Finding the right balance as tourism recovers

In the months leading up to the pandemic, overtourism was a regular topic in the travel media. Now, as borders re-open and tourists regain their confidence, is this challenge likely to return and if so, what can we do about it?

Crowded beach. Credit: Hectojcm

As travel continues its tumultuous recovery, we might be cautiously optimistic of an evolution occurring in our sector to a more balanced model that takes destination needs into account. There are however, many challenges ahead, including the need for a change in mindset and mandate – so that tourism becomes a means to an end and not an end in itself. For those DMOs and companies that are leading the evolution, there is a hunger for practical knowledge: HOW should we now do things? We urgently need innovation, with new measures of success, more data sharing, new collaborations, and new skillsets such as impact management, climate action planning and financing, risk profiling, and community engagement.

In response we are now working in partnership with Cornell University to develop a new online course designed to equip destination professionals with the knowledge and skills urgently needed to manage tourism in the 21st Century. The course is borne out of analysis from our joint 2019 report, Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, which highlighted a gap in fostering the talent, capacity, and leadership required to manage the greener and more efficient and equitable destinations of the future.

Invisible burdenThe Invisible Burden report documented how, before the pandemic hit, many destinations were buckling under the strain of ever-increasing tourist numbers. Natural and cultural assets were being damaged and in some places there were protests from residents, angry at the rising cost of living and deteriorating quality of life. Then, as borders closed in response to the pandemic and international travel came to a virtual halt, many of these same destinations suffered the devastating impacts of the loss of their tourism economy.  Millions of people lost their livelihoods and employment, social and conservation initiatives lost funding and national parks lost their income. Meanwhile, displaced tourists flocked to more local, rural destinations, bringing with them new challenges for infrastructure and the environment. Now, as borders re-open and tourists regain their confidence, how can destinations reliant on tourism build their capacity to manage its impacts and find the right balance between the two extremes of over and under tourism?

One of the key underlying reasons for the Invisible Burden we identified in our report was that the local capacity to manage the cost of tourist demand, particularly at peak times, was being hindered by a lack of quality analysis. As a result, destinations were faced with financing additional infrastructure for energy, waste and the protection of natural and cultural resources without recompense from the tourism economy.  Tourism’s ‘costs’ are simply not being recognised or accounted for.

Cancun provides a case in point. Its development as a beach resort offered substantial economic gain, which was followed by rapidly increasing deficits.  As tourism grew so did infrastructure costs, but without recompense from the tourism economy and without measures to safeguard local culture or natural assets. For example, Mexican researchers documented that only 30% of sewage in the Cancun region generated by tourists and locals was treated, leaving contaminated water to flow directly into the groundwater, the sea and the region’s famous and fragile cenotes. After our report was published, in April 2021, a tourism tax of 224 pesos (approx. €10) has been introduced “to bring in additional endowments for social development and biodiversity support to Mexico’s diving and snorkeling attraction, the mesoamerican reef.”

Another good example of the Invisible Burden is the escalation of tourism’s carbon emissions.  So far, the growth in tourism has far outstripped the decarbonisation of tourism operations and has accelerated global carbon emissions. Neither responsible travel behaviour nor technological improvements have been able to offset the increase of tourism’s carbon footprint.  Still, in 2022, the impact of these emissions is not being accounted for. However, last year we helped develop and launch (at COP26) the UN-backed Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, and now over 500 signatories (businesses and destinations) from nearly 80 countries have committed to creating climate action plans and measuring and reporting on progress towards halving emissions by 2030. Momentum for the Glasgow Declaration continues to build, with some new and big-name signings to come, and all travel and tourism organisations should consider joining no matter where they are on their climate action journey.

town of vailIt is perhaps the destinations at the extremes – that either saw huge growth in visitor numbers or had respite from overtourism during the pandemic – that have felt most keenly the need to plan for a more community-focussed style of tourism.  A surge in domestic tourism in response to travel restrictions meant that destinations prized for their natural beauty and outdoor activities saw a rapid increase in visitor numbers, leading to an escalation of impacts on local communities.  Many are now seeking a longer-term solution, for example Vail in the US, which is now working with the Travel Foundation amongst others to create one of the USA’s first destination stewardship plans putting residents’ values and goals at its heart.

We have also recently seen the European Commission formally aligned with the destination management evolution, recognising the need for greener, more resilient tourism that moves away from relying on counting visitor numbers as a measure of success. Its recent report ‘Transition Pathway for Tourism’ recommends the adoption of new sustainable key performance indicators for tourism, including data on the social, environmental and economic impacts of tourism.  Amongst other things, the report highlights the need for shared benchmarks for environmental footprints of tourism products and services, as well as a code of conduct for digital data sharing, skills partnerships and common guidance for destinations on climate action plans.

It is clear that the desire for international travel has not gone away and this means that overtourism is likely to remain a critical theme as the industry recovers.  The pandemic brought with it an increased awareness of some of the impacts of tourism and the need to rethink the tourism model, but there is still a long way to go to ensure that tourism’s ‘invisible burden’ is fully recognised and accounted for. The need remains for new metrics and new systems to account for tourism’s benefits and impacts, new skills and tools to enable organisations to take action and bold plans for preserving assets, so that life-giving natural capital, essential social and community resources and invaluable global heritage are all safeguarded.

The principal author of the Invisible Burden report, Megan Epler Wood, is also leading the development of the new online course which will be made available to a global audience later this year. At least 1,000 participants, from target countries – where affordability might otherwise be a barrier to enrolment – will be granted free access to the program, through a process supported by the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations (UNWTO) and the German development agency GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit). You can find out more and register your interest on our website.

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