Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

"Too soon?" That's what comedians ask when a punchline that hinges on a recent morbid event falls flat. The comedian has misjudged the audience's receptiveness to the topic within a certain context.

Similarly, I'm wondering about how the book "Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future" (Island Press, 2021) will be received in May 2021.

Too soon? Too late?

Given the greatly reduced state of travel and tourism today, is the topic still relevant? Or, as tourism restarts, is it more necessary than ever?

In any case, I'm not an objective reviewer. I wrote the book's first chapter, an overview of the development of overtourism: its causes, the travel industry's response and where I believe it's headed.

The book, edited by the co-founder/director emeritus of the Center for Responsible Travel, Martha Honey, and its current program manager, Kelsey Frenkiel, is an anthology of original essays by journalists, academics, government officials, consultants, community organizers, nonprofit leaders and tourism professionals. It comprises cautionary tales, success stories, insightful analysis, some finger-pointing and some finger-wagging.

It paints both a vivid portrait of what can happen when destinations develop without a thought beyond profit and growth and also how thoughtful management and partnerships among tourism enterprises, residents and governments can produce better experiences for everyone involved (including visitors; overtourism is not a problem that impacts only hosts).

Although the travel industry generally perceives overtourism to be a threat that needs to be addressed, the book's portrayal of some industry practices and sectors will not please every segment of Travel Weekly's professional audience. The book's editors may share similar goals for the establishment of sustainable travel that are widely held by responsible travel companies, but the remedies suggested by some of the authors involve both challenges to the very fundamentals of how some businesses operate and call for the type of government regulations that some corporations reflexively resist.

One chapter that couldn't have been conceived when the book was first proposed is the final one, "From Overtourism to No Tourism: Finding a New Normal" by Honey. In it, she looks at the types of travel and destinations examined in earlier chapters -- national parks, beaches and coastlines, World Heritage Sites and historic cities -- and discusses what actions can be taken now, before the post-pandemic rebirth of tourism is realized, to mitigate overtourism's return.

As to the question of whether it is too soon to be publishing a book on overtourism, given the economic devastation many individuals, communities and businesses still feel following our long period of undertourism, the question could also be reframed as: Is it too late? Although Covid variants and a lack of clarity about how best to restart international travel will keep tourism below its potential for some time, societies are also returning to previous behaviors at stunning speed. Two days before the publication of the book on May 27, the International Energy Agency released data showing that global carbon emissions, which had reduced 7% during the pandemic, have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

And overtourism was quite evident in the national parks of the U.S. during the summer of 2020. All indications are that we're going to see a repeat of that in 2021.

I'll be participating in a virtual panel with two other chapter authors, Jonathan B. Tourtellot, CEO of the Destination Stewardship Center, and Cathy Ritter, former director of the Colorado Tourism Office, as well as Honey, on June 2 at 1 p.m. Eastern time to discuss issues explored in the book. Registration is free. 

In the upcoming Travel Weekly Consumer Travel Editors Roundtable, to be posted Monday, all the consumer travel editors participating in our annual roundtable said they fully expect overtourism to return, although there was debate about exactly when that will happen. At one point, documentary filmmaker Celine Cousteau, a guest at the roundtable, said that issues around responsible travel "should just be an innate part of everything we do. I hope one day we don't even have to have this conversation."

When might that day come? Progress has been made during the pandemic in destinations that had become the symbols of overtourism, and model programs were developed in destinations such as Hawaii that instituted proactive controls on the flow of tourists during the lull in travel. But new travel patterns also materialized during the pandemic that demonstrate the ease with which sudden popularity can catch a destination unaware.

Like Cousteau, I do hope the day will come when overtourism and other sustainability issues are no longer front-and-center topics. Who knows, it may even become fodder for comedians. In the early days of television, the talk show host Steve Allen observed that "tragedy plus time equals comedy."

Right now, there's not much to laugh about as regards overtourism. And for now, it's not so much a matter of "too soon" as "too many." 

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