly, and honestly with the tourists. If they see the benefit to it, then I think they will really engage with it. Destinations have to be a little bit more adventurous too. They’re willing to spend millions on marketing, so why is it that their budget is so small for research?”
Destination marketers swear by the importance of post-trip surveys to inform their future marketing efforts. As destination marketing gives way to destination management, though, more granular insights and analysis will be necessary to make informed decisions on controlling the ill effects of tourism.
London’s Holistic Digital Approach
The city of London, a world away from the remote island of Tasmania, is also embracing research and technology to better understand the impact of tourism.
A forward-looking tourism strategy has been a priority of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and technology innovations taking place in the areas of transportation and sustainability are expected to empower authorities to better manage and control tourism in the future.
A recent report commissioned by London First used data from EY, Mastercard, and Airbnb to contextualize where tourists stay in London’s 32 boroughs with a focus on the impact of tourists in the 19 boroughs outside London’s city center. It found that Airbnb has increased in popularity for tourists in outer boroughs, which has the potential to reduce congestion in the city’s crowded center.
While 70 percent of Airbnb users were clustered in London’s inner zone, data analysis showed that visitor spending spread across all the city’s boroughs. Furthermore, London First was able to figure out that Chinese travelers in particular are constrained to the city center while Americans and Germans are more likely to explore.
“Those Central London attractions are our massive selling point, they’re what gets the majority of first-time visitors, especially coming to London,” said Matthew Hill, program director for hospitality, retail, and leisure at London First, who worked on the project. “The amount of spending that international visitors do in those central boroughs is crucial to London’s economy, we still want people coming there. But, it’s that recognition that, if we’re going to grow that by a significant proportion, that growth, to be sustainable, has to be spread across more of the city.”
The question of spreading tourists and their dollars around has vexed some destinations, with the challenge of shifting visitors to less trafficked areas proving tricky. People want to see the highlights of any place, but things are shifting in an age of experiential travel and the desire to live like a local.
The report found that short-haul visitors are more likely to visit outside of peak visitation periods, meaning the same visitors visiting when the city is less crowded are also more likely to explore neighborhoods instead of the city’s core.
“Tourism can benefit both the international businesses and definitely the local economy,” said Hill. “You can nudge people. It’s about being able to spread the tourist around, to maintain the good experience for the tourist themselves and make sure it’s sustainable. It’s also trying to increase the economic impact in those local areas, so I think tourism is that one area in which data is definitely king.”
There is a cultural component to London’s digital efforts, as well. The city has created a map that includes not just tourist attractions across the city but pubs and other gathering places that can be used by both locals and visitors. The city’s comprehensive tourism program also plays into its desire to remain a hub for university students and the international business world.
“Imagine a young Chinese family comes to London, and their oldest daughter adores the place and says she wants to come back and do her Masters here,” said Allen Simpson, director of strategy and corporate affairs for London & Partners. “It’s about the fact that we can be coherent in the here and now, but we can also be coherent in the life cycle of a visitor. We want to bring them back as a repeat visitor and that’s another benefit of aiming at younger, perhaps millennial, culturally curious people. They’re more likely to come back another time, but they also might come back in another capacity.”
Preparing for the Future
While the conversation about overtourism has raged in recent years, the discourse around the travel growth hasn’t always intersected with that of sustainability. This is beginning to change, slowly, as governments and travel companies alike grapple with the effects of climate change and the reality that widespread travel has led to a new form of global gentrification.
In time, though, it’s likely that the travel companies that have invested in sustainable practices will be seen as better investments and cities that have become more sustainable will become magnets for the global business world.
“Businesses will dictate it a lot more because it is a financial risk now, and I think we’ll see a meshing of financial and environmental concerns coming together, because traveling is one of the firefights of it,” said Barnes. “A destination, if you’re not able to visit it, that’s going to hit you financially. Carbon and climate change is so big that it gets overwhelming and it de-powers you. What we’ll start to see from organizations and the financial markets is coming to together and ensuring that there’s financial and environmental outcomes with their investments.”
The problem of leadership persists, though. When it comes to destination stewardship, a long-term master plan is rare. It’s even rarer for new leaders to remain committed over time. When you factor in the financial prerogatives of local industry and the tourism sector itself, managing a transition can seem impossible. Technology will play a crucial role, but can’t replace the importance of solid leadership and the patience to see through a long-term plan.
“Slowly, different destinations are understanding that you have leadership positions that do want to make a difference, and do want to make a change, and that is very, very slow,” said Zapata. “Then you have other destinations that it is just absolutely impossible. It is very disjointed. There’s no clear leadership. There’s only politicians trying to get their own benefit, and they’re dying of success. A lot of these destinations are actually dying of success. One big destination is the Dominican Republic, for example. It’s been absolutely exploited. Beaches where I grew up are gone, are absolutely, just devastatingly, gone. What do they do? They just go and exploit another beach.”
Ending this cycle of exploitation and expansion seems far-fetched for now. Greater visibility into the real-world effects of overtourism, though, can help destinations create a plan for the future and stick with it. There’s no silver bullet of a magical tourist-tracking app that can convince visitors to avoid Westminster and head to Hackney instead, but progress is being made in quantifying the movements of tourists, what they do, and how that impacts a destination.
As more destinations become impacted by climate change, the same tools that are used to monitor the effect of tourism can be used to better understand the pressure that comes from warmer weather, more disruptive storms, and the displacement of people from their homes.
Changing cities need to plan for the future, and travel industry leaders are on the frontline of that change whether they like it or not.
Photo credit: A dead pig lies among debris on a beach in Acapulco September 17, 2013. Stranded tourists salvaged belongings from submerged cars in the Mexican beach resort of Acapulco which had become a floodplain. Jacobo Garcia / Reuters