Comment: Should tourism arrivals be controlled?

Andy Cooper, former head of the Federation of Tour Operators, argues the industry must take concerns about overtourism seriously

Prior to the start of the Covid pandemic, the travel industry globally was increasingly concerned with the potential impacts of too many tourists in destinations, leading to the concept of ‘overtourism’.

The impacts of the pandemic and the period of rebuilding after largely silenced the discussion, albeit with continuing debate in some areas, most notably the concerns in Venice caused by large numbers of cruise ship arrivals.

As tourism markets continue to recover, it is interesting that the debate relating to the impacts of tourism has resurfaced, most recently in the protests in the Canary Islands – although there has also been increasing discussion about the ability of workers in the tourism sector to find affordable accommodation.

A recent article on the Balearic Islands highlighted that the rental of a two-bedroom home in the Balearics requires around 48% of average household income and that this was leading to a shortage of cleaners, waiters and other tourism staff.

Those concerns were mirrored in the recent protests in the Canary Islands, which drew large crowds demanding that tourism be limited, despite tourism representing around 35% of the GDP of the Islands.

Whilst the causes seem largely identified as being mass market tourism, it would appear there is a much more nuanced series of issues which have led to this.

At the most basic level, many receiving markets do not have any serious tourism strategy other than to strengthen local economies by encouraging ever greater numbers of tourism arrivals.

There is often a miss-alignment between the transport and aviation sectors, which want to see more flights bringing more people to use expensive airport facilities, and those actively involved in tourism who see the downside risks of too many arrivals.

Added to this, and closely connected, has been the significant growth in the homestay market, which seems actively to encourage the purchase of apartment accommodation with the intention of renting it out.

It is clear the short-term rental income from a holiday let is significantly higher than the longer-term rentals which can be achieved by renting that same accommodation to tourism workers.

Our industry has benefited significantly from the recovery of tourism. It is important that those representing the outbound sector do not simply ignore this debate and treat it as some sort of local problem, but recognise that sooner or later, governments, which are elected by local populations, will feel compelled to act.

Unless the tourism sector can influence their actions, this may ultimately by damaging for the sector.

The challenge that the large tourism destinations face is identifying the potential solutions. We have seen various measures implemented in destinations, although many seem more focussed on discouraging large scale arrivals or punishing those who bring large numbers.

Measures range from additional local hotel or arrival taxes – such as the taxes on cruise ship passengers arriving in certain ports – or ‘eco-taxes’, to restricting drinks offers in bars to discourage the binge-drinking market (something which affects the Germans as much as the Brits, contrary to the views of some of the tabloid media) and to the requirements for registration of rental accommodation, with the intention that all rental income is properly taxed, making tourism rentals slightly less profitable.

At the more extreme end, some older hotels in mass market destinations have been bulldozed to reduce the supply – which seems both extreme and potentially unfair to the owners of those businesses.

It is likely there will need to be a variety of measures which both reduce the immediate local impacts and do so without damaging the underlying reasons why a destination has been successful in the first place, and these will need to be agreed by local stakeholders – local and national governments, tourism suppliers and those selling travel arrangements in source markets.

What is also clear is that continuing simply to allow the market to decide, limited only by local taxation policies, is unlikely to provide a sustainable long-term solution.

Andy Cooper is the principal at Owens Cooper Consulting. He can be contacted at andy@owenscooper.co.uk

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