Tourism’s Tipping Point – ‘The soul of your destination is like your virginity, you only get to lose it once’

This summer ‘sustainability’ has been the buzz word in the tourism sector as a rising opposition to an industry that has fuelled development is now spreading across Europe. A growing concern over the impact of increasing arrivals is pushing locals to stand up against visitors and a wave of anti-tourism protests have been taking place across many of Europe’s most popular destinations, including the Catalonian city of Barcelona.

It was therefore quite apt that Doug Lansky, a tourism development thought leader, delivered an opening address at the World Routes network development forum in that same city yesterday (24-Sep-2017) that highlighted how tourism experiences may no longer meet expectations. “We are now actually selling a product that no longer exists,” he explained.

The futurist and travel writer who advises destinations and tourism companies around the world on strategic planning, marketing issues, visitor experience, industry trends and sustainability, proclaimed that destinations need to start capping visitor numbers or face destroying the very thing that attracted travellers in the first place.

“The number one reason for a destination to become unpopular is overcrowding,” he said and many destinations have already “passed the tipping point” but continue to push for more arrivals. “The soul of your destination is like your virginity, you only get to lose it once,” he remarked.

“Travellers don’t know what they want,” he added, “and humans are not hardwired for travel. We haven’t adapted or evolved. Tourism is simply travel without a purpose.”

It is certainly true that travel opens our eyes to the world, but unless you are perhaps seeking a trek through the Gobi desert, we are not alone seeking that insight with tourism increasingly engulfing the communities that have come to rely on its economic benefits. While we are travelling we tend to close our eyes to all those around us seeking to visit the same historic monuments, sharing stunning vistas or making the most of the weather. But, for locals, it is becoming a major inconvenience.

As an example he noted that cities such as Amsterdam and Venice actually have a higher ratio of visitors to locals than Disney’s Magic Kingdom (assuming you use park workers as locals), a location probably top of the list among travellers if they were asked to name an overcrowded tourism spot. In fact the city levels are actually more than double the theme park with the central square kilometres in Amsterdam and Venice welcoming 7.8 and 12.4 visitors per local per day.

Mr Lansky ironically noted that “we are making touristy places a turn off,” by “growing for growing’s sake”. At the current rate of growth of international travellers, the rise from 150 million in 1970 to 1.235 billion last year will mean there will be “more travellers than humans” on the planet within two decades.

If destinations do not start considering how best to control numbers, they will soon find people no longer want to visit them, he added and called on airlines to “apply smart pressure” on destinations. However, ultimately, he noted, “a smart destination should know how many visitors it can hold, not hotel rooms or jetways for aeroplanes”.

It is clear a sustainable tourism strategy that promotes environmental preservation and protection of tangible and intangible heritage, but also engagement, commitment and respect for local communities is essential to safeguarding the future of the industry. Managing the growing number of visitors to many popular areas of our planet, including cities, is crucial for both hosts and visitors – both domestic and international arrivals. But, will those that will effect change take notice and wake up to this issue?