TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
May 31, 2021
Our discussion with filmmaker Celine Cousteau and top editors of consumer travel media continues, with the conversation turning to overtourism and the shape of future travel.
Continuing her family’s legacy, third-generation filmmaker Celine Cousteau focuses on environmental and sociocultural issues. But she also has a travel connection, as ambassador for the Travel Corporation’s TreadRight Foundation, advising and speaking on sustainability-related topics.
Travel Weekly invited her to join America’s top consumer travel editors for a roundtable discussion, moderated by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann, on issues related to travel resumption. In Part 1 of the discussion, the group examined the intersection of travel and environmental and sustainability issues as well as the ethics of the travel industry’s interactions with indigenous people.
The discussion continues below, as the group looks at how best to manage overtourism and predicts patterns that are likely to emerge as travel resumes in earnest.
Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief, Travel Weekly: Prior to the pandemic, the topic of overtourism was center stage. Many parts of travel have been largely on pause for the past year or so, but with a predicted surge in travel resulting from pent-up demand, how do we avoid picking up right where we left off as regards overtourism?
Julia Cosgrove, editor in chief, Afar: It’s pretty simple: People can’t go to the same places at the same time. If you want to experience Venice, do you go off-season? Do you also go out to the outer islands? Do you also go out to the countryside, where they desperately need your tourism dollars? Yes, you should do all of that if you’re a conscientious traveler who’s also looking to have a better experience. And I think some people are going to be hesitant about being in large crowds for some time. Maybe it will all work out and recovering from the pandemic will inadvertently help spread out tourists.
I think some people are going to be hesitant about being in large crowds for some time.
Julia Cosgrove, Afar
Jesse Ashlock, U.S. editor, Conde Nast Traveler: Travel advisors can play an active role in dispersing travelers, suggesting, “Don’t go to Venice in peak season.” If you still want to go to Italy, maybe you have a wellness holiday in South Tyrol. And, on the topic of post-pandemic behaviors, I wonder if our changing relationship to work and the office might be a factor in alleviating some of these pressures. Every country follows a schedule; you hear, “This is the month when the English come. This is the month when the Germans come. This is the month when the Americans come.” Because of school schedules, family travel will always peak in the summer, but if we’re not working the same way and we have both flexible work and flexible travel, it could help address some of the pressures destinations face.
Amy Virshup, travel section editor, New York Times: But in both those cases it seems like you’re putting all the emphasis on the individual. In order to really get rid of overtourism, the destinations have to put in limits. Venice has said now that cruise ships can’t go into the Lagoon. Without destinations saying, “You can’t come,” there aren’t going to be enough Julias and Jesses to say, “I want to travel responsibly and spread out and go to the countryside.” There are still all those people who are going to say, “I want to go to Venice, and I want to see St. Marks. I have a checklist. I’m going, and then I’m going to Florence, and I’m doing my checklist in Florence.”
Jacqueline Gifford, editor in chief, Travel + Leisure: The focus on overtourism has been on cities, but the reality is overtourism happened this summer in national parks and shorelines. Overtourism didn’t really stop. It just happened in different places. And there’s a reason a lot of the national parks were busy. It’s inexpensive, and there was so much emphasis on nature and getting into the great outdoors. Well, guess what? People started rushing out there and it created its own set of challenges.
I think this is going to take a long time to figure out, but I think Amy’s absolutely right. We can put the responsibility on the individual, but the public sector and the private sector need to come together to better fund infrastructure so that these cities can be supported, so Venice doesn’t fall under the weight of tourism like it did before. Government has to come in and help us reimagine this new future.
What is really fascinating is how technology has sped up so much in terms of visitor arrivals, how you have to pre-book a time to go into a museum and see a major attraction. They’re able to control capacity in a very specific way that some places hadn’t been thinking about before. But there is the question, if you limit crowding, will it also be that only certain people can afford to travel and go places? I don’t want travel to become only for people who can afford the luxury end.
But let’s be honest: A place like Venice had been solely relying on tourism for so long, where would those jobs go if tourists don’t come back in the same way? I think we’re a long way away from talking about overtourism in Venice again. The way that the travel map has been redrawn and with border closures and openings, I think it’s going to take a long time for us to get to what 2019 was. I know everyone’s very optimistic that when tourism comes back, it’s going to come roaring back. I am, too. But I think it’s not going to feel like it did before for quite some time.
People are also really worried about the next pandemics and thinking, “If there’s another thing coming our way, we should get out there and travel now before it hits us.”
