Tour operators join fight to ease overtourism by redirecting travelers

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An Intrepid Travel tour group in Kotor, Montenegro.
An Intrepid Travel tour group in Kotor, Montenegro. Photo Credit: Intrepid Travel

While governments and destination marketing organizations are revamping policies and promotions to tackle overtourism, private travel companies are launching new destinations that take clients away from the crowds and help spread tourism wealth.

Intrepid Travel, for one, has launched several tours designed to redistribute its guests. Leigh Barnes, Intrepid's chief purpose officer, said that as travel becomes "more affordable, accessible and more sought-after than ever before, new product innovation is crucial to the prevention of overtourism."

"We regularly test out new destinations, trips and themes," he said last fall at an overtourism conference at George Washington University.  

Among the products are Intrepid's first adventure cruises, such as a Croatia sailing that visits smaller communities in the Peljesac peninsula and remote islands like Jakljan, which helps distribute tourism around the country and beyond Dubrovnik and Split.  

"The reality is that most travelers want to visit the familiar highlights of a country and cross famous landmarks off their bucket list, such as Dubrovnik's Old Town," Barnes said last week. "But what we can do is try to create similar offerings in less-visited destinations and encourage travelers to visit those places instead."

Intrepid believes it can help create demand for new locations.

"As we grow, we've recognized that we have some influence on tourism demand through our marketing," he said.

Next year, Intrepid is launching a sailing tour in Montenegro in response to overtourism concerns in Croatia. 

An aqueduct in Perugia, the capital of Umbria, one of the stops on an Avanti tour.
An aqueduct in Perugia, the capital of Umbria, one of the stops on an Avanti tour. Photo Credit: Avanti Destinations

"We can offer this alternative in the country's lesser-known next-door neighbor," he said. "In this case, they're a two-hour drive from Dubrovnik, but they can get a really unbelievable coastal Adriatic experience while not contributing to Dubrovnik's crowding issues."

Intrepid is also responding to overtourism by offering alternatives to popular destinations with lesser-known and more sustainable ones, like Komodo instead of Ubud in Indonesia and the Similan Islands instead of Maya Bay in Thailand.

Barnes said demand indicates that people want to be led off the beaten path. 

"We've seen a 24% increase in global bookings to Montenegro over the last year and a 45% increase in bookings from North Americans specifically, so the appetite to visit new destinations is definitely there," he said. 

G Adventures has also created itineraries it hopes will take pressure off popular destinations, including a Northern Peru trip that begins and ends in Lima and skips Machu Picchu, a Tuscany tour from Rome that does not visit Venice or Florence and a Southern Tanzania trip that skips the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. 

Sean Benner, G Adventures' product manager, said, "If we can help people stretch out of their comfort zone and live more like a local in these fascinating and more remote destinations, while spreading benefits and alleviating crowds in popular places, we're proud to do it."

Avanti Destinations teamed up with Italy's national tourism board to promote the less-visited regions of Piedmont, Puglia, Sicily and Umbria to help relieve pressure on Venice, Rome and Florence.

A new e-brochure, Italy Reimagined, available on Avanti's agent portal, features 16 customizable FIT itineraries, some in towns and villages Avanti has never before offered.

Paul Barry, Avanti's executive chairman, said Italy is its most popular destination and one with great potential for repeat visits. "Many people think that if they have been to Rome, Venice, Florence and the Amalfi Coast, they've 'done' Italy when, in fact, they've only scratched the surface of this diverse country," he said. 

The timing of the new tours was ideal: Barry said Avanti experienced a "huge surge of passengers this summer." June, he said, was the best month in company history, with 20% more bookings than in any other month. 

Barry said that the growth of middle classes around the world and the increase in large cruise ships across Europe is creating challenges for the Continent's popular cities. In response, Avanti is promoting more trips across Europe that go beyond the big cities and are offered in off-peak months.

"What we are finding is growth in what have traditionally been the least-traveled cities has been our biggest increase all over Europe this year," Barry said. 

For example, in the U.K. Avanti is promoting Liverpool, Manchester and Wales.

"We've been focusing very closely on promoting travel outside of London," Barry said. "And we have seen a significant increase in our bookings. In Britain alone, we've seen a 30% increase in bookings outside of London."

'Let's spread the love a little'

Sif Gustavsson, CEO of Iceland Cool, a social impact marketing and communications consultancy, said suppliers and marketers can and should change consumer travel habits.

"We have to tell the travelers what they want," she said. "They've been doing the same thing over and over, because that's what we've been offering. But there is no reason why everyone should go to the same spot on this island when every part of it is mind-blowing. Let's spread the love a little."

Iceland Cool helps suppliers create and market tours in remote, less-visited parts of Iceland as an antidote to the crush of travelers that pushed visitor numbers from 433,000 in 2010 to 2.2 million in 2017. 

"There's not a lot of growth in product there, and that's what I'm trying to do," Gustavsson said. "Every time I work with a supplier, it's about creating a new product that makes sense for what is happening [with overtourism]." 

G Adventures tours takes guests to the fortified city of Kuelap, often called the Machu Picchu of northern Peru.
G Adventures tours takes guests to the fortified city of Kuelap, often called the Machu Picchu of northern Peru. Photo Credit: G Adventures

For example, Iceland Cool helped Into the Glacier create a day tour to the highlands region, which is visited by fewer than 1% of travelers to Iceland. 

Gustavsson also helps suppliers work with the government to create the infrastructure necessary to launch products in remote regions. Iceland Cool and Hotel Husafell received a grant to build up the hiking infrastructure and promote the Husafell Nature Reserve as a hiking destination.

Gustavsson helps persuade clients to launch new products with her 30 years of experience in marketing to consumers in the U.S., Iceland's top source market. 

"People are afraid to try something new and take a risk," she said. "I tell them, 'If you try this, I swear it will be worth it, and I will promote it for you.'" 
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Jeri Clausing contributed to this report.

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