2018: The year tourism broke the world – and why the worst is yet to come
From protests in Europe to closed beaches in South East Asia, this was the year of 'overtourism'...
This week, Collins Dictionary announced its 2018 Words of the Year.
‘MeToo’, ‘single-use’, ‘vegan’, and ‘gammon’ all made the cut, although there was a notable omission from the list of defining words from the past 12 months.
Where was ‘overtourism’?
Don’t get me wrong. Collins is on the money with its selection; no doubt the cultural history books will remember 2018 as the year that we finally became ‘woke’ about single-use plastics, started to discuss the shocking prevalence of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo movement, and (like it or not) saw the notion of an animal-free diet enter the mainstream.
But 2018 will also go down as the year of overtourism. We saw locals take to the streets to protest against the tide of visitors. Beaches were closed to the public so they could recover from the impact of tourism. International conferences were called and industry leaders were forced to confront the problem.
Tourism was originally seen as purely positive, something to be celebrated and welcomed. But after decades of unchecked growth - during which visitor numbers were seen as something to be multiplied, rather than managed - the rise of tourism has in certain destinations become unsustainable.
Today, overtourism is no longer just a European issue - it is a global one. This is how the story developed in 2018.
The rise of the 'anti-tourist'
A wave of anti-tourist protests began in 2017, first in Venice and Barcelona and then across other destinations in Europe including Mallorca, Amsterdam and San Sebastián. Perhaps most disturbing was the incident outside the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, where an anti-tourism group boarded an open-top tour bus and slashed its tyres.
The anti-tourist sentiment continued into 2018. In April, more than 500 people took to the streets to protest against the impact of overtourism in Ibiza. Speaking at the event Àngels Escandell, the director of the local pressure group Prou!, said: “We don’t reject tourism but we do reject tourism which is unlimited, disrespectful and excessive.”
Later that month protests sparked up in Venice after the local council introduced crowd-control turnstiles to disperse footfall along the main thoroughfares.
Tomasso Cacciari was one of the people to tear them down. He said: “We’re not in a zoo, we’re not animals. That was a symbolic operation to put a gate at the entrance. I will not bring my son up in a place where he has to show a document to get inside.”
Then in July, anti-tourist activists launched yet another offensive on Mallorca, daubing hotels in Palma with slogans such as “tourism kills the city” and holding a protest at the island’s international airport.
A common feature across all of these protests is that the activists are not attacking the tourists themselves, but rather bringing attention to the ongoing mismanagement of tourism. It would be untrue to paint a picture where tourists and locals are at loggerheads.
But the capital T Tourist - disembarking a plane, sat atop a tourist bus - is being targeted as a symbol of the ills that an unfettered tourism industry has introduced.
Paradises closed for recovery
We are used to seeing popular tourist sights closing temporarily for restorations. In 2015, Rome’s Spanish Steps were closed for six months to repair from the deterioration caused by millions of annual footsteps.
Some sights have been forced to close permanently; in 2014 Tutankhamun’s tomb was shut because moisture from the breath of decades of visitors had caused it to deteriorate (a more resilient replica soon opened nearby).
A notable development in 2018 has been the closing of exotic destinations to allow them to recover from the impact of tourism. Boracay (above), a tiny island once considered among the world’s most idyllic, closed to visitors earlier this year.
The outcrop in the Philippines was off-limits for a six-month period of repair and restoration after the country’s president described it as a “cesspool”. It reopened last month, with tighter regulations on visitor numbers, plastic use, and drinking and smoking in public places.
Earlier this year Thai authorities announced they would be closing the white-sand beach at Maya Bay (of The Beach fame), on Thailand’s Ko Phi Phi Leh island, to recover from the impact of damage caused by up to 5,000 tourists per day - more than double its capacity. However, last month they announced that it will remain shut indefinitely.
“We need a time-out for the beach,” marine scientist Thon Thamrongnawasawat said. “Overworked and tired, all the beauty of the beach is gone.”
A new wave of 'Disneyfied' destinations
We are used to hearing about the same destinations in the overtourism debate. The names Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona, Santorini, Mallorca are often rightly or wrongly uttered in the same breath as “is too busy”. But in 2018 some new destinations entered the conversation.
Few destinations have witnessed a boom in tourism over the last few years quite like Portugal, and Lisbon (above) is in the spotlight as somewhere struggling from the weight of its own popularity.
“Overtourism is definitely an issue in Portugal, mostly in Lisbon and Porto,” said Trish Lorenz, a journalist and resident of the capital. “The surge has happened very quickly and infrastructure isn’t keeping up. There are huge queues for tickets at railway stations, standing room only on public transport, and issues around noise and litter mean locals are increasingly fed up.”
On the other side of the planet, local reporters in Kyoto have started writing about “kankō kōgai,” or “tourism pollution”.
Japan has seen rapid growth in tourism in recent years, partly as a result of easing visa restrictions from countries including India and China. In response, Kyoto residents and business owners have formed a “scenery preservation” committee to curb “half-naked hikers, trespassing travellers and prolonged photo shoots”, according to local paper The Asahi Shimbun, and the city’s tourist board is employing strategies to ease overcrowding.
Closer to home, Cornwall’s most popular beaches struggled to cope with unprecedented surge in visitors during the summer heat wave. As a result, Visit Cornwall stopped advising people to visit Porthcurno beach and Kynance Cove, where huge tailbacks were reported in August.
Malcolm Bell from Visit Cornwall told the BBC: “Nobody wants to see this sort of mass tourism affecting the area, affecting the tourist experience and clogging the roads.”
The forecast for 2019
What is fairly certain is that, in terms of pure numbers, there will be many more international tourists in 2019. A record 1.323bn overseas trips were made by travellers last year – a rise of 7pc on the previous year. The UNWTO forecasts this will continue to grow at a pace of 4 to 5pc, annually, in the coming years.
Things to watch in the coming year will be more destinations clamping down on Airbnb, the rise of destinations imposing oaths or pledges for tourists to take on arrival, the continuing boom of the Chinese tourist, and the introduction of new tourist taxes across Europe’s most popular destinations – possibly in the UK.
So should we be feeling positive or negative about tourism in 2019?
Responsible Tourism’s CEO Justin Francis has a sobering outlook.
“Overtourism will get much worse before it gets better I’m afraid,” he says. “Destinations are waking up to the fact that tourism is an aggressive and expansionist industry, and needs regulating and managing like any other.
“Meanwhile, the macro trends haven’t changed. Super cheap air travel, growing middle classes, emerging economies, and our obsession with building our personal brands through ‘that’ Instagram photo are driving tourism numbers and concentrations on hotspots.
“In 2019 we will see the protests spread more widely. While an extra few million in Barcelona creates a tipping point, so does a dozen extra coaches on narrow roads in other places. It’s not only a ‘big city’ problem.”
Tourism Geographer Dr Jim Butcher, however, has a more positive take of the future of overtourism. On a panel at the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican Centre last month, where I sat on the panel, he argued that the issues with overtourism are over-egged.
He made his case in an article for Spiked, where he argued: “Bottlenecks, capacity issues and the odd disorderly stag-do are surmountable problems that should be seen in the context of great progress.
“With tourism set to expand for the foreseeable future, we need a more optimistic, future-oriented, technologically informed, infrastructurally enabled vision of how to generalise the advantages that tourism brings to both tourists and their hosts.”
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