Can we have too many tourists?
Many in the industry would probably say no. We often describe ourselves as travellers and visitors, in the same way, that people complain about traffic without recognising that they are part of it. Boissevain published Coping with Tourists: European Reactions to Mass Tourism nearly 20 years ago, since then major European cities have continued to experience rapid growth in tourism numbers. Put “too many tourists” into Google and it offers a range of more detailed searches revealing what others have looked for. This is what Google offered me this morning – Venice, Barcelona, Iceland (yes I was surprised too), Paris, London, New York City, Prague, Thailand, Rome.
Overtourism describes destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. It is the opposite of Responsible Tourism which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently.
Overtourism is the antithesis of Responsible Tourism. Krippendorf, the father of Responsible Tourism, foresaw the growth of rebellious tourists and called for rebellious locals. Now those rebellious local are making their voices heard.
The label overtourism is disliked by many destinations more willing to consider the challenge of coping with success or Ken Robinson’s inadequately managed tourism. The public realm is a common property resource better management of supply and demand can diminish the problem but there are real physical and social limits.
Overtourism is but one example of what happens when more and more seek to consume a common resource, particularly when that resource is a common property resource, many honeypot destinations are just that. The limits are being reached in some destinations across the triple bottom line, there are cultural clashes because of different social mores and norms about behaviour, often fuelled by drink; local people are displaced by increasingly unregulated holiday lets, lawns are trampled to bare earth and beaches littered; shops which used to meet the needs of residents are displaced by outlets selling expensive goods or tat to tourists.
Tourism makes extensive use of common pool resources in the public realm and takes advantage of, for example, museums and galleries, which are free or merit-priced initially for the benefit of citizens. The tourism commons are very vulnerable to crowding and degrading by tourism pressure. The industry enjoys free access to the public goods which are very often its core product.
The tragedy of the commons is at the heart of Lord Marshall’s description of the tourism and travel industry as “…essentially the renting out for short-term lets of other people’s environments, whether this is a coastline, a city, a mountain range, or a rainforest.” The problem is that they collect the rent externalising the costs to the public purse.
Tourism is what we make it, Barcelona and Venice do not inevitably have to be dominated by tourism, victims of mass tourism. Increasingly residents are raising the issue and it is moving up the political agenda in the city governments. What can be done to manage tourism so that it does not overwhelm the cities – Venice, Barcelona, Paris, London, New York City, Prague, Berlin, Rome – where the sheer mass of tourism is beginning to be seen as a problem.
Tourism has reached a point where either the hosts or guests and often both, are dissatisfied. The challenge is to make all destinations sustainable and to avoid spreading the problem. For local government and protected area managers, the key question is: Will the destination use tourism or be used by it?
Tourism is what we make it, hosts and guests, we can make it different.
For more on the causes, antecedents and management of overtourism see Goodwin H (2017) The Challenge of Overtourism
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