Tourism problem grows for residents of overrun destinations. So what’s the answer to overcrowding?
Overcrowding and unruly behaviour are facts of life for residents of popular holiday destinations – and they aren’t happy. Experts say the industry needs to look at making itself more sustainable, or risk damage to culture and heritage
How do you solve a problem like tourism? It employs hundreds of millions of people, buoys entire industries – but can tear apart the very cities that benefit from it, alienating residents and causing irreversible damage to their culture and heritage.
Protests across Europe have spurred talk of “responsible tourism” and are forcing the sector to factor in sustainability. But the problem is already at such a scale that doing anything about it seems akin to turning around a cruise liner. What’s the way out of this mess?
The most obvious solution to the problem of too many tourists is to spread them over a larger area, says Alex Dichter, a senior partner of McKinsey & Company travel consultancy, which in December produced a report on managing overcrowded tourist destinations.
Overcrowding is such a localised issue that even in a city apparently at breaking point, such as Barcelona, Dichter is “sure there are neighbourhoods that are overwhelmed and there are others that are in need of quite a bit more”.
Many cities compound the problem by promoting only a small number of sites – often the obvious ones. Tourists can be dispersed by boosting less popular attractions and developing new ones.
Encouraging visitors outside peak times of day, season and year similarly lessens their impact. If marketing alone doesn’t work, arrival limits and pricing adjustments might do the job, says Dichter.
Repeat visitors know the city better and venture beyond the must-see attractions. Laura Aalto, chief executive of Helsinki Marketing, says establishing a sense of “local-hood” is key to a positive and often long-term relationship between a city and its visitors.
“Nobody wants to be a tourist; everybody wants to be part-time locals,” she says. “Our job is to create the kind of circumstances, conditions and platforms for visitors who come to Helsinki to meet with the locals and not go to the most obvious attractions.”
One option is to angle for “good”tourists … which is to say: no hen nights and stag dos. In Barcelona it is known as “turismo de Borrachera” – having a drunken party in a strange city in order to get away with behaviour that would be considered unacceptable at home.
Cities sell themselves on the strength of their cheap beer or nightlife at their peril. Amsterdam, for instance, has invested a lot in marketing itself as an arts and culture destination to shake off its reputation as a citywide red-light district.
Aalto says profiling has revealed that visitors who go to Helsinki to engage with a specific interest (“whether that be design, architecture, education or heavy metal music”) are those who will bring the most reward.
“Those are the ones who will be our ambassadors for life, who are creating a relationship with the city and maybe come moreoften – they are the ones who are friends of Helsinki.”
Another tip: win the marketing marathon, not the sprint. Growth is too often the measure of a successful tourism industry, says Xavier Font, a professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey in southeastern England. “There is a sense unless we grow, we are not doing very well – but it’s causing huge problems.”
He suggests marketing smarter, not necessarily more – such as packages to attract visitors for five days, not just a weekend.
Even tweaks to advertising material can make a difference. Barcelona is still marketing itself with the same brochures it designed for the 1992 Olympics, says Font. “The only thing that’s changed is that they have been translated into more languages. Sure, the history and heritage has not changed – but the way that we consume places has changed a lot,” he says.
Adjusting pricing can be a crude but effective means of balancing supply and demand: if a destination costs more to get to, fewer people are likely to go there. Introducing variable or tiered pricing and rates for residents can help to reduce criticisms of cultural elitism or of restricting domestic tourists from accessing their own heritage, says Dichter.
Many destinations have also introduced a tourist tax, revenues from which can be used to manage the industry. Font says the benefits of tourism need to be rebalanced in favour of sustainability, not hoteliers: “Why am I willing to pay hundreds of pounds a night to stay in a hotel but only [£10] to go to the Eiffel Tower? asks Dichter.
However, he cautions that raising or reducing prices can often be a knee-jerk, short-term response. “Do it differently. We often mess around with the things that don’t need to be messed with,” he says.
Target headcount through bed count. Many cities struggling with tourist numbers have placed direct controls on accommodation, whether by halting construction on new hotels – as in the case of both Barcelona and Amsterdam – or capping short-term homesharing on Airbnb.
London, New York, Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Paris and many other cities have introduced limits during the peak three months of the year, to prevent a shortage of housing supply and rent increases for locals. Dichter says he understands the logic of a limit of about 90 days: “These cities are trying to create a natural equilibrium, where you don’t have an economic incentive one way or another.”
Fix the fundamentals. Companies such as Airbnb and Ryanair often bear the brunt of the blame for how tourism has ballooned beyond control, but that ignores the bigger picture of policies and loopholes that allow them to flourish.
Budget airlines can sell flight tickets cheaply as a result of massive tax breaks for the aviation industry, which has driven up not only tourist numbers but carbon emissions. House prices go up and there becomes a shortage of supply when housing markets are deregulated to attract offshore investors. The hotel and construction industries can be symbiotic.
“When you allow international corporations to not pay corporate tax in a country, the social impact and cost is just huge,” says Font. “We can blame Airbnb for this, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg – there are a lot of factors that are not visible.”
Government resources need to be devoted to sustainable tourism, politicians need to be held more accountable, and residents need to be given the opportunity to weigh in outside election time. “Because if we wait for once every four years, it’s too late,” he says.
An effective strategy for managing tourists is informed by data. “We talk to so many people in the tourism ecosystem and no one has the same facts – not even close,” says Dichter. “If you can’t even agree on how many tourists are showing up, it’s very difficult to have a proper debate.”
The more information collected on tourists at every level – national, regional and municipal – the clearer picture of their true costs and benefits, including economic, social and environmental. Dichter points to Amsterdam’s official app, which not only improves visitors’ experiences of the city but reports back on them too.
Font says combining even imperfect data from a wide enough range of sources – restaurants, hotels, electricity and water providers, airports – can be basis enough for cities to act. “We don’t need 100 per cent perfect data to make some decisions when, more often than not, it is about trends,” he says.
If government and industry bodies actively consult communities on tourists’ impact, it can help to ease antagonism. Justin Francis, the director of the Responsible Travel agency, has proposed that all stakeholders work together to agree on specific signs – “limits of acceptable change”, such as resource shortages or price increases, that could be reviewed regularly – that would denote when a city has reached breaking point.
But any measures taken now will have a delayed effect, says Dichter. “The only right answer is to plan.” That means drilling down into the details.
“If you want more tourists, how many more? How many hotel rooms will sustain that? What’s your target mix from a nationality standpoint, and how will you work with suppliers to achieve that goal? he says.
Ultimately, residents must be prioritised over tourists for housing, infrastructure and access to services because they have a long-term stake in the city’s success. “You need to put residents at the centre of your decision-making,” says Font. “Cities are not the playgrounds of tourists; we only want them because they make the city more liveable for residents.”