Over-tourism is back.  Who would have thought… 

I wrote my last blog talking about overtourism in Costa Rica in 2018.  Just 18 months later, tourism shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic and we were longing for tourists to come back.  Just four years later, we are back to talking about overtourism and thanks to the phenomenon of “revenge travel” it is an even bigger topic than before. 

The Problem: 

Over-tourism is that too many people want to spend vacation time at the same place at the same time.  The World Tourism Organization, UNWTO, describes over-tourism as “the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences the perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitor experiences negatively”.

A tourism destination is in danger of deterioration when travel only benefits the visitor and not the visited. These are some alerts to watch out for: 

  • Locals cannot afford to rent homes and apartments as they are typically turned into short-term rentals (i.e. Airbnb, VRBO, etc.)
  • Heavy cruise ship visitation, where many visitors flood a destination for a short time but hardly spend any money. 
  • It becomes increasingly difficult for locals to vacation in their own country due to prices that are out of their economic reach. 
  • Rising property values and higher living costs displace locals from their villages. 
  • Community infrastructure cannot keep up with demands on its electricity grid, sewage treatment, road infrastructure, and health services. 
  • Wildlife is not “wild” anymore and readily accepts interaction with humans. 

Considering these challenges, the tourism industry needs to realize that not all growth is good, and that success is not only measured by visitor arrivals, but by the value, they bring to a destination. 

What to do about it?

One important measure for any destination is to balance out seasonality.  To limit visitation during peak demand seasons and encourage visitation during shoulder seasons.  This can be done by monetary incentives like seasonal rates or through taxation like in many European destinations like Amsterdam and Venice.   But it can also be achieved through communication that an off-season or shoulder season experience can be much more attractive than being stuck in lines with the crowds. 

At the Cayuga Collection, we rebranded the low or green season to Wildlife Season last year, pointing out all the benefits of our shoulder season from May to November.

Another measure would be to orient travelers’ attention from “Instagram famous” destinations to lesser-known destinations and hidden gems.  In Costa Rica that would mean redirecting the attention from the most popular destinations like Papagayo, Tamarindo, Arenal, and Manuel Antonio to more off-the-beaten-track destinations like Uvita, Osa, and Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast.  Or it might even mean crossing the border into Nicaragua or Panama for an off-the-beaten-track adventure. 

What role does Sustainability play in this?

A destination that has more visitation than it can handle cannot be considered a sustainable destination.  However, according to a study by Phocuswright, the average traveler does not see an apparent connection between over-tourism and sustainability as a cause. Only 13-21% of travelers across markets view visiting less trafficked or off-the-beaten-path destinations as a form of sustainable travel. 

Just like with the issue of the “Say – Do – Gap”, there is still a lot of education for travelers about over-tourism to be done.

But as every time more, overcrowded destinations are perceived as a pain point, the educated and affluent traveler will look for off-the-beaten-track destinations during shoulder seasons. 

Will “under tourism” destinations become the new sustainable luxury? 

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Hans Pfister

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