Overtourism: Hoax or serious problem?
Overtourism: Hoax or serious problem?
25 JANUARY 2018 8:13 AM

Whatever the case, responsible hotel development cannot be blamed and should not be restricted. 

One of the new rallying cries among some economists, analysts and social activists is overtourism—or the idea that since some global destinations are becoming so overrun by tourists, brakes need to be applied to future development, including hotels.

While there is some merit to this issue, the blame can’t be applied to the hotel industry, which by and large has been responsible in its development activities during the last decades. Of course, to be fair, new hotel development has recently been constrained more by the effects of the recession starting in 2008 and changes to the financial sector than it has by the social conscientiousness of the development community.

But the powers that be—whether they are global, regional or local—need to dig deeper into the issue and, if necessary, make sane and rational decisions that won’t hurt owners, operators and employees of the tourism industry.

The World Travel and Tourism Council last month released an exhaustive study of the overtourism issue and offered five recommendations on how to control overcrowding at some tourist hotspots. Some of the ideas make sense—such as limiting access to certain places and attractions and encouraging tourists to visit alternative sites and during low and shoulder seasons. Others might be effective but difficult to implement—such as adjusting pricing to balance supply and demand.

The one recommendation I take exception to calls for regulating the supply of accommodations. While not all countries in the world are based on capitalism, most of them are, and such a proposal runs counter to basic economic freedoms companies and entrepreneurs enjoy in most places in the world.

The power of supply and demand in the world of development has worked well for hundreds of years, and it should be allowed to continue to be the ultimate remedy for any kind of economic and social challenge, such as too many tourists wanting to visit a city, historical spot or beach.

As the WTTC report points out, there is no denying the fact that worldwide tourism is exploding and visitors from everywhere want to go to the most-desirable destinations—often all at the same time. Cities such as Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venice have been overrun with tourists, causing consternation and even protests from some locals—a bit of irony because those same tourists clogging the streets of Barcelona are spending a lot of money in bars, restaurants, shops and hotels.

The problem is concentrated in a handful of destinations. WTTC data shows the top 20 country destinations will add more arrivals by 2020 (an additional 121 million visitors) than will the remaining 59 countries studied (72 million additional arrivals).

Also, calling for control or even a moratorium on new hotel construction, as this New York newspaper columnist does, would only address one aspect of the problem. And besides, in many markets and countries, levels of hotel development are well within reason. 

In the U.S., for example, despite a flourishing economy and rising levels of travel, STR forecasts hotel supply will increase a manageable 2% in 2018.

Several other non-hotel-related factors contribute to overcrowding in some destinations. One, of course, is the rapid growth of Airbnb and other sharing economy accommodations services. Whereas hotel supply in a destination is finite at a point in time, the inventory of sharing economy facilities can increase exponentially or quickly decrease over a very short time period.

Likewise, growth in the cruise industry has also had an impact on overcrowding in some tourism hotspots. If you’ve ever been in San Juan, Puerto Rico or St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands when a cruise ship arrives in port, you know how the crush of day-trippers can spoil what are otherwise very desirable destinations.

The Cruise Line Industry Association forecasts that 25.3 million will take cruise vacations in 2018, up from 15.8 million in 2007. Capacity is growing quickly, too, with 26 new ships to launch in 2018 and 97 more vessels in the water through 2026.

The thirst for travel will continue to increase, and that’s a good thing for the global economy and for strengthening of understanding among cultures. The United Nations World Tourism Organization reports that more than 901 million people traveled internationally between January and October 2017, up 7% over the same period a year before. That robust growth is expected to continue into 2018 and beyond.

Clearly, travel is a high priority for many global citizens, and as world economies improve, more people will be able to travel beyond their borders. And while overcrowding and its ill effects are a challenge, it’s important for political and economic leaders to not lose sight of the global importance of tourism.

Ed Watkins, former editor-at-large for HNN, is a freelance writer with 40 years’ experience covering the business of the hotel industry.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Hotel News Now or its parent company, STR and its affiliated companies. Bloggers published on this site are given the freedom to express views that may be controversial, but our goal is to provoke thought and constructive discussion within our reader community. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.

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