Sustaining the spirit of tourism in IY2017 and beyond

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“Overtourism.”

A word now a firm part of the global tourism lexicon, and yet never heard before until just a few years ago, today it has become a nasty 11-letter word representing the fear of presence of a dark side of a sector that has become a bright light across the globe. And a focus of much industry debate.

Hearing it, spontaneous mental images come to mind of scenes now sadly so familiar to industry leaders and lovers: cruise ships pulling up to ports of Venice or Barcelona, spilling out thousands of tourists onto historic, iconic city streets and waterways. Streams of selfie-stick carrying tourists climbing through heritage sites, risking ruining the ancient ruins. Rowdy revelers on idyllic Asian beaches, turning a night under the glow of a full moon into a horrific hangover of a sight once the sun rises. And there are so many others…

Where did it come from, this “overtourism?”

As an expression of the ominous feeling of burdensome impact of tourism growth in destinations, the term was first coined just a year ago by SKIFT, a leading lens on changes emerging in the sector. As a concept, the term reflects the groans of infrastructure, and locals, which can be heard in many destinations needing the blessing of tourism as a means of economic stability and opportunity, but feeling the curse of its unmanaged growth. Commentary is escalating, full of complaints about the phenomena. Promises to conquer the problem are coming from all corners.

As the volume of complaints increases, momentum seems to be building up to a collective, worldwide outcry of “STOP!”

Locals once happy to open their doors to visitors are not pushing back, finding the courage and confidence to say (and protest with) the words the industry as a whole fears: “We can’t, and won’t, take it anymore!” The growing feeling: they cannot afford to support this industry that lets loose strangers bringing their big numbers (and often bad manners), into the places local call “home.”

THE COST OF CLOSING THE FRONT DOOR

But can people of leading tourism places around the world really afford to not support growth of the sector? Is it possible to red light tourism when in so many places across the globe it is tourism that has kept their economies out of the red?

In this, the United Nation’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, (IY2017) while default definition of “sustainable” tends to be:

• Environmental,

• Economic,

• Social, and

• Cultural.

There is one dimension, one critical dimension that should not be overlooked: Sustainability of the Spirit of Tourism. Sustainability of the simple essence of what is at the heart of tourism: sensitivity to one another’s differences, learning and appreciating one another’s worlds.

For many years, tourism practitioners have spoken of tourism as a vehicle for peace. At times, this statement risked the sector credibility, its esoteric undertones causing eyebrows to rise. Really? Is that not too far of a jump?

Back then? Maybe, but not now. Because of the very real challenges of threats of separation and cultural rejection that our shared world faces today, the value of tourism as a force for good promoting understanding, acceptance and empathy is vital. What other sector in the world actively encourages and inspires people of different identities, ideologies and ideas to meet, listen, learn, understand, and celebrate one another?

The spirit of tourism is hospitality, welcoming, sharing. It is about connecting.

As tourism grows, it is the spirit of tourism that is helping our global community grow in respect, empathy, unity. This vital, absolutely vital aspect, of tourism needs to be sustained.

But then how do we deal with the downsides?

FOCUS ON THE CAUSE, NOT THE SYMPTOMS

As recently stated by Dr Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the UNWTO, in response to the temperature rising in the debate around “overtourism:”

“Growth is not the enemy. Growing numbers are not the enemy. Growth is the eternal story of mankind. Tourism growth can and should lead to economic prosperity, jobs and resources to fund environmental protection and cultural preservation, as well as community development and progress needs, which would otherwise not be available. It also means that through meeting others we can broaden our horizons, open our minds and our hearts, improve our well-being and be better people. Shaping a better world.”

Which is why, rather than overanalyzing and criticizing the problem, we as an industry need to focus our efforts on the solution. Rifai continues:

“The sector needs regulations and clear guidelines, but not ones that would curb growth. Rather, regulations that ensure its sustainable management and sustainable growth actions that help such as:

1. Diversify visitor activities, both in type and location.

2. Effective and integrated mechanisms and policies to manage visitors at sites.

3. Policies to reduce seasonality.

4. Incentives for the private sector to invest in new areas and new products.

5. Incentives and policies to reduce energy and water consumption and address other community needs, shortcomings and deficits.

“Every growing human activity has a downside to it. The answer should never be to halt the activity, and lose all it’s clear benefits, but rather to live up to the challenge and manage it correctly.”

“Overtourism” is a symptom, the cause of growing pains being poor management of growth.

Much has been, and will still be, written about the problem of “overtourism.” At national, regional and local levels, strategies and systems will be put in place to ensure that growth of the sector is truly healthy, sustainable, equitable for all, especially locals. We must all be part of the solution.

But it is not up to the industry alone. Activating strategies for sustainable growth of the Tourism sector that promote its benefits to uplift lives across the globe are not only the responsibility of those in the industry. It is also up to travelers themselves.

Interestingly and thankfully, at a personal level, the strategy is simple. It is actually one that all children across the world are taught, early on, everywhere.

How does one approach visiting a new place, meeting new people, and building new relationships? “Mind Your Manners.”

#TRAVELENJOYRESPECT