WASHINGTON -- Last month, a group of travel and tourism
experts gathered here on World Tourism Day to grapple with the unintended
consequences of their success. The event, Overtourism: Seeking Solutions,
presented compelling arguments that crowding at popular destinations will only
get worse in the years to come.
What's more, it will happen despite sundry examples of
suppliers combating crowding with sustainable tours and cities taking steps
such as regulating illegal Airbnb rentals.
Among the clearest takeaways from the event was that
governments worldwide need to step up and recognize they are the first line of
defense in saving their historical cities and natural treasures from being "loved
"We need a fresh model for governance of tourism if we
are going to change things," said Seleni Matus, director of George
Washington University's International Institute of Tourism Studies, co-host of the event with the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). "Small examples here and there won't create the
transformation that needs to happen. ... We need to work at a scale and at a
pace commensurate with the pace at which changes are occurring."
Travel and tourism has exploded in the past few decades with
no sign of abating. 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.
Unfortunately, those arrivals are highly concentrated in
certain destinations, causing overtourism problems in some places while other
destinations would love to benefit from tourism dollars.
Elizabeth Becker, author of "Overbooked: The Exploding
Business of Travel and Tourism" (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and a
frequent contributor to Travel Weekly, laid out the importance of the
government's role in an article for the Guardian last summer.
"Only governments can handle runaway tourism,"
Becker wrote. "Few major industries fall so squarely into their hands. ...
Governments decide who is eligible for visas; how many cruise ships, airlines
and trains can bring in visitors; how many hotels receive building permits; how
many beaches are open to development; how many museums and concert halls are
Moderating a panel at the event, Becker said municipalities
are often victim to government decisions over which they have no control, such
as controlling the two main ways tourists enter their cities: air and sea.
In Barcelona, for example, the number of cruise passengers
has quadrupled, to more than 2.5 million annually. Becker said the port is
controlled by a national authority, and the city itself has no say in how many
cruise ships are allowed to dock there.
"Every time a new cruise ship wants to come, [Barcelona's
mayor] says no, and she's overruled," Becker said.
In Venice, which she called "the bad example for
everything," government ignored decades of protests and referendums to
change things as tourism grew by 450%.
"They didn't ask the basic questions about who
benefits," Becker said. In the end, the crush of tourists pushed the
locals out, and the city's population dropped from 174,000 to 55,000, taking
with it grocers, schools, clinics, etc.
"The hard part is convincing government that it has
that responsibility," Becker said later. "Because they don't take
She said that was especially true of the U.S. government,
which leaves any regulation of the industry to local mayors and city councils
who bear the brunt of its toll.
One good example, she said, is Charleston, S.C., represented
at the event by Dan Riccio, director of the city's Department of Livability and
Tourism. One way Charleston has tackled tourism issues is by becoming perhaps
the only U.S. city with officers who specifically enforce tourism laws.
Shifting focus to tourism management
Iceland is hoping to emerge as a poster child for how to
handle overtourism. In 2010, it had 433,000 visitors. By 2017, that number had
skyrocketed by 355%, to 2.2 million. Iceland's population is only 355,000.
Panelist Maria Reynisdottir, tourism specialist for Iceland's
Department of Tourism in the Ministry of Industries and Innovation, said her
position and the ministry itself grew out of the need to manage tourism. As of two years ago, the ministry didn't have a department dedicated to tourism; its main involvement in tourism was funding its promotion.
"Now, the focus is shifting toward its management,"
Iceland's 2015 five-year plan seeks to improve safety and
protect nature. The country, she said, is now working on a longer-term strategy
that, beginning in 2020, will implement ideas around "our vision for the
kind of destination Iceland wants to be and for who."
One reason tourism management is working is that Iceland's
tourism ministry is intertwined with other areas of government, including the
ministries of the environment, transportation and finance.
Many countries' tourism ministries, if they have one at all,
are completely separate from other parts of government. When Iceland's tourism
growth led to increased traffic accidents, it brought together members of its
road authority, police, various ministries and the tourism board to find
solutions. Last year, road deaths declined by 21%.
There are many examples of countries where coordinated policy
making could alleviate crowding in some areas and spread tourism benefits to
Peru's tourism ministry, for example, is concerned about the
overcrowding at Machu Picchu and wants operators to create tours to other parts
of the country, something G Adventures has been trying to do.
Panelist Sarah Miginiac, G Adventures general manager for
Latin America, said, "There's no easy way to access the regions we want to
go to." She said the company is working with airlines to develop routes
and that they are "seeing movement."
Bali has similar issues, with the vast majority of tourists
staying at the south end of the island when "there are beautiful, amazing
places north of Bali, but no easy way to get there," Matus said.
Along with transport, Matus argued that governments could
invest resources in promoting less-visited parts of their countries.
"Governments need to take a serious look at how they
are marketing these places," she said. "They need to change the flow
of visitors and the pattern of how tourists move around, incentivize new
product and better communicate and market that product."