Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

After Dubrovnik, Croatia, imposed restrictions on the cruise industry in response to overcrowding in its walled Old City, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. vice chairman Adam Goldstein reached out to the city's mayor and requested a chance to discuss the issue. As a result of their dialogue, a solution was reached to spread cruise passengers over a seven-day period instead of three.

Goldstein shared his experience with industry executives just prior to the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in April during a roundtable I moderated on the topic of overtourism. Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch responded, "It's an interesting approach to say, 'What do you want? Don't tell me what you don't want.' When everybody focuses on what they don't want, it's always somebody else's responsibility. When it's what I want, it makes me focus."

Last Tuesday, I encountered the yin and yang of these possible responses to overtourism, in stark contrast. First, I interviewed a state tourism official whose proactive outreach short-circuited potential backlash in a destination that relies heavily on tourism.

And just afterward, I viewed a 23-minute video produced by tour operator Responsible Travel that focused on local resentment and anger toward tourism. Its prevailing attitude was summed up by Harold Goodwin, professor emeritus at Manchester Metropolitan University and managing director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership, who said in the video, "We need rebellious tourists and rebellious locals" to effect change.

The video states that the overtourism movement began in 2017, but rumblings were detected in early 2016 by Cathy Ritter, then the newly appointed director of the Colorado Tourism Office.

One of her first actions was to initiate a strategic planning project that included 20 "listening sessions" and face-to-face meetings with 1,000 residents and industry stakeholders. What she heard were "consistent concerns across the state, in the mountains, cities and plains, about the impact of travel and tourism on land, wildlife and, especially, the experience of having too many people in the same place at the same time. It was not even on our radar when we started the process. But we knew we had to address these concerns, or they could evolve into a threat against travel and tourism in Colorado."

There was little guidance on how to proceed, but she knew what she didn't want to do. She had been hiking in the Rockies when she heard shouting up ahead. She approached and saw an exasperated Coloradan trying, in vain, to stop other hikers from walking through ecologically sensitive areas.

"Stay on the trail!" a woman was screaming over and over.

"I saw how passionate Coloradans are about protecting the state," Ritter said. "But I also thought, we don't want to be the person shouting on the trail; we want to inspire visitors to join us in protecting the state."

She brought the issue of tourism backlash to the National Council of State Tourism Directors to learn how others were dealing with it, but there was little precedence. She ended up as chair of a newly created ad hoc task force on sustainable tourism.

Ritter felt she likely would have allies in the outdoor recreation industry, and through them she learned about a Boulder, Colo.-based environmental group called Leave No Trace, which had partnered with Patagonia, The North Face and Subaru to craft inspiring messages and suggest best practices. She entered into a strategic partnership with the group and subsequently launched a campaign around the theme "Are you Colo-ready?"

"We want to make sure the message isn't 'Stay away,' but rather, 'Here's how you can enjoy and respect Colorado,'" she said.

Leave No Trace, meanwhile, is benefiting from exposure in the tourism office's 10 welcome centers (where workers are trained to explain why they have "LNT" embroidered on their shirtsleeves), social media outreach and a very active website. Ritter has also brought the group to the attention of other state tourism boards.

Motivated by Leave No Trace's emphasis on pre-trip education, Ritter brought the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association, Colorado River Outfitters Association and the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Association into the fold. These groups now provide advance educational material to their guests and are sharing their practices through their national associations.

To encourage exploration of less visited areas, the tourism office created a "field guide" on its website: 70 three-, five- and seven-day itineraries, including suggested activities, places to stay and where to eat. Voluntourism opportunities are also highlighted.

In a sentiment survey fielded this spring, two years after her listening tour, Ritter found clear evidence that Colorado residents were more supportive of tourism: More than 60% now view it as "extremely important," only 14% view it as negatively impacting their lives and 80% agree that "when the Colorado Tourism Office ... educates visitors about how to respect our resources, I feel more positive about tourism."

"We're not in the dire straits of destinations that have no choice but to deal with [overtourism]," Ritter said. "We're ahead of the curve because residents gave us an early warning about issues that concerned them."

The biggest takeaway is that the tourism office didn't wait for rebellious residents to shout what they didn't want; they reached out and discovered what they did want.

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