Travel Leaders Looks to Tackle Overtourism

Travel Leaders Group is looking to tackle overtourism, starting with a new partnership with New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko spoke with Travel Agent and other media at the organization’s EDGE Conference on what’s in store for the new initiative. 

“With the democratization of travel and rising middle class incomes, we’re just finding that the things that we cherished and prized look very different today,” says Chacko, referring to recent coverage in the consumer media about overcrowding in iconic travel destinations such as Venice and Barcelona. “There’s just been a little bit more of an observation around this whole idea of, ‘Hey, wait a second, are we really impacting the world at large with respect to consumer travel?”

That realization has led Travel Leaders to partner with New York University (NYU) to come up with a framework to analyze overtourism in the most objective way possible, with an eye to helping destinations, travel advisors and other organizations in the tourism industry figure out solutions. 

“We’re really trying to put the right framework around defining it, what the impact is, and proposing practical solutions,” Chacko says. 

The NYU partnership began with a survey of destination marketing organizations to assess their views on overtourism and their suggestions for alternate options to popular seasons and destinations, as well as a survey of Travel Leaders Group advisors on their perceptions of overtourism and responsible travel and to gather additional recommendations. The first result is an “overtourism index,” developed by NYU researchers, that measures economic factors, accessibility, accommodation capacity, societal issues, environmental concerns, local community perceptions and media, as well as the ratio of tourists to a destination’s population. Travel Leaders and NYU also examined more than 40 case studies on how destinations are addressing overcrowding issues. 

“When you start to look at the impacts, it’s not just the visual impact of a traveler having a different experience to what they expect,” Chacko says. “There’s climate change, pollution, threats to biodiversity, and also impacts in terms of the sociocultural aspects [of a destination] – whether it’s prostitution that’s catering to the influx of tourists, or the lack of available housing stock as rentals are turned to other purposes.”

Already these problems have started causing residents of some of the most popular destinations to push back, such as with recent protests against the cruise industry in Venice. At the same time, Chacko notes that many destinations have grown somewhat dependent on the economic benefits of tourism. 

“We have to find an answer that balances that aspect of it, and clearly as members of the tourism trade we’re interested in volume,” Chacko says. 

A number of solutions already under discussion include methods of volume control, such as timed entry or using taxation to raise effective prices and temper demand as a result. 

What can travel advisors do? Chacko says that they can be key in steering clients to lesser-known destinations, or seasons in which they can avoid the crowds. It’s about moving from a mass-marketing approach to a targeted approach focused on a traveler’s individual interests. 

“It’s not about selling France as a destination,” Chacko says. "The future of destination marketing is all about speaking to people at a much more granular level, in a personalized way.”

For example, instead of selling someone on seeing Venice or Rome, sell foodie clients on an itinerary that explores a variety of Italian cuisine. “That’s the level at which marketing will take place, and it won’t generate 5 million tourists, it may generate 50,000,” says Chacko. 

Doing so will require multiple stakeholders in the travel industry to work together, including destination marketing organizations, travel suppliers and travel agencies. “I don’t think the issue is of regulation, I think it’s of collaboration,” Chacko says. 

At the same time, a more targeted approach should appeal to the changing way in which travelers travel, focused less on sightseeing and more on connecting with locals. “Increasingly Americans and Canadians want to look behind the curtain,” Chacko says. “They want to talk to local residents, go into people’s homes, and really try to see how does the other side live. I think there’s a demand for this and we’ve just been taking the easy way out and doing what we’ve always done.”

In addition to appealing to travelers’ interests, a more sustainable way of approaching tourism can also appeal to clients’ values, particularly those of Millennials. 

“I think the Millennial population is living their values much more actively and aggressively,” Chacko says. “If you look at any of the recent survey data on opinions by cohort on issues such as climate change, at the Millennial end of the population it’s not remotely a debate as it is in my generation. They see as part of their role driving toward a better place for the planet.”

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