Overtourism doesn’t have to be a curse

Visitors on the Great Wall, China. Source: Bankoo/Shutterstock

TOURISM can be a huge force for good, especially in developing countries where the income from the industry can provide a major boost to the economy and dramatically improve local people’s living standards.

Today, tourism generates 10 percent of the world’s GDP, one in every 10 jobs and 30 percent of world trade in services. It is key to many countries’ development and social progress. But a recent spate of anti-tourism protests across Europe has highlighted the curse of overtourism and the detrimental effects a booming industry can have on local communities and wildlife.

The throngs of visitors that bring overcrowding and anti-social behavior to otherwise idyllic spots, drove residents of Venice, Italy and Barcelona, Spain to take to the streets in August in a wave of “tourism-phobia.”

The problem is not restricted to Europe. Just last week, local tourism officials in Indonesia warned of the damaging effects overcrowding was having on the wildlife of Komodo Island. And the losing battle to curb the litter and waste left behind by visitors is a problem the world over.

While the Summer’s protests and the mounting environmental concern should be a wake-up call for the industry, the response cannot be to simply stop growth, close places off and stem the ebb and flow of global travel trends. There are more workable ways to approach the situation if we learn to appreciate that overtourism doesn’t have to be the curse many think it is; growth is not the enemy, it’s how we manage it that counts.

Landscape view from the top of Padar island in Komodo islands, Flores, Indonesia. Source: Donnchans/Shutterstock

Speaking at the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Ministers’ Summit, Secretary-General of the UNWTO Taleb Rifai explained how growing numbers can be handled to ensure universal benefits.

“Growth is not the enemy; numbers are not the enemy; the key is to manage the growth sustainably, responsibly and intelligently and use the power of growth to our advantage,” he said.

“We cannot continue to build five-star hotels in three-star communities. Jobs and charity are not enough – we need to diversify visitors’ activities, reduce seasonality and raise awareness of less busy destinations” he added.

And good management is going to be crucial going forward, as 2017 is on track to be a record breaking year for international tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Barometer.

Between January and August 2017, destinations worldwide welcomed 901 million international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors), 56 million more than in the same period of 2016. That’s a significant 7 percent increase, well above the growth of previous years. With encouraging projections for the remaining months of the year, 2017 is set to be the eighth consecutive year of continued solid growth for international tourism.

Making sure this increased tourism is enriching for both visitors and hosts alike demands strong, sustainable policies and practices that engage with people on a local level, as well as government and private sector involvement – and, perhaps most importantly, effectively engages with the tourists themselves.

Rifai suggests a number of regulations that, rather than curb growth, manage it in a sustainable manner.

These include diversifying visitor activities, both in type and location; effective and integrated mechanisms and policies to manage visitors at sites; policies to reduce seasonality; incentives for the private sector to invest in new areas and new products; and incentives and policies to reduce energy and water consumption and address other community needs, shortcomings and deficits.

The recent rise in so-called “tourism-phobia” is largely a result of the failure on the part of authorities to manage the growth in numbers. The damage that this has caused is far from representative of the mentality of a large majority of modern travellers.

People want sustainable holidays, and they don’t want to be bombarded with thousands of snap-happy revellers in some of the world’s most beautiful areas any more than the locals do, and they certainly don’t want their enjoyment to be another man’s pain. The time of sustainable travel is upon us, and there’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t be able to capitalize on the sector and the significant benefits it can bring to any area.

It will take efforts from enterprise, government, civil society and travelers themselves to shape a more responsible global tourism sector that everyone can enjoy.