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Tourism can be too much of a good thing, and often it is

Unlikely to become an overtouristed destination, Waterloo Region does occasionally experience vestiges of what is becoming an issue in actual tourist destinations: overcrowding. While that’s seen here only in small areas during the outdoor events and festivals that flourish in the summer – the likes of the blues fest in Kitchener, for instance – the flocks of visitors are more problematic in places ranging from Paris to Machu Picchu.

So many of us are trying for life experiences – with the self-aggrandizing selfies to prove it – that the world’s hotspots are overrun with tourists, making life miserable for the inhabitants, despoiling the environment and, irony of ironies, degrading the tourist experience itself.

Even Mount Everest is littered with the debris of a backlog of climbers, would-be or otherwise.

Though many of the jobs aren’t particularly good ones, the tourism industry is one area of the economy that has seen growth. The industry notes travel and tourism account for about 10 per cent of GDP, creating about one in five new jobs in the past five years. Around the planet, there are some two billion tourist arrivals each year, a number that has been growing by about six per cent annually.

Such numbers are notable, and also the reason for the growth in talk about overtourism, with many destinations simply surpassing their capacity to deal with the influx of visitors.

Capacity is a relative thing, of course. Paris has better infrastructure for coping with the line-ups to climb the Eiffel Tower or visit the Louvre, while Bora Bora isn’t similarly equipped. Both have problems, just at a different scale. No matter what the number involved, there comes a tipping point. Once reached, the quality of life for residents is diminished, tourists complain about overcrowding and, in the worst-case scenarios, the environment that draws so many people ends up being sullied or destroyed, the proverbial victim of its own success.

Having been part of the problem in places like Venice (30 million visitors last year) and Amsterdam (18 million), I’ve seen the draw, and witnessed the crowds. While enjoying the old-town areas of European cities, I’ve many times commented on how it must be both lovely and unworkable to live in such places, for instance.

The overtourism moniker having been coined, the tourism industry now has the issue on its radar: nobody wants to see the golden goose fly the coop. That, of course, is part of the problem – there’s money to be made, and officials generally all subscribe to the more-is-better philosophy when it comes to growth, tourism included.

But recognizing there’s a problem, World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) has been shining a light on the issue. Starting with ‘Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations’ report in 2017, the council has been doing research into the matter. Its latest study, ‘Destination 2030,’ looks at the preparedness of 50 cities when it comes to future tourism growth.

“Cities and city tourism drive both country and sector growth on a significant scale. Cities are global hubs accelerating business, innovation and job creation all around the world. Today, over half (55%) of the of the world’s population lives in urban areas and this proportion is expected to rise to 68% by 2050. Forecasts show that urbanisation and population growth could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050,” says the report.
“According to research, of the 1.4 billion international visitors crossing borders in 2018 for tourism purposes, 45% are travelling to visit cities. Furthermore, international arrivals to the 300 largest city travel destinations accounted for over half a billion trips last year.”

The index separates the tourist destinations into five categories, ranging from those areas on the cusp of growth to the more seasoned tourist spots already dealing with capacity issues.

It’s ‘Emerging Performers’ and ‘Dawning Developers’ categories tend to be in emerging countries, with a lower level of urban readiness – the likes of Bogota, Cairo, Delhi, and Istanbul. To improve their readiness, efforts should be focused on developing and enhancing urban infrastructure such as airport connectivity, accommodation stock and addressing environmental issues such as waste and water quality, the study finds.

‘Mature Performers’ and ‘Balanced Dynamics’  represent cities with an established urban readiness and tourism infrastructure, but which are not yet seeing many overt signs of tourism pressure in the comparable data. Examples include New York, London, Auckland, Berlin and Hong Kong.

European and North American cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, and San Francisco occupy the whole ‘Managing Momentum’ category. These cities have, in recent years, seen high tourism growth momentum but at the same time have either experienced tourism pressures or are at the risk of facing potential issues.

Some spots are already victims of their popularity, while others may find themselves in that position. Every time we jet off for our own taste of those destinations, we’re adding to the problem, like it or not.

Foreign travel is increasingly accessible, and many of us are joining in. That’s particularly true in some emerging countries, where people have come into more buying power, adding to the teeming throngs at popular tourist spots. All told, the trend is wreaking havoc on the residents and infrastructure of frequented cities and overburdening fragile ecosystems at some of the most beautiful – and environmentally important – spots on earth, from the Great Barrier Reef to Antarctica.

With summer travel season kicking into gear, such facts are another reminder of the toll we take on the planet, even in what we’re told is a good thing: tourism.

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