Tourism bosses are testing ways to soothe local anger while keeping the visitors coming
The fury rippled across Europe during a summer from hell in 2017. In Barcelona, they held up a tourist bus and slashed bike tyres. In Venice, they marched against the cruise ships and raised rents. In some Spanish cities, the writing was on the wall quite literally, as locals told travellers in the boldest fonts: “Tourists go home.”
So now, with the summer season just around the corner, tourism bosses across Europe are frantically trying to implement new measures that will keep locals happy and economies afloat.
“Someone said there is no overtourism, only undermanagement,” said the World Tourism Organisation secretary general, Zurab Pololikashvili, when asked how the industry could move forward.
“What we are facing is the clear need to step up the governance of tourist flows on the ground, especially if we look at growing tourist numbers in general and growing flows to urban destinations.”
The range of solutions floated at a tourism conference in Berlin on Wednesday included tightening up on Airbnb rentals, better management of tourism flow and widespread use of digital tools.
Spanish officials have already introduced an online ticketing system for the fortified Islamic palace of Alhambra, offering its 2.7 million annual visitors pre-booked slots to balance the crowds.
There are hopes in Italy’s Cinque Terre that a similar system could reduce the visitor masses pounding the venerable cliff paths every year. Although not obligatory, its capped entry cards include services such as rail connections and are linked with an app giving real-time information on the numbers of visitors in each pastel-hued village – a subtle nudge to avoid bottlenecks.
Gloria Guevara Manzo, World Travel & Tourism Council president and CEO, points to Miami, where residents receive SMS alerts if there is the chance of congestion from visitor arrivals. “Miami Beach residents can plan accordingly and not be impacted.”
At the ITB travel convention in Berlin – the world’s biggest gathering of industry insiders – representatives from Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Amsterdam shared solutions with a packed conference hall.
Amsterdam has already banned banned beer bikes, coaches, new tourist shops and cruise ships from its historic city centre. It has Airbnb paying tourist taxes and is considering flat-rate lodging levies that would discourage budget travellers.
Barcelona has cracked down on illegal unlicensed apartments for rent, though its tourism director, Joan Torrella, insists that authorities have to work with digital upstarts such as Airbnb, not just confront them.
Dubrovnik’s mayor, Mato Franković, hopes 2018 will be an easier summer for visitors and local people because of a new arrangement to stagger cruise ship arrivals.
“In previous years we had overcrowding in the old city, over 10,000 at the same time which we can’t handle, so what we’ve done for 2018 is spread that,” Franković said. “So actually we as a destination can handle more tourists from cruise ships than we previously had, which were before concentrated just on three days.”
Justin Francis, founder of the travel agency Responsible Travel, sees the “overtourism crisis” getting worse before it gets better, and doubts that tourism management on the ground will suffice in the face of the growth.
In 2017, there were 1.3 billion tourist arrivals around the world, half of them in Europe. More than two-thirds of international travellers go to just 20 countries.
“Managing tourism more responsibly can help, but some destinations may just have too many tourists, and Barcelona may be a case of that,” said Francis.
“The world’s a very big place, and the absolute numbers of tourist are manageable, but not if we all want to go to the same places at the same time.”
Taxation, demarketing, limiting accommodation – Francis says these ideas have been around for decades. While many destinations still need more visitors for their local economies, it’s largely a question of where and when. Case in point, Iceland.
Tourism was a sudden saviour for post-recession Iceland earlier this decade, helping it to revive its economy with record visitor growth, which just as quickly threatened to swamp its capital, Reykjavík, and some high-profile national wonders. In 2017 tourists outnumbered Icelanders about seven to one.
But Inga Hlín Pálsdóttir, director for tourism and creative industries at Promote Iceland, says such numbers have led to the misunderstanding “that the country is flooded”.
Iceland in 2015 began with marketing efforts to tempt visitors outside of Reykjavík and its nearby natural attractions of the Golden Circle, something she says has paid off.
“There’s been an increase in tourism distributed all over Iceland, and we’ve had our general peak, but we think that it’s going to be a slower and healthier growth,” said Pálsdóttir. “We have a whole-year industry in Iceland now: 60% of tourists come in the off-season.”
And with Icelandic tourism generating more revenue than its fishing and aluminium export industries combined, she argues that keeping this balance is vital for the economy, the environment and for locals.
While it’s clear that solutions for creating such balance do exist, one question remains: will they arrive in time for summer 2018?
This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org