How can we help communities deal with overcrowding?

In this series we’re considering the issues around overcrowding and looking for solutions.

Posts one, two and three discuss how travellers can change their habits, how destinations can manage demand and how destinations can reduce overcrowding for visitors.

In this post, we look at the people most impacted by overcrowding — the local community.

It has been local people in places like Barcelona and Venice who have really made the headlines in mainstream media about the problem of too many tourists. Whilst some gain employment and income from the influx of tourists, many have seen their quality of life suffer and prices rise.

It’s clear that local communities need to be involved with finding a balance: enough tourism to support local jobs, but not so much that it starts to have negative impact.

How do we achieve this?

1. Develop a consultation process

In places where tourism is causing friction, it’s important to provide a process for listening to the community’s concerns. Often local people set up groups themselves to campaign against the problems of overcrowding. The immediate response should be to listen to their concerns to ensure that measures that are taken really address them properly. How widespread is the problem? Are things getting worse? Who is most impacted and why? It could be that some of the problems can be fixed with simple changes to legislation. For example introducing resident only parking. What’s important is that there’s a defined structure so everyone knows how to feedback concerns and all issues are raised in the same way. There needs to be a sense of order that’s reassuring and authentic. It’s often the case that along with spotting the problems first, local people come up with the most workable solutions.

2. Put a strategic plan in place

Just introducing a more formal process for raising issues will start to make a difference. Local people will feel more empowered. It’s harder to take the next step as there will be many differing opinions about what the key issues are and how to solve them. It’s important though that a plan for developing tourism in a sustainable manner that benefits the community follows. Surveys can be a valuable tool for finding consensus. It’s important not to get tied down for too long trying to agree a course of action. There needs to be a sense of momentum — that change will take place. Regular reviews of progress, backed up by on-going surveys, are an essential part of the process. Copenhagen’s End Of Tourism strategic plan is a particularly interesting example, thinking of the visitor as a ‘temporary local’ and seeking to encourage this in a managed, sustainable way.

3. Put the community at the heart of the experience

Ironically it’s often the community that gives a place the unique character that tourists are coming to experience. The over abundance of tourists is literally destroying the things they’ve come to discover. Celebrating the unique traditions and practices of local communities — be that a Berber tribe in the Moroccan desert or a fishing community in coastal Norway — and putting them at the heart of the tourist experience is important both for the community and the tourist. Truly memorable tourism experiences are usually about far more than museums and historic sites. They’re about people and narratives. Refocussing the visitor experience on learning about, experiencing, and respecting the culture of the community will improve the tourist experience and empower local people. This approach should percolate to the lowest jobs too. People like taxi drivers and hotel staff often make the first impressions. They can become ambassadors for their neighbourhoods, explaining the distinctiveness of its culture and in so doing helping visitors to respect and value it.

4. Reinvest in the community

Creating a more formal approach to sustainable tourism development within a community takes time and investment. It’s essential that funding is available to make this happen. Establishing a Community Development Fund to secure investment and donations from the tourism sector and visitors to invest in planning and in projects that empower local people is a great idea. Many destinations use tourist taxes to generate income to support the tourism infrastructure. Directing a portion of this income into community tourism projects will mean that local people see the benefits of tourism. Supporting new businesses based on tourism with training, grants and support, giving local people a say in how transport and other infrastructure is developed will create a greater sense of ownership and responsibility in the community.

5. Create an appropriate legal framework

For destinations really struggling with an overabundance of tourists, there almost certainly needs to be higher level management of the problem to control the flow of visitors. This could mean putting new guidelines or regulations in place to limit tourist numbers. Typical examples could include new regulation regarding the amount of tourist accommodation relative to local homes, rent protections for local businesses like shops and restaurants, limiting parking to local people and introducing quiet zones and curfews. It’s important that these steps are taken with input from the local community. Establishing a defined way for locals to take their concerns further and potentially take legal action is important. Of course it’s also essential that visitors understand their obligations as well.

These considerations are a part of the solution but they won’t work in isolation if a place is inundated with tourists. They need to be part of a holistic approach to dealing with the problem. In previous posts, we’ve looked at ways to limit the number of visitors to overcrowded destinations in particular.

Tourism can offer valuable jobs and income for local people if it’s developed in a sustainable way. It can revitalise communities where previous types of employment have dwindled. The Burren in Ireland is just one excellent example.

The final post in this series looks at how smart use of new technologies can help alleviate some of the problems associated with overcrowding. Stay tuned.

Further reading:

Coping with success: Managing overcrowding in tourism destinations

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