Overtourism and sustainability in the post-Covid, COP26 era: Should travel be only for the rich?

The world may be ever so slowly reopening after Covid, but the familiar spectre of overtourism has come back to haunt the travel sector. Scenes of “supermarket queues” towards the peak of Welsh mountain Snowdon caused a stir in August, as UK staycationers chose the location instead of the international hot spots now out of reach due to pandemic. And with the eyes of the world focused on the COP26 talks in Glasgow, this is not a good time for any industry to show lack of concern for the environment. With higher tourist taxes and efforts to attract wealthier visitors increasingly in vogue, it may even be that global travel to the world’s famous sites may soon become a pleasure restricted to the rich, rather than something that ordinary Western citizens can aspire to.

Some 700,000 visitors are believed to have visited Snowdonia in the last year, up 40 per cent from 500,000 in 2018. With them they bring the blights associated with overtourism such as litter, erosion, pollution and local hostility.

Research company GlobalData describes tourism as “an industry that has not paid enough attention to sustainability over the years”. Its report on overtourism challenges the common conception of the theme as one only affecting tourist hot spots.

“It can affect any destination of any scale,” write researchers. “In the days leading up to Covid-19, overtourism was the travel sector’s ‘buzzword’ and bugaboo. From Amsterdam to Venice, from New Zealand to Bali and the national parks in the US, destinations worldwide were experiencing overtourism. International travel then came to a virtual halt due to Covid-19 in 2020.

“(But) the desire for international travel will recover, meaning overtourism remains a critical theme affecting the future profitability of the travel sector.”

According to the report, Covid has given destinations a breathing space to hit the reset button in their sustainable tourism policies. But how can destinations deal with overtourism whilst also balancing local and even national economies which depend on visiting travellers? And what technologies, methods and regulations are being used today which could be examples for destinations around the world?

Tourist taxes

Snowdonia isn’t the only place seeing a surge in tourism. According to preliminary statistics released by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, there were 215,148 visitors to the Hawaiian island of Maui in May 2021, compared to 1,054 visitors in the same time period last year. Before Covid, 251,665 visitors visited Maui in May 2019. Such popularity has only exacerbated the island’s ongoing water crisis.

One solution is tourist taxes. As of July this year, Maui began collecting a 3% tax from visitors staying at hotels and other short-term rentals, with money being kept for local needs. Previously taxes were charged by the state with each county getting a share of money collected.

The island isn’t alone in this regard. Thailand, Croatia, Greece, the Balearic Islands, Rome and the Mexican State of Baja California have all levied new tourist taxes on visitors arriving in their respective destinations.

Taxes were introduced in Venice for overnight guests, cruise passengers in Amsterdam and both Bath and Bristol were considering implementing a tax in 2019.

Edinburgh was the first city in the UK to introduce a tourist tax in 2019, asking tourists to pay £2 (US$2.79) per day which would be added to the cost accommodation during the first week of a visitor’s stay. Edinburgh Council estimated the tax would raise an estimated £14.6m a year to support the cost of mass tourism to the city; the city received more than 4 million international visitors in 2019.

“The theory behind launching a tourist tax is simply so it can raise funds to offset some of the negative impacts of tourism,” says GlobalData. “Tourist taxes will not tackle overtourism on their own, but can mark a stepping stone for a city or destination to maintain the area’s tourist sites and attractions.”

Higher taxes, higher class?

The trend in tourist taxes also plays into another theme GlobalData is noticing in the travel sector, that of destinations preferring to attract “higher-net worth individuals” as opposed to backpackers and wedding parties.

“The additional cost may deter some from traveling, but particularly with destinations across Europe, the tourist tax is minimal,” researchers explain. “Post Covid-19, many destinations have also already declared they plan to attract more affluent individuals post (pandemic).

“One way to segregate the masses could be to further increase tourist taxes, a trend that is likely but may also alienate travelers with less disposable income.”

That alienation may be welcomed by the New Zealand travel industry. Signs that New Zealand was on the verge of overtourism were apparent pre-pandemic. Domestic tourism has safely resumed in the country. But New Zealand tourism minister Stuart Nash has stated that tourism must change once New Zealand is open again to international visitors – whenever that may turn out to be.

Nash declared that the goal should be to target the global 1% richest as visitors in the post-pandemic market, rather than comparatively impecunious backpackers. As such, New Zealand’s marketing efforts are planning to be diversified focusing on “high-net worth individuals”, targeting tourists who expect fine dining and a luxury experience.

Prices in general may also be increased as Nash added that, “it is essential that the full cost of tourism is priced into the visitor experience”.

Smart tourism

Venice has long been the classic case of overtourism. Prior to the pandemic, the small city would receive around 30 million annual visitors, a combination of both overnight and day trippers. Its resident population has been gradually dwindling: where it was once home to 150,000 Venetians, only 50,000 were local residents in 2019.

“There may be no fulltime residents by 2030 if tourism continues the way it did prior to the pandemic,” reports GlobalData.

As one solution, the popular Italian city has begun tracking “real-time” tourism post-pandemic. A state-of-the-art control room opened in September 2020 on the island of Tronchetto as part of a new headquarters, described as a “control tower” for the city.

The smart control room feeds information to the authorities, creating a profile of the crowds visiting Venice. The hope is that gathering information will not only track live footfall but will enable the authorities to activate turnstiles and start charging for entrance at peak times.

