At the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Global Summit this year, a panel of eight travel industry executives discussed one of the most vexing problems they face: local resentment of and resistance to the overcrowding caused by the growing number of visitors to the world’s most popular destinations.
By Arnie Weissmann
They assembled in a fifth-floor meeting room in the Buenos Aires Hilton before the start of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit in April: the vice chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and the chairman of Carnival U.K.; the CEO of Virtuoso; the head of global policy and public affairs for Airbnb; the executive chairman of Intrepid Travel; the president of the Buenos Aires Tourism Board; and the chairman of Tourism Cares.
Each had been invited by Salli Felton, CEO of the Travel Foundation, a British sustainable tourism charity, to have “a really frank discussion” exploring a white paper the WTTC had commissioned on a topic of increasing concern to the organization’s members: overtourism. I had been invited to moderate the discussion.
Overtourism has become such a hot-button issue in some cities that politicians run on anti-tourism platforms. “Coping With Success,” the WTTC white paper (prepared by McKinsey & Co.), detailed what turned out to be an extraordinarily complex topic, one that not only impacts the quality of life for citizens living in host cities but also the quality of travel experiences for visitors. Travel companies often find themselves in the crosshairs of local politicians and even their own guests.
The group lived up to Felton’s challenge to be frank. The transcript below has been edited for length, and the chronology has been altered to keep dialogue about specific topics together, although the topic might have recurred in intervals during the course of the conversation.
Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: “Coping With Success” identifies five symptoms of overtourism: alienated local residents, a degraded tourism experience, overloaded infrastructure, damage to nature and a threat to culture and heritage. Anything to add?
Chris Lehane, head of global policy and public affairs for Airbnb: What was missing, to me, was a definition of return on investment (ROI) from a community perspective. Tourism is, at some level, a natural resource. Is tourism driving broad-based benefits for the many and not just the few? And not just economic benefits, although I think that is at the front end of the conversation. I think one aspect of the overtourism question is a feeling, not a recognition or understanding, but the optical belief that you as a citizen are not benefitting from tourism in a meaningful way, yet your city’s resources are being leveraged.
Weissmann: Well, Airbnb has been the focus of many of those perceptions, optics and feelings. Have you been involved in talking with alienated local residents?
Lehane: That’s what I do all day on some level. We’re in 191 countries, 81,000 cities, serving 300 million people and on a path toward a billion by 2028 at our current growth rates. And I oversee all of our policy work and communications at an executive level and spend a significant part of my time traveling around the world meeting with folks like Gonzalo [Robredo, president of the Buenos Aires Tourism Board, seated to Lehane’s right], but also with local folks, to really understand what people are thinking and about how we can address it. In 2015, we put in place something called the “Airbnb Compact,” a set of principles: pay our fair share of taxes, share data, come up with specific solutions for specific cities. We put in place 400-plus regulatory frameworks since then.
We began that prior to [the overtourism] conversation taking place. We focused an awful lot of time on both understanding what people’s concerns are and not only responding with partnerships and regulatory frameworks, but also doing our fair share of educating. You can tell I drink the Kool-Aid — and a lot of it — but we do believe that the very design of our platform actually incentivizes what we would call “healthy tourism” or “democratizing tourism.” In fact, we just announced the Office of Healthy Tourism, which is really the next chapter in our policy and communications work, designed to work with cities — mostly cities, sometimes at the national level — with a series of specific tools.
‘If you were to close the cruise industry tomorrow, it would make zero difference to overtourism issues.’
David Dingle, Carnival U.K.
Weissmann: Politicians have been elected by angry residents to address this issue. Their constituents have said, in no uncertain terms, “We have got to get this under control.” So how does that play out when you meet with politicians?
Lehane: I come out of American politics. I managed large campaigns. I was in the Clinton White House for eight years. I’m sure no one would be particularly shocked by the fact that certain traditional players in the hospitality industry were concerned about our potential impact, despite having had three of the best years they’ve ever had and decades and decades of relationships in local communities with the elected officials. We had to change the formula.
Ninety-seven percent of the money we collect goes to our hosts. We’re in parts of the world where there’s a question about economic inequality. In the U.S., a typical host rents their home 42 times a year and makes $7,200 dollars. I get in a conversation with an elected official and say, “You’ve given multiple speeches about economic inequality. I’ve yet to see a program that generates $7,200 in supplemental income for an everyday person without a single taxpayer dollar ever being spent.”
So we use the facts, but what has ended up being the most compelling for us is our hosts themselves. They ended up being an incredibly effective counterweight to the traditional political establishment. They show up by the hundreds, if not thousands, for public hearings. They generate hundreds and thousands of calls and letters to elected officials. These are real voters who participate in the electoral process.
