The Travel Foundation hosted a discussion among industry leaders. Ian Taylor reports

“Over-tourism is not caused or created by any one party,” Travel Foundation chief executive Salli Felton told a group of industry leaders assembled for the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Summit in Buenos Aires in April.

“It’s the cumulative effect of our combined actions,” Felton said. “But there is a growing recognition that over-tourism can’t be ignored.

“We’ve created over-tourism together and the only way to solve it is together, otherwise we’re not going to get far.”

Leading figures at Airbnb, Carnival Cruises, Intrepid Travel, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Virtuoso were among those who responded.

Chris Lehane, Airbnb head of global policy and public affairs: “We focus a lot on understanding people’s concerns. One aspect [of over-tourism] is a feeling that people are not benefitting from tourism – a city or community is being leveraged and you yourself are not participating.

“We believe the design of our platform helps incentivise ‘healthy tourism’. In the US, a typical host rents their home 42 times a year and makes $7,200. In conversation with elected officials I say, ‘I’ve yet to see a programme that generates $7,200 in supplemental income for an everyday person without a tax dollar being spent.’”

Darrell Wade, Intrepid Travel executive chairman: “It’s ironic Airbnb cops flack over this because its distribution is on average broader than traditional hotels’.

“Over-tourism means you have too much tourism in a small area. If Venice is the problem, there are 1,000 places to go in Italy that aren’t Venice.

“Tourism is supposed to be a mutual benefit – good for the host community and good for the traveller. We need to keep those things in balance. You’ve more chance of doing that by spreading tourism than just going to the same iconic sites which get worn out and then aren’t good for the local community or for the traveller.”

Adam Goldstein, vice-chairman Royal Caribbean Cruises: “We should talk about responsible tourism – over-tourism is one key element of less-than-responsible tourism, but only one – and we should frame this in terms of the opportunity if there is proper dialogue, if people plan and respond.

“I’ll give an example. In Dubrovnik, which is at the epicentre of this, the mayor came out with regulation of cruise ships. We invited him into a dialogue and asked, ‘What are the issues in the old city?’ He said, ‘Well, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays we have all the ships. We don’t have ships on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays.’ So, it’s not that it’s always overcrowded, it’s that three days of the week there is overcrowding.

“We said, ‘OK, that could be addressed. What else?’ He said, ‘All the ships come in the morning.’ So he is in favour of more tourism, just not in the old city in the morning on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The old city is not going to get any bigger, [but] there is tremendous capacity to generate more tourism and utilise capacity in an optimal way.

“Venice is sort of ground zero in this. Our polling suggests most people who live in and around Venice want the economic activity [tourism brings]. There are two groups of antagonists. One, with whom it’s possible to have a dialogue, don’t want ships coming through the Giudecca Canal. They want ships to use the industrial channel. The second group, which is difficult to have a dialogue with, don’t want cruise ships in the lagoon at all. The backdrop to this is that cruise ships are less than 10% of Venice’s tourism business.

“There are potential solutions that could create either significantly more capacity or less objection.”

Matthew Upchurch, chief executive of luxury travel network Virtuoso: “A lot of our luxury clients wouldn’t be caught dead in Venice in the summer because they don’t want that experience.”

“If you look at the size of the world’s source markets and [especially] at China, what is going to happen over the next 20-30 years is massive. We live in a world where it’s hard to manage people. You need to inspire people to do the right thing, so marketing needs to change.

“There are entrenched interests on either side – the incumbent interests and what I call techno-arrogance [interests]. When I talk about this [I’m told] ‘You’re a Luddite. The world is going to change dramatically.’ What is the way to balance these? Government could play a big role.”

David Dingle, Carnival UK chief executive: “If you closed the whole cruise industry tomorrow it would make zero difference to over-tourism because we are such a small part of the total industry. The reason we’re referred to often is that it’s easy to measure cruise tourism. You know when 2,000 or 3,000 people turn up in a port. They are an easy target.

“The WTTC report [see box] points out 72% of tourists are day visitors. We need to know an awful lot more, particularly about that 72%. We need deeper levels of data to understand this issue. In Barcelona, 6% of tourists are cruise visitors and they probably spend the shortest time in the city of any tourists. Most are only there for a day whereas people on city breaks stay three or four days.

“It is no accident that [concern about] over-tourism has arisen at the same time as political movements that we might call nationalist. I don’t know what the solution is [but] dialogue is critical. There is little sign this movement will be easily swayed by economic arguments.

“Maybe it could become a self-regulating issue to an extent if people realise that going to places where the eco-structure is fragile will cause damage. Can we inspire people to say, ‘I shouldn’t go’? I’ve got no answers, [but] the more lenses we look at this through the more likely we are to find ways forward.

