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‘Overtourism’? Understanding and Managing Urban Tourism Growth beyond Perceptions: UNWTO Report



Spain – Over the last decades, urban areas have been rapidly transforming and their populations have grown remarkably. According to the United Nations, in 1990, 43% of the world’s population lived in urban areas; by 2015, this share had grown to 54% and is expected to reach 60% by 2030.

Alongside rapid urbanization, the growth of the tourism sector led by economic development, lower transport costs, travel facilitation and a growing middle class in advanced and emerging economies, made cities increasingly popular destinations for business and leisure tourists. Over the past decades, international tourists have gone from 25 million international arrivals in 1950, to over 1.3 billion in 2017. UNWTO forecasts that the sector is expected to continue growing 3.3% annually until 2030 a year in which 1.8 billion tourists will cross borders.

Today, the income generated from both domestic and international tourism contributes significantly to the socio-economic and cultural development of many cities and their surroundings. Yet, the growth of urban tourism also creates important challenges to ensure sustainable growth and practices that minimize any adverse effects that the development of tourism may have in terms of the use of natural resources, socio-cultural impact, pressure on infrastructure, mobility and congestion management. In recent years, these challenges have been coupled with the growth of supply of tourism accommodation through new platform tourism services in cities.

As a consequence, we have witnessed a rise in negative attitudes among local populations towards visitors due to issues of perceived overcrowding, noise and other nuisances attributed to tourists, the emergence of protests in some cities and the spread of terms such as ‘overtourism’ and ‘tourism phobia’ in the media. To better understand the challenges arising from visitors’ management in urban contexts, particularly the relationship between residents and visitors, this report includes besides a set of recommendations also an analysis of residents’ perceptions towards tourism in eight European cities – Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Munich, Salzburg, and Tallinn.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘overtourism’?

In 2016, Skift is said to have created (and later trademarked) the word ‘overtourism. Several definitions of ‘overtourism’ have emerged since. According to the universities collaborating on this project, ‘overtourism’ can be defined as “the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitors experiences in a negative way”. The Responsible Tourism Partnership refers to ‘overtourism’ as “destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. It is the opposite of Responsible Tourism which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently. In essence, we are talking about the absence of good management and uncontrolled development. With increasing tourist numbers, tourism must be developed and managed in a sustainable manner for both visitors and local communities. This is key when it comes to what is being labeled as ‘overtourism’.

Tourism is an opportunity for communities and their people to share the benefits of tourism, which is why the relations between the sector and the communities need to be strengthened. This can be achieved through community engagement, congestion management, and reduction of seasonality, careful planning which respects the limits of capacity and the specificities of the destination, as well as product diversification. Therefore, the tourism carrying capacity of a destination, defined by UNWTO as “the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, and socio-cultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction”4 is a key challenge for tourism developers and managers alike.

Furthermore, when defining and setting mechanisms to monitor and manage tourism congestion, carrying capacity and ‘the limits of acceptable change’ it is essential to consider quantitative as well as qualitative indicators to ensure a comprehensive vision of tourism’s impact.

Rebuffing myths

At the outset of this discussion, it is central to rebuff four myths associated with tourism congestion.

1. Tourism congestion is not only about the number of visitors but about the capacity to manage them. There are cities that are able to handle a high number of visitors, while others struggle with far fewer visitors. To have a better understanding of the causes of tourism congestion, it is useful to clearly delineate the three main factors that contribute to ‘overtourism’.6
I. Too many visitors, possibly aggravated by seasonality: in this case, it is the absolute numbers of visitors that are seen as disturbing. This can be a perception of overcrowding in parts of the city or the feeling that there are no pleasant spaces in the city anymore where residents can shy away from visitors.
II. Too much adverse visitor impact: here the impact of visitors is perceived negatively. This can be congestion on the roads due to tour buses stopping near attractions or on the streets when large crowds of tourists inadvertently block main streets. It also entails issues like noise disturbance, rowdiness and other disturbances visitors are perceived to cause (even when it may be local people causing the disturbance).
III. Too much physical impact of the visitor economy: the physical impact of services aimed at visitors can also cause agitation. This includes, for example, the over-proliferation of hotels, facilities or retail aimed at visitors.

