In Amsterdam, the mayor wants to ban cannabis sales to tourists. In Hawaii, local sentiment toward visitors is at historic lows. And in cruise ports from the Caribbean to Alaska, residents are pushing to ban large ships.
While much of the travel industry has spent the last year focused on how to recover from the pandemic as quickly as possible, some of the world’s most tourism-dependent economies are reveling in the emptiness and pushing back on attempts to return to the status quo.
In response, many destinations are using the respite to advance tourism management rather than tourism marketing plans, with an emphasis on more local input and control.
The challenges are steep. And the efforts, in many cases, precede Covid-19.
But the global travel shutdown over the past year provided a silver lining of sorts for the overtourism problems that were hitting crisis levels in popular hot spots just before the pandemic was declared in March.
“The opportunity right now is that it’s like we’ve had an escape valve,” said Jonathon Day, an associate professor in Purdue’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “We were above or right at capacity in some of our destinations. … Now, we’ve got a moment to say, is the system working?”
If the movements are successful, experts say, they will reshape the tourism experience by focusing on attracting higher-quality tourism that is more interested in and sensitive to local culture and sustainability while bolstering local businesses and enhancing the visitor experience.
But if not done with careful balance, such management plans and anti-tourism movements like those playing out against big ships also threaten to further increase the divide between the world’s haves and have-nots by erecting new barriers of access to the nonwealthy masses. “Low density” often translates into experiences only the elite can afford.
“The easiest way to [manage tourism] is to jack up your prices and exclude a lot of people — make tourism for the rich only,” said Martha Honey, a responsible-travel consultant and co-editor of a book that will come out in May titled “Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future.”
“We don’t want that. We’re going to have to work really hard to try to keep travel affordable while trying to keep the numbers down.”
Sentiment turns in Hawaii
In 2019, Hawaii was bursting at the seams as visitor numbers skyrocketed to a record 10.4 million, up by 1 million from 2017.
Six months into the pandemic, arrivals were hovering “right above zero,” according to John De Fries, CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA).
Yet even with the state’s main economic engine at a standstill, a survey of residents conducted by Omnitrak for the HTA last fall found that resident sentiment toward Hawaii tourism had fallen to its lowest level since 1988.
Of 1,708 residents polled, two-thirds agreed with the statement that the Islands are being “run for tourists at the expense of local people” even though a little more than half, 54%, agreed that “tourism has brought more benefits than problems.”
In the past, the number of Hawaii residents who support tourism increased after crises. Resident sentiment toward tourism, for example, soared to a 32-year high of 80% in 2010, right after the Great Recession. It also improved after 9/11.
De Fries said the current survey wasn’t necessarily surprising. In addition to concerns about visitors bringing Covid, residents suddenly had the “public areas, the beaches, the mountain trails” all to themselves when the Islands closed to visitors.
“I think that produced an immediate sense of joy,” he said.
The survey also came as many tourism-related businesses were seeing residual benefits from federal relief packages.
“Tourism touches everybody’s family, everyone’s life, regardless of whether you work directly in the industry or whether your child goes to a public school,” he said. “This environment of zero tourists, as joyful as it may be on an uncrowded beach, is not sustainable. We have a lot of local families that are in pain.”
To try to achieve a new balance between the extremes, the HTA has used the shutdown to advance development of Destination Management Action Plans for each island. It’s an effort that was conceived before the pandemic to bring residents and local businesses into the tourism management process.
Driven by input from local steering committees and leadership from De Fries, a Hawaii native, plans that have so far been released for Kauai, Maui, Lanai and Molokai are similar. Goals and recommendations include decreasing traffic by limiting the number of visitors to, and creating reservation systems for, popular sites as well as increasing fees, beefing up enforcement of illegal visitation and educating tourists about local culture and natural resources to ensure they are not just protected but regenerated.
What does that mean for visitors?