Celine Cousteau, CauseCentric Productions
Ashlock: I think it is very safe to say that the pressures on the national parks are going to be outrageous. Yosemite and Yellowstone are going to just buckle under the pressure this summer. And I think that that’s probably something that will happen in future summers. But this summer, especially.
Klara Glowczewska, executive travel editor, Town & Country: And I’ve heard that the world cruises are all already sold out. I think the appetite to get back out there is going to be so enormous. Overall, it’s going to be a huge demand. The overtourism question is very real -- it will snap back before we know it.
Virshup: I certainly have friends who are, like, “When is Italy going to open? Because I want to go to the Uffizi before anybody else can go back.” Or Rome. They want to be the first person in, to see it before all the crowds come back. I definitely think you will have that crowd.
Bob Guccione Jr., editor in chief, WonderlustTravel.com: I have a different view. I think there’s going to be a fantastic boom in the next 12 months as everybody has just been so pent-up, so locked in.
But a lot of people are out of the habit of wanting to travel and saying, “You know, that wasn’t so terrible to be at home with the family, hanging out in our local community.” A lot of people are going to travel very locally for a long time.
For the last several years, there’s been a tremendous lack of personalization in travel. People just keep checking marks on the bucket list. Bucket list, got to go here. The flight’s cheap, I’ll go here and go do that. But I think they’re out of that habit now, the whole bucket list idea went cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t find an under-tourism boom, a reverse boom, in ‘23.
This will be the age of the travel agent as a kind of therapist and travel doctor.
Klara Glowczewska, Town & Country
Ashlock: For the next 12 months, I think people are going to be focused on taking trips to all the places where their family, who they haven’t seen in forever, lives. And then they’re going to get frustrated taking all those trips and be, like, “What about that trip to India that I’ve been wanting to take for the last five years?” And then it’s going to come back.
Glowczewska: I am totally in bucket list mode. Totally. I am planning a big blowout to Africa. I want to go to Antarctica. I’m just taking off my travel editor hat and just being consumer Klara. I just feel like time is precious. Look how it all ended. I just want to go for it. In spite of all my travels in the past, I’ve been wasting my time and I haven’t done enough. So, I’m like one of these consumers right now.
Cosgrove: I do think there are all of these deferred trips and deferred vacations. My mom is 70, 71, and she’s like, “These are my golden years. Time’s a ticking. I’ve got to do the things that I want to do.” And they’re not bucket list, per se, but the trip to Sicily with her friends that she was supposed to do last year. She’s got the time, and time is of the essence coming out of this period.
Celine Cousteau: People are also really worried about the next pandemics and thinking, “If there’s another thing coming our way, we should get out there and travel now before it hits us.” Or, “The door’s opened. Quick, before they close it or there are going to be different restrictions.” I’m an avid traveler, and I’m not worried about my health, but the logistics and the complications of all the regulations changing brings the stress level of traveling up and may put some people off for a while. They may want to stay closer to home for a bit.
In order to really get rid of overtourism, the destinations have to put in limits.
Amy Virshup, New York Times
Weissmann: I think it’s likely we’ll see travel patterns changing frequently over the next few years, depending on where spikes or variants might pop up. That’ll drive destination choice. But consumers seem to feel it’ll come under control next year or in 2023, as evidenced by, on one hand, extremely long booking windows, and on the other, very short booking windows because people see, “Italy just opened. We better get there tomorrow because it could be closed again in a month.”
Glowczewska: This will be the age of the travel agent as a kind of therapist and travel doctor, because of all these difficulties you just mentioned: changing borders, should you go now, should you wait six months. Are there spikes here, are spikes there? I really don’t know how you travel in any complicated way without a really good travel agent who’s going to hold your hand through the process. It’s exhausting to think about all the things that could go wrong.
The pressures on the national parks are going to be outrageous. This summer, especially.
Jesse Ashlock, Conde Nast Traveler
Cousteau: I’m an ambassador of the Travel Corporation’s TreadRight Foundation, and I remember seeing that a well-being director will be on trips for some of their tour brands. They’ll make sure that the group feels comfortable in terms of the sanitary measures. As you’re traveling through new places, people are going to want to know that everything’s taken care of in terms of sanitary measures.