Apart from monitoring water traffic along the Grand Canal, the system also monitors pedestrian numbers. Cameras around the city count visitor numbers and in conjunction with Telecom Italia (TIM), Italy’s largest telecoms provider, crunches who they are and where they come from through tracking mobile data.

The system itself took three years to build at a cost of €3m (US$3.5m) and it is hoped that the data it produces will help create a more sustainable tourism plan for Venice.

Timing in travel

Another use of smart technology can be in managing crowds through time slots, limiting the duration of a visit to an attraction. This can reduce waiting times for visitors, minimise environmental impacts and result in a better experience for tourists.

Already prior to Covid, world famous attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, the Reichstag in Berlin, Stonehenge and the “Top of the Rock” in New York City were allotting time slots for visitors. Machu Picchu in Peru in 2019 was one of the most recent to launch timed ticketing slots. These days, admission is only allowed for up to four hours with no re-entry so as to better manage its inbound visitors.

In 2020, GetYourGuide unveiled its application software named “beat the crowds”. This measured waiting times and occupancy levels at attractions in real time through sensor technology. This data is then utilised to help forecast waiting times, providing information to both the attraction and directly to the consumer through its app.

In the past, travel agents servicing large groups have complained when attractions limit the duration of a visit, as hosting large groups can considerably add to planning time. Therefore, a system such as this that tracks entry in real-time could have benefits all round for the guides, tourists and the attraction itself.

London has hooked up this kind of smart tourist data with that of its public transport system, offering tourists an official city guide app created in partnership with Transport for London. The app uses real-time data feeds to guide visitors around the city’s top tourist locations in the most efficient way possible via bus, train and river services.

Slow tourism, not overtourism

Good timing is everything. But tourism doesn’t always have to be a mad dash to pack everything into a two-day city break.

“Slow Tourism” is where tourists stay in one destination for a longer period. GlobalData’s industry analysts assess that this trend will persist for at least the short term post-pandemic. Because of Covid, GlobalData believes travellers now want to interact with fewer people and to not feel overwhelmed by restrictions and fear of contracting the virus.

“Concepts such as community-based tourism, rural tourism, and homestay tourism have a significant role in slow tourism, highlighting quality over quantity while encouraging socially sustainable tourism practices,” say the researchers in their overtourism report.

“This trend grew in popularity so much during the pandemic that major players such as Booking.com introduced two new rate plans to satisfy the need for longer stays.”

The weekly rate plan from Booking.com requires a minimum length of stay of seven nights, and for the monthly rate plan a length of stay of 28 nights is the minimum requirement.

“As the impact of Covid-19 looks likely to drag on well into 2021, travelers will be looking to travel less frequently, but stay for longer, meaning that lodging providers need to now be creating rate plans for extended stays in order to offer increased value,” write the analysts.

Local feedback loop

Aside from smart tourism, Venice is also trailblazing in another area. According to Marco Gasparinetti, spokesman for Venice residents’ rights campaign Gruppo 25 Aprile, after Covid there are now 8,000 vacant premises in the city that could be converted into low-cost housing or workspaces.

Gasparinetti says that landlords have already started offering former Airbnb properties with contracts measured in years, rather than weeks or months. This greater focus on the local community, which has been partially forced by the pandemic, could actually benefit tourism in the long-term.

“When Venice is overcrowded, it devalues the experience for tourists,” report the GlobalData researchers. “With more locals on the streets and fewer tourists going forward, overcrowding will be less of an issue and will make the destination more attractive for higher-spending tourists, who often seek higher levels of authenticity.”

Second cities as first choice

Promoting second city tourism for destinations can enable a more regional spread of tourism. This spreads economic benefits and minimises environmental degradation in concentrated areas.

Many destination management organisations (DMOs) such as Visit Britain, the Netherlands Tourism Board and Prague City tourism have promoted second-city destinations in a bid to disperse travellers throughout the country.

Overtourism and the nuclear option

If none of the above work, then there is always the nuclear option of banning tourists.

Thailand’s Maya Bay was closed indefinitely in 2018 having been overrun by visitors after being made popular by the hit film The Beach in 2000. Typically receiving over 5,000 visitors per day, double the carrying capacity of 2,400 according to the Thai Environment Ministry, the bay became rapidly overcrowded.

“This put immense pressure on the fragile marine ecosystem, polluted the once crystal-clear waters, harmed wildlife and destroyed coral reefs leading Thailand’s National Parks Department (NPD) to ban tourism to the bay,” reports GlobalData.

Since its closure the fish population has risen by 200%, coral nurseries are thriving and wildlife such as black-tip reef sharks and seabirds have returned. The closure is now being reconsidered as the opening of the Bay, albeit at a drastically reduced capacity, could bring a much-needed boost for the Thai economy in post pandemic travel.

At the time the move by Thai authorities to ban tourists was seen as a strict enforcement to mitigate overtourism. Since then, various attractions in destinations worldwide such as Boracay Island (Philippines) and the Mermaid Polls in Matapouri (New Zealand) have shuttered off tourism to help heal environmental areas, and these are not likely to be the last.

Those wanting to trek Snowdonia may be wiser doing it sooner rather than later – as long as they all don’t go at once.

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