Congested streets, noise, litter, skyrocketing prices and grumbling that travellers seem more interested in taking selfies than absorbing the culture around them are just a few complaints that have made “overtourism” a hot topic in travel.
The sheer number of vacationers worldwide is staggering. In 2012, international tourists hit the one-billion mark, reflecting the greater accessibility and ease of travel thanks to low-cost airlines, home-sharing and every internet-related convenience imaginable.
By 2030, the United Nations’ World Trade Organization (UNWTO) predicts that number will reach close to two billion, raising concerns about how overvisited locales such as Venice and Barcelona – where locals have protested in the streets – will cope.
Rafat Ali, founder and chief executive of travel industry news site Skift.com, started using the term “overtourism” in 2016 after he noticed popular destinations such as Iceland – which had marketed itself aggressively to adventure seekers – were overwhelmed and unable to meet demands due to lack of infrastructure.
"They sold themselves too well, and now they’re suffering from overexposure,” says Ali, adding that international visitors to the country known as “the land of snow and ice” are down 4 per cent in the first six months of this year.
In an interview from New York, he shares his thoughts on how the travel sector can get serious about managing tourism in more eco-friendly and sustainable ways – and what tourists can do to help.
This summer whole islands such as Boracay in the Philippines and Thailand’s Maya Bay were closed to tourists owing to record numbers flooding their beaches (and leaving their trash behind). Is there an ecologically and socially viable model of seeing the world?
One-hundred-per-cent ecologically viable, no. Travel does and always will leave a footprint any way you look at it. But there is a responsible or conscious way to travel. By being cognizant of spending money with local businesses as much as possible, researching more ecologically responsible businesses, and staying with them, are just two examples. We need to better educate tourists to be more sensitive to the locals and their homes. Palau, an island in the South Pacific, came up with a soft solution, but an important one. They have a campaign called the Palau Pledge and every visitor must sign a passport pledge to be ecologically responsible before an immigration officer.
Tourism is one of the biggest and most aggressive industries on Earth (and has been for 20 years). Why has it taken governments so long to recognize that it needs to be pro-actively managed?
Tourism is an easy cash cow until it became a political/unpopular/quality of life issue. Also, the exponential rise of tourists from countries such as China, etc., is very new, only a decade or so in the making, and therefore everyone is learning in real time on this.
Which markets have been most affected by overtourism?
Western Europe has borne the brunt. Spain, in particular Barcelona, has been swamped. However, this summer, Portugal also saw big numbers of tourists.
What’s behind the rise of overtourism?
The roots of overtourism lie with the democratization of travel. Never before has travel been cheaper and more accessible to the masses. Different parts of the world came online that historically had never travelled before. Combined with that we have low-cost airlines, Airbnb, online booking and travel reviews, and massive cruise ships that literally dump thousands of people on coastal ports.
What steps can cities/regions/countries take to better manage it?
There is no one solution to overtourism and it’s not going to be solved immediately, if ever, because it’s so complex. But we can try to control the inflow of tourists. We can restrict some of the airlines, particularly the low-cost carriers. Limit access to cruise ships that drop tourists off for a day – who barely spend any money, and leave. And most important, we can adopt smart dispersal strategies, where people are directed off-season or to different locations. New York has done a good job, for instance, of pushing people outside of Manhattan and into the Bronx and Queens, which are increasingly popular.
Overtourism encapsulates so many things. What does it mean to you?
Overtourism sounds alarmist and if anything catches on in the world today, it’s alarmism. It’s why everyone in my sector is paying attention to this issue. It also plays into some of the nativist fears that seem to be bubbling up all over the world. It’s a perfect storm.
Is technology – and the ability to preplan every inch of a trip – taking some of the wonder and marvel out of travel?
Technology and social media have converged to the point that we can choose to make everything we’re living seem like an amazing experience, and that’s become the aspirational lens in society today. For many people, travel means bragging rights. Social media has raised the narcissism levels of the world and travel has been affected by the show-off potential of it.
But smart [travel] companies understand that the moments that tend to stay with us are unplanned. They offer packages with more choice and flexibility so that consumers have more opportunity for self-discovery.
Where is the international travel juggernaut headed?
By 2020, many predict the economy will turn south so maybe a recession will actually be a good thing. Perhaps it will allow countries and regions to create balance and build the right infrastructure, management tools and services so that travellers can have an amazing experience – with just the right amount of serendipity.
This interview was condensed and edited.