There’s no doubt the tourism industry is growing at a rapid pace — and has been doing so for decades. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourist numbers have gone from 25-million international arrivals in 1950, to more than 1.3 billion in 2017. And the sector, which accounted for 10 per cent of the global economy in 2016, is projected to grow by approximately 3.3 per cent annually until 2030.
While its explosive growth has meant positive outlooks for industry stakeholders, it’s also had unintended consequences.
“Like all industries, if it’s not examined with open eyes and not looking at the results, you’re going to get things you don’t want,” says Elizabeth Becker, journalist and author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.
Becker explains that at the turn of the century, tourism wasn’t truly recognized as an industry — it was “stuck in this weird little niche/ghetto of hobbies/pastimes. Meanwhile, it was a trillion-dollar-plus industry.” And, with the industry left unchecked, destinations were “given over to tourists.”
“The tourism industry itself has really dropped the ball,” says Greg Klassen, partner at Vancouver-based Twenty31 Consulting. “Globally, we had lots of indicators five years ago that this was a creeping problem. But in 2018, the word ‘overtourism’ became one of the new words in the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning we now have language to describe something we never had before.” However, he notes the term’s misuse and overuse creates a new problem. “It starts to relegate tourism into some of those other dirty industries, like oil extraction and coal mining.”
The growing middle class, combined with the rise of low-cost travel services/platforms — including Airbnb and budget airlines — have served to exacerbate the effects. The short-term-rentals industry is pushing residents out of neighbourhoods in order to accommodate tourist demand. This reality has led to the formation of groups such as Canada’s Fairbnb.ca coalition, which estimated if Toronto’s currently on hold short-term-rental rules were enforced, up to 6,500 entire homes could be returned to the city’s long-term housing supply. Similar coalitions have also formed in other major tourist hubs, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and New York.
With the economy of certain neighbourhoods becoming tourism focused, shops and services, such as grocers, clinics and one-off shops are often pushed out in favour of “big fancy stores catering to tourists,” rather than residents, notes Becker.
And, the adverse effects of mass tourism have been even more damaging to developing nations.
“In this age of developing countries wanting to get rich quick, they turned to tourism,” adds Becker. “It [has been] upsetting communities and cultures, as well as economic balances and the environment.” She points to beaches that have been closed in Asia and tourist attractions and historic sites, which are now heavily regulated, such as Machu Picchu, as prime examples of the repercussions.
An example highlighted in The Travel Foundation’s report Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism is the Maldives. In 2015, 95 per cent of the estimated 155,000 tons of solid waste produced in the Maldives was caused by resorts. Due to inadequate waste-management practices, this tourism-related waste has had a documented impact on air and soil quality, as well as coral reefs and the local food chain. The destination’s brand image also took a hit when waste began washing up on tourist islands.
The problems caused by overtourism/mass tourism “run the gambit,” says Klassen, “anywhere from inconvenience to locals — meaning tourism is overtaking the charm of local places — to overwhelming historic places and sites people want to see, to all of the environmental impacts, like single-use plastics and air emissions.”
Both Becker and Klassen speak to the flawed nature of how many destinations measure tourism. As Becker explains, historically, “the only way [destinations] measured success was with the number of people who visited and how much money they spent.”
“The costs of tourism aren’t adequately accounted for when destinations target travellers,” adds Klassen. He suggests the true cost of visiting a place must account for the impact on the destination, including degradation of sites and impact on infrastructure and services. “If we really did the full-cost accounting, we would find lots of destinations are actually losing money.”
This sentiment is highlighted in The Travel Foundation’s report, which stresses the need for more holistic methods of measuring the impact of tourism that take into account the industry’s economic, tax, environmental and social impacts on a destination.
Coping with Growth
Effective destination management is a balancing act. “In some ways, it’s for the community itself to figure out what it wants to sustain; what it wants from the industry and from visitors,” says Becker. “Figure out what you want to sustain and then you’ll know what you can allow; [then] you can say, build this here, build this there, turn this into a nice bed and breakfast.”
Becker also stresses the importance of examining where a destination’s tourism dollars are going, because most of the money isn’t being spent locally. This is especially true in cases of “fly-by tourism” by which tourists pass through a destination — making use of its infrastructure — without significantly contributing to the local economy. An example Becker uses is cruise ships, which bring swarms of tourists to port destinations.
