Selling travel is what we do. We promote it, encourage it, educate about it, help people go away to do it, and make money on it.
The rest of the world also depends on tourism – some destinations almost entirely. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the industry supports 292 million jobs worldwide and generates 10.2 per cent of global GDP.
Sounds like a win-win situation. So, what’s the issue? Well, more than a billion travellers in 2017 – for the first time ever – for a start.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization reports that international tourist arrivals grew a “remarkable” seven per cent in 2017 to reach a total of 1.3 billion. And expect another increase of four to five per cent this year, representing an eighth straight year of steady growth, says the UNWTO. Plus, fuelled by China’s new travelling middle class, emerging markets, and cheap travel (including the sharing economy), there’s no sign of decline in sight.
Issues include degradation of the environment, pollution, over-stressed infrastructure, and, well, just simply too many people.
Indeed, protests across Europe have already popped up with local citizens even going so far as slashing visitors’ tires and throwing eggs at tour coaches. Local politicians are listening, with some suggesting visitor quotas and restrictions on new tourism infrastructure such as hotels and Airbnbs.
Such regulations are nothing new, of course: Peru has limited the number of trekkers it allows on the Inca Trail, while Ecuador has imposed quotas on the number of cruise passengers allowed to visit the Galapagos islands. The Thai island of Koh Tachai (as reported by the BBC) was closed to tourists altogether in 2016 due to concerns over environmental degradation, while Thai marine parks were closed for six months.
But it should be noted that, to this point, most limits are on areas deemed environmentally vulnerable.
Some tourism stakeholders have long acknowledged the issue, albeit largely on an individual level, with, for example, early entries at theme parks and museums to avoid/disperse crowds; take-a-number ship tenders; and reduced prices during off-season to encourage traffic flow.
However, increasingly many in the tourism industry are stepping up on a larger scale to confront the growing issue. Intrepid Travel, for example, is attempting to steer clients away from the inundated Venices and Barcelonas of the world. “Here at Intrepid we’re all about tackling the negative impact of over-tourism,” the tour company writes on its website. “And for us, the most exciting way to do this is by exposing you to those lesser-known destinations.” Belarus, Bhutan, and Tajikistan are just some of the countries on offer.
There’s no end of other companies that, at the very least, are trying to reduce their impact – by giving back to communities in the countries they visit, planting trees, reducing pollution and emissions, etc.
Travel Agent Next Door counsellor Coralie Belman calls it “mindful and respectful tourism,” where even small gestures matter. “I think it is part and parcel of just counselling your clients and talking about travel experiences: explaining why restrictions have been implemented and things like don’t take shells and stones in destination – or there won’t be any for future generations to see,” she says, adding that she finds millennial clients are “much more mindful of these kinds of impacts versus some of my older clients.”
And explaining those impacts and resulting restrictions in a destination to a client are simply “part and parcel” of a travel agent’s job, she says.
Belman is also quick to suggest that part of the over-tourism problem lies at the source, where destinations are eager to attract tourists but don’t prepare adequate infrastructure. “I liken it to housing development – they build homes, but sometimes the surrounding roads/schools/services don’t get taken care of ahead of time and so communities suffer.”
And while unexpected TV or film exposure may put a destination on course for surging tourism, Belman does contend that “maybe there needs to be more communication between government departments – tourism versus economic development – to restrict some visitors in terms of, for example, how many flights they allow.”
Trafalgar Canada president Wolf Paunic agrees that over-tourism is a “complex problem,” asking, “Who really controls the number of visitors to a given place?” And how does a city like Venice – “an iconic place that everyone wants to see at least once” – dampen visitors’ interest, if it even truly wants to?
He adds that a tour company like Trafalgar, by its very nature, controls, at least in part, the number of people it brings into a destination on any given day, often with pre-arranged visits and synchronicity of schedule to help alleviate congestion. “If there is a way of controlling [over-tourism], perhaps this is the blueprint,” he muses.
