by Hans Lagerweij, President of Albatros Travel
Overtourism was a tourism buzzword before the COVID-19 crisis. It simply refers to the problem that there are too many visitors in a particular area. In 2020 this problem abruptly stopped because of all the COVID-19 travel restrictions. The question is what the “post-COVID-19” future looks like; will everything go back to normal, stimulated by people eager to join big social gatherings, or will they avoid big crowds and aim for the “undertourism” areas?
The World Tourism Organization defines overtourism as “the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitor experiences in a negative way”. Overtourism is a logical effect of the rapid growth in tourism, from 25 million arrivals in 1950 to 1.3 billion in 2017. Expectations at that time, before the coronavirus crisis, was that this number would grow to 1.8 billion by 2030. The other underlying cause for overtourism is the power of social media platforms like Instagram, which can make a certain attraction extremely popular in a short period of time.
In combination with a trend towards urbanization, this would give serious challenges in terms of crowd management; “Overtourism signs include pressures placed on local resources and facilities due to growth in numbers, changes in culture and loss of authenticity, deterioration of quality of life for the host community and feelings of irritation and annoyance due to the presence of tourists”. The Travel website Responsible Travel even created an overtourism map, defining 98 destinations in 63 countries affected by overtourism.
CAN OVERTOURISM BE MANAGED?
Responsible Travel shows that by informing tourists at the moment of booking, a first step is made to manage the issue. Better informed tourists can choose to visit the tourism hotspots off-season or go for an alternative less crowded destination. Additionally, some destinations have become effective in managing the issue. In Machu Picchu, Peru, entrance tickets are now time-limited, with dedicated time slots and no reentry allowed. Amsterdam tries to introduce a 30-day short-term rental limit on Airbnb, while banning red-light district tours. Venice has introduced a new fee for day visitors, while major attractions have introduced limits on sightseers. Dubrovnik, Croatia is limiting the number of cruise ship passengers to 4,000 at the same time, while promoting the city as a destination for all seasons. Iceland is aiming to diversify its tourism offering, beyond the crowded capital of Reykjavik. Bruges, Belgium tries to limit the number of visiting cruise lines in nearby Zeebrugge from five to two, while discouraging day visits. The entrance fee for the Taj Mahal in India has been sharply increased while visit time has been reduced to three hours. Santorini, Greece has posed limits on visiting cruise liners, while the Greek Tourist board is looking to diversify, promoting less popular destinations, and pushing Greece as a year-round destination. Edinburgh, Queenstown New Zealand, and Barcelona, Spain have introduced a new tourist tax, and Rome, Italy has introduced new laws with high fines to improve behavior and boost respect for its ancient monuments. Also, in the development of new source markets for tourism, actions can be taken according to Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt, CEO of COTRI China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. He states “To mitigate the overtourism problem, new tourism products based on special interest need to be created, spreading visitors spatially and temporarily to underused parts of the destination and off-season times. New, still malleable source markets like China are better used for that than traditional sun-seeking source markets in Europe”.
COVID-19 AND OVERTOURISM
In 2020 the problem of overtourism came to an abrupt stop due to travel restrictions. The key question is what will happen when we get out of this crisis – will “normal” tourism life come back, including the problem of overtourism? Or will tourists tend to go for “undertourism” destinations? Indeed, also the term “undertourism” has been introduced. Undertourism is the increasingly common marketing tactic being used by less-frequented destinations. “Come here, they say, because we are not as crowded as the neighbors”. Some studies indicate a trend towards undertourism destinations; “To avoid crowds, travelers will increasingly seek out “off-the-beaten-path” nature and outdoor destinations. In fact, nearly 40% of US travelers stated that COVID-19 has made them rethink the types of destinations they will select, with beach destinations (38.2%) and small towns/rural areas (30%) topping the list. These intentions are already translating into more future bookings for remote destinations such as Alaska. Coupled with the shift to lesser-known destinations, will be a renewed interest in authentic and immersive experiences, driving demand for niche markets, such as community-based travel and cycling holidays.” There will likely be a thinning of mass tourism and “an emergence of new destinations in isolated locations as consumers veer away from massification” according to Aileen Clemente, CEO of Rajah Travel Corporation.
I also wrote about this potential trend that would see the growth of small expedition cruises over the big cruise ships; “For the long term, expedition cruising could recover more quickly than “big ship” cruising. This is because of its smaller scale and remoteness from locations that were seriously affected by overtourism and therefore perceived as higher risk”.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?
So, what do the experts say? Will we go “back to normal”, with people eager to go back to big social gatherings, or will there be a trend towards smaller scale and smaller remote destinations? Harold Goodwin, managing director of The Responsible Tourism Partnership is afraid that we will go back to the old situation; “Doubtless, some will have rethought their travel priorities, but the honey pots will still be attracting numbers which result in overtourism – the problem will not have gone away”. However, he thinks there will be more pressure on destination managers to act on the problem; “The responsibility to make destinations sustainable is still with the destination managers – they may come under greater pressure to deliver from residents who have been reminded of what it is like in their place without the hordes”.
Soren Rasmussen, author, biologist, and founder of Albatros Travel, does not expect any radical changes “A great number of countries are already developed for mass tourism, and that will continue. The bulk of tourists love it in all ages and the countries like Croatia, Spain, Italy, Greece, Bali, Thailand also are fully dependent on this kind of tourism and will encourage it”. But at the same time, he is seeing trends away from mass tourism areas. “There is a general trend in the direction of the last wild areas (Greenland, Siberia, desserts, rainforest) and being first in remote areas in remote countries. Another trend is more active travel; hiking, soft mountaineering, and more nature-focused, in smaller groups”.
Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network thinks likewise that overtourism will return “at some level”, although clearly stresses that the COVID-19 pandemic gives the travel industry a chance to plan and think through the opportunities and challenges more thoughtfully; “I don’t think it changes a lot as much of this is driven by economics. Contemporary priced products typically work on volume, while more luxurious are focused on exclusivity. Folks with money would continue to want smaller groups or private tours, while contemporary consumers will likely still have to get on a big coach. I do think smaller boutique hotels and specifically, river cruise products will have a direct benefit vs. their similarly priced bigger venue competitors. I think expedition and adventure cruising benefit, but these types of product are not available to the masses because of price point”.
Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso agrees with a trend for small and authentic experiences and the responsibility to manage overtourism better; “The return of some previous “overtourism” destinations and practices will be predicated on how the citizens and government reflect on options for a return. In some cases, where there was little strategy for tourism, this pause may cause some significant changes, in some cases, it will be about just getting revenue back as fast as possible”.
James Thornton from Adventure Tour Operator Intrepid Travel is bolder in his view on potential changes “When we are able to start traveling safely again, I don’t think we will see a return to “ticking off” cities, countries or sights. I believe travelers will be seeking a different type of experience – a more slow, considered, and connected form of travel in destinations that have outstanding natural attractions”. Finally, Tim Williamson from the inventors of the overtourism map, Responsible Travel, stresses the responsibility destinations and the travel industry, in general, have to change for the better; ”There will be overtourism in the future as smaller places with finite capacity attract a growing traveling population with increased wealth to travel. The key will be what these places do to prepare for the return of tourists. The smart ones will look at the value tourists bring in totality and do not just measure success in terms of volume of visitors. It is important to consider – how long they stay? How much of their spending goes into the local economy? What is the full impact of the visits on the local community and the environment?”.
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