by Natalie Good
Tourism’s steady growth over the past decade has had positive and negative impacts around the globe, with many countries seeking to enjoy the benefits and minimize the challenges. One of those challenges is “sustainable travel,” a term often used for eco-friendly travel that now has a broader meaning tied to travel’s impact on all facets of a community. It’s about ethical travel; and today the biggest concern is “overtourism.”
“It’s a level of tourism which is degrading the enjoyment that residents have, but it’s also degrading the tourist experience, because the tourist who is endlessly queuing behind backpacks of hundreds of other tourists is not discovering the real or the authentic place,” said Justin Francis, the chief executive of Responsible Travel in a New York Times by Farhad Manjoo.
In the decade since the end of the global financial crisis, “many governments turned to tourism to help reverse course on their flagging economies,” writes Dan Peltier for Skift.com. Increased destination marketing, a better financial situation for the growing middle class, low-cost travel options and even social media are forces that have led more and more people to pack their bags and go.
CBC/Radio-Canada hosted a radio panel in January about stopping overtourism from “ruining the world’s greatest cities and natural wonders.” While the panelists offered differing opinions, they all agreed that change is needed in how tourism is managed.”
What can destinations do?
Communities are experimenting with solutions. Writing for nationalgeographic.com, Jonathan Tourtellot, founder and CEO of Destination Stewardship Center, lists several efforts underway:
- Barcelona has “promised tighter controls on mass tourism, short-term apartment rentals, hotel development, and other challenges.”
- Amsterdam is looking at “tourist redistribution techniques.”
- Iceland has “launched a Tourist Site Protection Fund, and Reykjavík has banned permits for new hotel construction downtown.”
In its 2019 Travel Trends Report, Trekksoft shared initiatives undertaken over the past couple years by destinations working to improve sustainability:
- Botswana introduced a $30 tax for arriving tourists “to raise money to support safari conservation.
- Dubrovnik announced two-year plan to reduce the number of visitors.
- Maya Bay in Thailand closed for three months to “reverse damage caused to the surrounding coral reef.”
And the list goes on—from taxes on day-trippers, cruise passengers and hikers to bans on motor coaches and timed entry policies. While they may take a hit financially in the short-term destinations are looking at the long-term and the sustainability of what draws travelers to their area and what keeps their residents living there.
Bart van Poll, co-founder of Spotted by Locals, explains, “The rise in total tourist numbers is not the problem. People in almost all countries in the world would be very happy to see more tourists. The problem is that too many tourists are converging in the same cities and go to the same places in these cities.”
“Managing a tourist destination is something like managing a natural resource, like a mine or a fishery,” said New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo. “A sustainable level of tourists brings widespread gains to the local economy, but too many ruin it for everyone. Cities that are looking to tame the number of tourists must manage a delicate balance — to gently discourage some forms of travel without appearing unwelcoming to others.”
The UNWTO’s 2018 report on overtourism, based on perceptions of European city residents, proposes 11 strategies that include promoting dispersal of visitors within the city and beyond, stimulating new visitor itineraries and attractions, ensuring local communities benefit from tourism, creating city experiences to benefit both residents and tourists and improving city infrastructure and facilities.
Two of the report’s key conclusions are:
- Measures cannot focus only on altering tourist visitor numbers and tourist behavior – they should also focus on local stakeholders.
- Urban tourism makes an important contribution to the socio-economic development of cities and the well-being of their residents and should contribute to create better cities for all: citizens, investors and visitors.”
In a January travelweekly.com piece by Jeri Clausing, Tim Fairhurst, secretary general of the European Tourism Association, praises efforts in Scotland. “They are doing an extremely intelligent exercise of inviting all the stakeholders who are interested to put comments online,” he said. “Then they are running roundtables in various cities in Scotland. There were people there with very polarized opinions, but it was being discussed in a very constructive way.”
A member of the CBC/Radio-Canada panel, Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, cites work in Bordeaux, France as another example of what’s working. The “mayor reconfigured his city, thinking of tourism to benefit the people and to replace their old industry of shipping … but did it in such a way that the money stayed in Bordeaux.”
What can travel companies do?
