I hate being a tourist, but a recent discussion with tourism experts reminded me that I am one whether I like it or not. It’s important to remember how nuanced tourism is for any given destination.
I have no patience for crowds or waiting in lines. If there’s a line at the coffee shop, I go home. If there are people waiting outside a restaurant, forget it.
Most of all, I can’t stand crowds at tourist attractions. I went to the Louvre with my dad once and we lasted about .2 seconds at the Mona Lisa before we got the hell out and hit the nearest crepe cart. Name a major tourist attraction in any given city I’ve visited, and odds are I’ve never seen it in person.
But tourism is a delicate, nuanced thing, and the issues behind global overtourism are not black and white. I was reminded of that recently when I heard a panel of speakers tackle this topic at the International Society of Hospitality Consultants meeting in Vienna.
Here are some of the interesting things I learned:
Tourism can’t go away
This is simple and fundamental but worth mentioning first: Speakers reminded us that in many cases, tourism dollars are the only way regions, cities or specific locations can make money and survive. Regulations can’t be one-size-fits-all.
This speaks truth to me when I think about my own home, Cleveland. Tourism dollars have resulted in lots of improvements to my rust belt city, and I love seeing sightseeing tours out and about in the city. Crowds in a hot dog shop in New York City drive me bonkers, but crowds in a hot dog shop in Cleveland make me happy.
Overtourism vs. overcrowding
Christophe de Bruyn, CEO of THR Tourism, Hospitality & Recreation Advisors, called overtourism “a holistic concept.”
“Overtourism can be seen as overcrowding, but it’s not just that,” he said. “You need to look at very specific locations and places. Indicators like number of tourists give us some information, but you need to go deeper.”
Susanne Kraus-Winkler, president of the Austrian Professional Hotel Association, preferred the term “unbalanced tourism,” explaining that it depends on what kind of tourists visit which destinations and do what, at what time.
“Consider when tourism is unbalanced toward the place’s residents, and also unbalanced toward tourists themselves,” she said. “In Venice, the tourists are hijacking the city. That’s what unbalanced means.”
Think about your destination as a product
Norbert Kettner, CEO of Vienna Tourist Board, talked a lot about how big cities manage tourism, given the reality that “in a big city, life together (between residents and tourists) is negotiated every day.”
That idea of tourists and residents in daily negotiations made a lot of sense to me: When you live in a city, you expect tourists. Where those negotiations break down are at times when the tourist crush makes life for residents worse.
Should residents always “win” those negotiations? That requires balance too, Kettner said.
“London and Paris will never have complaints about too many people because they’re global cities and used to other people,” he said. “What we can do in destination management is adjust our marketing. A city is a product—we can regulate the product and adjust the marketing.”
Regulation can be tough
But that regulation can be tough, since tourism involves multiple stakeholders.
Speakers pointed to Barcelona’s recent efforts to curb overtourism, which included a moratorium on hotel development and renovation.
“We reached that situation because there were too many Airbnbs and private accommodations and low-end hotels, so the mayor made the decision to stop projects,” de Bruyn said. “That was ridiculous. They stopped a (major) hotel project even though they weren’t the ones creating bad behavior in the city. Those projects were stopped, and now (the city loses) jobs and revenue.”
One stakeholder’s hate can be another stakeholder’s love. Hoteliers may dislike the hassle of cruise guests, while their restaurateur counterparts rely on that business, for example.
Compromises like these make sense to me, because theoretically destinations can achieve a balance that works for most stakeholders. But theory and practice are rarely the same.
The best quote that came out of the discussion was from Kettner. He said, “We like to think, ‘I’m not a tourist; I’m a temporary local,’ but that’s not true. We’re all tourists and that’s OK. But we have to manage it.”
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