Trafalgar also does its part to introduce lesser known destinations in its tours. In Italy, for example, Trafalgar coaches stop in Lucca in Tuscany, with Paunic laughing, “Who’s ever heard of Lucca?”
Brendan Griffin, minister of tourism for Ireland, says his department is engaging in campaigns to “extend the season” and emphasizing regional options – away from hotspots like Dublin – in an effort to ensure that tourism benefits everyone and doesn’t damage its destinations. “In Dublin, we’re victims of our own success,” he admitted to CT, adding, “For many of us in the industry, the issue of sustainability is key. Otherwise, it all collapses.”
World bodies like the UNWTO, meanwhile, have long advocated “sustainable” tourism practices, with the latter having gone so far as to declare 2017 “The Year of Sustainable Tourism.” Yet, even the UNWTO plays both sides of the issue, continuing to promote growth, but also casting a cautionary tone that unmanaged growth is both dangerous and unstainable.
“Growth is not the enemy; numbers are not the enemy; the key is to manage the growth sustainably, responsibly and intelligently and use the power of growth to our advantage,” said outgoing UNWTO secretary-general Taleb Rifai recently, adding, “We cannot continue to build five-star hotels in three-star communities. Jobs and charity are not enough – we need to diversify visitors’ activities, reduce seasonality and raise awareness of less busy destinations.”
The keys to dealing with over-tourism, suggests the UNWTO, are community engagement, communication, congestion management, adequate planning and product diversification.
The WTTC, adds, “To solve this challenge, leaders must be willing to identify and address the barriers (including beliefs, norms, and structures) that are holding us back from effectively managing overcrowding. And they must look for ways to compromise: when overcrowding goes too far, the repercussions are difficult to reverse.”
Still, hardly a week goes by when some city, state or nation giddily proclaims having set a new record for visitations as their CVBs and tourist boards tout their own competence and their destination’s overall desirability.
Meanwhile, beleaguered travel industry personnel strive to put bums in seats to further (save?) their jobs. And who can blame them? It’s the nature of the beast.
Patricia Schultz, author of “1,000 Places To See Before You Die,” summarizes the dilemma. “The world is grand, so get off the sofa,” she says. Yet, she acknowledges the downside of cruise ships “disgorging passengers who don’t have a wallet in their pocket.”
In the end, she tells CT, it comes down to: “If tourism provides well-being and life for countless people around the world, the answer is, avoid Paris, Venice and Dubrovnik. Go to lesser-known places. It’s a win-win situation.”
And she may just have a thousand or so places to suggest.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
So, what can travel advisors do, short of giving up the business and moving to a secluded (self-sufficient) island? Start by determining if your client is, or can be educated to be, as concerned as you are about sustainable travel. If so, then consider some of the following possibilities to help mitigate the effects of over-tourism and its side effects:
- Book clients with a company that gives back to the communities in which they operate. From Collette to Sandals, G Adventures to Transat, and Intrepid to The Travel Corporation there are plenty of companies with programs, foundations or tailored tours that allow clients to be good corporate citizens too.
- From helping out at an orphanage, digging a well, or even contributing to the building of a home, aiding others can be the most rewarding type of holiday for many people. A good place to start the process is www.VolunTourism.org.
- Suggest to your client that they enroll in a carbon offset program, which allows them to help the airline they’re flying on counter the CO2 emitted on that flight. Customers can choose to add a fee to their airfare (or register through a website) based on distance flown; the airlines then donate the money to a preferred environmental or social program. Some prominent airlines that offset include Air Canada, WestJet, Qantas, Emirates, and British Airways. Tour operator Intrepid has been carbon neutral since 2010 and has offset more than 250,000 of CO2 since then; the company offers more than 1,400 multi-day carbon offset tours.
- Suggest that clients stay outside major tourism centres, helping spread the wealth to other areas of the destination and, at the same time, reducing the crowd, even if it’s one client at a time. For its part, Intrepid has taken to suggesting clients go to entirely different destinations altogether.
- Off-season travel: the crowds are fewer and prices generally less. Everybody wins. If a client does travel during peak times, consider suggesting a stay away from the main centres.