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. In 1990 the city hosted 1.7 million tourists a year. In 2019, that number swelled to nearly 12 million — roughly 8 times the resident population. And as an article in The New European noted, it’s overwhelmed the city: “Visitors surge down the city’s famed La Rambla street, crowd the local Boqueria market, take over the beaches, create blockages down the narrow streets of the Ciutat Vella (Old Town) and price locals out of homes in central areas.”
Barcelona is far from alone, but there are ways destination marketing organizations (DMOs) can help promote more conscientious, courteous and ethical travel.
1. Make a commitment to the environment.
These days, environmental responsibility is top of mind as it hasn’t been before, and our clients — from local DMOS to international hospitality corporations — are striving to make lighter footprints and advances in sustainability. For instance, the Arizona Office of Tourism partnered with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to champion responsible and sustainable tourism practices throughout states unique landscapes and iconic landmarks, like the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon. This innovative program, Appreciate AZ, aims to preserve the state’s natural spaces while enabling visitors to enjoy a more enriching and eco-conscious travel experience.
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.
2. Highlight sustainable accommodations and activities.
Promote and support a wide range of sustainable accommodations, including hotels, resorts, eco-lodges, and boutique stays. Provide comprehensive information about their eco-friendly features and certifications. Showcase the unique experiences and comforts that travelers can enjoy while staying at these sustainable accommodations, making it an enticing option for conscientious travelers. Our partners at The Ritz-Carlton, with hotels and resorts all over the world, employ 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.Curate itineraries that encourage travelers to engage in low-impact activities like birdwatching, snorkeling and nature photography, emphasizing the importance of wildlife conservation and preservation.
And remember to strive for authenticity in your ethical travel marketing campaigns, ensuring that all claims and initiatives are genuine and verifiable. Avoid greenwashing or any form of misleading information.
3 . 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.
4. Respect for local culture and communities.
Develop educational content and campaigns that emphasize the importance of respecting local culture, traditions and communities. Educate travelers about cultural sensitivity and appropriate behaviors. Encourage travelers to participate in community-led experiences, such as cultural workshops, culinary tours, and handicraft demonstrations, which directly benefit local communities.
5. Encourage respectful behavior.
DMOs can work with their local governments and business partners to help foster positive experiences for their destinations and tourists alike.
Recently, 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.”