“It is going to cost more,” De Fries said. “But it will be a better value because the experience that the visitors seek is going to be authentic. It’s going to be rooted to community, and it is going to be rooted to natural culture.”
Efforts in Europe
Similar efforts have been launched across Europe, where Signe Jungersted, CEO and founding partner of a Copenhagen-based destination management consultancy called Group NAO, said governments and destination marketing organizations increasingly are moving away from the traditional promotion of mass market tourism that measures success by visitor numbers.
Instead, she said, tourism officials are focused on “taking back the narrative” to develop policies and tourism plans that focus on quality tourism that is more in line with communities.
“It’s a big discussion right now,” she said. “Especially in those destinations that had issues and a lot of tension around overtourism.”
Before the pandemic, some destinations — notably Venice and Amsterdam — had already imposed new taxes on daytrippers and cruise visitors. And the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions in 2019 went so far as to stop promoting inbound travel and focus instead on drawing visitors away from Amsterdam to lesser-known parts of the country.
Recently, the mayor of Amsterdam also proposed banning the sale of marijuana to nonlocals at its famed coffee shops, an effort aimed in part at stemming the weekend influx of young partiers from the U.K. and other parts of Europe.
Tourism management debates in hot spots also continue to focus on the rise of short-term rentals like Airbnb, which opponents say have resulted in higher housing costs that are driving locals from city centers.
In Barcelona, Signe said, the mayor has proposed making rentals of less than 30 days illegal, while Lisbon has moved to provide incentives for landlords to seek longer-term rentals.
Seeking higher-quality tourism
The underlying theme of the moves toward tourism management around the globe comes back to what the experts call higher-quality tourism.
The debate, Purdue’s Day said, is being refocused to, “Are we marketing to people who are high yield and benefit the community, or are we trying to increase the numbers?”
“It doesn’t have to mean stop the marketing,” he said. “We are really talking about people who are high yield, who are going to be more likely to spend more money in the destination. It comes back to, do you want 1,000 people spending $1 or one person spending $1,000?”
Not all efforts result in stakeholder collaboration and harmony. The pandemic has given rise to community-driven clashes with lawmakers and the cruise industry to ban or limit big ships in places like the Cayman Islands, Key West and Alaska.
Such moves, like a vote in Key West to ban large cruise ships, are “concrete actions” that have come about in response to — and despite — the pandemic, Honey said.
“This comes at a time when people have lost their jobs, and they still say they don’t want to go back to the old model. The old model isn’t working … and the environmental impacts are too great.”
New travel trends being fueled by the pandemic may help address some of the issues and reshape the tourism landscape, Honey said, such as the move to slower travel where visitors spend more time, and money, in a destination.
“That’s what Key West is pushing for,” she said. “They want small cruise ships that perhaps stay longer,” rather than just flooding the city with day visitors who don’t spend as much at restaurants and other businesses.
Passage on smaller ships, however, generally cost more, raising again the question of access for lower-budget travelers.
Indeed, experts say, an issue emerging in the overtourism debate is whether management plans threaten to make tourism elitist and whether tourism is a right or a privilege.
But access and controlling visitor numbers can be beneficial to everyone, Day said.
One example, he said, is “we never thought we could reduce the number of people going to Yosemite National Park. Because how can you turn people away? Yet, we did that during the pandemic, and the world didn’t end. And the experience for the people who were there was probably better.”
Part of the conversation, Day said, needs to focus on “how do we improve the quality of the experience for the travelers.”
Otherwise, he said, “at some point, we are going to reach a point where people are going to push back and say this not worth the visit.
“If we are exploiting the visitor today, pushing them to the point where they don’t want to travel, that’s not sustainable either.”
Which is why, he said, community involvement is key.
“If I came into your community and said I want to build a factory, it would probably be in consultation with the community on the size of the factory,” Day said. “That often doesn’t happen with tourism because it’s just sort of a growth industry.
“The travel industry is just coming to terms with this idea of community engagement,” he said. “Other industries have always had to deal with it.”