By Julio Aramberri
Apparently there is something called overtourism.
Difficult to believe as it is, lately both traditional and social media have adopted the word as though it was a distinct reality. One self-styled lexicologist recently defined it as “the phenomenon of a popular destination or sight becoming overrun with tourists in an unsustainable way”. However, popular, overrun and unsustainable are all difficult to define and often disagreed upon.
We all have images and memories of destinations or sights bursting at the seams with both locals and tourists, an experience which often turns the joy of travel into agony for both residents and visitors. Venice in ferragosto (mid-August); the Badaling section of the Great Wall during the Spring Festival; the Angkor Archeological Park in the dry season; room 711, first floor, at the Parisian Louvre where only sharp elbows and very high heels may allow a glimpse at the Gioconda, to name but a few.
But this is not overtourism. ‘Over’ indicates excess and tourism as such is not excessive – at least not yet. Mass tourism, domestic and international, mainly occurs in three geographic areas: North America and the Caribbean basin; Europe and the Mediterranean seaboard; and East and Southeast Asia. You may also add an Oceanian Mini-Me in the Southern Seas. That is all. With notional centers in the airports of Dallas-Fort Worth, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and, eventually, Sydney, and factoring in a 3 to 4 hour flying radius from these hubs, these clusters account for over 80% of the total value added by tourism worldwide (Aramberri 2017: 22)
These are the measurable engines of world tourism – economic areas whose members enjoy a comfortable level of discretionary income and a tall order of paid vacations. In fact, they are bundles of developed economies, all of whom have an important tourism sector supported by their own domestic markets. Additionally, their residents can and do spill over national borders to other destinations, some of them equally developed countries, others not so much.
These loops of developed countries and their immediate peripheries engage in mutual and close relations and benefit most from tourist exchanges. Each cluster shapes as a complex grid of deeply interpenetrating economic, social and, not least, cultural links. Some of their members do travel to other clusters taking long-haul journeys but, compared to those that remain in-cluster, they are few and far between. Many of them are not exactly pleasure travelers but business people that do not necessarily participate in mass events nor choose highly frequented destinations or events.
Many of them are not exactly pleasure travelers but business people that do not necessarily participate in mass events nor choose highly frequented destinations or events.
Such is mass tourism in the so-called North. In South and Central Asia; in the Middle East; in Sub-Saharan Africa; in Latin America– tourism is barely noticeable. How would they like to snatch at least a glimmer of excess! However, there is no overtourism there.
London’s Savile Row; the Metropolitan if you are an opera lover; Ljubljana for millennials getting drunk on cheap beer over the weekend courtesy of a low fare from a low-cost airline; not-to-be missed morceaux de bravoure like the running of the bulls in Pamplona or the Palio races in Siena; a few priceless historical and archeological sites; safe and comfortable Mediterranean beaches for families with kids. These are sure bets for thousands upon thousands of mass tourists.
This is not overtourism, but transient overcrowding.
However, this is not overtourism, but transient overcrowding. Too many people trying to sleep in Groucho’s tiny cabin at the same time, but nothing new under the heavens when one recalls the multitudes at Blackpool beach in 1932. You cannot overcrowd all of the people all of the time, but you can indeed overcrowd some of the people all of the time the klieg lights are on. It is an inevitable part of mass tourism, which is set to continue growing.
There is, however, a knotty side to the debate one should bear in mind next time much aggravation and wailing pours again on the overtourism straw man. In Spain, for instance, leftist municipal governments in Barcelona and Majorca share their anti-overtourism bed with local hoteliers, big and small. Progressive town-hall members are not excited about gentrifying thrusts in traditional city boroughs lest rentals for their voters increase; for hoteliers cheap, no-frills accommodation as provided by AirBnB and sundry websites is but a modern-day version of death by a thousand cuts. Not to talk about those vile cruise ships that in port cities can spew out a few thousand passengers –none in need of accommodation– in an eyeblink. This is nuclear war.
Beyond such conflicting interests, however, it is advisable to remember that most overcrowding is seasonal, even mini-seasonal –a few days, one week, one month and it is over. You can only take your small children to the beach over the summer vacation –who dares sunbathing in February in Sylt or Majorca? The Palio happens only two days a year. Pamplona’s Sanfermines last just one week. So there will be some busy and difficult times for both visitors and locals.
It is advisable to remember that most overcrowding is seasonal.
Recent research on lessening the impact of such fits of overcrowding shows that no magic wand will disentangle the quandary soon. Higher admission prices to some precincts and/or attractions, or additional taxes on local tourist services may reduce demand, but they also create resentment among less wealthy visitors. Regulating accommodation supply may favor the residents of crowded areas and make hotel-owners happy, but it runs against the interests of other businesses that rely on mass visitors. Limiting access to public areas faces countless practical challenges.
In the end, extending the visiting season and spreading tourists across different sites in singular destinations may be the only two strategies available to limit overcrowding until, hopefully, artificial intelligence delivers some still unforeseeable solution.
2017 Aramberri, J. Mass Tourism Does Not Need Defending. In Harrison, D. and Sharpley, R. (eds.) Mass Tourism in a Small World. Wallingford and Boston: CABI.
Julio Aramberri is visiting professor at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics (DUFE), Dalian, People’s Republic of China. His contributing chapter on ‘Mass Tourism Does Not Need Defending’ is available to buy from Slicebooks.