Travel companies are doing their part as well, including adjusting tour dates and times at popular tourist sites to avoid the largest crowds. “We are selective with the days of the week we are bringing guests to overcrowded destinations,” said Jon Crutzner, president of Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold. “Controlling visit times lessens the impact of tourism in many regions, such as Venice, Rome and Barcelona.”
Skift’s Dan Peltier writes, “Some tour operators have been fighting overtourism for years. Intrepid Travel, for example, published a ‘not hot list’ for 2019 for Asia that promotes itineraries for alternative destinations such as ‘Sumatra is the new Borneo’ and ‘Bukhara is the new Angkor Wat.’”
What can travelers do?
Sustainable travel specialist Sunny Fitzgerald’s recommendations include traveling in the off-season, avoiding travel in large groups that “tend to overwhelm destinations” and spreading “the love and spend your money at local shops and restaurants wherever possible.”
Her top recommendation, and that of other travel experts as well, is to look for destinations that are alternatives to locations impacted by overtourism. For example, an alternative to Thailand’s Andaman Sea beaches that “have attracted so much tourism attention that the natural environment and local way of life have been deeply, and potentially irreversibly, impacted” is Mozambique’s “more than 1,500 miles of coastline along the Indian Ocean—much of which is insanely stunning and unspoiled.”
The idea of alternate destinations is consistent with a “parallel trend” to overtourism Dan Peltier describes as “undertourism.” He sees it playing out “in some emerging destinations that are framing themselves as peaceful yet exciting alternatives to the packed streets of other cities.”
Spotted by Locals’ van Poll says, “All the research points to the fact that, increasingly, a truly local experience is what travellers are looking for. And increasingly, in cities worst affected by tourism, they are facing cold indifference and even open hostility. By daring to be unconventional and supporting the ‘underdog’, travellers to destinations off the tourist map are far more likely to experience true hospitality and honest gratitude.”
Writing for the Washington Post in January, Christopher Elliott says, “Overtourism will require visitors to do two critical things in 2019. First, they’ll need to research their trips a little more carefully, in case a closure or a daily visitor quota affects an intended destination. But, perhaps more important, smart travelers will rethink plans to visit some popular destinations and choose some less-traveled ones.”
Overtourism may be the hottest topic in terms of sustainable or ethical travel these days, but it’s not the only topic.
Freelance journalist Elaine Glusac wrote a piece on sustainable travel for the New York Times last year. “Social impact travel aims to ensure money spent on a tour or a trip stays in the community. Organizations promoting social impact travel aim to emphasize not just big do-good trips, but to educate travelers about their smallest decisions, such as eating at a locally owned restaurant.”
Glusac mentions a few examples like The Meaningful Travel Map of Jordan that includes a Bedouin camp stay, a women’s weaving group and village tours that support local entrepreneurs. Impact Travel Tours by Collette tour company spend equal time sightseeing and visiting local improvement projects.
And this type of travel makes sense for another reason; it’s attractive to travelers. The Trekksoft 2019 Travel Trends Report found “tours that use proceeds to fund ecological projects such as forest or animal habitat restoration are chosen above alternatives without a cause.”
Ethical travel is even more important to Millennial and Gen Z travelers, as a 2018 Intrepid Travel study found. “Travelers under 30 consider the ethical impact of the trips more than any other age demographic,” writes Mia Taylor for travelpulse.com. She adds, “Millennials expect travel companies to offer socially-conscious travel options.”
Among other findings are insights into what younger travelers (18-29-years old) consider important when booking travel: travel company’s commitment to ethical travel (90%) and knowing travel dollars are supporting local communities (51%)
The survey of 2,000 North American travelers found:
- 58% of younger travelers (18-29 years old) versus 32% of those 51 and older “would spend more on travel if they knew their money was going into local communities”
- 43% of 18-29-year-olds versus 32% of travelers 41-50 years old and 17% of those 51 and older “believe it’s important that a company focuses on environmental and social causes they care about.”
Taylor quotes Darshika Jones, Intrepid Travel’s director of North America, “In an increasingly connected world, younger generations are more aware than ever of environmental and societal issues around the globe, and how their decisions impact those issues.”