Destinations urged to take heed when tourists overwhelm locals

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A lantern-floating ceremony draws a crowd at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu.
A lantern-floating ceremony draws a crowd at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu. Photo Credit: JJM Photography/Shutterstock

VAIL, Colorado -- There are no easy solutions to managing or getting ahead of overtourism, but one crucial step is measuring the pulse of the local community. 

That was the sentiment of a panel of industry insiders who tackled the topic during the Colorado Governor's Tourism Conference on Tuesday.

"If it's no longer a good place to live, the experience will be degraded," said Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann, who was one of the panelists.

Travel has grown rapidly around the world in recent decades, and a variety of factors, including the rise of robust middle classes in China, India and parts of Asia, lead forecasters to believe the trend will continue. The U.N. World Tourism Organization predicts that worldwide tourist arrivals will grow to more than 1.8 billion by 2030, up from 435 million in 1990. 

With the rise has come struggles with overtourism in Venice, Machu Picchu and Yosemite National Park, to name just a few destinations. 

Hawaii also has been experiencing overtourism. The tourist count has been on the rise for the past six years, said panelist Charlene Chan, director of communications for the Hawaii Tourism Authority. For the first eight months of 2018, 6.8 million people had visited Hawaii, up 7.2% year over year. It's a particularly remarkable increase considering Hawaii tourism dipped after the Kilauea volcano erupted on the Big Island in the spring. 

Though tourism is Hawaii's biggest non-military economic driver, the continued onslaught of new tourists led the state to divert a small portion of its tourism-marketing budget this year into tourism management. 

That decision was driven by resident discontent, Chan said. 

"You know it's time when all you hear is grief from the community," she said. 

Every year, Chan said, Hawaii does a survey to gauge resident sentiment about tourism and shares it publicly. Year after year, she said, the community says it doesn't have a voice in tourism, despite efforts by the state to encourage responsible tourism and to curb crowds at overburdened attractions. 

William Bakker, chief strategist for destination marketing consultancy Destination Think, said DMOs that aren't already facing overcrowding should be proactive in gauging how residents feel about tourism. Some of Bakker's clients, he explained, are hesitant to engage residents out of fear of what they'll learn.

"Who knows, they might see something they don't like," he said. 

But by engaging residents before tourism reaches a tipping point, destination marketers can learn what the community feels is the proper balance between the economic benefits of tourism and the drawbacks of heavy visitation. 

"It will depend from community to community what your license will be," he said. 

One destination that took that proactive approach was Colorado, which has risen from the 13th largest U.S. state in terms of leisure travel to the eighth largest since 2009. In 2017, the Colorado Tourism Office published its Colorado Tourism Roadmap using input from more than 1,000 people, including tourism professionals, government officials and ordinary Coloradans.

Working with the local community is ultimately a necessity to ensure a strong tourism product, Chan explained. 

"I believe that if residents are not happy, visitors will not be happy. We don't want people vandalizing cars," she said.

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