When you turn up a lot of real people whose economics are really impacted by this and organize them, that’s an incredibly powerful tool. We just released data that 53% of our hosts depend on Airbnb to cover their housing costs. And they tell those stories.
Darrell Wade, executive chairman, Intrepid Travel: Overtourism, by definition, means that you’ve got too much tourism in a small amount of area, so it’s ironic that Airbnb cops a bit of flack over this issue. If you look at the distribution spread of Airbnb, it’s far, far broader on average than traditional hotels. There must be 50 major hotels in the immediate area of Times Square, but Airbnbs are more widely distributed in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens. The solution to overtourism is getting people out of the centers. If Italy and Venice are the problem, there’s 10,000 places to go in Italy that aren’t Venice, places where you can do a short walk for a few days in some fantastic countryside and spread the love and benefits. Tourism is supposed to be a shared-value experience, a mutual benefit. It’s good for the host community, and it’s good for the traveler. You’ve got to keep those two things in balance rather than just going to the same old iconic sites that tend to get worn out and then aren’t good for the local community or the traveler.
Salli Felton, chief executive, the Travel Foundation: I’m really caught between the two things, because I agree with what you’re saying, but the other thing with Airbnb is that there is a greater social impact in areas where people choose to live, precisely because they’re residential. Yes, you’re spreading benefits, but you’re also spreading social impact. I suppose I’m a recipient of that: One of my neighbors has just started renting out their house with Airbnb, and it’s fascinating, working in this industry and trying to work out how I feel about it.
Matthew Upchurch, CEO, Virtuoso: It starts with two sets of rights: the rights of the resident versus the rights of the visitor and, with Airbnb, the rights of one resident versus the rights of another resident.
Derek Hydon, chairman, Tourism Cares: The report didn’t really touch on the consumer experience and what the consumer is actually looking for and how we as an industry mobilize to support that journey. But imagine your next-door neighbors know that you love wine, and they have some people staying who love wine and they throw a party where, yes, they share their wine. You’re getting to meet some out-of-towners. Your perception of tourism having come unwanted into your neighborhood and these crazy neighbors next door turns into a very positive experience. And I think that is something the industry as a whole can tackle together. One of Tourism Cares’ core purposes is to help advance the positive social impact of the travel and tourism community, and you can only do that by actually sharing these conversations. For us, ROI is ‘return on involvement.’ Can we involve these local communities?
‘A lot of our luxury clients wouldn’t be caught dead in Venice in the summer. They don’t want that experience.’
Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso
Adam Goldstein, vice chairman, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.: And what Salli was just saying goes to my rejection of the framing of the question from the get-go. I think we should talk about the opportunity we have to do responsible tourism. Because what you just said, Salli, wasn’t even overcrowding.
So overtourism or overcrowding or congestion is one of the key elements of less-than-totally responsible tourism. But only one. There are five different categories in the report. I think we should frame this long-term conversation around, “What is the opportunity that we have if there is proper dialogue? If people really do talk to each other, if people actually do plan and respond to issues that arise, as opposed to what’s going on now.”
I’ll give you one example — well, two. Dubrovnik, Croatia, is absolutely at the epicenter of some of these types of issues because the Old City is only as big as the Old City is. So the mayor came out … with regulation of ships. We were like, “Oh, that’s pretty severe. Could we maybe have had some dialogue before that happened?”
But then we did. So, Darrell, you talked about where overcrowding exists and where it doesn’t exist almost as if it were binary, and that’s probably what he was thinking before he spoke to us. But when we had the dialogue and we said, “Well, what really are your issues as it relates to too many people in the Old City?” He said, “Well, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, we have all the ships. We don’t have the ships on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.” So it’s not that there’s always overcrowding. It’s that three days of the week he felt that there was overcrowding. And then we said, “OK, fine, that’s probably something that could be addressed. What else?”
He said, “Well, all the ships come in the morning, then everybody’s trying to get their Old City experience out of the way, and then they either come back to the ship or they go somewhere else in the region.” By the way, he is acutely in favor of more tourism in the region, just not in the Old City in the morning on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
To generate more tourism in their region and to utilize the Old City’s capacity in an optimal way creates a lot of opportunity that he needs in terms of the economic impact he’s helping to develop for his constituents.
And there’s Venice, which is sort of ground zero in all this. Our polling suggests that most people who live in and around Venice want the economic activity. There are two levels of extremely vocal antagonists. One, with whom it’s quite possible to have a dialogue, don’t want the ships coming through the Giudecca Canal; they want the ships to access the berths through the more industrial channel and then receive the economic benefit of the customers.
