Amid the global chaos, a bid for a saner future

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Chris Kam
Chris Kam

As the coronavirus pandemic devastates the global travel industry, we face an uncertain future clouded by economic recession and nervous consumers. But in the face of chaos, industry leaders have a rare chance to reset their growth strategies, to discard conventional thinking and embrace long-term plans for a healthier, more sustainable future by managing tourism differently.

Just months ago, industry headlines highlighted the ills of overtourism, including traffic, pollution, disrupted communities and damage to fragile ecosystems. Today, amid population lockdowns and sweeping travel restrictions, we have the opportunity to make managed tourism central to the industry's recovery plans. 

As the seeds of recovery take root, there is no question that major destinations will continue to focus on visitation numbers, room nights and economic impact as the primary barometers of success. But a more balanced, integrated portfolio of metrics would include residents' overall quality of life, environmental and social impacts (e.g. affordable housing, land use), the safety and security of the destination (crime, human trafficking) and progress toward the ideal scope and sustainability of their tourism.   

From Prague, Amsterdam and Venice to my home in Honolulu, residents have rebelled against the onslaught of uncontrolled arrivals.

Prague has been using the coronavirus disruption to crack down on short-term rentals like Airbnb, which residents complain have priced locals out of the Czech capital's housing market by inflating rents and taxes. Venice, which attracted some 30 million visitors in 2019, has imposed an entrance fee for day trip visitors to help address the crowding and damage to its historic central district. Like other high-traffic cities, Venice is seeking to limit day trip visitors in favor of longer-term guests who spend more and are more likely to seek out the city's historical, artistic and cultural treasures.

In Hawaii, where tourism employs a vast majority of the state's 1.4 million residents, University of Hawaii researchers believe that, just prior to the pandemic, the state was at the "tipping point" of overtourism. A recent study predicted visitors were on the brink of overwhelming local resources, damaging residents' quality of life and negatively affecting economic vitality.

Some forward-thinking leaders began embracing managed tourism well before the pandemic. Since the 1970s, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has prioritized the health and happiness of its residents over its gross national product when promoting tourism. 

In 1990, alarmed at the degradation of the coral and sea life at Oahu's Hanauma Bay, local officials, journalists and residents began advocating for extensive efforts to preserve the delicate marine environment. Officials subsequently limited daily visitors, restricted parking, educated tourists, advocated for reef-safe sunscreens and closed the park one day a week to allow the fish and ecosystem to recover at what had become a world-famous snorkeling site.

More recently, destinations have focused on visitor education as a cornerstone of managed tourism. 

The Republic of Palau, an archipelago of gemlike islands in the Pacific Ocean, became the world's first country to introduce a conservation pledge stamped into visitors' passports as part of its immigration policy in 2017. Visitors must sign the pledge, which is made to the children of Palau, to respect and preserve their country. While the pledge depends on visitors' goodwill, the government also enabled officials to fine scofflaws up to $1 million for violating the agreement. Officials there also have banned practices such as bottom trawling and made the Palau National Marine Sanctuary the world's largest no-take zone. 

Iceland; New Zealand; Aspen, Colo.; Bend, Ore.; and Sedona, Ariz., now use visitor pledges to help educate guests on everything from sustainability, civility and cultural awareness to not answering the call of nature in inappropriate locations. Many are tongue-in-cheek rather than lecturing in tone; e.g., "I will take photos to die for, without dying for them."

Managed tourism can help us to shape the post-coronavirus travel industry into a more sustainable, less politically fraught sector. With long-term investment, planning and a shift to more thoughtful values, travel can regain its place as one of the world's largest employment sectors without sacrificing its economic future, the natural environments within destinations and the quality of life of its residents.

Chris Kam is president of Honolulu-based Omnitrak, a strategic research and branding firm with a focus on the consumer, travel and retail sectors in North America and Asia.

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