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Who’s Managing Overtourism?

October 21, 2019

With travel at an all-time high, many regions find they need to devote as much time to managing overtourism as they have to promoting tourism.

Oxford English Dictionary named “overtourism” one of its words of the year last year. Not surprising when you consider that countries around the world are dealing with the phenomenon’s negative impacts on the environment, local infrastructure and residents’ way of life. 

CNN recently reported that in 2018 half a billion international trips were concentrated in just 300 cities. This is leading local officials to take action, from restricting construction of new hotels to implementing ticketing systems at popular attractions, levying taxes and even attempting to regulate bad behavior. 

No One Way to Manage Overtourism 

The solutions being implemented by destinations seem to fall into three categories: taxing tourists, dispersing tourists or controlling tourists. Many locations are using a combination of the three.

Day-tripper taxes, tourism taxes and accommodation taxes are now the norm in many locations, including New Zealand, Macau, Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona. The prevailing wisdom is that taxes alone won’t solve the problem, because they aren’t always a strong enough deterrent. But, they do provide funding for local projects and infrastructure improvements.  

In an interview with Skift, Iain Cossar, New Zealand’s ministry general for tourism, said their International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy is intended “to improve the experience for travelers, and for locals, by helping to fund critical infrastructure, help destination management efforts, improve biodiversity and protect and enhance the environment.”  

For Barcelona, a tax on overnight accommodations brought in $5 million in 2017, and the city publically identifies projects that were funded by the tax. The World Tourism and Travel Council Destination 2030 report notes that Barcelona spent more than $10 million on infrastructure upgrades and projects promoting local culture in 2018.

Dispersing tourists across a city, a country or the year is another practice that appears to be having some success. For example, aiming to reduce the strain on Reykjavik without discouraging tourism, Iceland is promoting areas away from the city. As a backdrop for Game of Thrones, the Croatian city of Dubrovnik has experienced a sharp increase in visitors, which led its tourism board to push the year-round appeal of the city. Similar efforts are underway in Greece, where the tourism board is pushing lesser known destinations and slower seasons.

Areas experiencing overtourism have gotten creative developing measures to control tourists. Santorini limits the number of cruise ship visitors each day. Machu Picchu uses timed ticketing and the Taj Mahal limits visits to three hours. Venice installed turnstiles to manage tourist movement in high volume areas as well as limiting the number of visitors to specific sites. Barcelona is looking at curbing souvenir shops in its most popular areas, creating tours in off-the-beaten path locations and moving bus routes and motor coach parking to improve the flow of tourists. 

At least two Italian cities are working to curb the bad behavior that can come hand-in-hand with too many tourists. In Florence, city leaders want tourists to eat and drink in cafes instead of on the steps of religious and cultural sites. The solution? Pouring water on the steps keeps them clean and deters people who don’t want a wet seat.  

It’s now illegal to organize pub crawls in Rome, and you don’t want to be caught swimming in Trevi fountain or taking your rolling suitcase up the Spanish Steps.

Next Steps in Managing Overtourism

Many recent articles have stressed that managing overtourism must be location specific, and it takes a combination of efforts that involve the residents, business owners and elected officials.

Earlier this year, The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) published Overtourism? Understanding and Managing Urban Tourism Growth Beyond Perceptions. The report includes case studies with specific actions taken in cities in the Americas, APAC and Europe. The UNWTO explained that it “examines how to manage tourism in urban destinations to the benefit of visitors and residents alike, offering a wide range of strategies and measures for a better understanding and management of challenges and opportunities.”

Through the case studies the UNWTO identified 11 strategies (and 69 measures) for local officials and tourism boards to consider for their area’s unique challenges: 

  • Promote the dispersal of visitors within the city and beyond
  • Promote time-based dispersal of visitors
  • Stimulate new visitor itineraries and attractions
  • Review and adapt regulation
  • Enhance visitors’ segmentation
  • Ensure local communities benefit from tourism
  • Create city experiences that benefit both residents and visitors
  • Improve city infrastructure and facilities
  • Communicate with and engage local stakeholders
  • Communicate with and engage visitors
  • Set monitoring and response measures

After reading this list proven strategies for managing overtourism, it’s clear that local, state and national governments need to take the lead.  As journalist Elizabeth Becker wrote in her book, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, “Only governments can handle runaway tourism.” She noted, “Few major industries fall so squarely into their hands. Governments decide who is eligible for visas; how many cruise ships, airlines and trains can bring in visitors; how many hotels receive building permits; how many beaches are open to development; how many museums and concert halls are open.”

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