For myself, during the pandemic, I’ve taken a step back and sort of gained perspective on what travel really means to me and how much of my travel is necessary and what do I get out of it. I do think there is a great group of travelers who are going to travel more thoughtfully, and how they translate that is going to be individual. It’s either travel more respectfully, or less often, or by giving back. And, as has been brought up, it isn’t just up to the individual to make the decision of what it means to travel more thoughtfully; it is up to travel agents, travel companies, tour operators and the local tourism industry to say, “Yes, we want you, but only 50 at a time. We want to give you a unique experience, so we’re limiting visitation.”
On the corporate side, looking at what the Travel Corporation does, for example -- okay, we’ve taken perhaps a hit and a step back from being outward focused and sending people places. But we have these sustainability goals, and how amazing is it that this past year we can focus on those sustainability goals, within the offices, on how to cut down on our energy impacts, how to eliminate single use plastics and, when we return to travel, how to implement all of that instead of trying to do it as the bus is rolling. That’s what we have an opportunity to do now: to encourage people to travel more thoughtfully, more sustainably or by giving back to local charities. I just see opportunity, opportunity to do good.
There are so many things that, overall, I think our industry has done that impress me tremendously.
Jacqueline Gifford, Travel + Leisure
Guccione: It does very much depend on governments. And I think tourism boards could do a better job of promoting local businesses, tinier hotels and boutiques.
Ashlock: Hotels can do it, too. I was speaking last week with Harsha L’Acqua of Saira Hospitality, a nonprofit that does pop-up hospitality schools in collaboration with hotels. And she has this concept of a social credit card that a guest can earn points by gardening or volunteering in the community or teach a workshop and then cash in those points for room upgrades and massages and all those nice amenities. It’s an interesting idea. You have to create opportunities and make it easy for people to do what they want to do so that they don’t have to do the work of figuring out how to be responsible, how to be good travelers. Just put it in front of them and they will follow.
Glowczewska: I’ve also become very interested in how the industry has spent time figuring out how does it come back better, how some hotel companies are using the time to figure out how to raise the bar on what tourism should look like. I’m doing a story on this this new marketing arm of Preferred Hotels called Beyond Green, which is this collection of properties that have been strenuously vetted on, like, 80 metrics of how they run their businesses and how sustainable they are, both in terms of the environment and culture.
For me, the big hurdle for consumers is to sort out who to give their money to, where it does good. How do you know? How do you know if this safari lodge in Africa is supporting the community in a real way, if it’s doing the right thing environmentally? You’re often not really in a position to do that kind of investigative work. But Beyond Green has done it for you. And so far, the members form a very impressive list. I’ve stayed with some of them, and they really walk the walk.
Encouraging things are already happening to help consumers who put a focus on sustainability vet companies before they book.
Arnie Weissmann, Travel Weekly
Cosgrove: During this time, we’ve been doing some work with the Global Sustainability Tourism Council, a group that was founded initially through the U.N. And they have a list of, I think, 83 questions that they ask of travel companies. And again, it’s defining sustainability through an economic, environmental and social cultural lens. And I think you’re exactly right, Klara. Someone, TBD, needs to make it easy for consumers to understand how they can individually contribute or make an impact. That’s a big challenge. But I’m excited by how many people and how many travel companies are now talking about how to do that. I think it means that people are thinking more with their heads and their hearts than their wallets. And I really do think you can turn these kind of good, innovative ideas into good business, because there are enough people who care.
Glowczewska: It will never work unless it is a good business. It has to make a profit. Philanthropy is not going to sustain anything.
I think there's going to be a fantastic boom in the next 12 months as everybody has just been so pent-up, so locked in.
Bob Guccione Jr., WonderlustTravel.com
Weissmann: So, it does sound like some encouraging things are already happening to help consumers who put a focus on sustainability vet companies before they book. Did anyone see anything during the pandemic that impressed them -- or not impressed them – from the perspective of duty of care for guests?
Gifford: There are so many things that, overall, I think our industry has done that impress me tremendously. That some of the airlines blocked middle seats -- said, this is what we’re going to do, when they were hemorrhaging money -- I think that was a great. And when I look at the Four Seasons in New York and Claridge’s [in London] housing healthcare workers at the beginning of the pandemic when they were completely shut down, that was amazing. Similarly, you had Hilton and American Express teaming up to donate room nights to healthcare workers in the beginning.
We’re learning now that a lot of the sanitation service is of less concern than it was before. Hotels were doing so much, buying individual sanitary kits for each room so you could disinfect your phone, making sure that rooms were properly fumigated or leaving rooms empty between guests for a couple nights to make sure the air circulates. All these things cost a tremendous amount of money at a time when hotels didn’t have any. Nobody got it perfect, but big picture? I’m really proud of our industry.