FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD – Will we ever get over overtourism?


Overtourism: Everyone is talking about it. Everyone wants to do something about it. And nobody is going to stop traveling. So, what to do?

One thing is for sure: In this hyper-connected, over-polarized, blame-happy era, the issue is not going away. Overtourism is more than the controversy du jour—in fact, I think it may become the defining issue of our time, along with the overlapping issue of sustainability. And while many of us deal mostly with the higher end of the market, we can’t kid ourselves that it’s a mass travel issue that doesn’t affect us. Travelers are impacted by the crowds on the Spanish Steps whether they’re staying at the Hassler or the hostel.

Nor is the problem limited to large cities. Overtourism is to blame when Barcelona gets 1.5 million Airbnb stays per year, causing the resident population of the Barri Gòtic to drop nearly in half. And it’s equally to blame when an Ontario sunflower farm gets trampled by just a few thousand selfie-seekers.

In an effort to get past the headlines, I spoke to a number of you and looked for initiatives that seem to be working. I can’t say I’ve come up with the solution, but I hope that by understanding the problem a bit better we can start coming up with a response.

DESTINATIONS NEED A HOLISTIC APPROACH, both to assess the problem and structure their responses. It’s going to take a broad partnership of public and private interests—with substantive input from members of the community, not just politicians and lobbyists—to make any real headway.

I recommend reading the WTTC’s recent report Destination 2030 (download it here), which evaluated 50 cities on their ability to absorb the anticipated growth in arrivals. Weighing a number of readiness factors and tourism pressures, the researchers sorted the cities into various categories. “Emerging Performers,” like Bangkok, Cape Town, and Mexico City, need to work on infrastructure and growth-management policies; “Mature Performers,” such as Singapore, New York, and Berlin, have achieved equilibrium but still risk future strains. Above all, what’s clear is that the cities that are in relatively good shape got there by really sitting down with various stakeholders to attack the problem straight-on.

THE SHARING ECONOMY NEEDS REGULATING. Airbnb, one example of the plethora of homestay rentals, is a double-edged sword: It creates an opportunity for residents to participate in the tourism economy and sends visitors to areas that may not have a lot of hotel rooms, spreading the economic benefit. But if not controlled, Airbnb can turn housing stock into de facto hotels, sharply increasing rents for residents. It can also potentially reduce home values if once-quiet neighborhoods become overrun with “party houses.”

Governments can’t bury their heads in the sand on this issue—or succumb to Airbnb’s army of lobbyists. Every destination needs to come up with a framework to encourage responsible home sharing. Vancouver, New York, Denver, and Paris have all restricted short-term rentals, to varying degrees and with mixed results. The number of listings in San Francisco dropped significantly after the city negotiated a deal with Airbnb. Other cities, including Miami, are considering loosening the rules. Municipalities need to work with Airbnb as well as local hoteliers to ensure the system is fair to everyone.

DEAL EQUITABLY WITH CRUISES. The cruise industry frequently gets blamed for contributing substantially to overtourism. While it’s true that large ships deliver many passengers to a destination at once, and that those passengers likely spend less than overnight guests, I don’t think the criticism is entirely fair. The cognitive dissonance of seeing a huge ship in a small port doesn’t tell the whole story. “Big ships might disembark 5,000 passengers in Venice at one time, but 5,000 is just a fraction of the total daily visitors,” Mark Conroy, Silversea’s Managing Director, the Americas, told me. “Overtourism is a travel industry issue, not just a cruise issue.” Conroy pointed out that cruising brings destinations valuable revenue (contributing $53 billion to the U.S. economy alone last year, according to a new report from CLIA). It also opens up new destinations, bringing the economic benefits of tourism to places that lack hotel infrastructure.

Even with Silversea’s smaller ships (which carry a max of 600 passengers), the company tries to reduce its impact. For instance, it calls in Santorini when there are few other ships there, or beginning its Alaska cruises on Thursdays to stagger port calls with other lines. The passengers prefer that anyway, he said, and in places like Alaska cruise visitors are critical to coastal communities. “If cruises are banned, they’d probably have to go back to logging and mining,” he said.

