How can over-tourism be avoided?
I’ve recently been thinking about “over-tourism”, after having read this article (https://www.canberratimes.com.au/world/asia/china-s-tourism-boom-prompts-fears-that-bali-is-being-sold-cheap-20180813-p4zx5m.html). Bali is far from the only place having these types of issues. Other cities around the world, notably Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona, are also suffering from it.
It’s easy to say that local authorities should just apply laws that limit the impacts, and/or raise the costs of visiting. However, there are some obvious drawbacks to this. First of all, in developing nations, actually making laws stick can be very difficult. And, in common with their developed world counterparts, local authorities don’t necessarily have the money to do this.
Then there is the obvious economic hit. Tourism may actually cause a “Dutch disease”-type scenario where rising land prices and other costs force other employing industries to relocate, causing unemployment and economic hardship if tourism falters.
Another issue I can think of is that banning large groups – especially from particular countries – could lead to accusations of racism and diplomatic tensions.
Maybe a “visitor behaviour score” of some sort, based upon reputation, is needed. The Chinese government has developed a “Social Credit Score”, which actually limits access to travel if someone has broken minor laws (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/24/chinas-social-credit-system-bans-millions-travelling/). While I’m not suggesting the world copies this system, it’s worth remembering that similar data already exists on websites like AirBnB. And for all of the risks involved, it might help to limit the worst sorts of behaviour seen by (for example) British stag and hen parties across Europe (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelviews/5977979/Stag-parties-badly-behaved-Britons-is-a-price-Riga-must-pay.html) and Australians across Asia (https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/australian-tourists-risk-turning-japan-into-another-bali-20181019-p50aph.html).
But the fact remains that mass tourism can dramatically change locations. I think this is actually a central issue for our times – the idea of quality of life on a local level, and who gets to make the decisions about what happens there.
Marketing destinations as “far from the madding crowd” could appeal to many people who are looking for an antidote to noise and consumerism. However, social media can mean that even the most isolated places can become “flavour of the month” very quickly, and once there are photographs or videos of a location shared online, visitor numbers may stay elevated for a long time (https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewarnold/2018/01/24/heres-how-much-instagram-likes-influence-millennials-choice-of-travel-destinations/#7f0a02904eba). In the digital era, if a destination goes viral, then the tourist hordes are going to come, whether they are wanted or not. If local communities do not plan for such groups, then large numbers of tourists will still cause damage.
So, give the constraints above, how could a destination protect itself from losing what makes it special for both residents and visitors?
One way to do it is to charge sky-high prices, an approach that carries both risk and opportunity for both business owners and communities. A shift to higher prices will cause economic disruption if done quickly, but will also cut visitor numbers sharply.
What if one way around it was to actually develop a membership-based website or network? If individual properties did not actually have their own websites, or not even show up on Google, could this be a way to advertise to a certain group of visitors without knowledge of it spreading more widely? After all, in theory, management has the right to refuse service to patrons – but in practice that’s likely much more difficult. However, if a property simply advertised itself in a different way, it could argue it was simply marketing to its desired customer base.
More broadly, I wonder if marketing the concept of secrecy could work. It’s not that the idea is brand new; after all, Australian airlines have had “mystery flights” for decades, and it exists elsewhere (http://globetrendermagazine.com/2017/09/02/mystery-travel-save-tourism/). But what if it became a mainstream concept, with a cultural shift involved? Imagine coming to an arrangement with tourism operators that you wouldn’t share details of their business or even their city online, but only through word of mouth.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but what if such secrecy at various levels helped keep tourism destinations in balance? I like to think it would make a difference in many places, although I’ll admit it’s probably too late for many existing locations. Maybe it could even become a movement.
What do you think – could it work?