2. Tourism congestion is commonly a localized rather than a citywide issue. Tourism pressure is predominantly linked to popular areas of the city or main attractions. Nevertheless, even in the most visited cities, it is possible to find areas where only a few or even no tourists can be seen. Such areas can often be found near main tourist attractions or central areas. In looking for solutions it is therefore particularly important to closely examine the specific nature of and locations where tourism congestion is an issue.

3. Tourism congestion is not a tourism-only problem. Tourism congestion can be perceived when the resources and infrastructure of a city are excessively under pressure, or parts thereof. However, it is not only tourists or other visitors that make use of these services and infrastructure. Residents and commuters also compete for the use of the space and services with those temporarily visiting the city. In addition, issues often associated with tourism congestion such as the expansion of short-term rentals via new platform tourism services, concern not only the tourism sector but also the real-estate market. Addressing tourism congestion is a much more complex issue than is commonly recognized, therefore should be treated in a comprehensive manner within the overall city agenda.

4. Technological or smart solutions alone are important but will not solve the issue of tourism congestion. Smart technologies are considered the most effective solution to tackle congestion management. Yet notwithstanding the immense potential benefits of such tools, they alone are not enough. Addressing the challenges facing urban tourism requires intense cooperation between multiple stakeholders, which is a long-term effort, particularly if stakeholders have conflicting interests.

Key conclusions

– Rapid urbanization and the recent growth of tourism in urban areas has led to a significantly increased demand for urban tourism;

– Global tourism trends such as increased mobility, growing middle class, more affordable transport, and accommodation option, will continue to stimulate increased demand for urban tourism;

– Well managed tourism can contribute to advance the New Urban Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, namely Goal 11 on “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”;

– ‘Overtourism’ is a new buzzword for existing concepts of tourism congestion management and tourism carrying capacity;

– When defining and setting mechanisms to monitor and manage tourism congestion, carrying capacity and ‘the limits of acceptable change’ it is essential to consider quantitative as well as qualitative indicators to ensure a comprehensive vision of tourism’s impact on the destination and its residents;

– Tourism development and management in cities need to be part of the wider urban agenda. The scope of action of tourism policy makers and Destination Management Organizations (DMOs) is limited and these cannot alone address the challenges of tourism congestion and tourism impact on cities;

– Tourism congestion in the urban destination can only be addressed through close cooperation among tourism and non-tourism administrations at the different levels, the private sector, local communities and tourists themselves;

– The complexity of the economic, social and environmental issues faced by cities today requires stakeholders to rethink their current practices and look for innovative solutions;

– Measures cannot focus only on altering tourist visitor numbers and tourist behavior – they should also focus on local stakeholders. To ensure the positive aspects of tourism remain visible to and understood by residents, it is necessary to understand residents’ concerns and grievances and include them in the tourism agenda;

– Understanding residents’ attitude towards tourism and engaging local communities is central. According to the research carried out for this report among residents of eight European cities – Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Munich, Salzburg and Tallinn – the majority thinks that “there should be no limitations to the growth of visitor numbers” and only a very small percentage considers tourism development and marketing should be stopped;

– The research also shows that the most relevant positive impacts from tourism as perceived by residents are: greater international atmosphere (different cultures in the city); more events; a more positive image; protection of historical parts of the city; and restorations of traditional architecture. Whereas, the most negative impacts are: increase in house prices; increase in taxi prices; increase in shop prices; increase in the restaurants and cafe prices; and an increase in the public transport cost;

– Eleven strategies and 68 measures have been identified in this report to help understand and manage visitors’ growth in cities. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of measures is highly dependent on their specific context. There is no one-size-to-fit-all solution. Even within cities, management measures can differ between neighborhoods;

– Among the proposed strategies, residents surveyed for this research tend to favor the following measures:
– Improve infrastructure and facilities in the city;
– Communicate with and involve local residents and local businesses in tourism planning;
– Communicate better with visitors on how to behave in the city;
– Distribute visitors better over the year; and
– Create city experiences where residents and visitors can meet and integrate.

– A comprehensive evaluation and planning are essential to determine which strategies can be successfully applied to a destination. Destinations that currently do not have any problems with tourism congestion need to be aware of the potential impact of increased visitor numbers and plan accordingly; and

– Urban tourism makes an important contribution to the socio-economic development of cities and the well-being of their residents and should contribute to creating better cities for all: citizens, investors, and visitors.

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