By Carl Ribaudo
One of the biggest challenges now facing many tourism destinations is too much tourism. With the recession a decade ago, tourism levels dropped in just about every destination.
What a difference a decade makes.Ten years later tourism levels, in just about every destination in California, have seen significant increases–not only in visitors but also in travel spending. As a result, hotel rooms have become expensive, on weekends, and crowding has reached levels that impact residents. Both threaten to become political issues. In this paper, SMG Consulting takes a deep dive into the increasingly important issue that has become known as “overtourism.”
What is Overtourism?
Overtourism got its start in Europe where visitors have overwhelmed places like Venice, Barcelona, Paris, London, Prague, Berlin and Rome. A formal definition by Responsible Tourism states:
“Overtourism describes 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.”
To understand the concept of overtourism, you must start with understanding the different types of tourism destination models. There are two different tourism models: mass tourism and alternative tourism. These are the two poles that all other types of destinations fall between. In the illustration below the continuum depicts two very different types of tourism models.
On the one side, we have Las Vegas which is a global destination and on the other side Mendocino. They’re about as different as two destinations can be.
Las Vegas is a fully developed mass tourism destination with appropriate infrastructure to handle tens of millions of visitors. In contrast, Mendocino is a small, fairly isolated destination with a primarily Bed and Breakfast and lodging set up to handle a few thousand visitors on a busy weekend.
Most every destination in this country falls somewhere on this continuum. The challenge is when crowding overwhelms the available infrastructure and causes significant negative impact on visitor experience and local resident quality of life.
SMG Consulting has reviewed tourism destinations throughout California almost all of which are experiencing extreme crowding and congestion on the weekends and, in many cases, mid-week too.
We see several elements that have enabled such increased demand in weekend travel to destinations. They include economic, technology and social dynamics that commonly converge to enabled the current situation to exist.
From a political perspective, much has been made about a slow economic recovery, but viewed from a tourism perspective, the economy has been very strong which serves as an important backdrop to stimulating travel. All key economic indicators have been positive include unemployment, personal income growth, and inflation. This coupled with low gas prices and improved consumer confidence has enabled consumers to travel more.
Proximity to Markets
Except for the extreme northern part of the state, every destination is within close proximity to major population. The urbanization and resulting population increase of San Diego, Los Angeles/Orange County, Bay Area, and the Sacramento/Central Valley area provide an ample supply of population (and potential visitors). These proximity markets are usually within three hours of a destination and have a consistent weekend visitation demand pattern. As such, as the population has grown in these markets, so too has weekend demand. Naturally, without a corresponding increase in infrastructure–including roads, parking lots, hotels, etc. This results in a strong over demand during weekends and high demand seasonal travel.
The second element that has facilitated the surge in tourism is the relentless, transformative impact of technology. Emerging and existing digital technologies, like Expedia, Trivago, Travelocity and others are changing the way visitors travel and engage a destination. Comparing prices and shopping for the best value have never been easier. A newer entrant in the online booking systems associated with vacation rental properties, Airbnb has become the biggest provider in that category and offers consumer lodging choices they did not have just five years ago—namely, the option to book stays in homes with extra rooms transformed into vacation lodging.
Social and Demographic Changes
Maybe one of the biggest and least recognized factors that have spurred growth in travel is the increase in California’s population. Population has grown significantly to approximately 40 million people up from 37 Million people in 2010 and 34 million at the turn of the century.
This dramatic increase has also had positive results within California’s entire tourism industry. As Figure 2 illustrates, travel spending within the state has increased significantly during the 2000-2016 time frame, from $81B to $126B. This is an increase of 56%.
Growth in travel spending has also fueled growth in industry employment to just shy of 1.1M jobs and tax revenue to $17.1B. While not all of California’s growth in travel spending, employment and taxes is a result of population growth, a lot is. Visit California estimates that approximately 74%. It is assumed as the population has grown so too has travel spending, but so has related negative travel impacts.
Perhaps the biggest implication of overtourism is the diminishing resource for visitors and locals alike be it parks, pools, beaches, or hiking and bike trails. These can all become subject to intense use diminishing the experience for everyone. The economic parable of the “Tragedy of the Commons” applies.
The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits.
The concept and name originate in an essay written in 1833 by the Victorian economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (then colloquially called “the commons”) in the British Isles.
The concept became widely known over a century later due to an article written by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. In this context, commons is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator. This concept applies to tourism destinations where locals and visitors alike not only compete for public resources but also for restaurants on a Friday and Saturday night.
You can imagine the negative experiences both locals and visitors experience.
In addition to the traffic and crowding, another challenge has been occurring related to real estate and employee housing. As housing prices in the coastal urban areas have increased, many who can’t afford those places but who feel pressured to buy “something” to get some toe hold in the real estate market, often buy housing in tourism destinations with the intent of using them for short term vacation rentals.
The result is a decrease in long term rentals that make housing a challenge for those that service visitors. Add to that, as the supply of available employee housing diminishes, the price goes up and many can’t afford these rents on $10-$15 dollars an hour jobs.
While only indirectly related to destination traffic and crowding the employee issue is often lumped together in tourism destinations. The challenge tourism destinations and Destination Marketing Organizations must face is that these two issues are morphing into political issues that local, city and county governments must manage.
Recently Ojai decided not to renew its Tourism Business Improvement District and shut down its tourism promotion efforts after complaints of traffic and overcrowding by residents. At some point, if these issues are not addressed, the next step will be legal. It would not be hard to imagine someone or some organization suing to limit the number of visitors to a destination.
Destination Marketing Organization’s Role
1. First, and perhaps most important, is to be a part of the solution. Do not be seen as part of the problem. The Destination Marketing Organization becomes an obvious and easy target when it comes to destination traffic and crowding. As California continues to add population, another 6 million people over the next twenty years, infrastructure is not likely to keep up. Problems will continue to not only increase but potentially become worse. Based on this SMG Consulting recommends DMO’s take a fresh, long term view of how their destination could be impacted.
2. Review where and when you are spending tourism promotion dollars. Rethink spending and hard dollars in property feeder markets that will drive weekend business. It might be time to leave these markets to the private sector as most businesses have strong database and digital programs of frequent users which, more than likely, are in feeder markets. Continued investment by DMO’s may actually contribute to the problem!
3. Invest in longer stay destination markets that include mid-week visitation. Have your organization solve both marketing challenges and avoid potential political issues at the same time.
4. Look to shift demand to non-busy days of the week and non-busy times of the year. This is a tough strategy to build, but you must start somewhere. Take a three to five-year view and work to shift the demand away from peak times.
5. Be honest with potential visitors. Let them know that peak times can be challenging and educate them on the potential of visiting during off peak times.
Don’t React. Strategically Respond.
Make no mistake weekend traffic and crowding in California and many other destinations are here to stay. As such, it is critical to not let these impacts morph into political issues, but rather to develop and practice strategic strategies and programs to shift demand.
If you don’t change course well, there is always the Ojai option.