ENCOURAGE DEEPER EXPLORATION. Spreading visitors around a destination helps reduce bottlenecks at the main sites. NYC & Company has effectively enticed visitors beyond the usual sites with its “True York City” campaign promoting all five boroughs. Vienna, Amsterdam, and other cities have made similar efforts, which jibe with travelers’ increasing desire to have genuine local interactions. Getting visitors to come outside of high seasons is also effective. “I was in Venice last February and found myself absolutely alone one evening on Piazza San Marco as snowflakes started to fall,” recounted George Müller, Managing Director of Cosa Travel in Zurich. “I have never had a more beautiful experience in Venice.”

Müller says travel advisors have a responsibility to steer clients away from the busiest places at the busiest times, whether that means knowing when each temple at Angkor sees the fewest visitors, or booking a private guide to bring clients to Luxor’s temples when most other visitors are still having breakfast. “That’s why people use us—we tell them the truth. It’s the same as telling them not to visit a place for political or health reasons,” he said. Travelers will always have bucket lists, but the affluent in particular have options to skirt overcrowded spots. Rather than deal with the crush of vehicles at the Ngorongoro Crater, Müller uses nearby Serengeti lodges with only a few tents. Martin Rapp, Senior Vice President of Leisure Travel at Altour, helps his Capri-bound clients steer clear of day-trippers by booking them beach club access or boat excursions. He’ll put them at hotels outside of Avignon during the festival and arrange for them to come in for the day.

PAYING FOR THE PRIVILEGE. We’ll see how Venice fares with its plan to charge day-trippers an admission fee, which rolls out next summer. Places from Edinburgh to Bali and Queenstown, New Zealand, have introduced new taxes recently. The higher cost doesn’t always reduce demand, but the revenues should at least be allocated to help alleviate the tourism pressures. In Barcelona, the overnight tax is earmarked for building infrastructure, promoting sustainability, and battling illegal apartment rentals. Rwanda and Bhutan, famously, charge hefty fees to limit arrivals. “Rwanda charges $1,500 per person per day to see the gorillas—a huge amount of money, but it keeps out a lot of people,” said Rapp. “It’s an elitist approach, unfortunately, but it seems to work. After all, you have to think about the quality of visitors you’re attracting, not just the overall numbers.”

CONSIDERING MORE EXTREME MEASURES. Due to the popular TV show, Game of Thrones, dramatically increasing tourism, Dubrovnik is considering a ban on new restaurants in the Old City. The Taj Mahal raised fees and now limits visits to three hours. Iceland closed a canyon where vegetation was trampled. The Netherlands decided to no longer actively promote itself to tourists. Nobody wants to see places close to visitors entirely or destinations resort to “de-marketing” themselves, but these places didn’t see a choice. Nor are half measures going to solve the problem: Peru now issues timed entries to Machu Picchu to help relieve bottlenecks at sunrise, but it’s not reducing the total number of visitors—and a new airport is being built just a few miles away. It’s hard to see how that’s going to prevent the monument from being trampled to death.

THE GOOSE THAT LAID THE GOLDEN EGG. We in the travel industry should be proud of the way we’ve transformed our industry: We’ve made it easier, cheaper, and more exciting for people to explore the world. But we are becoming a victim of our own success—so now we have to protect our assets. The overtourism problem may be overhyped by the media sometimes, but it is a problem and it’s not going away. Just look at the ever-rising numbers of travelers and then cast an eye on the growing middle classes in China and India. I don’t think any of us has come up with a solution just yet, but we all—suppliers, travel advisors, marketers, communities, entrepreneurs—need to work together to find it.

In the meantime, just as the desire to be connected all the time led to a yearning for a “digital detox,” we may start to see a backlash to the fervent wanderlust that’s fueling overtourism, the urge to see everything worth seeing. “Clients usually say they want to go to the most Instagrammable sites,” Müller told me. “But I just had a request to go somewhere you don’t see on Instagram. That’s a new thing.” It may just be the thing we need.

What about you? Is overtourism a real problem or is it just the latest media buzzword? Have you seen any solutions you think are effective? Let’s keep the conversation going!