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Is Overtourism Really a Thing?
Are destinations just poorly marketed or managed, or is overtourism really such a big problem?
A definition: Overtourism is a term coined for when there are too many visitors crammed into a particular place. “Too many” is a subjective term, but is defined in each destination by local residents, hosts, business owners and tourists themselves.
It’s a longer column today, so much to say and I hope you will join in the discussion.
A global grinder
I love to travel for leisure. I am sure you love to travel. We do it for the privilege of discovery, rest, relaxation, enrichment, to pursue a hobby or sport, to spend time with family and friends. The benefits are well documented and our social media feeds are full of it. My livelihood depends on it and I am but one small cog in a huge global tourism meat grinder. I benefit professionally and personally, but at what cost to host communities, the environment and sustainability is this love of travel?
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Overtourism is about consumer behaviour isn’t it? How can we change or influence behaviour so that the host communities benefit & visitors actually enjoy their holiday?
There is so much to say about overtourism: where it happens, why and what could be done about it. You will have no doubt travelled this summer and may have felt overwhelmed & disappointed with the sheer mass occupying the same space as you:
It could have been because a cruise ship was disgorging its cargo to swamp the port and surrounding area - perhaps you were on that excursion?
Too many passengers trying to reach their summer holiday home in peak season.
Or on your excursion up the heaving, hot hill to the Acropolis in Athens, that had to close to regulate the sheer volumes queuing to get in.
Perhaps you weren’t able to access the beach at Durdle Door in Dorset because of the crowds trying to take selfies.
Perhaps your stag or hen-do plans were curtailed as the residents and Amsterdam City make it very clear this type of business is not welcome.
Or like me, you visited a destination grappling with introduction of tourism taxes.
There are countless examples of the herds arriving by plane, boat, train or car to shuffle around a small space, usually the equivalent of zone one within a destination, queuing to take selfies, buying a limited choice of overpriced tourism tat to take home before tucking into bad, overpriced food. It can’t be a memorable experience can it?
What myth have we have been sold? Pretty pictures and reels of a deserted *insert place name here*? Visitors and their tour guides trying to navigate through the crowds of other guide-led groups, blocking pavements, spilling onto the road? What do the visitor actually see? How are they relaxing through this? Mindful they are also guiding their online community with them on holiday. Nightmare!
A French start up, Murmuration, monitors the environmental impact of tourism by using satellite data, claims that 80% of travellers visit just 10% of the world's tourism destinations, meaning bigger crowds in fewer spots. The UNWTO predicts that by 2030, the number of worldwide tourists, which peaked at 1.5 billion in 2019, will reach 1.8 billion, likely leading to greater pressure on already popular spots and more objection from locals.
Lazy press stories
There are so many column inches devoted to this topic in the trade and consumer press that often present a summary of what the problem is, but rarely are possible solutions discussed. The exception to this is the Amsterdam story (probably because it involves sex and drugs), where their marketing messages are very clear about who is welcome. Venice too, because in addition to a tourism tax, an admission charge could be on the cards for day visitors. This chimes with our domestic industry but any talk of new taxes is quickly and loudly shot down. Why?
Attract and really disperse
I am sure these discussions will rumble on, not least of all as tourism numbers rebound and grow after the Covid restrictions, but I would like to add my thoughts to this discussion by suggesting destinations need to review their marketing comms and proactively sort their visitor management.
There are complex economic factors at play; workforce availability and skills, demand, natural disasters, tech and AI, the resources and imagination of the destination marketing organisations (DMO’s) and appetite for real change from the City Fathers.
In partnership with local residents and their communities, attract visitors to your hubs because there is air/sea/land access and awareness, then disperse to less well-known places that can receive and manage visitors, and in turn, disperse them. Don’t do what Venice does and vaguely suggest spending time in the Mestre borough situated on the mainland opposite the historical island city, without effectively communicating what is there and encouraging me to go there too.
The other side of this coin is that if I want to visit the Louvre, I am going to go, but would expect timed entry & premium pricing, but what this doesn’t do is manage the space and resources in and around the Louvre.
Too many National Tourism Organisations continue to peddle the same old tried (or is that tired?) and tested destinations, usually urban in the case of the UK and leave local (often rural) destinations to try and have a voice in a busy global marketplace with the potential to offer solutions. Just stop it please!
My SM feed is full of influencers sharing ‘zone one’ reels and locations and, shock horror when a tourist does something silly, like carve their name on an ancient building or jump off a heritage bridge into a canal, why am I now surprised? Work with and incentivise influencers - and travel trade, to switch their narrative to include the hub and neglected spokes.
The cruise-ship category of mass tourism is a horror show on so many levels - or should that be decks? I don’t know where to even start with this…
Targeting higher spending, or more valuable tourists means what exactly? They can take selfies at Durdle Door as long as they stay 3 nights in a four-star hotel?
My final point is about lazy-lists: top 10 places to visit or stay, top 5 best places to take a selfie that take no notice of the host communities and visitor impact. Let’s be original in the stories we tell about the places that are local and special to us.
Professionally or personally, where has it worked for you?
Overtourism is about consumer behaviour isn’t it? How can we change these behaviours so that the host community benefits and the visitors benefit and actually enjoy their holiday. Rushing through Europe in six days is probably still a thing in emerging markets, but surely there are ways to structure itineraries that take in those must-see attractions and something else in a zone two or three?
And for the rest of us who take our short-haul short breaks, what are we doing to behave differently and to market and promote in a responsible, sustainable way?
Links you may find useful
Social media can treat the place you are visiting as a backdrop. People visit a city, in spirit, with their online followers. Any locals encountered can seem like extras on a stage-set, there to add colour to pictures or act as auxiliary tourist information officers. Tourists are back. Is it time to tell them to stay away? A thoughtful piece from the FT reporting in July 2023.
“It’s like a plague of locusts: people come, they overwhelm a place, you have capacity problems, you start to think about hiring more people, but a week later they’ve all gone. It’s hard to get a sustainable source of income.” TikTok food tourists leave a bitter taste in Amsterdam.
Does Venice need to regulate the tourist flow, or charge an entrance fee? Read more about this ongoing overtourism saga.
Tourism is a lifeblood of the Greek economy, accounting for about 25% overall, whilst 90% of Santorini’s economy is dependent on selfie-stick-wielding visitors: “I won’t forget the tourists’ expressions when they saw a tonne of marine litter coming out from the harbour.” Sustainable solutions must be found.