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WTM 2017: Europe suffering the strain of tourism

With ‘overtourism’ the talk of the town at WTM London, Dave Richardson looks at the effect it is having on Europe and the Mediterranean coastline.

Venice busy streets
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Malta Tourism Authority spokesperson: "For a small island, we punch well above our weight in terms of profile."

A new buzzword can be heard at WTM London this year and it is one to take notice of, especially in Europe – “overtourism”. Europe might receive about half of all international tourists – 615 million overnights in 2016, according to UNWTO – but some cities in particular are feeling the strain.


Protests against tourism have erupted in Barcelona (EU1800) and other Spanish cities, while Venice, Dubrovnik (EU1350) and the Greek island of Santorini are three more tourist centres being overwhelmed by visitors. Two conference sessions are running at WTM London to explore the problem, with UNWTO warning of “tourism-phobia”.


Ministers of leading countries came together yesterday to debate this issue, while the European Tour Operators Association (Etoa) spoke at another session on Monday. It says overtourism has become “a major issue in the mainstream media, on the streets in Europe and around the world”.


Etoa head of strategy and policy Tim Fairhurst spoke on this subject. “The violent actions of a minority are not representative and should not prevent normal life continuing for residents and visitors, and those that provide services to them,” he said.


“But what is ‘normal’ for Europe’s premier city tourism destinations? Recent restrictions on new hotel capacity and efforts to control the growth of the peer-to-peer accommodation market in Barcelona were a response to tourism’s impact on the city. Long-term success will require a more holistic approach.”


Airbnb and other peer-to-peer accommodation portals are accused of pricing out local people as landlords switch from long-term rentals to tourism, while another problem facing parts of Europe is the number of visits by cruise ships. Venice was the first to raise this issue, while Santorini has now set a limit of 8,000 cruise ship passengers per day after numbers swelled to 18,000 on peak dates.

 

Facing up to the future

Facing up to the future

Overtourism looks likely to be an issue for years to come as parts of Europe face up to the problems of success. Despite major terrorist incidents in several cities that have given a negative image of Europe, there is no evidence so far that terror has a long-term effect on visitor numbers.


The attacks in Paris (EU1920) in 2015 and Nice (EU1900) in 2016 hit arrivals, but now France (EU1900) is bouncing back. In the first half of 2017 hotels in Paris and the Ile de France hit a 10-year high of 16 million guests, with major increases in Japanese and Chinese visitors.


Spain (EU1500) is the second most visited country in the world by the number of trips and third in inbound revenue, according to Euromonitor. Barcelona, Madrid (EU1500) and Majorca receive collectively 15 million visitors per year. “It is obvious that strategies are needed to cope with large tourism demand,” said Caroline Bremner, head of travel at Euromonitor. “Venice is a prime example with the local population declining by two thirds in the last 50 years, with residents moving out whilst tourist numbers have swelled.


“In Barcelona the tourist tax, currently used for tourism promotion, will instead be directed towards providing basic services for neighbourhoods most affected by the influx of visitors. Other strategies could include imposing quotas on the number of tourists at key sites, creating new attractions, improving the dispersal of visitors, curbing hotel expansion, controlling short-term rentals, and raising prices such as introducing ticketing at formerly free attractions.”


Resorts around the Mediterranean are experiencing record demand, partly as a result of visitors avoiding Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey due to terrorism concerns. But visitors are returning to Turkey, while British tour operators will return to Tunisia next year for the first time since the attack on tourists in 2015.


Thomas Cook chief executive Peter Fankhauser said Turkey was back in favour, adding: “Greece continues to be the standout destination for summer 2017, while customers are also seeking out smaller destinations like Cyprus (EU1300) and Bulgaria (EU900). In contrast, following strong growth last year, bookings to the Spanish islands have levelled off in a very competitive market.”

Business booms

Business booms

Wherever you look around the Mediterranean, visitor numbers are booming. Tourism represents about 20% of GDP in Greece (EU1200, EU1250), and is vital to lifting it out of a long economic depression.


Arrivals in 2016 were up 7.5% from 2015 and reached approximately 28 million. Germany (EU740), France and Russia were the fastest growing markets for Greece in the first half of 2017.


The forecast for Spain is very positive for 2017 as it expects a new record number of international tourists, surpassing the 75 million of 2016. Numbers were up 11.6% to 36.3 million tourists in the first half of this year.


As an example of how some Mediterranean countries hope to grow, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation aims to hit six million visitors by 2030, a nearly threefold increase. 2017 is set to be its most successful year on record after 1.46 million global tourist arrivals in the first half of the year, up 16.6%.


A 10.5% increase for Malta (EU1450) meant it had nearly two million visitors last year, followed by a 20% increase in the first half of 2017. It is ranked first out of 136 countries in the latest World Economic Forum report, for the priority attached by the government to tourism.


“This is indicative of how much we value our tourism industry, which is really thriving. For a small island, we punch well above our weight in terms of profile,” said a Malta Tourism Authority spokesperson.


Now is the time for all European destinations to plan carefully for the growth that is likely to come – especially islands with limited resources. This week’s conference sessions on overtourism promise interesting outcomes.

Small countries top marketing table

Small countries top marketing table

Iceland (EU840a) and Malta (EU1450) are the top performers in Europe in the Tourism Board Marketing Index produced by GlobalData, a market leader in providing business information and analysis.


The index measures both the direct and indirect marketing efforts of 100 national tourist boards around the world, finding that Iceland was the top performer in Europe and fourth worldwide, while Malta was second best in Europe and seventh worldwide.


Sara Grady, managing analyst and tourism specialist at GlobalData, said: “Iceland scored highly despite its size. The country has done so well due to the disparity between its spending on travel and tourism, versus its economic gains. Iceland spends only 1.52% of its GDP on tourism, while the industry contributes over 35% to its total GDP.


“Malta has an impressive social media presence, again despite its size. Despite neither country winning awards for its marketing efforts, both have an effective body in place, as supported by the World Economic Forum and backed up by a strong social-media-to-international-arrivals ratio.”


Iceland ranked first out of 60 countries in GlobalData’s 2017 Tourism Potential Index, and is forecast to see impressive growth through to 2021 despite the high cost of tourist purchases. Icelandic low-cost carrier Wow Air (EU840a) doubled capacity in 2016.


GlobalData measures tourism boards around the world based on everything from marketing performance to international arrivals. Displayed are the top 20 in the Tourism Board Marketing Index for Europe.

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