Tourism can bring many benefits to a local community. Employment opportunities, funding for public works, preservation and protection of heritage sites just to name a few. Unfortunately, as the volume of tourism increases, so does pressure on the environment, infrastructure and with that the local population.

So when does enough become too much? How does doing something we love, that can provide so many benefits, destroy the thing we looking to revere?

In the Beginning…

Thomas Cook was the first to see the potential of tourism with the opening of a local railway link. He charged 500 people 1 shilling for a round trip to a Teetotal rally in nearby Loughborough and the rest is history. With the development of improved roads, better rail links and larger passenger ships, tourism flourished. Exotic destinations such as Venice, Paris and London were suddenly within reach. By the 1960’s, Europe was really opening to tourism. Package holidays, initially to Spain & the islands, resulted in a surge of Hotel construction. This added capacity, coupled with improvements in air travel, fuelled an ever-increasing demand.

Runaway Plane…

Accessibility is the key to tourism growth. 1969 produced the first “jumbo jet” a wide bodied Boeing 747. Able to fly further and faster than previous models, it could fit 500 passengers. With a range of 13,450 km, the world immediately became a smaller place.

In the 20 year period from 1990 to 2010, the number of international tourists has more than doubled. Attractive package tours, competitive airfares and technological advances has all added to the surge in tourist numbers.

The case of Barcelona…

Fast forward to the present day. Headlines are filled with stories like “Eiffel Tower set to reopen after strike over queues” or “Venetians flee toxic tourists” and “Dutch declare WAR on tourists!” So what went wrong? Sometimes, as is the case in Barcelona, destinations can be the victim of their own success. In an effort to curb rising unemployment, the government embarked on a plan of urban development and promotion culminating in the 1992 Olympics.

Today, even though the government is loath to kill the “golden goose” it recognizes mass tourism is a double edged sword. Indeed in Barcelona (as with other tourist hot spots), local shops that have been serving residents for a lifetime have been forced to make way for pricey, tourist-oriented emporiums.

Agusti Colom, chief of tourism for the Barcelona municipal government sums this up by saying “if the city becomes over-saturated and homogeneous, it could lose the charm that drew visitors in the first place”  (read full article here). While regulators battle to introduce new legislation to kerb this trend, its unlikely that the damage of the past 20 years can be undone.

The Sharing Economy…

The rise in popularity of short term rentals, made popular through Airbnb, has only added to the problem. This unregulated industry encourages short term tenants, reducing longer term property availability and thus pushing up permanent rentals prices. Residents are forced to move to the outskirts or capitalise by selling to investors, which only perpetuates the cycle.

Once you lose the core of the community – its essence, the whole cultural soul is destroyed. Venice was recently described as ” theme park by day and a ghost town by night“. Its easy to see why. On a recent visit, I noticed people preferring to eat at a chain restaurant rather than one of the (dwindling) local cafes. On my next visit I fully expect to see a chain restaurant in its place. Sadly, Venice as a “lived in” city is dying with the majority of  original families now residing on the mainland. The population in the historic city (which peaked at 164,000 in 1931) now sits at less than 55,000 which is below the number of daily visitors. There is little employment opportunities except tourism, which is over subscribed.

 

Bali, trouble in paradise…

Like any developing country, Indonesia relies heavily on tourism dollars. The problem is that over 30% of tourists to Indonesia flock to the relatively small island of Bali (for reference, there are over 15,000 islands in Indonesia). We have been visiting Bali since the late 1990’s and seen plenty of change, but the pace of change over the last few years is phenomenal.

It seems to follow the same pattern. Beautiful idealic location, difficult to reach and only visited by adventure travellers. Some form of promotion (book, movie, govt. etc), increase in tourist numbers to see the idealic location. Demand grows, prices increase, access gets easier and cheaper (more flights, cruise ships etc). Locals get squeezed out and the whole thing becomes a parody of the idealic location that once was. Off to find the “next big thing”…

UNESCO-cide…

Unfortunately, these issues are not just confined to a handful of places such as Barcelona or Bali. Recently a new term was introduced by the Italian writer Marco d’Eramo – UNESCO-cide. This describes the slow process of cultural disintegration of a destination after it has been granted UNESCO world heritage status – ironically to protect the sites cultural (or natural) heritage. It’s interesting to note that of the 1121 sites on the current list (869 cultural, 216 natural and 39 mixed), the majority (except war-torn countries) have problems with over tourism. View the full list here

A major failing of UNESCO’s program appears to be the complete lack of regard for the people living in these areas. By their own charter they seek to protect “monuments, groups of buildings and sites” but no mention is made of the people who reside in these places – the sociocultural aspect that gives life to these places.

One only has to visit Luang Prabang, San Gimignano or Old Town Dubrovnik to realise something isn’t working. In most cases the entire centre has been turned into a tourist trap with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops replacing the bakers, markets and artisans that use to live and work here. Most, if not all the local inhabitants have been pushed out and reside in modern apartment blocks on the outskirts.

Ironically, a recent survey indicated most people travel to “experience new cultures and way of life” with 74% seeking  “unique and unexplored places.” Yet, just like countries aspiring to host an Olympics, (who seem blissfully unaware of the impending financial doom) governments, councils and tourist offices around the world still line up to obtain World Heritage status.

While reorientation toward tourism can help revitalise dying communities, without robust management plans, over-commercialisation will eventually destroy a sites authenticity leaving just a theatrical shell. What is needed is a coordinated push towards sustainable tourism practices and a willingness of the individual to avoid any destination that does not meet this criteria.

 

So, what can we do?

Thinking back to one of my first trips to Europe. I had spent weeks researching all the “must see” places – but looking back now, none of them rate much as a memory. Instead it’s the small local market I came across, selling the freshest produce. Or the local tavern that spontaneously erupted in song one Tuesday evening. All within a stones throw from some of the main tourist hotspots but with a decidedly local clientel. This was the heart, this was how the people lived. Its what made it a great destination, not the amusement park down the road complete with tourist trap restaurant and vendors selling knock off trinkets.

The answer is to set a high bar for sustainable tourism and service delivery. Encourage local participation in the planning and delivery of these services (i.e. licence only local owner/operators). Choose smaller “Eco certified” tour operators that offer a more diverse range of destinations with limited sized groups.

Maintaining a balance is in everyone’s interest, but agreeing on how to do that is sometimes easier said than done.

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