The second group, which is very difficult to have a proper dialogue with, says they don’t want any cruise ships in the lagoon at all. Now, mind you, guests coming off of cruise ships are less than 10% of Venice’s tourism business.
What you find through dialogue with most, not all people is that there are absolutely potential solutions, that a multiparty plan of action could create, very significantly, either more capacity or less objection.
‘If I’m not involved in tourism, congestion caused by tourists equals inconvenience, plain and simple.’
Arnie Weissmann, Travel Weekly
Weissmann: David, there does seem to be a reflexive focus on cruise lines as villains in some of these overcrowding situations. What has been your experience?
David Dingle, chairman, Carnival U.K.: I think it’s important to say that if you were to close the whole cruise industry tomorrow, it would make zero difference to any of the overtourism issues because we are such a small part of the total tourism industry.
I think the reason [cruise lines are criticized] is that it’s very, very easy to measure cruise tourism. You absolutely know when 2,000 to 3,000 people have turned up in the port. You can count them, and you know exactly where they are. And because you can count them so easily, they’re an easy target for regulation.
On the other hand, the WTTC report points out that 72% of all tourists are day visitors, and they’re the people about whom we know the least. The report is a good piece of work, but I think we should all recognize that we need to know an awful lot more, particularly about that 72%.
Generally, we need to have deeper levels of data so that we can have a better understanding of this issue. The fact that we may open many, many more tourist opportunities across the world is not necessarily going to make people say, “Well, I won’t bother to go to Venice.” We have to better understand what is causing the issues. Who exactly are the people going to Venice? Where do they come from? Have they been there once or 10 times? We have to know that to get our arms around some of these very specific issues.
Gonzalo Robredo, president, Buenos Aires Tourism Board: Data will play a very important role. In Buenos Aires, everybody knows about tango, about beef and about La Boca, so everybody goes exactly to the same places. We are working with Secteur in Spain to use big data to identify the individual traveler’s interests. Not what he expects to find in Buenos Aires but what he likes, so we can proactively direct him to his areas of interest. Knowing preferences, through data mining, we can design special itineraries. Big data can also help show the exact movements of cars and congestion, and visitors can be offered special promotions to move them to areas that are not so popular, in real time.
Lehane: We have so much data. And if you share it with countries, with [destination management organizations] and cities, make the data accessible to them to help with their planning, it strengthens travel’s value proposition. You’re able to specifically target travelers to help a particular city or country drive travelers to where they want them to be. If they like bird-watching, we know that there is a place in rural Argentina where you could see a certain type of bird. Or target a group that wants to taste wine.
So you’re actually dispersing travelers. Ireland, France and Italy are all interested in driving tourism into rural places. But the travelers to those places are going to arrive in Dublin, Paris and Rome. The question is, when they get there, do they stay there for two weeks or do they stay there for three or four days and then can you drive them out into the countryside? If you’re offering them things that specifically align with their interests, you can do that. I think there’s enormous potential there.
Dingle: The alienation of local residents is quite interesting and a relatively recent phenomenon. And I think that it’s no accident that it has arisen at the same time that we see a lot more of what we might call nationalism. It feels similar to this issue of “I don’t want people from other places.” They might be from the next city, whom we hate because they support a different football team, right through to people from the other side of the planet who are coming here and disrupting our lifestyles. Maybe it’s always been there, but now the articulation of it is much more pronounced.
My worry about this nationalistic movement, which is concerned about identity, is that there is little sign it will be easily swayed by economic arguments. I think we have to recognize that and think about how we overcome this issue of identity being threatened.
Lehane: I do think this function of nativism, of people being segmented and polarized, leaning ultranationalistic and tribalistic, these tend to overindex in Europe, where the issue of overtourism also tends to overindex. Those cities are going through dramatic changes that are separate and apart from travel and tourism. Stagnant wages and automation. Middle class people in some parts of the world, particularly Europe, are seeing their share of the gross domestic product going down. There’s an awful lot that’s coming into play here, yet from an emotional perspective, there is the perception that this industry is to blame for some of those issues.
‘The cruise industry goes to about 1,000 places. The majority want more tourists, not less.’
Adam Goldstein, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Weissmann: Some destinations limit the number of tourists they allow in. Cinque Terre in Italy; the Galapagos; Glacier Bay, Alaska. What if Barcelona were to say they’d let in only one million people next year and that they’ll entertain bids from Carnival and Royal and Intrepid. Would you consider saying, “OK, we’re going to get involved in this, because our passengers want to go there, and now it’s going to be a better experience because there will be fewer people?” Or would you move down the coast to another port?
