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Behavior Change
Destinations Limit Visitors, Define Ideal Travelers to Mitigate Overtourism

Popular destinations are increasingly prioritizing quality over quantity, dispersing travelers across larger geographic areas, and clearly defining the kind of travelers they want to attract. By addressing overtourism in this way, they also place locals’ wellbeing at the forefront.

March has the perfect weather for a mid-day stroll in Key West, Florida: a sunny 75°F. In the past, however, when a local resident stepped out of her front door during peak cruise ship season, the air held the acrid smell of burning toxic diesel fuel. And, with oversized cruise ships in port, the historic district’s streets would be clogged with tourists.

From this small island to the canals of Venice, Italy to Amsterdam’s red-light district, destinations around the world have struggled with the impact of tourism over the past several years. This was driven by the accessibility and affordability of flights, and further fueled by technology and social media. Yet the industry’s accelerated growth outpaced capacity management and caused conflict between travelers’ expectations and behaviors and local social norms.

Early last year, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, the tourism industry essentially shut down. Destinations previously overwhelmed with travelers found themselves without any tourism at all. And while the pandemic has been catastrophic for the industry in many ways — the World Travel & Tourism Council projests 174 million jobs may be lost as a result — it has also given many destinations the time needed to reassess goals and strategies for dealing with overtourism once people begin traveling more freely again.

The mass tourism model, which prized number of tourists as a measurement of success, took off several decades ago; but this model is clearly outdated, according to Doug Lansky — a travel journalist and advisor who spoke on "The Future of Destinations: From Overtourism to Sustainable Tourism,” hosted by PhocusWire on January 13. He argued that revenue per visitor and quality of visitor are both far better metrics for destinations.

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The majority of Key West’s 25,000 residents would agree with Lansky. The grassroots Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships movement was established last spring in response to COVID-19 and the need to keep local residents safe from passengers who may be carrying the virus.

But the community’s concern with large cruise ships — up to three per day with up to 10,000 total passengers — extended beyond health concerns: Cruise ships delivered half of all visitors to Key West, but brought in only 8 percent of all tourist spending. The average passenger spent only $32 per person in comparison to $550 per overnight visitor. In addition to crowding locals out of the historic downtown area while ships were in port, large ships stirred up silt and degraded the coral reef.

As Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the committee, explained: “The cruise ships have a huge impact on the quality of life for residents and on the quality of experience for overnight visitors.”

In November, Key West residents voted on and passed initiatives to limit cruise ship passengers to 1,500 people per day, prohibit cruise ships that carry more than 1,300 passengers, and prioritize cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.

“We have a $1 billion-a-year tourist economy and we’re certainly pro-tourism, but we felt like we needed to focus on tourism that made sense for Key West,” Haskell said.

While Gothenburg, Sweden hasn’t historically been overwhelmed with overcrowding like Key West has, destination representatives recognize that developing a sustainable tourism model means focusing on far more than visitor numbers. Developed in April 2019, its Next to Gothenburg campaign disperses travelers across a wider geographical area, promotes activities beyond the city center, and makes the region appealing year-round. It is designed to encourage visitation in the wider regional area, encourage more domestic travel, and get visitors to stay longer — all of which are likely to be even more relevant in a post-COVID-19 era of travel.

“What we do is to spread out the visits throughout the whole year, to not be dependent on only one or two seasons for business. We want to show Gothenburg and its surroundings in all the seasons, as they all have different characters and things to offer,” said Petra Gamerdinger, public relations manager for Göteborg & Co — the city’s destination management organization (DMO) and municipal company working in close partnership with the tourism industry.

Beyond limiting travelers like in Key West and dispersing them like in Gothenburg, mitigating overtourism also requires making sure the kind of traveler a destination attracts is aligned with a destination’s goals. Amsterdam, which became a poster child for overtourism, has been trying to fix this problem over the last couple of years. In December 2018, city officials removed the “I amsterdam” sign because it was overwhelmed by selfie-takers; and in March 2019, the city banned guided tours in the red-light district.

During its pandemic pause, officials made additional decisions likely to change Amsterdam’s future as a tourist destination. To curb the flow of low-budget tourists, the city’s mayor has proposed restricting the sale of marijuana products only to those who are Dutch nationals and residents of the Netherlands. Additionally, the red-light district is moving out of the city center due to tourists’ undesirable behavior. According to Dennis Boutkan, a Dutch Labour Party representative, “This is about a reset of Amsterdam as a visitor city. Tourists are welcome to enjoy the beauty and freedom of the city, but not at any cost.”

In developing new tourism strategies, destinations are increasingly prioritizing quality over quantity, dispersing travelers across larger geographic areas, and clearly defining the kind of travelers they want to attract. By addressing overtourism in this way, they also place locals’ wellbeing at the forefront. And this only make sense: A destination where local residents can walk through their neighborhood without being overwhelmed by visitors, priced out by inflation, or disgusted by traveler behavior is a place where locals enjoy living and are happy to welcome travelers back as a meaningful part of the community’s ecosystem. Or, as noted by Lansky, “If it doesn’t work for the locals, it doesn’t work for the visitors.”