Photo: Emma Hanquist


Have you heard of unbalanced tourism?

How can we prevent overcrowding at marquee locations? How can local populations not be sidelined by avalanches of visitors? Smart destination management has answers to all of these questions.

In a survey conducted by TripAdvisor, 69% of respondents said sustainable travel is important to them. Ironically, in that same survey 75% said they didn’t know what sustainable travel is. To be honest, as with many things, it all depends on your point of view. For some, being environmentally conscious while traveling is important, so they offset their CO2 footprint, take eco-tours and don’t leave towels on the bathroom floor. Others take the word “sustainable” to mean preventing local cultures from being steamrolled by the likes of McDonald’s, H&M, Hilton and Starbucks. 

For the travel industry to make progress, it needs to figure out what it’s trying to achieve with tourism. And this may be the biggest problem of all. Most tourism organizations are wandering around much like the tourists they’re trying to attract. The main rallying cry (and strategy) has simply been “More visitors!” 

Many destinations with beautiful seaside resorts still allow hotels or local industries to pump pollutants into their waters.

But consider Iceland. Between 2011 and 2017, tourist numbers grew at an average of 24% per year. That may sound like success to marketers, so why then isn’t Ásta Kristín Sigurjónsdóttir, CEO of the Iceland Tourism Cluster, doing a happy dance?

“When you grow this fast and have to invest so much to handle the increase in visitors, and when you have such low unemployment rates, it’s hard for many of the stakeholders to turn a profit,” she says. 

Four key components to a successful tourism management strategy

In other words, one of the fastest rising stars in tourism is telling the world that it’s difficult to make any money because it’s growing too fast. The missing ingredient for smart, sustainable tourism is management. National, regional and local destination marketing organizations (DMOs) are filled with talented marketers and social media managers. It isn’t easy for them to flip a switch and become destination managers overnight. They’d need a new political mandate, a new budget, new qualified staff and a few well-conceived goals. A successful tourism management strategy is made of up four key components. 

First: Protecting the key assets that attract visitors

This may sound simple, but many destinations with beautiful seaside resorts still allow hotels or local industries to pump pollutants into their waters. Likewise, numerous nature reserves and parks fail to keep their trails clean from litter, just as underwater paradises don’t do a good enough job keeping amateur scuba divers from damaging their fragile reefs, and cities fail to maintain their beautiful buildings and plazas.

It’s not just about stopping urban vandalism and decay; it’s about preventing that circus of unsightly pop-up souvenir shops that can obscure the famous attractions that visitors have come to experience and photograph. 

It’s even about protecting tourists from other tourists. The popularity that destinations have fought so hard to achieve is now causing overcrowding at the marquee attractions, creating long queues, making it impossible to find parking, and raising property values beyond what the locals can afford.

The international tourism industry has been averaging about 4% annual growth since it started taking measurements in 1950. And this doesn’t even count domestic tourism, which can contribute more tourists, and which is also on the rise. 

The term Over-tourism should be unbalanced tourism

The most popular destinations are growing much faster than the rest, and within those destinations the areas where tourists congregate are growing faster still. 

Hotels can only accommodate as many guests as they have beds. Planes are limited by seats. It should come as no surprise that there’s a natural limit (or “carrying capacity”) to destinations, as well. Although tourist destinations like Bhutan (where only 7,000 visitors were granted visas back in 1999), the Galapagos Islands, and the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha have been successful in limiting visitors, others typically refuse to put up a “Sorry, we’re full” sign and limit entry. Instead, the world’s most alluring cities have capitulated to swarms of tourists. Rafat Ali, CEO and founder of the travel industry publication Skift, is credited with coining the now-popular term “over-tourism.” However, that term doesn’t quite capture what’s happening on the ground. The word “over-tourism” makes it sound like there are too many tourists everywhere. That’s usually not the case – they just haven’t spread themselves out. Theme parks are particularly good at dispersing their visitors – cities aren’t, so tourists tend to cluster in specific areas.

“Surprisingly, some places may even be losing money from tourism or having their resources depleted” 

Imagine you’re planning a dinner party for 10 guests. You do a quick inventory and see that you have two forks, three spoons, four knives and six wine glasses. Without a trip to the store, the number of guests you can handle without having anyone having to eat with their hands is two.  If 10 guests showed up this minute, would you say that you’re “over-guested” or “under-forked”? Neither captures the essence of the problem. This is why “Unbalanced tourism” works better. It inspires destinations to ask the question, “What do I need to do to bring it into balance?” That way, problems can be isolated and often solved.  