Dingle: If you impose limits and you give out blocks to various operators and carriers, how on earth do you do that fairly? You’re going to end up with never-ending arguments about the distribution.
Weissmann: If the permits go to the highest bidder, it does raise the question: Do you have the right to travel but only if you can afford it?
Dingle: Or do you do it a different way? Do you just actually raise the pricing of everything?
Weissmann: That would almost assure the wealthy get to see it over others. Maybe a lottery?
Dingle: You could probably do it more easily in the cruise industry only because you can get your arms around it, and it’s an industry that may stand a chance of self-regulating. The irony is that the cruise sector, which could probably accommodate that most easily, it’s not going to make any difference in most places. Six percent of all tourists to Barcelona are cruise tourists, and they spend probably the shortest time there.
Hydon: David, when you say cruises really make little difference to overtourism, unfortunately the perception is different, and perception is reality.
Wade: I think one of the problems, or perceived problems, the cruise industry has is not only the visibility of a cruise ship coming into port, but how there’s not a lot left behind from a cruise ship passenger. They’re called “ice cream tourists” because they get all their meals on the ship and then get off and buy only ice cream. That’s the extent of economic impact left behind in the community. How the economic impact works may need to be explained, because right now, it’s not well understood.
Upchurch: A lot of our luxury clients wouldn’t be caught dead in Venice in the summer. They don’t want that experience. Luxury travelers, while they may only be 5% of arrivals, have an outsized economic impact and are also opinion leaders in their communities. I think there is a place for these opinion leaders who go to new places and go farther afield to identify new areas from a marketing perspective.
I think normal human behavior is that you want to be egalitarian and want democratization. So sometimes you do struggle when you specialize in luxury because you do end up having these interesting conversations about should travel only be for the wealthy?
But there is the larger question of how to get more out of tourism assets. In Mexico, there’s the populist issue: Why should a bunch of rich people get special access? But if I can bring 100 clients a day to a site like Chichen Itza, and they pay $1,000 each to do a sunrise or a sunset thing when there are no crowds there, what is the impact of that? You can extract more value with low impact. But some of those issues do come with potential populist backlash.
Ultimately, each city or country needs to decide. It’s not up to us as visitors to decide for them. But how can you criticize a country like Bhutan or Botswana, saying, “They’re elitists because they’ve raised the cost for tourists?” They have chosen low impact, high-yield tourism.
A lot of private-public conflicts are related to an overall problem in the world, the “you’re either with me or against me” mentality that stops critical thinking. I do think it’s an interesting approach to say, “What do you want? Don’t tell me what you don’t want.” When everybody focuses on what they don’t want, it’s always somebody else’s responsibility. When it’s what I want, it makes me focus.
The overtourism report suggests DMOs should be destination management organizations rather than destination marketing organizations. The problem is, we live in a world where it’s actually hard to manage people anymore: You’ve got to inspire them to do the right thing. People talk about ROI; we talk about “ROL” — return on life.
‘Tourism is, at some level, a natural resource. Is tourism driving benefits for the many and not just the few?’
Chris Lehane, Airbnb
Goldstein: We all have to play a part in collectively leading destinations to the right strategic planning, the right objectives. The cruise industry goes to about 1,000 places. The vast majority want more tourists from us, not less. The vast majority of conversations are about how can you bring more ships here or how can you bring more ships here at a certain time of year. In those places, we can try to contribute, and we can hope that best practices, intelligent thinking, good suggestions and figuring out ways to increase capacity without exacerbating the problem will lead to some type of optimal combination of economic benefit and resident satisfaction and tourist satisfaction. Not every place will get it right, and no place will get it right all the time.
Weissmann: Gonzalo, the WTTC report suggests Argentina is in a relatively healthy place right now. Overtourism is not an imminent problem. Do you agree with that assessment?
Robredo: Yes, I do agree. We have time enough to prevent overtourism and to start thinking about how to avoid it.
Goldstein: There is much more capacity that could handle tourism flows. For example, our perception of Santorini is that there’s a lot of frustration about congestion there. We have noted to the Greek authorities that if that is both a reality and a perception, why is it that all Greek destination marketing materials feature Santorini? How does that make sense? Maybe a spotlight could be put on a series of other strategically identified islands that, over the course of the next 25 years, could gain significantly in their tourism activity.
