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Overtourism has become a buzzword of sorts in the travel and tourism industry, but understanding its complexities is the first step in addressing it. We recently shared insights about what exactly overtourism is and why it is a growing phenomenon in our professional sector. To further the discussion about how to tackle this challenge, we want to share our thoughts about why everyone working in the adventure travel industry must be proactive in preventing its further growth.
The first and most important thing to understand about overtourism is that it concerns all of us. This is not a threat relevant to a few destinations or attractions around the world. It is a rising phenomena that can strangle any place or any community. As the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s CEO, Shannon Stowell, said during his address at the 2018 Adventure Travel World Summit, “Overtourism — if it hasn’t hit you yet — there’s a good chance it’s coming to a trail or park or river or beach or mountain near you soon.”
Many destinations early in their growth lifecycles treat excessive growth as something that concerns only more popular places. This is not so.
First, as noted in our previous article, overtourism occurs under different conditions of disparity and it does not take much to trigger them. Though a destination may seek to grow its tourism gradually, it can be suddenly overwhelmed by a heavy concentration of visitors or acts of unacceptable behavior. A Facebook post or Instagram photo can turn a quiet neighborhood (see #RueCrémieux) or secluded natural area (see #superbloom) into an overpopulated place within just days. This can happen while the rest of the destination remains underdeveloped and actually needs more growth.
Second, emerging destinations have less experience with managing tourism. If they are faced with a sudden spike in arrivals, they may suffer much more than a more mature destination that has been experiencing steady growth for a long time and has gradually built capacity in response. This is why overtourism is a challenge that should be well understood by both emerging and mature destinations.
Businesses and Entrepreneurs
Overtourism ruins valuable natural and cultural attractions, and transforms attractive destinations into undesired places to visit. The rise of anti-tourist movements in some destinations is another reason for concern. All of this can result in less business in the local tourism sector and beyond. If the excessive number of visitors makes a certain town unattractive, they will stop seeking out services in that destination. This loss of business means less revenue. Damage from overtourism can force tour operators to exclude certain sites or areas from experiences they’ve offered in the past and will require investments in new product development to fill the gaps. In fact, we know some ATTA members have started adjusting itineraries because their customers were unhappy with overcrowded areas.
Businesses and entrepreneurs should also care about overtourism because they hold the key to some of the solutions. They can alleviate the pressure by developing itineraries with a mix of popular and lesser-known attractions rather than selling programs that hit only popular, “bucket list” spots. Smart scheduling, tactical pricing, and thoughtful information and interpretation services can also contribute to improvements.
Tourism authorities, associations, and international organizations should all be proactive in battling overtourism because it can negatively tarnish the industry’s image. The backlash toward the tourism industry as a whole is already evidenced by residents suffering in cities overrun by tourists, increasing anti-tourism sentiments, and the destruction of natural and cultural assets due to inappropriate behavior.This could result in resistance and pushback toward tourism development in the future. Residents in destinations already relying on tourism may begin to reject it and launch public initiatives against it. Residents in areas not currently benefiting from tourism but with potential to do so, may turn their backs to the option in fear that it will result in more problems than solutions.
A bad image of the industry is damaging for everyone working in it and will restrict tourism’s potential to generate extraordinary benefits to businesses, destinations, residents, and travelers. Therefore, it is important that all organizations and associations pursue proactive measures in fighting back against excessive tourism to ensure the industry keeps its image as a force for good for both people and places.
What Should the Adventure Travel Industry Do?
As a complex problem, overtourism can not be “solved” by a single destination or a single group of people working within the adventure travel industry. There are several things we should all do in the face of this one-of-a-kind challenge requiring extensive collaboration and innovation.
The first step is to admit the problem exists and that it is a threat for the entire ecosystem. Part of recognizing its existence is understanding it can pop up anywhere overnight. It is important for both emerging and more mature destinations to understand that, with proper planning and collaborative actions, they can minimize the risks and ensure they continue developing a healthy travel economy in the future.
The next step is activating the local stakeholder network (including the public sector, private sector, non-governmental organizations, and community members) to explore preventative tactics and solutions. The challenge’s complexity and scale requires everyone’s involvement. A collaborative process can help establish a common vision about what tourism should be like and should do for the destination and its residents. The process should also help identify potential threats that might block the ability to achieve this vision. Based on a clear analysis, destination stakeholders can identify smart and creative ways to block risks and take steps toward healthy tourism that leaves a net-positive impact on places, people, businesses, and travelers. Destination managers should consider carrying capacity and explore limits of acceptable change before allowing certain developments. Tourism-related businesses can support them by becoming more mindful when designing itineraries and marketing local attractions.
This process can be complex and dynamic but it is essential for every destination. Overtourism is a complex and multifaceted challenge but it is not impossible to overcome. At the core of the battle against it is the need to keep places and communities healthy. After all, as the 2011 Sustainable Destination Report of TOTEMTOURISM notes: “Happier places to live in are also happier places to visit.”
At the ATTA, we have always believed in collaboration and bold forward thinking. We are convinced all destinations need to initiate a dialogue about what excessive tourism might mean for them today and tomorrow, and what smart approaches are available to keep it at bay. We are ready to be a partner in such dialogues and help generate solutions so we can all enjoy a healthier, less crowded future for our entire global ecosystem.