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Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding In Tourism Destinations

The World Travel & Tourism Council along with McKinsey&Company has published a report on Overcrowding in destinations, which is by no means new—but it seems to be coming to a head in popular destinations across the globe. Travel Bulletin Middle East gives you a glimpse of the report….

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Travel & Tourism (T&T) is one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors. In 2017, T&T will contribute nearly US$7.9 trillion to the global economy, or 10.2% of global gross domestic product (GDP).But while some places capture a significant share of the T&T pie, others barely get a nibble. Moreover, some destinations are in danger of being loved to death. After all, it is hard to maintain a sense of wonder before Michelangelo’s Pieta when elbow to elbow with strangers.

With the world getting richer—one billion more people will be in the global middle class by 20302—and travel becoming ever more accessible, T&T will continue to grow. More places will likely be threatened by their own popularity in environmental, social, or aesthetic terms. Some governments are taking action. The number of visitors to Iceland nearly quadrupled from 2010 to 2016, leading the government to limit access to some fragile natural resources because of concerns about environmental damage. In 2016, the government of Thailand, citing effects of too many people, banned public access to three popular islands: Koh Khai Naiin, Koh Khai Nok, and Koh Khai Nui. So it is fair to ask: Could overcrowding threaten more of the world’s natural and cultural wonders?

The term ‘overcrowded’ is imprecise, and the world’s great attractions draw crowds for a reason. We would not want to dampen the expression of human curiosity that is the basis of tourism. Still, industry players—and travelers themselves—widely acknowledge the problem. To date, little has been done to systematically understand and address it. Why?

Overcrowding is not exactly alike in any two destinations. We focus on five types of problems associated with tourist overcrowding: alienated local residents, a degraded tourist experience, overloaded infrastructure, damage to nature, and threats to culture and heritage. Some places endure two or more of these problems at the same time, but once localities determine their most important issues, they can select the most suitable solutions. Overcrowding is currently more a matter of sensibility than data. Not everyone will agree when popularity tips into overcrowding. To provide an empirical foundation for destinations and help local leaders assess their situation and identify vulnerabilities, we created a diagnostic based on simple, widely available indicators, including tourist arrivals, social media reviews, seasonality, and pollution.

Overcrowding is easier to prevent than to recover from. Good tourism management practices and stringent planning are key to the sustainable development of tourism. Our research and interviews with tourism experts highlighted the following four best practices— regardless of whether a destination is facing overcrowding:

  1. Build a comprehensive fact base and update it regularly. Countries, regions, cities, and sites must begin by gathering detailed data and developing their analytics capabilities to inform and refine tourism strategies.
  2. Conduct rigorous, long-term planning to encourage sustainable growth. Destinations need to shift their focus from promotion to broader planning and management challenges. Those with a clear, long-term strategy built upon a solid fact base are more likely to achieve sustainable growth and mitigate—or even prevent—overcrowding.
  3. Involve all sections of society—commercial, public, and social. The perfect data and strategy can only work if all stakeholders are engaged throughout the process. Tourism authorities should create committees and other formal mechanisms to work with stakeholders, including local communities, to discuss problems and devise solutions.
  4. Find new sources of funding. Once data, strategy, and stakeholders are aligned, destinations can explore a growing number of innovative approaches to finance investments in infrastructure and sustainability.

There is no easy fix to overcrowding. Once destinations have sorted out the fact base, strategy, stakeholders, and funding, they must then identify and execute practical actions, both for the long and the short term. Among the possibilities:

  1. Smooth visitors over time. Many destinations suffer from imbalances of visitors during certain seasons, days of the week, and times of day, as well as during headline events. Destinations must develop tactics to “smooth” these imbalances so communities and businesses can continue to reap the benefits of tourism.
  2. Spread visitors across sites. Spreading visitors geographically can help distribute tourists more evenly across residential and under-visited areas and thwart bottlenecks in overcrowded locations.
  3. Adjust pricing to balance supply and demand. Pricing can be an effective way to better align demand with supply. But while increasing the costs of visiting a destination or site is likely to limit the number of visitors, it also raises considerations of elitism and the ability of domestic tourists to access their own heritage.
  4. Regulate accommodation supply. Some destinations place direct controls on the supply of tourism accommodation—including beds in both hotels and short-term rentals.
  5. Limit access and activities. When overcrowding reaches a critical stage, the tactics above may not be enough to mitigate or recover from it. As such, some destinations are limiting or even banning certain tourist activities.

The findings of the report build on the analysis of tourism data as well as research on specific destinations and dozens of interviews with tour operators, tourism authorities, hospitality providers, airlines, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and think tanks.

Each destination needs to develop, implement, and monitor its own set of solutions, but it need not start from scratch. We hope this report provides the global tourism community with a starting point for this journey.

The Dynamics of Growth

Each of the four major reasons for the growth of global tourism—affluence, demographic shifts, convenience, and awareness—has the potential to contribute to overcrowding in its own way.

Affluence

The growing middle class in many countries means that more people have money to travel. Visa, the credit card company, projects that by 2025, more than 280 million households will be traveling internationally each year. India and China alone will create more than 900 million new members of the global middle and upper classes between 2015 and 2025. Many travelers from these countries prefer to take shorter trips; in the Maldives, for example, Chinese visitors stay an average of three to four days, less than the overall visitor average of six days. Thus the travel patterns of these visitors tend to take the form of a “bucket list” approach focused on the most accessible and renowned sites.

Demographic shifts

The millennial generation—defined as those born between the early 1980s and the end of the 1990s—are beginning to enter their peak earning years and are using this income to travel differently than previous generations. Millennials are already traveling in significant numbers, and these numbers are likely to grow. One report found that 72% of US millennial plan to take more trips next year, compared with 59% of Gen Xers and 40% of baby boomers. The same report found that millennial are more likely than previous generations to use social media and technology. On the one hand, this could lead to them choosing to have non-traditional travel experiences, which they say they value, and thus lead them away from the most-popular destinations. On the other hand, it may nudge them toward already-crowded sites, given their ability to quickly check and navigate reviews.

In addition, given longer life expectancies, more people will be able to travel for more years. Visa projects that the number of trips made by travelers aged 65 and up will double from 2015 to 2025, to 180 million.

Convenience

The use of online travel research and booking tools, paired with continued supply growth, such as home-sharing services, is opening new opportunities and destinations. Almost two-thirds of leisure travelers use online resources. At the same time, travel is becoming more affordable; in the United States, for example, domestic air fares fell 44% (in inflation-adjusted terms) from 1980 to 2016. Globally, the number of annual air passenger journeys is projected to grow 3.7% per year through 2035.

Awareness

Rating and review sites, social media, destination rankings, and other channels are creating and reinforcing interest in travel, particularly to top destinations and the most popular sites. Online reviews (similar to visitor counts) tend to be concentrated on the most famous attractions; in Stockholm, for example, the top five attractions account for 42% of TripAdvisor reviews. The median across the 68 cities in our diagnostic was 30 percent. In addition, for endangered destinations such as the Great Barrier Reef, awareness of the threat can lead more people to visit “while they still can,” which can exacerbate the problem.

The T&T sector is booming. But the effects, both positive and negative, are unevenly distributed, with several of the world’s prized cities and destinations feeling particular strain under the weight of tourist footfall. Leaders and citizens in these destinations can tell they are overcrowded or on the verge of it—but many destinations are struggling with how to quantify the symptoms.