But even within Santorini, at some level there’s a question of what is the state of the infrastructure, and are there infrastructure opportunities that would enable Santorini to handle the traffic better today than it does, creating a more seamless guest experience?
Weissmann: If I’m not involved in tourism, congestion caused by tourists equals inconvenience, plain and simple. It takes me longer to do everything, and it’s in my face all the time. I have to leave 10 minutes earlier to get to an appointment. I’m not seeing a benefit, only a downside from tourism. Nationalism may be a piece of it, but for many residents of popular places, tourism is just annoying. So how does the industry address people for whom tourism is only an inconvenience?
Wade: Residents have to see some benefit. If, for instance, tourists actually pay a tax to visit Barcelona, there could be enormous wealth generation for that city which can be redirected into services that benefit all its citizens. And a tax on visitation also probably reduces visitation because some will go to other cities that don’t have that tax. It’s like the congestion charge in London. Over time, the traffic volume reduces. I think there’s a strong argument for a congestion charge in certain cities.
Lehane: So how can we engage? What is the value proposition for the communities? I saw this play itself out in Barcelona in the last year. Real big concerns about overtourism. People running for office on it. But then the Catalonian crisis hits, tourism drops a significant amount and everyone starts to realize how much their economics were tied into it. Funding to schools, funding to law enforcement.
It shouldn’t have to take that to begin. There are things that we can do. We do a lot on the tax front. We’ll be launching a sustainability fee, which our guest will pay. In a lot of the cities we have attached our taxes to specific things. We fund, through our tax, a big chunk of Los Angeles’ affordable housing program, Chicago’s program for child homelessness. Attaching it to things where people see the real impact.
We made the decision to begin to actually seek the authority from various government entities to collect that tax. We get something called a voluntary collection agreement. Off the top of my head, I think that close to 60% of our hosts now are covered by that. And we try to identify ways to work with the cities for how that money can be used.
Good policy translates into good politics. In some cities — Barcelona and New Orleans, for instance — in response to government input, we’ve reduced the number of listings in some areas and spread it to areas they specifically requested. We don’t do listings in the French Quarter because the hotel industry didn’t want it. The city wanted it in the wards that had really been impacted by the hurricane, so we focused our efforts there. In Barcelona, we took stuff down from the center of town.
‘DMOs have a huge opportunity to build experiences for people that are off the beaten track.’
Derek Hydon, Tourism Cares
Weissmann: Darrell, two questions. As a tour operator, have you had conversations with governments on the topic of overtourism? And, although you can’t force somebody to go to one place rather than another, do you have some ability to steer people away from overcrowded places?
Wade: No, we haven’t had any meaningful dialogue with DMOs or governments. To be honest, I think we’re probably just too small. But in terms of what we can do, that’s more interesting, and I think we’ve got a bigger story to tell, and it is fascinating. Our trips are usually one, two or three weeks and you’ve usually got a couple of “must dos” of that particular region or country. You can’t sell a trip to India without going to the Taj Mahal. But we’ll carry about 400,000 clients this year, and the data tells us the vast majority believe it’s the places they didn’t know that they enjoyed more than the Taj Mahals of the world. Over time, a quality tour operator or travel agent who presents those opportunities to clients builds a brand on going to new places. And we get an enormous level of repeat business, not because we go to the Taj Mahal but to all of those other places that people have never heard of, where they had real, fresh, authentic experiences that meant something.
Hydon: Darrell, I think DMOs also have a huge, huge opportunity to build experiences for people that are off the beaten track. A number of us just returned from Jordan, and the Jordan Tourism Board, in conjunction with local ground partners and Tourism Cares, created a Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan containing 12 off-the-beaten-track experiences that were also social enterprises that need and welcome more tourism but individually don’t have the ability to create that.
Dingle: The issue, though, still remains: How do we deal with the current hot spots? Perhaps overtourism could become a self-regulating issue over time. People may realize that going to places where the ecostructure, the society, is very fragile will cause damage. Can we actually inspire people to say, “Yeah, I shouldn’t go to that place too often because I have a responsibility as a human being, as a resident of this planet, to not go and spoil places”?
Goldstein: [The focus on overtourism] is the result of, I think, increasing wealth and income in the world revealing what might have been theoretical in the past but is actual in the present. There’s an extraordinary hunger on the part of almost everybody in the world to see the world, given the opportunity to do so. And so, what is the world going to do about the phenomenon that pretty much everybody would like to see the world if they could? And how are we going to prepare for a world like that?
There are companies at this table who can clearly play a role in that. And we should.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the company that prepared the white paper “Coping with Success” for WTTC. It was prepared by McKinsey & Co.