An increasingly common strategy for coping with this phenomena is tourist taxes, which are being considered or implemented in destinations such as Venice, Amsterdam, Bali, Edinburgh and New Zealand. The idea is that these added fees will deter some of the low-value travellers. In fact, earlier this year, Amsterdam’s newly implemented day-tourist tax of €8 per person led to four cruise lines announcing they would no longer stop in port.
Contemplation of sustainable tourism growth also brings into question the role of the tourist and what Klassen has termed Traveller Social Responsibility (TSR).
The Micronesian island of Palau addressed this through the creation of the Palau Pledge — a legal pledge stamped in visitors’ passport to promise to preserve and protect the fragile land, cultural and marine environment, which must be signed before they can enter the country.
Destinations that are managing tourism sustainably are using the industry as a tool for conservation of both natural and cultural assets. A key element of this involves educating visitors through tours and offerings to help them become advocates for preservation.
“There are destinations I’ve worked with that are using their tourism platform to sell a bigger idea of sustainability,” says Klassen, offering the example of the Parque das Aves bird sanctuary in Foz do Iguassu, Brazil, which he helped reposition as an advocacy organization.
In response to declining bird populations, the park, which welcomes more than 800,000 visitors per year, now focuses on environmental education and conservation.
“Visitors leave with a message they can take to their respective governments or [use to] make more informed decisions about where and how they’re investing their tourism dollars as well as [how] they’re living their daily lives,” he explains.
The Canadian Piece
As Destination Canada’s report Unlocking the Potential of Canada’s Visitor Economy outlines, Canada has significant potential for tourism growth, however, there are barriers that must be dealt with effectively to ensure it achieves its potential.
Cognizant of this, groups and organizations at all levels have begun developing strategies to tackle this issue and develop sustainable strategies for growth.
A unique example is the Victoria-based IMPACT Sustainability Travel & Tourism Conference, which launched in 2018 and represents a partnership between Destination Greater Victoria, Synergy Enterprises, Beattie Tartan Integrated Communications and Starrboard Enterprises.
“We wanted to create this safe space to talk about what sustainability looks like in the tourism industry,” says Deirdre Campbell, conference founder and managing director –
Canada at Beattie Tartan. “A lot of the tourism conferences…had a panel on sustainability, but they weren’t actually bringing people outside the industry into the room — into that conversation. We wanted to bring politicians, municipalities into the conversation…we wanted people who were involved in transportation, urban planners, [developers], architects — anybody who is really touched by tourism — to be part of the conversation.”
Although Canada is not grappling with mass tourism on the scale many European destinations are, it’s a growing concern. “There are pockets of Canada where overtourism is an issue…there’s far more demand than there is supply and the price points are going up,” says Klassen. “The potential outcome is that you start to price yourself out of the market for good.”
Another key challenge is ensuring tourism growth doesn’t dilute the quality of product Canada offers. As Campbell explains, crowding during peak times “impacts the overall experience for guests when they’re arriving and how they feel if they’re in a very, very busy [destination] and it’s tough for them to book, a restaurant [or] see an exhibit they were really excited about, because they come in high season…And then there’s also that tension between the resident and the visitor.”
There’s a need for “marketing or working with our travel-trade partners or tour operators to take some of that burden off of those crazy-busy days of the week [or seasons]…really smooth out that visitation curve into other times of the year,” says Klassen. “We need to brand the next 20 or 30 destinations in Canada. What’s the under-visited Banff? What are those mountain communities that can use more investment in tourism and development of tourism so we can disperse those [tourists] away from crowded areas during certain months, or certain weeks or certain days of the week. That would allow tourists to visit the next best destination.”
In order to build our industry sustainably, collaboration and visitor education is key, Campbell stresses. “It’s up to destinations and people in marketing to get the stories out about those areas and the best time of year to travel to them so [we’re] educating the traveller,” she explains. “Travellers today are sophisticated, they do their research, they often want to be responsible in how they travel and they can easily find that information about when is a good time [to visit and] mimic that [behaviour] — that can make a real difference.”
“Hotels have always been amazing at developing guest experiences and branding,” says Klassen. “[But,] we can work much more cleverly with operators…why aren’t we making better deals with the travel trade to say, ‘I’ll sell you this block in July, but you’ve got to buy a block in November.’”
“Let’s get the tour-operator community, the travel-trade community engaged in helping us disperse our travellers so we have a better shot at creating a tourism economy that’s more year round,” he adds.