We travel for rest, adventure and cultural awareness. But what is the impact of tourism on the places we visit beyond feeding their bottom line?
By Leigh Flayton
In his 1869 best-selling travel memoir, The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain told of his visit with some fellow Americans to Europe and The Holy Land, writing that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
This may have been the first literary allusion to the “Fat American,” a slur on a particular breed of tourist who arrives in a place like a whirlwind and leaves bewilderment—and often a mess—in their wake. Of course, this criticism applies to people beyond the United States, but Twain’s main point still rings true: Travel brings us closer together, opens our minds and is good for our global well-being.
But “bad tourists” continue to exist—from the Great Wall to the Grand Canyon—and as more people have the means to travel, a new term has captured the havoc they’re helping to wreak: overtourism. It’s a trend that’s creating myriad challenges to local populations and causing a negative impact on the environment, local infrastructures and more.
Take Barcelona, for example. According to a 2018 article in The Guardian, in 1990 the city hosted 1.7 million tourists a year. In 2017, that number swelled to 32 million–roughly 20 times the resident population. “The sheer volume of visitors is driving up rents, pushing residents out of neighbourhoods, and overwhelming the public space,” the article said.
Barcelona is far from alone, but there are ways destination marketing organizations (DMOs) can help promote more conscientious, courteous and ethical travel.
Make a commitment to the environment.
These days, environmental responsibility is top of mind as it hasn’t been before, and local businesses as well as international corporations are striving to make lighter footprints and advances in sustainability. The Ritz-Carlton, with hotels and resorts all over the world, even employs an Environmental Strategy, in which it practices serious efforts to reduce energy and water consumption, empower its hotel partners to build green resorts, source environmentally preferred products and more.
At the local level, Minneapolis Northwest Tourism, a nonprofit promoting three cities located just outside Minneapolis, offers “Sustainable Solutions for Meeting Planners” to help groups host green events in the region. The DMO even published a 16-page “Guide to Planning an Environmentally Friendly Event,” offering options for sustainable meeting venues, eco-friendly hotels and environmentally friendly menus.
Promote off-season travel.
Leaving a light footprint is good advice in life—and in travel. One of the easiest ways to curb overtourism is to limit the number of visitors to a place and provide and promote incentives for off-season travel.
In Niagara Falls, generally considered a warm-weather, outdoors destination, Niagara Falls USA promotes year-round visits, enticing visitors to see the Falls in their wintery glory or take the wine trail to experience ice wine, a Falls staple, when it’s actually cold outside. Targeted seasonal campaigns serve up content that celebrates off-season activities in a way that appeals to both new visitors and drive-market repeat visitors alike.
Encourage respectful behavior.
DMOs can work with their local governments and business partners to help foster positive experiences for their destinations and tourists alike.
Last year, in an effort to lessen his city’s daily tourist deluge, the mayor of Dubrovnik announced that a maximum of two cruise ships per day—with a total of 5,000 passengers—would be allowed to disembark and tour Croatia’s ancient walled city. Prior to this, as many as 10 ships dropped off over 10,000 passengers every day, causing overcrowding, graffiti and vandalism, traffic jams, and general mayhem in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
DMOs can help reinforce and remind travelers to be good citizens and take our values with us, wherever we are and wherever we go. It’s as simple as what we were taught as kids and hopefully brought into adulthood: To be respectful; clean up after ourselves; and other sage words of advice that we should follow. If we don’t, then Twain will continue to call us out, as he did in his 19th-century classic: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become,” Twain wrote, “until he goes abroad.”