An estimated £3 billion worth of business deals will be signed at WTM London this week, but in some places there is a downside to the phenomenal growth in tourism.
With international tourism expected to grow from 1.2 billion arrivals in 2016 to 1.8 billion by 2030, some of the most popular destinations are already feeling the strain.
Anti-tourist demonstrations have broken out in Barcelona and Venice this year – both ancient cities where tourists mass in small areas. In July, 2,000 people joined a protest march in Venice against tourism amid claims that local residents are being driven away, with the population of the old city dropping from about 175,000 60 years ago to only 55,000 today. Residents are also abandoning the old city of Dubrovnik in Croatia, where most of the old houses are now tourist flats.
Calls by cruise ships are being restricted on islands including Santorini in Greece, while even remote places such as the Scottish islands are feeling the strain and urging tourists without reservations not to come during high season.
Three debates at WTM London will focus on so-called “overtourism”. Today’s main debate is being moderated by former Thomson Holidays director Martin Brackenbury, a director of Classic Collection Holidays who became interested in the subject during regular visits to Venice.
“The problem of overtourism has become much worse due to the combination of low-cost airlines and low-cost tourist accommodation,” says Brackenbury. “Residents are divided into those involved in tourism, and those not benefiting who suffer the consequences. Many residential blocks are now rented out through peer-to-peer organisations such as Airbnb, but restricting unlicensed accommodation is not a permanent solution, as it only gives the authorities breathing space.”
Some cruise lines, including Carnival, recognise that they must engage more with the destinations they visit. They might contribute only 1.5 million of Venice’s 25 million annual visitors, but are highly visible and sometimes disruptive.
“Cruise passengers tend not to spread out but all come together,” says Brackenbury. “Is it feasible to make cruise ships dock outside the Venice lagoon? Any control on the numbers of cruise ships will lead to a loss of revenue.”
His solution for places such as Venice or Dubrovnik, with limited entry points, is a smart card system. Residents, workers in these areas and people staying in licensed accommodation could visit at any time, but there would be a limit on other tourists who may have to come back on another day.
“Every growing human activity has a downside to it. The answer should be... to live up to the challenge and manage it correctly.”
Taleb Rifai, UNWTO
Another speaker at today’s event is Tim Fairhurst, head of strategy and policy at the European Tour Operators Association (Etoa), which brings together tour operators, destination management companies, hotels, attractions and others in the supply chain.
“A lot of people are using the expression overtourism, but in some cases tourists can be dispersed by fairly simple measures; such as changing the location of pick-up and drop-off points for coaches, the siting of public toilets, or asking museums to open in the evenings or for more days in the week than at present,” he says.
“We can see good progress on some issues as long as there is consultation with the industry. Tour operators on their own can’t do a lot, and they certainly don’t want to take their customers anywhere where they might have a non-welcoming experience.”
Companies with complex tour itineraries need to plan well in advance, and Fairhurst says that some can no longer guarantee that their customers will be able to visit top attractions normally included in a tour.
A photo stop might be made at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and time allowed for customers to go up the tower on their own, but restrictions on entry make it risky to include this in a tour. Visits to the Alhambra Palace in Granada can only be booked three months in advance, when operators put tours on the market 18 months before departure.
“There is a credibility issue for tour operators when they don’t include somewhere like the Alhambra, but customers find tickets are available on the day through the secondary market,” adds Fairhurst.
“As a result some tour operators no longer include the Alhambra, but hotels don’t like it as this is the main reason people go to Granada.”
Etoa urges tour operators to think what their tours might look like 5 or 10 years into the future, and to plan ahead. Overcrowding could be reduced by simple measures such as running a city sightseeing tour in the afternoon rather than in the morning, and avoiding periods of heavy traffic.
Panel speakers also include representatives from Barcelona City Council and Venice in Peril, which campaigns to preserve the city’s art treasures. Barcelona – which has much to lose following this year’s terrorist attacks and the Catalan independence crisis – has lessons that many other cities could learn from.
Harold Goodwin, an academic who is WTM London’s responsible tourism advisor, says Barcelona is “well out in front” in dealing with overtourism, having taken some effective measures and diverting some of the revenues from tourism into managing it, rather than promoting it further. Tourism growth has been very rapid here, from two million staying in hotels for an average stay of over two nights in 1990, to 7.5 million in 2013.
But less than half of Barcelona’s visitors now stay in hotels. The explosion in accommodation through Airbnb and others has spread tourists into areas that were purely residential. Apart from suffering possible noise, drunkenness and disruption, residents may be forced out if landlords find it more profitable to rent to tourists rather than local people.
Goodwin welcomes Barcelona’s moves against unlicensed accommodation and restrictions on new hotel rooms, but says the city has no control over the airport and cruise terminal, which are pushing hard for more visitors.
“The problem of overtourism has become much worse due to the combination of low-cost airlines and low-cost tourist accommodation”
Martin Brackenbury, Classic Collection Holidays
“Overtourism is not just a European problem as it also affects places such as Seoul and Mount Fuji, and there will be more protests,” he says. “It isn’t smart for the travel industry not to take people to places such as this, but they need to take some responsibility. The same is true of cruise operators, who should follow the lead of Tui – the most responsible operator.”
The UNWTO, which has coordinated tomorrow’s ministerial summit, has laid down guidelines. These include diversifying visitor activities; effective and integrated practices and policies to manage visitors at tourist sites; policies to reduce seasonality; and incentives for the private sector to invest in new areas and new products, and reduce energy and water consumption.
“Every growing human activity has a downside to it,” says Taleb Rifai, UNWTO secretary general. “The answer should never be to halt the activity and lose all its clear benefits, but rather to live up to the challenge and manage it correctly. Let us remember the motto of this International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development: to travel, enjoy and respect.”
Coping with success, managing overtourism takes place 3.30-4.30pm Monday 6 in the WTM Responsible Tourism Theatre (AF580), preceded by Island Communities in Scotland addressing overtourism from 12.15-1pm. The UNWTO and WTM ministers’ summit – Overtourism: Growth is not the enemy, it is how we manage it – is on the Global Stage (AS1050) from 11am-1pm Tuesday 7