Experts talk threat of overtourism and possible solutions

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Seleni Matus, director of George Washington University's International Institute of Tourism Studies, hosted the Overtourism: Seeking Solutions event.
Seleni Matus, director of George Washington University's International Institute of Tourism Studies, hosted the Overtourism: Seeking Solutions event.

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 to death." 

"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 open."

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 tourism seriously."

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," Reynisdottir said. 

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 others.

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."

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