“In the cruise industry, we keep looking for new places to take ships. It’s difficult to attract people away from iconic places, but we do have to see more dispersion. It’s more likely [to be accomplished] by finding different places to take people than by saying, ‘Don’t go to St. Mark’s Square.’

“Many people would disagree in principle with limits [on tourist numbers]. But there are examples already – the Galapagos is one. Glacier Bay in Alaska makes only so many permits available each year. The difficult thing if you impose limits is how do you do that fairly? You’re going to end up with arguments about distribution. Do you just raise the price?

“People have to see some benefit. If tourists paid a tax for the benefit of visiting Barcelona, there could be enormous wealth generation for the city which could be redirected into public transport or services. That needs to be looked at – a day pass to Barcelona [for] $5 or $10, generating wealth but also reducing visitation because some people will go to cities that don’t have the tax – like the congestion charge in London.”

Adam Goldstein: “Coming back to the theme that more capacity could be generated to handle tourism flows, there is a lot of frustration about congestion on Santorini. We’ve noted this to the Greek authorities.

“Why do all Greek destination marketing materials feature Santorini? How does that make sense? Tourists could be pointed to other islands without putting all the stress on Santorini. Even on Santorini, [improved] infrastructure would allow the island to handle traffic better.”

Chris Lehane: “In Barcelona and New Orleans we’ve reduced the number of listings in [some] areas. In New Orleans, we don’t do listings in the French Quarter. In Barcelona, we took stuff down from the centre of town.

“We’ve begun working with countries, destination marketing organisations and cities to make data accessible to help with planning. Places like Ireland, France and Italy are interested in driving tourism to rural areas. But travellers are still going to go to Dublin, Rome and Paris, right? The question is do they stay there for two weeks or three or four days and then drive into the countryside.”

Darrell Wade: “There are usually a couple of ‘must do’ things in a region or country. You can’t sell a trip to India without the Taj Mahal. But we’ll carry 400,000 clients this year and the majority tell us that, more than the Taj Mahals of the world, they enjoy the places they had not heard of or didn’t expect.

“A quality tour operator or travel agent presents those opportunities. We get an enormous level of repeat business not because we go to the Taj Mahal but because we go to those other places.

“Responsible tourism is clearly important. In many respects, over-tourism is the antithesis of responsible tourism. [But] the reality is people make decisions that are not fully informed. Tour operators have a responsibility to delve into these issues because we live with them all the time.

“As an example, five or six years ago we looked at the issue of riding elephants. At the time, 20% of our clients went elephant riding. Most people don’t give much thought to it. We commissioned a research paper, realised there are a lot of things wrong with this and took a decision. We imposed our will, if you like, because we had done the research and thought hard about it.

“Then we thought, ‘Let’s go out and influence others.’ Now 150 companies have signed up not to offer elephant riding. Operators have a responsibility to do that type of thing.

“Over-tourism is harder because it lacks definition. One of the problems for the cruise industry is the visibility of ships in Venice. Another [is that] there is not a lot left behind from a cruise passenger. You know the term ‘ice cream tourist’? They get all their meals on the ship and get off to buy ice cream and that is the end of the economic impact in the community. That is something as an industry we’ve got to work through.”

Matthew Upchurch: “Ultimately, each city or country needs to decide. It’s not up to us to decide for them. It’s for them to say, ‘This is what we want’. Take Bhutan or Botswana, they have chosen low-impact, high-yield tourism. The flip side [is] why should a bunch of rich people get special access?

“I can bring 100 clients a day to a site like Chichen Itza [in Mexico] for a sunrise or sunset with no crowds and they will pay $1,000. I talked to ministers in Mexico and said, ‘You could look at this as a populist issue or look at it like German automakers producing BMWs and decide special access has a price tag to it. You can extract more value at a lower impact.’”

Adam Goldstein: “The cruise industry goes to about 1,000 places. The majority want more tourists, not less. In places which have the opposite concern, we hope best practices and intelligent thinking [can help] figure out ways to increase capacity without exacerbating the problem, leading to some optimal combination of economic benefit, resident satisfaction and tourist satisfaction. But not every place will get it right.”

David Dingle: “There are still many places which would welcome more tourism. The issue remains, how do we deal with the hotspots? The fact that we may open many more tourist opportunities is not going to make people say, ‘I won’t at any time go to Venice’.”


Managing over-crowding in destinations

The Travel Foundation hosted the roundtable to discuss ‘Managing over-tourism’ for industry leaders attending the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Summit in Buenos Aires in April.

The discussion took place in the light of a WTTC report on over-tourism, ‘Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations’, published late last year.

This identified five elements of over-tourism: alienated residents, a degraded tourism experience, overloaded infrastructure, damage to nature, and threats to culture and heritage.

The roundtable formed part of a wider programme of work by the Travel Foundation aimed at improving the management and sustainability of destinations.

It was co-hosted by Travel Weekly US editor Arnie Weissman.