How to fight the negative impact of tourism in high density tourist zones
I will be speaking not only in my PEEC capacity, but also as Chair of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, which sits by the UNWTO in Madrid. The purpose of this committee is to advocate, monitor, interpret and apply what used to be the Global code of ethics of tourism, which has been now turned into a proper brand new international convention which has just been opened to signature.
What is over-tourism? I believe there are basically two approaches to over-tourism: a narrow one and a wider one. The narrow one, which is the one on which the UNWTO focuses, can be defined as “excess of tourists resulting in conflicts with locals”. One famous example is Barcelona or what happens with AirBnb in some quarters. There is a wider definition, which is “excess of pressure of tourism on local systems”. It is a wider definition that take into account signs that tourism pressure can become excessive. Well-known examples: Angkor and the Antarctic. Clearly, on the Antarctic it is not the local population which demonstrated against tourists –apart from penguins who really feel this pressure – but we know that there is over-tourism in Antarctica.
I am not going to dwell long into this semantic subtleties, but try to remain focused on the big picture: why over-tourism?
Any first year college economist student would tell you that the answer is very simple: the demand is larger than the supply. More precisely, the structural reasons for growth in demand are stronger than structural reasons for growth in supply. If you look at long-term volumes in the tourism industry, the medium-long term is +4-5% in volume per year. There is no other business on this planet that has such a long, constant trend growth than tourism. We are now heading the 1.5 billion tourist a year mark – it was 1.4 billion last year-. The growth rate last year was clearly above the average trend –it was 7%-. By the way, Asia-Pacific, is the region that has a higher relative volume growth. This is mostly due to the huge penetration of Chinese tourists in this industry.
The structural reasons why we have this constant volume growth are well-identified and they are here to stay: an older population has time, while a less poor population has money -this is a constant on this planet-; new transport connections –mostly air connections which are constantly growing-; the cost of the transport is going down –the low cost has been a big factor in this structural growth-; and finally, a lot of elements that have led to the facilitation of tourism, such as digital platforms, which were a huge lever in removing information asymmetries and freeing capacity, and other regulatory improvements, like visa facilitation which is moving fast..
On the supply side, I do not think I need to explain why supply is constrained and notably the supply that has to do with remarkable sites. Inevitably, the number of remarkable spots on this planet is limited -not that it is constant, you can create some more, but not as fast as demand growth.
If there is a cap, it is not on the demand side, but on the supply side. And sometimes there is a cap.
How to cope with overtourism? This is obviously the real operational question, including in the Asia-Pacific region –especially in Pacific islands whose ecosystems are more vulnerable.
The UNWTO is working on that. As the Chair of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, I have taken over-tourism as one of the four themes of the present four-year mandate of the work we have embarked on with my colleagues . The UNWTO has started looking seriously into overtourism.. It published at the end of 2018 case-studies based on research on big European cities, who have had problems with over-tourism and on how to address it. They issued from that 11 recommendations – I am not going to talk about them, not least because the problem here in French Polynesia or in the Pacific in general is not the same as the one Paris, London or Rome have, but my own suggestions are inspired by them.
Let me mention five directions, which I believe are the ones to go in order to properly cope with over-tourism.
One, which is pretty obvious but not always easy to implement, is to promote lesser well-known sites or attractive places, diversifying the local supply –for instance, if you take Paris, trying to have people not all going to the Eiffel Tower or to the Louvre or to Notre-Dame, especially given its poor present shape, but offering other destinations, including in packages.
There is also a case for regulation to restrict the number tourists when it is the only solution. We all know the example of Venice and we all have in mind a series of examples here and there, notably in urban contexts, but not only, where for instance AirBnb has had to be regulated by local authorities in order to avoid a number of nuisances, and they have behaved.
Number three: destination management, proper and better management of tourist flows, and use of the formidable capacity of data systems and of digital tools. There are zillions of data available about tourists and they themselves can now be put in the position of choosing various way of streamlining supply and demand.
There is even a dream within the WTO that each person on this planet should have a number which would clear all procedures and that would be used for all purposes in the activity of tourism. We are not there yet, but it is absolutely clear that data is the mine that allows a much better control and management of tourism and of tourist flows, including for instance through apps that help somebody who wants to go somewhere to detect the level of frequentation or to reserve a slot which then will enter into a management sequence process -including for places like museums.
Number four: involve all stakeholders of tourism in planning, in design, in tourism development, including local actors and local populations so that they understand the logic and so that the game can be played in a cooperative way by industry, local actors, and tourists. A part of the negative impact of tourism on local systems stems from objective economic parameters which can be controlled. Another part comes from the behaviour of tourists, who may have a strictly consumerist attitude. We also know that this cultural discrepancies can create misunderstandings or lead to real conflicts. Clearly, the responsibility –or at least, this is what the global ethics of tourism says- is not on the local to adjust culturally to the tourists, but the other way round, which of course is easier to be said than done.
Finally, two more concrete recommendations, insofar as the PECC is a place that should inspire APEC programs for the future.
One that has to do with what has been said yesterday on our main theme, which is the resilience of Asia-Pacific islands, and that is planning. The real recipe to cope with over-tourism is to avoid it, and the way to do that is properly planning and in strategizing tourism development into what we know -or should know- are the trends that shape this industry from the supply side, but also from the demand side. My clear recommendation for places like French Polynesia or more widely in Pacific island territories’ ecosystems is to build on a comparative advantage which derives from the shift in demand. What is the big shift in demand by tourists? If you compare the expectations and perceptions -what they are looking for when they start spending money to travel and stay somewhere else-, they two big trends that I believe are good news for places like this one are experience and environment. What tourists are globally looking for now is something different, new, not just rest, relax have a good time with food and drinks. More and more people are now looking for an experience, a moment they will remember and tell their friends about. This experience is now more and more connoted with environment and the notion that sustainability is part of the game is now penetrating into consumer behaviour. Tourism moving green is something that has started happening. Of course, it may not be the big masses nor the big numbers. There are not 1.5 billion people on this planet looking for a touristic experience that sustains and preserves the environment, but this market segment is growing, and this is precisely what you can offer in this region.
My second recommendation, very similar to what we are doing at the UNWTO, is expanding a network that tracks the impact of tourism on social and environment parameters. Within the UNWTO, there is a large network called International Network of Tourism Observatories (INSTO) that monitors the environmental and social impact of tourism. It is worldwide and it is growing. There is quasi none of that in the Pacific.
I looked at the map of these INsTO systems: there is one in New Zealand, Waikato, which was one of the first ones and which was a leader. New Zealand is obviously ahead of most of us in this respect. There is one in Australia, in Panama, in Colombia, in Mexico, in Guangdong and in Suzhou, in the southern part of Indonesia but nothing nearer here. Looking at the map of this network, you see a big hole, which is the Pacific, which I believe could be filled at relatively low cost. I think we should signal this to the UNWTO and to APEC in order to try and mobilise the adequate expertise.
Such a soft infrastructure would, I believe, help insular systems structure a tourist offer which synergises with local ecosystems instead of damaging them. Overtourism is what global ethics of tourism are trying to avoid. It is not about adaptation, it is about attenuation. We still have time to do it in this region.