Has tourism had its day?
Destination overcrowding is unpleasant for tourists and locals alike. We need to rethink our holidays.
by Freya Higgins-Desbiolles
Tourism and tourists are getting bad press. Complaints about the impact of backpackers in Asia, a ‘traffic jam’ of climbers on Everest, a mega cruise ship slamming into a Venetian wharf, and anti-tourism backlashes in Barcelona and Amsterdam suggest tourism has reached boiling point. But disdain for tourists has a long pedigree, at least as far back as the birth of mass tourism in the 1850s with Thomas Cook Tours in Europe.
With growing anxiety around climate change and mounting social tensions, is it now time to ask whether global tourism has had its day? At the heart of this tension is the number of countries that rely on tourism for their economic development and the sheer volume of tourists that now transit the globe: there were some 1.4 billion international trips in 2018.
Such volumes of tourists are facilitated by a globalised tourism sector featuring powerful corporations that can overwhelm popular destinations, causing ‘overtourism’, a situation in which a place exceeds its carrying capacity, in physical and/or psychological terms. It results in a deterioration of the tourism experience for visitors and a deterioration in quality of life for locals. Overtourism affects major cities, developing countries and remote, natural environments. Cheap flights, packaged holidays, daytripping, cruise ships and disruptions caused by the likes of Airbnb have all been blamed for these problems. Additional catalysts come from social media apps such as Instagram, where the posting of envy-inducing images has propelled certain destinations into the tourism stratosphere. This all leads to narrow tourism circuits that exacerbate overtourism.
Some destinations are now looking at regulations, tourist taxes, re-zoning, rationing and demarketing as strategies to combat overtourism. For example, Ko Phi Phi in Thailand has shut off access to Maya Bay for an indefinite period in order to allow environmental recovery. But such actions are often resisted by the tourism industry and governments that are hesitant to threaten ‘business as usual’.
Conventional wisdom recommends a multi-pronged approach to tackle overtourism. Tourists should be more responsible in their consumer choices, the industry should commit to sustainability, and governments and local councils should enact and enforce responsible approaches. But it can seem that, within the industry, commitment to change is limited. In response to questions on overtourism, travel analysts like Skift now present ‘undertourism’ as the new concern, working to capitalise on the overtourism scare to promote more places off the beaten track.
Business as usual will not work in a world facing an escalating climate emergency. Phenomena such as ‘flygskam’ (flight shame) indicate a growing public awareness of the way in which our travel choices impact on the environment. Tourism must adapt if it is to continue with its social licence to operate.
We need a strategy of ‘degrowing’ tourism that is part of a larger picture of approaching economies based on benchmarks of wellbeing rather than purely profit-driven expansion. As colleagues and I have proposed, we need to redefine and reorient tourism. It must be built around the needs and rights of local communities who reside in popular tourist destinations. We redefine tourism as the process of such communities inviting, receiving and hosting visitors for a limited duration, with the intention of benefiting from such actions. This reconfiguration places local communities at the heart of tourism.
Viewed from the busy streets of Barcelona, contemporary tourism has had its day. We need a new form, guided by locals and focused on wellbeing.
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 2 2019