A few months ago 2020 was predicted to be a record-breaking year for tourism, continuing the apparently unending pattern of annual growth recorded since the tourism industry began collecting data on numbers of people travelling. Even allowing for the fact that the figures included almost everyone crossing an international border for an overnight visit and thus was not limited to tourists as most people think of the term (people on holiday), the scale and rate of growth was remarkable. War, economic downturn, terrorism and even diseases like SARS all failed to cause an absolute decline in overall (international and domestic) tourism.
One of the less desirable effects of such growth was what became known as overtourism, variously defined, but generally taken to mean excessive numbers of tourists in specific locations, often at specific times. This phenomenon was taken to be different to the crowding and extreme business often found in tourist destinations, and gave rise to loudly and widely voiced opposition to tourism and tourists in general. While the most articulate opposition tended to come from urban areas such as Venice, Barcelona, Edinburgh, Paris and Dubrovnik, in which media-savvy individuals effectively garnered press attention, rural areas such as the Isle of Skye in Scotland, Machu Picchu in Peru, and ‘The Beach’ in Thailand also experienced over-visitation, sometimes with serious environmental effects.
“Tourist destinations are looking back to the overtourism of 2019 (and earlier) and longing for a return to having too many visitors rather than too few or none”
As so often happens when something receives media-attention, the problem gained world-wide attention and some knee-jerk reactions from politicians and policy makers. What was clearly a valid concern of residents of affected areas became an additional excuse for global condemnation of tourism and tourists from several quarters, academics (often long opposed to mass tourism in any form), environmentalists (concerned over a range of issues), elected representatives (worried over a backlash from voters over ineffective management of tourism) and eventually, albeit reluctantly, the tourism industry itself, from UNWTO downwards. ‘Solutions’ included directing tourists to other sites/sights, changing the times of visitor arrivals, ‘de-promoting destinations amongst others, none of which tackled the core problems1 of large numbers of tourists and a limited number of iconic sites being constantly promoted beyond their inherent capacity to accept the numbers arriving.
Now, one third of the way through 2020, tourist destinations are looking back to the overtourism of 2019 (and earlier) and longing for a return to having too many visitors rather than too few or none. At the time of writing, (May 2020), countries are beginning to appreciate, that for all its problems, tourism is often a key, if not the key, to economic, and hence social survival for many communities. In the current situation destinations are facing two major problems, one being the almost universal enforced lockdowns of countries preventing both international and domestic tourism, and the other being the unknown reaction of potential tourists to travelling outside their own country or region because of fear of either or both infection away and quarantine measures on returning home.
“Tourism is far from perfect, but it has also brought enjoyment and essential economic benefits to many communities”
Under ‘normal’ circumstances tourism returns to its traditional patterns and levels fairly rapidly after disasters and catastrophes such as terrorism, outbreaks or natural disasters, particularly if the chance of a repeat disaster is not perceived. This case is different because of the unknown permanence and infection rates of Covid-19, and also because other forces may take advantage of a lull in tourism to use the situation to their own advantage. By this I mean the anti-tourism lobbies which have always been critical of many, if not all, forms of tourism on grounds of environmental impacts, social disruption and economic imperialism, as well as a general disapproval of residents of destinations changing their cultural and economic behaviour to cater to tourism and not remaining in their ‘traditional’ forms. Tourism is far from perfect, there are countless examples of inappropriate development of the wrong type of tourism in the wrong place with harmful effects, of increases in costs for local residents, of disturbance and of environmental damage from the atmosphere to the ocean depths, but it has also brought enjoyment and essential economic benefits (as well as transportation and other services including amenities and health) to many communities.
The fact that tourism is currently non-existent provides an opportunity for groups to argue that travel, and particularly flying should be reduced (with flying to pleasure at low cost at the top of the list), that visits to sites be rationed, possibly by high charges for entry, prohibition of some activities (particularly motorised ones), and tourism in general be ‘reformed’, at a time when many people world-wide are hoping tourism will recover. Jim Butcher termed this ‘The war on tourism’ in a recent article and commented ‘Travel and tourism have liberated mankind – we cannot afford to lose them to the pandemic’.
Few people wish a return to overtourism, where it genuinely existed, or to inappropriate development or avoidable negative effects of tourism, but to wish to restrict and reform tourism because it brings about change in destination communities or because some forms of tourism are not regarded as the ‘right’ types is not the way forward at this time. Tourism development over the centuries has not always got it right but it has produced tremendous social and economic benefits, and even some environmental ones as well, in many parts of the world. Tourism’s strong and rapid recovery is in the interests of the majority of people and societies globally, albeit with the hope that future development learns from past mistakes.
1 Dodds, R. and Butler, R. 2019, Overtourism, De Gruyter: Berlin
About the author:
Richard Butler is author of Tourism Development: From ‘Please come’ to ‘Please go’ to ‘Please come back’ (after the virus), a chapter in the forthcoming CABI book, Tourism in Development: Reflective Essays, edited by Peter Dieke, Brian E M King, and Richard Sharpley.
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Overtourism, edited by Claudio Milano, Joseph M Cheer, and Marina Novelli
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