Tourism is an easy way to get foreign money. More tourists means a greater strain on local resources. In some cases it can reach a point where it is almost unsustainable. What do you do then?
Most countries see tourism as an easy way of attracting foreign money. Tourists pay for hotel nights, they eat out, they buy souvenirs. They leave their hard-earned cash in the local economy. This drives countries to compete for tourists, and it is what has created such a strong market over the past 40 – 50 years.
What can local authorities do when tourism becomes a problem?
Today there are many destinations to choose from. There also are many tourists who want to spend time away. Cheap flights have attracted greater numbers of tourists who previously would not have been able to travel. Fuel efficient aircraft reduce costs further making long-haul flights affordable too.
The result? Destinations are reaching their capacity.
It may feel like this is a problem in the hot stuffy summer months, but how bad is it?
Venice is a case in point. La Serennissima receives 3 million visitors a year. It has taken to restricting certain areas, like the Piazzala Roma, to locals and people who have the Venezia Unica card. There would be huge crowds in tiny spaces if it didn’t do this.
It’s not a matter of numbers either. Locals find themselves pushed out of their own homes when souvenir shops replace grocery stores. The few who still own property there use AirBnB to rent it out and make some extra money. They move out of Venice and move more tourists in.
It’s a vicious circle.
What can locals do when they can’t walk or drive around their own city because of tourists? What can local authorities do if tourism overloads the local infrastructure?
Increasing prices is one way of curbing the number of tourists. You can’t do this on things locals consume, and that’s a problem. As a result authorities tend to look at increasing room taxes and airport charges. At some point this will affect locals too. They may not catch a flight every day but they will use the airport at some point. (Business travellers are shouting at me right now pointing out they are regular fliers.)
A destination could stop promoting itself to slow down the inbound numbers. This idea sounds good on paper but doesn’t work in practice. Venice doesn’t have to promote itself because it’s always in the news with the film festival and the Biennial. Malta has to promote itself as otherwise people will forget it’s there. You don’t want to go from hero to zero in one season.
What would you do with all the jobs in the tourism sector? Who wants to beg for tourists you pushed away?
Removing or re-positioning government subsidies in the market is a subtle way of tackling the price vs numbers issue. Malta’s Tourism Authority has funding schemes for events which local councils wish to put on. The idea is good; create an event to attract people away from hotspots like Valletta and we’ll help you with the funding. They can tweak this to work during the summer months when overcrowding is more of a problem. With this solution, you’re spreading the numbers around so hotspots aren’t as packed as they could be.
Malta also has subsidies for people wishing to refurbish restaurants and hotels4. Reducing the subsidy, or narrowing the eligibility criteria to exclude high-end hotels for example, would provide segments of the industry with less money. Operators will have to increase their prices to meet their costs and this will in turn affect the market. With this solution you can help smaller companies whilst increasing high-end prices whose customers would not be as price-sensitive.
Is this dangerous? What if higher prices cause a market segment to collapse? What if you scare tourists away by prices too high for them?
The real answer is there is no silver bullet. Anyone who tells you there is a simple solution for something as complex as tourism is lying. This is a Rubik’s cube because anything you change will affect everything else, sometimes in unpredictable ways. (I’ve written about the Brexit effect on Maltese tourism before.)
Japan is now beginning to face the same problems. People wonder if it will lose its charm as it tries to attract more visitors. Given what we know about tourism, I’d say the risk is there. I hope the Japanese will figure out a way to solve this.
Anyone claiming there is a simple solution is lying
One thing is clear: this problem affects many cities and many countries. No one has solved it yet. We can all learn from each other’s mistakes. As different cities experiment with different approaches, we can see what works and adopt best practices from one another.
When it comes to tourism we should share solutions and prevent problems, not the other way round.
Share this with someone working in the tourist industry!
- Venice to separate tourists and locals over busy May Day weekend; Francesca Street; CNN; 2018-04-28
- Has tourism killed Venice?; Greg Dickinson; The Telegraph; 2018-08-17
- Local funding schemes; Malta Tourism Authority; (Retrieved 2018-10-23)
- National Subsidy Scheme for Accommodation Facilities and Restaurants; Ministry of Tourism; (Retrieved 2018-10-23)
- Brexit threatens Malta’s tourist industry (Does it have to?); Antoine Borg; Brain, not ego; 2018-07-03
- Japan: the land of the rising tourist tide; Duncan Craig; The Sunday Times of London; 2018-06-03
All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.
Written by: Antoine P Borg
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