Venice is planning to divert massive cruise liners. Barcelona has cracked down on apartment rentals.
Both are at the forefront of efforts to get a grip on “overtourism”, a phenomenon that is disrupting communities, imperiling cherished buildings and harming the experience of travellers and local residents alike. Tourism-phobia has become increasingly prevalent, particularly in European destinations where visitors crowd the same places at the same time. The backlash has even given rise to slogans such as “Tourists go home” and “Tourists are terrorists”.
“This is a wake-up call,” Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation, told tourism ministers and industry executives earlier this month at the World Travel Market in London.
The resentment could rise as tourism increases. The UNWTO forecasts 1.8 billion trips by 2030, up from 1.2 billion in 2016. Add in the five billion domestic trips now, and that’s a lot of tourists. Cheap airfare is helping to fuel the growth, along with massive growth in international travel from countries such as China.
Yet many destinations rely on tourism as a primary source of jobs and prosperity. Tourism accounts for about 10 per cent of the world’s annual GDP, bringing hard currency into many countries that desperately need it, such as Greece.
But tourism can also harm the quality of life for residents, with packed beaches, locals priced out of housing and congested streets in the narrow byways of European cities dating back to medieval times. Longer-term problems include environmental damage and the sustainability of cities as viable places to live and work.
For all these reasons, managing tourism is a prominent topic of debate in the industry and a central theme at the World Travel Market.
Rifai, who leaves the UNWTO at the end of the year, dismissed the idea that growth is “the enemy”. Pulling up the drawbridge, he argues, would be irresponsible when tourism accounts for one in 10 jobs worldwide. What is required, he stresses, is the need to manage tourism in a “sustainable and responsible” way that benefits local communities.
Efforts to manage overtourism are becoming more innovative and increasingly tapping new technologies. For example, apps can help tourists visit popular destinations at less busy times. And while critics say Airbnb has priced out locals, its supporters say home rentals can ease pressure on cities by spreading visitors far and wide.
Patrick Robinson, Airbnb’s director of public policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa, notes that last year 69 per cent of the platform’s users in Amsterdam stayed away from the city centre.
In some cases, tourist quotas make sense. In the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador has imposed a 100,000 annual limit on visitors. The Croatian city of Dubrovnik, where visitor numbers surged after the Adriatic Sea resort was used as a setting for the series Game of Thrones, has mulled limiting those entering the city’s medieval walls to 4000 daily.
Other strategies include promoting off-season visits, opening up new destinations or tweaking marketing. Prague is pushing local walks off the beaten track, while London promotes neighbourhoods such as Greenwich and Richmond. “There is no one solution for all, every destination is different,” says Gloria Guevara, the new president and chief executive of the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council.