Travel advisors have an opportunity to play a valuable role in managing the impact on local communities while improving client experiences.
YOU’VE SEEN IT IN THE NEWS. Tourists outnumbering locals in Venice. Anti-tourist protests and graffiti in Barcelona. As overtourism becomes an increasing concern for governments, travellers and residents of high-traffic areas, the travel industry must be part of the solution.
One industry-led effort to define and seek solutions to overtourism comes in the form of a partnership between Travel Leaders Group and New York University’s School of Professional Studies. In the first stage of the research, NYU graduate students looked at economic, social and environmental issues in 41 locations around the world. Results showed that overtourism is causing or contributing to environmental issues like climate change and pollution while threatening biodiversity. There are also sociocultural effects, like distorting and commoditizing cultures, gentrification, damage to important historic and cultural sites, and the bad behaviour typified by drunken weekend stag parties. More than half of the travel advisors Travel Leaders Group spoke with (56 per cent) said they have seen an increase in negative client feedback based on overtourism.
Overtourism can fundamentally change a destination by displacing local residents and making city centres unpleasant places to live because of increased congestion and petty crime. As local shops give way to souvenir stores and chain restaurants, overtouristed cities struggle to maintain their unique identities.
The tourism experience itself also degrades, as visitors have to deal with angry locals, inflated prices and overcrowding. Eighty per cent of the destination management organizations (DMOs) Travel Leaders Group surveyed admitted they are having problems with overtourism. And in a recent World Travel Monitor study, 25 per cent of international tourists said the destination they travelled to was overcrowded. One in 10 said this overcrowding had affected the quality of their trip. According to the World Travel Monitor, the most affected attractions are the Great Wall of China, ski resorts in the Dolomites and the Cinque Terre in Italy. The most affected cities were Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Barcelona, Florence and Venice. These concerns were greatest among families with children and travellers under the age of 34.
For Travel Leaders Group, overtourism takes two forms. Macro-overtourism is the most commonly discussed. “Everyone in the travel industry can identify Iceland or Venice as destinations dealing with the effects of overtourism,” said Brian Hegarty, VP Marketing, Travel Leaders Group.
But there’s also micro-overtourism: “There’s local or seasonal overtourism within just about every destination in the world on certain days of the week or months of the year,” Hegarty pointed out.
How did we get here?
Crowds in Venice
Overtourism is driven by both economic and industry factors. On the economic side, increased spending power simply means more people are able to travel. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, international tourism has more than tripled in the last 30 years. At the same time, destinations look to tourism as an important driver of economic growth, with those international arrivals contributing $11.6 trillion to the world economy and supporting 10 per cent of all jobs worldwide.
But the industry also bears responsibility, with its focus on volume and measuring success based on the number of arrivals. There has been little effort to avoid the overconcentration of tourism in popular destinations, even as airline carrying capacity has increased and alternative lodgings like Airbnb have created an almost limitless number of beds. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WWTC), the top 20 destinations worldwide now account for 70 per cent of all international arrivals.
Public Domain | Eiffel Tower Queue
Of the DMOs Travel Leaders surveyed, 53 per cent have taken some action against overtourism in their destination. Limiting the number of visitors is an obvious approach, but this can be difficult to do. Disincentives such as tourist taxes may provide a start, as can limiting the number of visitors allowed into specific attractions or sites and reducing opening hours. The WWTC further suggests using technology and data collection to better manage tourist flows.
Imposing penalties for bad tourist behaviour is another potential approach. While it may not reduce the number of tourists, it can reduce the negative effects of overtourism for both locals and visitors.
Amsterdam and Venice have both implemented campaigns with the theme “enjoy and respect,” with prominent signs advising tourists of the hefty fines for infractions like littering, public drunkenness and urinating in the street. While these may seem like obvious no-nos, they remain ongoing problems. Eighty per cent of the advisors Travel Leaders Group surveyed said they advise clients on local laws and customs, but it may be worth nudging clients to remember the basics of good public behaviour, too.
Perhaps the most promising solution to overtourism is developing alternative destinations, or even alternate attractions and activities within a popular destination. This is an area in which travel advisors and tour operators can play a vital role.
How travel advisors can help
Dunn's River Falls | CC by 2.0 | Prayitno
Travel advisors have an important role to play in both supporting destinations’ efforts to reduce the effects of overtourism and managing client expectations. It’s increasingly important for advisors to develop their knowledge of local culture, secondary destinations and the seasonality of travel. Advisors can, for example, encourage clients to visit in the off- or shoulder seasons. If clients want to visit a big city, advisors can encourage them to take some time to explore the surrounding areas or attend local cultural events and festivals.
Overcrowding is an issue, agrees Silvana Frappier of NS Destinations, but she also sees it as an opportunity to prove her value as a travel advisor. “An advisor must be educated on the destination as a whole. When a client wants to visit a popular city or location suffering from overtourism, that’s my opportunity to be the expert, and I encourage them to venture out to the surrounding area,” she explains. “Also, there are many places that need and want more tourists. For example, Puglia and Basilicata in southern Italy offer travellers great food and wine, amazing olive oil, ancient heritage sites, pristine beaches and very welcoming locals – with much fewer tourists than the Amalfi Coast.”
For destinations with heavy cruise traffic, it might be as simple as making sure clients avoid top attractions on days when large cruise ships are in port.
Hegarty experienced this first-hand on a recent family trip to Jamaica over spring break – hardly the off-season. Still, his family managed to enjoy Dunn’s River Falls, one of the top tourist destinations, all to themselves, based on great advisor advice and a copy of the port schedule. Likewise, Hegarty added, travel advisors can help their clients see the Vatican with zero crowds, even in high season, by securing them VIP access that allows entry before the official opening time.
“We all have a role in helping to address the issue and making sure buzzwords like overtourism and sustainability have action behind them,” Hegarty said. “We want to change the course of what we’ve seen in the industry to date.”
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