The days of seeing overtourism as "a nice problem to have" are over. While they are still intent on building thriving tourism economies, some Eastern Europe tourism officials are also learning from the mistakes of their western neighbors.
When Bart van Poll, the founder of online city guidebooks Spotted By Locals, pondered what he could do to combat overtourism last year, he found his answer in what he wouldn’t do: continue to promote cities that were already heavily touristed.
Since 2018, all of the cities he’s added to his collection of 77 online guidebooks have been in destinations “that need more tourism and where tourist dollars can have a strong positive impact for local entrepreneurs,” van Poll told Skift. With recent additions like Podgorica, Montenegro and Tbilisi, Georgia, a majority of these cities fall in central and eastern Europe.
Van Poll’s approach is in line with one of the solutions of overtourism: spreading travelers out to less-obvious regions and destinations. And just like on his website, the Balkans, eastern Europe, and many post-Soviet states are often put forward as the alternatives for travelers who might otherwise add to the crowds in Barcelona and Venice. Perhaps not coincidentally, many destinations in these same regions are seeing rapid tourism growth.
But therein lies a risk. If a given destination is positioned as part of the solution to overtourism, how does it ensure it doesn’t becoming a victim of it, too? For example, Ryanair’s recent announcement that it will expand its network to Georgia could be viewed as a kind of reward for a country that diligently built a thriving tourism industry over the last decade. However, on the other hand, rock-bottom fares can be just the kind of thing that can send a tourism economy into overdrive.
Because of this paradox, some tourism boards are taking pre-emptive action to make sure that overtourism — though seemingly still far off — doesn’t creep up on them. While they are still aiming to build thriving tourism economies, they are doing so while learning from the experiences of their European neighbors. Overtourism, they now know, can’t be dismissed as simply a nice problem to have.
Slovenia is one such place. At the crossroads of the Balkans and central Europe, the former Yugoslavian nation saw 5.9 million visitors last year, the fifth straight year of record-breaking arrivals. Most of those were foreign arrivals, which grew by 11 percent in 2018.
“Our arrivals and overnight stays are still quite low statistically speaking — we cannot compare to Venice or Barcelona,” Maša Klemenčič, who works in research and development at the Slovenian tourism board. “As a national tourism board, our primary job is the promotion of Slovenia. But several years ago we decided we wanted to go more into development — this is why we established this system of macro destinations.”
This regional, rather than city-based, approach to promoting Slovenia is meant to nudge travelers away from only visiting the three most obvious destinations in country — Ljubljana, Bled, and Postojna — and instead encourage them to take a broader approach to their visit. They can, for example, explore Slovenia’s Mediterranean southeastern coast, or its Alpine mountain region in the north.
Another tactic Slovenia has implemented is the direct engagement of the Slovenian people. In order to be certified by the country’s Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism— which rewards destinations and tourism providers with increased promotion from the tourism board — destinations are required to survey their local community every three years.
“[They have to ask] whether [locals] think there’s too much tourists, [whether] prices are rising because of tourism — so they have to follow this situation very closely,” Klemenčič said. “Overtourism should be defined by the locals, or the local government. Once local inhabitants feel like it’s enough, then even if other people say ‘no we can still take more’— it’s too much.”
Arrivals Are Not Enough
Another such forward-thinking destination is Vilnius, Lithuania. In the first half of 2019, the Baltic capital has seen 12.5 percent growth in arrivals compared to the same period last year. In 2017, overnight stays were four times what they were in 2009. In addition to tourists’ interest in Vilnius’ baroque architecture and old town, more and more visitors are coming to visit the post-Soviet districts where portions of the HBO hit series Chernobyl was filmed.
“At the moment we are happy about the growth but we are also aware of the sustainability and the problems that unsustainable growth could cause,”Augusta Stave, project manager at Go Vilnius, said. “So we are actually trying to steer the growth in more sustainable way. Our projects [in this area] are very important to us.”
Those projects include taking part in UNESCO’s World Heritage Journey’s initiative, which encourages travelers to go “beyond the major tourist hubs, stay longer and experience more of what the local region has to offer” in 34 selected World Heritage sites spread across Europe. In addition, Go Vilnius’ Meet a Local campaign recruits volunteer Lithuanians to serve as tour guides for visitors, which serves as a way to engage the local community and foster goodwill for tourism — while also providing an avenue for hearing locals’ concerns and feedback. Finally, much of Go Vilnius’ marketing muscle goes into promoting the destination during the off-season, rather than the peak summer months.
Similarly, Georgia’s national tourism board told Skift it has been actively working to spread tourists around the country, and in the wake of Ryanair’s announcement, will continue to invest in tourist infrastructure and product diversification to maintain this balance. Though they may seem subtle, taken together these steps are indicative of a mindset that increasingly seems required for modern tourism boards and destination marketers. Simply focusing on increasing arrivals without thinking what effect record-breaking growth might have in, say, five to ten years is untenable.
Klemenčič cites neighboring Dubrovnik, Croatia as an example of what they hope their efforts will help them avoid. “Dubrovnik I think got caught by surprise by all the interest in the city. For them it’s even more important to know how to manage these flows,” Klemenčič said. “When the problem gets as big as it is in Dubrovnik, I think limiting the number of visitors is maybe even the only way.”
UPDATED: This post was updated with comments from Georgia’s tourism board.
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Photo credit: Tartini Square in Slovenia's Mediterranean region Barbara Kožar / Slovenian Tourism Board