Second, maximizing visitors’ economic impact.

Tourism is supposed to be a huge economic injection – but that’s not always the case. “Destinations aren’t considering the real costs,” says Graeme Jackson, Head of Partnerships at the Travel Foundation. Commenting on a report his organization commissioned, Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, he adds, “Surprisingly, some places may even be losing money from tourism or having their resources depleted.” 

According to the report’s principal author, Dr. Megan Epler Wood of Harvard University’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative, on the island of Djerba, off Tunisia’s coast, tourists represent just 7% of the population, but they’re using nearly 30% of the available resources and leaving triple the carbon footprint of the locals. 

There’s a similar issue with “leak-age” – funds that never arrive in the local economy. The 25% commission that Booking.com collects goes straight to the Netherlands home base for that online accommodation service. And in terms of hotel revenue, roughly 15% goes directly to the international hotel franchise headquarters. In fact, any international franchise, from fast food to car rentals to clothing, also brings with it considerable leakage.

Third, maintaining a visitor experience that’s both high in quality and unique.

What can destinations do? For starters, they need to focus on profit – and not just revenue or visitor numbers. Then, they need to adopt a smart spending strategy. Disney demonstrated this in 2014 when its Magic Kingdom attendance slipped, yet its profits went up – by using a strategy that destinations can also employ.  

It’s far from rocket science. If you look at foot flow indicators publicly available on Google, nearly 40% of shopping in major cities occurs after 6pm. Yet in many destinations shops are closed by then. Staying open late is one of the easiest ways to expand and create new jobs without adding more visitors. 

If tourism doesn’t work for the locals, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t work at all. 

Tourist venues can also use timed entry to get rid of queues and give visitors more time to shop, dine or visit other attractions. And the more visitors who pay online in advance, the less it feels as if they are spending money while visiting, and the more likely they are to impulse-shop when they arrive. 

The type of visitors attracted to tourist venues is equally important. Once upon a time, if destinations wanted more affluent visitors, they built a few golf courses. Today, golf isn’t the panacea it once was. Nor does the strategy need to be elitist. Day visitors from cruise ships typically spend a fraction of the time that overnight visitors do yet the former clog the most popular attractions at peak periods. 

If there’s limited space for visitors to enjoy a city, why not prioritize the biggest spenders? 

Fourth, preserving a high living standard for residents.

There aren’t many locals who would want 20 tour buses parked on their street every day, unloading tourists from around the world to snap photos of everything, clog up the sidewalks, take over the playgrounds and leave rubbish overflowing from the trash bins. At some point, tourism is simply not worth it. The general feeling is “as long as it’s not in my backyard.” 

Many destinations are trying to institute smarter tourism policies.

Everywhere in the world, residents are paying high real estate prices, high taxes and other fees to live in a beautiful A-list city, in part so they can enjoy the rich cultural offerings, culinary delights and vibrant nightlife. But if it’s too crowded to access the city’s jewels, what’s the point? 

If tourism doesn’t work for the locals, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t work at all. Why not set aside time slots for locals at popular attractions and restaurants? Maybe tourism receipts can fund free museum entry on weekends for locals? A little payback for having to put up with all the tourists would go a long way. 

Airlines are making an effort

There’s good news, too. Airlines like SAS have been updating their fleets with more fuel-efficient planes, like the A320neo. These aircraft don’t just service popular routes with more flights, they also create new routes to smaller cities, which saves time for travelers with direct flights; and while they’re at it, they reduce fuel costs, lower prices and release less damaging CO2 per passenger/km. 

SAS’ policy of carbon offsettting all EuroBonus members’ flights is another way of addressing the environmental challenge.

“With growth comes the responsibility”

Many destinations are trying to institute smarter tourism policies. Barcelona is cracking down on unlicensed home rental properties and putting a stop to new hotel construction in order to minimize crowding. The Cinque Terre walking trail in Italy capped the number of those allowed to purchase tickets. Amsterdam is trying to get rid of tourist shops and spread out visitors. The Faroe Islands just released its new tourism strategy, called “Preservolution!” That’s a softer and more democratic version of what Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, known for his autocratic policies, did in 2018, when he closed the island of Boracay for maintenance. 

Emil Spangenberg, the lead Danish consultant on the new Faroe Islands plan, worked with local authorities to inject sustainability into the core of their mission statement: “With growth comes the responsibility to preserve the fragile nature and strengthen the Faroe Islands’ distinctive culture.”

One thing this industry excels at is looking for best practice ideas and replicating them. What’s needed now 
are more destinations willing to be sustainability-minded pioneers.

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