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Expert’s Voice: Overcoming overtourism – beyond symbolism & anti-tourism rhetoric

by | May 17, 2019 | Experts

Italy’s leaning Tower of Pisa draws hoards of visitors all year round.

For tourism to be a welcome source of employment for the foreseeable future, communities need to work out how they are going to share their cities, writes European Tourism Association Secretary General Tim Fairhurst

Too much demand is a problem most industries would want. For tourism, it comes with multiple challenges, not least public perception. For it to be a welcome source of employment for the foreseeable future, communities need to work out how they are going to share their cities.

The urgency is clear; tourism flows continue to grow and the tension between short-term political pressure and the long-term planning needed for sustainable solutions is compounded by regulatory fragmentation, making effective solutions more elusive.

How symbolic responses are counter-productive

Anti-tourism rhetoric hits the headlines, not because there had been a sudden and dramatic growth in tourism, but because of protests and complaints about the real – or perceived – impacts of tourism.

Social media feeds of local politicians are quickly filled with photographs of illegally parked coaches; less visible is the hard work of finding solutions as officials struggle to reconcile political will with practical reality, and the complex web of economic interdependence between visitors and the wider local economy.

Symbolic responses can be counter-productive. In Rome and Paris, traffic congestion and pollution has very little to do with low-emission private coaches which make much more efficient use of road space than other vehicles, but they are the prime target of regulatory control because “something must be done” and coaches are a visible manifestation of tourism. Public transport, in most cases, is not yet able to absorb the additional volume, and often presents significant accessibility and risk management challenges for operators legally responsible for the clients’ welfare.

In Amsterdam, organised walking tours have minimal impact on anti-social behaviour yet have been excluded from historic areas of Amsterdam from 7pm, contributing to overall footfall in the restricted area as group visitors often return in the evening. Efforts at raising revenue and managing flow, such as the dagtoeristenbelasting (day tourist tax) levied on cruise-ship passengers has displaced docking to Ijmuiden and Rotterdam, lost revenue, and added road traffic as excursions to Amsterdam are run from more remote ports.

Other sources of controversy, such as the peer-to-peer rental market, are subject to a wide spectrum of opinion. On the one hand, average duration of stay and commission structure may leave more spend in-destination; on the other, the long-term private rental sector has been transformed, causing a hollowing out of the full-time residential community in some areas. Most local policy makers have the regulatory authority to manage the activity and need better data so they can devise an appropriate response. ‘Same activity, same rules’ is an understandable position from the heavily regulated hotel sector.

Tourism must generate sustainable employment

We represent businesses and organisations who have a vested interest in ensuring popular destinations remain appealing and viable places to live, work and visit. For tourism to remain a valued part of the European economy and generate useful employment it must be sustainable: economically, socially, and environmentally.

However, we believe these issues can be managed successfully and sensitively through collaboration with destinations, academic experts and other industry partners working to develop tourism in the interests of residents, visitors and businesses.

Cities are by their nature dynamic environments; they are supposed to be busy and crowded, so we need to strike a happy balance. Many museums, galleries, theatres, opera houses, cafes, restaurants and shops would all struggle to exist without tourism and we need to work with local authorities to ensure they don’t damage well-managed parts of the visitor economy. We need honest debates about the compromises and resources needed for tourism to develop.

For many destinations, the problem is one of capacity management and the issue is coping with demands at peak times. This is why campaigns such as the Balearics’ Better in Winter campaign is welcome – as it aims to promote the destination and keep tourism facilities open throughout the year in order to smooth out high-season peaks and spread visitor numbers over shoulder seasons.

In government and local authority environments, the travel trade industry is often not well understood, so a primary objective for us is to improve understanding of tourism in those sectors.

Helping destinations optimise capacity

In March, the European Tourism Association (ETOA) formed a partnership with an academic network called The Centre for Expertise, Leisure and Hospitality’ (CELTH) whose work closely matches ETOA’s work on sustainability and local engagement.

We are running events and debates with local authorities in Paris and hotspots in Spain and Italy on how the industry can work to manage tourism capacity better and how it can agree, promote and implement good practice and good product development.

Environmental sustainability requires political will. Subsequent action inevitably includes investment. Mitigation by business and consumers through waste reduction and improved efficiency must be matched by improved infrastructure to enable more sustainable choices.

All destinations can optimise their capacity. Along with low season travel (Chinese visitors, for example, like to travel in February and October as they are aligned with New Year and National Day) buyers look for new product. This matches destinations’ strategic requirement to divert visitor flow away from the traditionally well-known spots.

As demand for tourism grows, so does the opportunity for product diversification and smart capacity management. Each destination has its unique needs and interests, but we can learn from one another to get the balance right.

We know that this is still a work in progress, but we know the key to success in sustainable development in tourism is to bring all interested stakeholders together both from within and outside the tourism industry and we need to move on from principles we can all agree to, to actionable policy that makes sense for the community, visitors and industry.


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― About the Author ―

Tim Fairhurst

Tim Fairhurst

Director of Policy & Secretary General of ETOA

Tim Fairhurst has been Director of Policy and Secretary General of the European Tourism Association (ETOA) for 10 years.

ETOA, based in Brussels, works at European, national and regional levels promoting the interests of tourism in Europe, and raising awareness of tourism’s wider socio-economic benefit for destinations, business, local communities and visitors.


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