Travel advisors are possibly more powerful than tourism boards in the fight against overtourism, and their advice about where to travel is increasingly valuable.
Overtourism has been blamed for, among other things, accelerating environmental degradation, driving up rents for local residents, and overwhelming infrastructure. But there is a powerful group that is emerging to play a leading role in the fight against overtourism post-pandemic: travel advisors.
As people are getting back on the road in large numbers, travel advisors have increasingly become key figures in the fight against overtourism as more travelers are turning to them for advice, including information on how to partake in more sustainable travel.
Sustainable travel is a topic that has been on the minds of many travelers. Survey data reported in a webinar conducted by Virtuoso, a network of agencies specializing in luxury travel, revealed that 82 percent of respondents said the pandemic has encouraged them to travel in a more responsible manner. And travel advisors are seeing customers broach the topic of overtourism, a term coined by Skift, as they seek guidance for their trips.
“It actually comes up during the first conversation with clients as they communicate their vacation preferences,” said Irene Lane, a travel advisor and founder of Greenloons, a company that provides ecotourism planning services to clients.
Erin Green, a travel advisor at Pique Travel Design, also sees an openness among travelers regarding the topic. “I think they are receptive to hearing about overtourism,” she said. “Especially as beyond the altruistic reasons to not contribute more to overtourism, a place that is overtouristed is often not an ideal travel experience.
“Overtourism often comes with crowds, long lines, increased pricing, pollution, and a loss of sense of place. None of those things are very appealing as a visitor and sometimes your idealistic thoughts of how a place may be can be somewhat crushed upon arrival.”
Some travel advisors do have to educate their clients on what is overtourism. Alexis Bowen, the co-founder of Elsewhere, a website that links travelers directly with local experts that help them design trips, believes customers are often unsure what exactly is overtourism.
“They have a general idea of the concept,” she said. “[But] they don’t really know what it means in practice or the things they should be doing. So we find our role at Elsewhere is really education. Educating the travelers on these different ways. Little small choices you can make while you’re on the trip and the choices you can make before a trip to have a better impact on the ground.”
A huge part of that education actually includes educating the travel experts themselves. “We have a firm vetting process when our local experts come to work with us,” Bowen said. “The last step when they sign a contract — a partnership contract with us — is that they also sign a charter that has a number of different commitments to how they will sell trips. One element in there is combatting overtourism. Every single provider of ours signs this charter saying they agree to combat overtourism.”
How Travel Advisors CombAT Overtourism
So how can travel advisors tackle overtourism? Jake Haupert, the co-founder and CEO of the Transformational Travel Council, an organization that works to use travel as a vehicle to make meaningful life changes, believes they must take a holistic approach in creating trips for their clients, one that is mindful of the impact it will have on them and the places they visit.
Travel advisors — whom Haupert trains — can combat overtourism by taking a proactive approach in terms of guiding, supporting and empowering travelers. He believes travel advisors should include a couple of simple words in their dealings with customers: Why and how. “Typically, a travel advisor is an order taker,” he said. “They’ll start with ‘Where do you want to go and what do you want to do?'”
“And what we would say is you should start with ‘Why do you wanna go and how can we use the experience of travel to help you have a deeper experience?'”
Haupert views transformational travel as “intentionally traveling to stretch, learn and grown into new ways of being and engaging with the world.” So it’s not surprising he believes travel advisors should have this approach when guiding travelers away from destinations burdened by overtourism.
“You start to get into the why. Like ‘Who are you? Who do you wanna be?’ ‘How do you wanna engage this experience of travel?'” he said.
“And then you get into what and where. And by framing it around the why and how, it takes the destination — the overtouristic destination — that the traveler may want or may come to inquire about, and gives you an opportunity to direct them into experiences, communities and destinations that are gonna be more supportive to the actual experience that they want.”
Why is also an important question for Greenloons’ Lane. When asked how she would handle a situation in which a client is interested in visiting a destination like Venice affected by overtourism, she said “First, we would gain an understanding of why to Venice, for example, is at the topic of the list.”
“Depending on the answer, we may suggest spending time in Rovinj, Croatia — just across the Adriatic Sea from Venice — where the streets are all labeled in both Italian and Croatian, the food has incredible Italian influences, and one can still witness older locals after a morning of shopping at the farmers have a conversation in Italian.”
Lane added that Croatian town only a ferry ride away from Venice captures the essence of the iconic Italian city from decades. Her suggestion for guests to visit Rovinj represents another tool travel advisors can use to combat overtourism — recommend destinations similar to the popular location that their guests can enjoy. Erin Green also has locations in mind to steer customers away from a crowded destination.
“A great example of this is in Vietnam,” she said. “Ha Long Bay has been a key attraction of northern Vietnam for decades but now the number of boats is overwhelming.”
So Green relies on a destination management company named Destination Asia to provide suggestions for an alternative location where her guests can enjoy being out on the water without being in a crowded space.
Taking the Next Step in the Fight
While many travel advisors certainly come prepared with less crowded destinations in mind to steer their clients toward, one might wonder how are travel advisors aware of which locations are suffering or could suffer from overtourism. Actually, many representatives from tourism boards are proactive in informing travel advisors if their destinations run the risk of suffering from overtourism.
“We’ve been in touch with some tourism boards and our local experts are in touch with tourism board. It is common topic for them to bring up,” said Craig Zapatka, a co-founder of Elsewhere.
He cites Portugal as a destination whose tourism representatives have reached out to his company to state they have been taking steps to combat overtourism. “It’s a very accessible destination and on track to being a part of overtourism,” Zapatka said.
The fight to combat overtourism will be never ending. “We’ll always have concerns. We should always have concerns,” Zapatka said before adding the phenomenon might return, albeit not the same extent pre-Covid.
But travel advisors can take solace in destinations like Florence finding creative solutions to the problem — the Italian city has dispersed artwork around its home region of Tuscany in an attempt to steer travelers toward to 100 regional galleries in less visited locales instead of gathering in Florence.
Solutions to a problem that just may end up being a treat for travelers. A treat they might very well learn about from travel advisors.
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Photo credit: A horde of shoppers congregate in a night market to grab a bite to eat. Robert Pastryk / Pixabay