News An enormous tourism opportunity - or a disaster?

Published on Tuesday, September 26, 2017, in "Visions on Sustainable Tourism"

On World Tourism Day - the industry may be in existential crisis

Inhabitants of fabulous tourism shrines are in revolt against marauding tourism hordes. Why has it come to this, and what can be done to make tourism good again?

It is evident that there is a problem when tourists become a cause of resentment and anger in places that should benefit from their visit. One thing is absolutely clear - in many of the world's top destinations there are simply too many tourists, and when there are too many tourists nobody, neither the local community nor the visitor, benefits from the experience.

So in Venice and in Barcelona, in Dubrovnik and in Amsterdam and many, many more tourist pilgrimage places, tourists are now regaled with demonstrations, with anti-tourism graffiti and posters and with often ill-concealed resentment. The hospitality once offered has now often turned into open hostility. In the last 50 years international tourism has increased from less than 200 million international arrivals a year to over 1.3 billion. Great for the tourism industry, and great, you may think for the growing number of billions that are finally able to enjoy the benefits of international travel.

But, for the communities in the destinations - not so great, particularly if their narrow ancient streets, their holy places, their restaurants are crowded with ill-behaving people. And not so great if their kids can't afford to rent homes because these short-term visitors pay way over the odds. And, for the world, it's probably not great either - 1.3 billion people a year travelling around for their leisure obviously cause lots of seemingly unnecessary emissions which may heat up the earth even more frighteningly than our necessary activity already is. Particularly as this massive number is forecast to double again well within the next 20 years. And, it's such a great pity that it's worked out like this. Tourism has enormous potential to make the world a better place - it has the potential to help impoverished places develop, for local communities to get better economic, social and cultural opportunities, and to cherish and steward local built and natural environments. Moreover, tourism can do all this whilst offering life-enhancing opportunities to both tourists and to their hosts.

But all is not yet lost. To understand what the solution is, it is necessary to look for the cause of the problem.

Firstly, it is nice to know that there is, in fact plenty of room for all - currently the massive tourism overcrowding (and the anger) is so far only happening in some hundred highly marketed destinations. More than 99% of tourists go to less than 1% of destinations. There is plenty of space in other sensational places. The fact is that it suits the tourism industry to back well-known winners and not spend a lot of time on places that need a bit of commitment to discover. Hence the 'Top 10 places to see" that drive desire for the most iconic places. Our world is big, there are many undiscovered places, much, much more to see.

Secondly, well over 80% of our holiday emissions relate to transportation - cruises and air travel are at the top of this list - both much more polluting than road and rail and public transportation. Air travel is a particular problem because in 1947 the UN (again in the search for world harmony through capitalism!) organized the Chicago Convention which created the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and banned any fuel tax on airlines. So they all fly fuel-tax free.

Thirdly, the people that are meant to manage your destination experience - the local, national and regional tourist boards - have historically judged their success in terms of 'footfall' or a count of visitors - the more people the better their seeming 'success'. Whereas actually the more visitors, the more it costs public services, the more the local environment is challenged, and the more social problems happen. Look at any destination that is a tourism 'success' and you will see that it attracts many social problems.

This is the UN Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development - a time when the tourism industry could well be under the spotlight and solutions sought. One solution is offered by the global Green Destinations Standard for responsible tourism, and the Top100 Sustainable Destinations that have adopted this standard because it empowers them to develop and manage their tourism for the advantage of both themselves and for their visitors, that they may all enjoy relaxing, fulfilling experiences. Tourism destinations are at the very core of tourism industry power. The biggest, most powerful brands in the tourism world are tourism destinations themselves, and there are a myriad of them.

So, to take advantage of the rapidly growing tourism industry for the benefit of their local communities and their visitors would appear to be a no-brainer. To do this, destinations need to establish proper destination management, adopt a responsible tourism standard, and understand what they want tourism to do for them. If tourism is to be good again it is no time for destinations to be ineffectual - they need to take their power and manage it. Tourism has become a big-time local political issue with potential big-time benefits. As far as airlines are concerned, they really need to live up to their responsibilities before the media tide turns - they should pay tax on their fuel and they should pay an emissions charge on the basis of "The polluter pays". Same for cruise lines, that also have been criticized for tax avoidance. This will increase prices and maybe reduce carryings but it may also help make travel something that is worth treasuring and respecting. The global booking sites (, Airbnb, Tripadvisor, etc) make most of their money in the top destinations with more and higher-priced accommodations, so they have a clear financial interest in over-tourism. No wonder these are the destinations they continue to promote. But for their credibility it would be good if the corporations do more to show that they are not part of a sinister game.

There is a special responsibility for sites offering apartments in destinations that see rapidly increasing apartment prices. Airbnb and the others should accept and adopt their responsibility to help cap this increase, and enable the countries and cities to collect tax, and reduce social impacts for residents. So far, Airbnb acts if forced by the most powerful cities. It is time for leading countries, regions, cities and towns to get together and create a common front to engage the Airbnbs of this world. Tourists, are, of course the most important part of any deal. Most mass tourism at rock bottom prices is delivered to the market at the cost of the underpaid hospitality worker. Why not ask how much your chambermaid is paid? Or how much your hotel pays to (up to 30% of your money!). Try a new destination where there aren't hordes of tourists. Look for value rather than cheapness. Travel in a small group or independently. Research your destination rather than just arriving. Deal direct with a local tour operator. Travel by public transport and by train wherever possible. All this will ensure that you have a life-enhancing experience that you deserve, and will remember happily for a long time, rather than a cheap throw-away holiday.

At the occasion of World Tourism Day, the new 2017 Global Top 100 Sustainable destinations are meeting in Portugal. Let's all prepare for more ideas for the future.

Albert Salman, Leiden (NL), Valere Tjolle, Bath (UK)

Source Visions on Sustainable Tourism
Keywords Crisis and emergency management,
Target group(s) Destinations , Businesses , Travellers , Education, Research, Consultancy , NGOs, Partnerships, Networks , Governments & Administrations
Topics Destination Management , Good Governance & CSR