2019 opens with strict measures combating overtourism

A crowd gathers around the Trevi Fountain in Rome, which has banned most motorcoaches from its city center in a bid to curtail overcrowding.
A crowd gathers around the Trevi Fountain in Rome, which has banned most motorcoaches from its city center in a bid to curtail overcrowding. Photo Credit: Indegerd/Shutterstock

A day-tripper tax in Venice. New levies on cruise passengers in Amsterdam. A hike in the hotel tax in Ireland. A ban on motorcoaches in Rome. Strict new entry policies at Machu Picchu.

Welcome to 2019, a year that opened with a host of new taxes and restrictions designed to address overcrowding, infrastructure challenges and other issues associated with the growing problem of overtourism.

While most in the industry agree it's a vexing issue that needs to be addressed, there are concerns about the way some of the new taxes and rules are being implemented, as well as about the long-term impact they could have on tourism. Some express doubts about whether the increased fees and taxes will indeed be used to address the infrastructure issues created by crowds or are just a way for governments to pad their coffers.

"From what I am hearing, it is the tip of the iceberg," USTOA president and CEO Terry Dale said of the recent move by Ireland to increase its value-added tax (VAT) on hotels from 9% to 13.5%. "Because so many countries are looking for a new revenue stream, it's easy to look at the VAT and say, 'This is an easy way to raise money.'"

Tim Fairhurst, secretary general of the European Tourism Association, said the issue is not so much that governments are looking to raise taxes and fees or to impose new rules, as about how some of the new measures are being implemented without input from stakeholders and without enough notice for travel companies to build new fees into their pricing.

"I think the genie is out of the bottle," Fairhurst said. "People are not going to stop taxing visitors. I think the question has got to be: Why? And, what are you doing with the money?"

Indeed, the travel industry is sympathetic to the plight of cities like Venice, which this month got permission from Italy's central government to impose a tax on day visitors, and Rome, which has banned most motorcoaches from its crowded city center.

Derek Kehl, G Adventures' London-based director of operations for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, added that "many popular sites in Europe were becoming highly dissatisfying visitor experiences because of so many people crowding into and around them."

Kehl continued: "If we do not take steps to improve the overcrowding, the extra costs to tour operators will be irrelevant." 

Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president at Tauck Land Journeys, said the "tour operator industry recognizes the need for smart, innovative management policies" and wants to be good partners. "That said, and with an eye toward being true partners, we'd like to be brought into the planning and decision-making process earlier on, so we can work cooperatively on fair and workable solutions."

Fairhurst voiced concern that measures such as those in Italy have not been thought through and will increase the tension between tourists and residents. In Rome, for example, there have already been protests, with coach operators blocking entrances to the city center.

"The Rome coach situation is comically dysfunctional," Fairhurst said, noting that the city doesn't have enough minibuses to provide the shuttle service that was supposed to get visitors into the heart of city.

Multitudes take in the Mona Lisa and other paintings on display at the Louvre in Paris, where timed entry has become commonplace.
Multitudes take in the Mona Lisa and other paintings on display at the Louvre in Paris, where timed entry has become commonplace. Photo Credit: Hristo Chorbadzhiyski/Shutterstock.com

"Are people going to have to get off the coach and wheel their bag a half-mile to their hotels?" he asked. "Rome is likely to become the site of very chaotic scenes." 

Amsterdam has also seen backlash to its new $9-per-passenger tax on all ocean and river cruise ships, with at least two lines, MSC Cruises and Cruise & Maritime Voyages, canceling their stops there.

In Peru, travel companies are keeping a close eye on changes at Machu Picchu, which on Jan. 1 became the latest tourist site to implement timed entry, meaning travelers are allowed in only during a specific four-hour time slot, with no re-entry.

Sarah Miginiac, G Adventures' general manager for Latin America, said the controlled entry has been working smoothly so far but acknowledged that "the real test will be during high season, which honestly makes us a bit nervous. We will need to work out how to purchase entry tickets for all the members of arriving groups into the same visitor time slot, otherwise it will increase our operational costs to hire multiple tour guides for divided groups."

Timed entry, which has become common at popular European destinations like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, has enabled those sites to better manage visitors. But Yves Marceau, G Adventures' vice president of product, said it has also "created more work for our industry, with some agencies dedicating full-time resources to securing the right time slots for their itineraries."

Dale said overtourism has become an increasingly important focus for the USTOA, which is partnering with Cornell University to begin research on the issue. It has also begun efforts to work more closely with the European Tourism Association and with groups like the World Travel and Tourism Council and the United Nations World Tourism Organization to ensure global collaboration.

"We are looking at how to facilitate this dialogue between government and industry and then also providing a voice to support solutions," Dale said. "But that's big. I could focus on this and only this for the next five years."

One country that seems to be doing it right, Fairhurst said, is Scotland, which has opened a national dialogue following efforts by Edinburgh to impose a tax on overnight visitors.

"They are doing an extremely intelligent exercise of inviting all the stakeholders who are interested to put comments online," he said. "Then they are running roundtables in various cities in Scotland. I was at one last Friday. There were people there with very polarized opinions, but it was being discussed in a very constructive way."

Such discussions can take the heat out of the debate and cool tensions between residents and tourists that could ultimately threaten some tourism sectors and the local economies that rely on them, he said. 

In the meantime, many tour operators have begun tweaking tour dates and developing off-hours visits to popular sites.

Jon Grutzner, president of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold, said, "We are selective with the days of the week we are bringing guests to overcrowded destinations. Controlling visit times lessens the impact of tourism in many regions, such as Venice, Rome and Barcelona."

Grutzner said the company is also focused on offering more off-season tours to crowded destinations.


From Our Partners

2020 Sandos Palmaia 2 Webinar
Discover Palmaïa - The House of AïA
Register Now
American Queen South
American Queen Steamboat Company
Read More
2020 NTG Webinar Series
Travel, Our Future and Yours A Series of Conversations with Industry Leaders
Register Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI