Do travel agents have the power to help combat overtourism? Ninan Chacko, the CEO of Travel Leaders Group, believes the travel industry at large can play a pivotal role in tackling the issue moving forward.
“Travel advisors play a crucial role in educating travellers about alternative destinations, itineraries or seasons,” said Chacko. “Our goal is to work with our advisors and destination partners to identify those alternatives and be a principal source of that information.”
Since January, the consortia has been working with New York University’s School of Professional Studies on an ongoing project to identify solutions surrounding overtourism and come up with sustainable travel practices.
“Travel Leaders Group plans to take a leading position in finding business solutions to overtourism by working with destinations, supplier partners, and travel advisors to proactively develop alternative itineraries and spread demand, supported by education and awareness programs on how to market, sell and travel responsibly,” he said. “The industry has an opportunity here to lead the conversation on new approaches to tourism.”
In a survey with 15 destination marketing organizations as part of their research, 80% said they had some issues with overtourism and 53% noted they acted to address those issues.
“Our survey found that advisors are looking to recommend suppliers who promote charitable causes and travellers are concerned about lessening their impact and looking to volunteer as part of their vacation. All these findings provide a roadmap of a new way to approach how we recommend and sell travel.”
Some of the top actions included educating travel advisors on less-frequented areas to visit, utilizing shoulder seasons, and working with tour operators to diversify the tourism spread.
“Obviously we’re trying to balance economically the desire to travel but also making sure that the experiences that we have travellers enjoy will turn out and end up being in line with their expectations or above it,” he said. “Macchu Pichu comes to mind, more recently where the government has intertwined with how do we make sure we preserve this cultural mecca and at the same time figure out a way to manage it. Of course, you’ve got local tourism entities, enterprises who want more of this tourism and they’ve built a business on it and you’ve got cultural organizations saying we just can’t handle this traffic. This is going to destroy this particular cultural heritage, this artifact. And it won’t be around for future generations and how do we strike that balance right now.”
Moving ahead, the organization is striving to figure out solutions that are practical and workable in order to create sustainability in travel, as much as possible. They’ve also drafted an overtourism index to help destinations evaluate if they’re facing overtourism.
“A lot of places around the world really struggle with overtourism. It impacts the environment, the culture, the authenticity of that city and frankly starts to frame the existing culture that is present and you sort of think well if the whole goal is to leave it the way you found it, we are getting further and further away from that,” he said. “I think we are starting to see cities and local communities push back. And that’s not a good thing because part of the reason why we travel is really to be in touch with how the rest of the world lives and experiencing that.”
With the democratization of travel, rising middle-class income and the desire for travel suppliers to open up more and more destinations, Chacko said tourism has changed dramatically as it has become more accessible.
“We’re finding things that we’ve cherished and prized look very different today. We’ve all seen these pictures of Barcelona and Venice and clearly that doesn’t bring home the same types of memories and emotions and this notion of authenticity that we’re seeking from a tour,” he said. “I think there was less of a point 15 years ago where people thought, ‘gosh, we’re going to be so successful, are we going to have solutions for how are we going to handle it?’ In effect, I think all of the two dimensional consumer mass marketing campaigns really ended up being incredibly successful and iconic, which resulted in a situation we now see in a number of destinations, whether it’s Visit Iceland or so on, and now the question is we’re a little bit drunk on the economic impact which is great, but how do we best deal with the impacts that are caused as a result of this?”
The fact that destinations base their success on visitor arrival numbers, is another challenge that needs to be addressed.
“As members of the travel and tourism trade, we’re interested in volume – that’s been the metric for our success, right? And it’s obviously much easier to sell destinations everyone already knows,” he said. “If you look at destinations that we sell, it’s the reliable ones at the top: Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, London, etc.”
Although they’re only in the beginning stages, he said they’ve identified a few ideas on tackling overtourism.
“I don’t think any of these are revolutionary or novel, but it’s how can we best tackle these issues?” he said. “I think it’s really around volume control, which you can help establish through a variety of metrics, it could be limited slots, timed entry, it could be seasonality, it could be pushing them to different destinations, using pricing as a disincentive, whether it’s taxation, whether it’s differential pricing.”
Going forward they are seeking to develop solutions and programs around these key principles:
Working with destinations to identify and market shoulder and off-peak seasons
“I don’t think Venice in August was ever a good idea,” he said. “In contrast, Venice in February is cooler, there’s mist off the canals, and it’s not a particularly busy month. Shifting that time perspective is one aspect of being able to balance that demand.”
Getting specific in the destinations
Moving forward, he sees destination marketing going away from mass marketing to speaking to people at a much more granular level.
It’s all about the itineraries
Developing innovative itineraries to lesser-known sights and attractions
Travel Leaders Group and tour operators can work on developing more itineraries and options that are off the beaten path.
“I don’t want to hear about Italy at the level of here are the top five things to do in Rome,” he said. “I want to understand if I’m a foodie, here’s an itinerary that takes in the breadth and depth of the bounty of Italian cuisine or wine and cheeses and that’s not going to generate 5 million tourists it may generate 50,000 in the course of over a year or two. So again, it’s about trying to shift that demand and working with DMOs.”
Focusing on curating experiences that are meaningful to travellers and the communities they visit.
“Getting these destinations to significantly increase their awareness of alternative attractions within the destination is key,” he said.
As an example, he said Mexico’s Magical Cities campaign did a good job spreading awareness and tourism to destinations beyond Cancun and Riviera Maya.
Similarly, due to overtourism in Petra, he said Visit Jordan is also working on ways to spread tourism across the destination through other unique experiences.
“They’ve been working with local DMCs to create alternative pathways and itineraries within Jordan in terms of showcasing other aspects of Jordan, in terms of authentic, cultural experiences like going to villages and not just having them mass-market iconic Jordan as Petra.”
Advice & expertise
“We know part of the answer here is educating tour operators, educating DMCs and of course, educating our travel advisors so they can be cognizant and aware,” he said. “We’re all about delivering niche experiences that exceed our customers’ expectations. That’s what keeps them coming back to you and builds that lifetime loyalty. So, ensuring that those will be great experiences where you’re not jostling for space is really important.”
Meanwhile, he said the list of destinations impacted by overtourism continues to grow, and travellers are becoming increasingly aware of its impact.
“To talk about Mt. Everest at the summit as overtourism seems insane, but that’s the world we live in,” he said. “In places where one couldn’t even imagine this issue, we’re starting to contend with it. Locales range from exotic and exclusive, Iceland and Antartica and US National Parks.”
In the age of social media, travellers are constantly looking for unique travel experiences, which in some cases could actually help the visitor spread since these people don’t want to frequent highly saturated destinations.
“Increasingly, travellers are looking for off-the-beaten-path destinations,” he said. “We plan to take full advantage of this trend and the trend toward socially conscious travel.”
However, these options need to be managed since it could also be a double-edged sword as many of these places don’t have solutions in place to meet a vast increase in visitors.
“They want a whole bunch of experiences that no one else has had that they can share on Instagram,” he said. “So whether that leaves you hanging off the side of the Eiffel Tower or wandering into someone’s home, you are also starting to find tourism being a lot more intrusive because they are looking for something unique and different that they can share so they’re not having the same unique experiences as everyone else.”
In a recent survey with advisors, Travel Leaders Group found that:
Travellers have cited concerns about overtourism in these eco destinations:
Major destinations with overtourism concerns include:
Economic forces and industry incluences causing overtourism:
Possible solutions to overtourism: