Is your destination in danger of becoming too popular?

How do you deal with financial meltdown and a plummeting economy? When the Government of Iceland was confronted with this problem in 2008, it turned to an untapped gem. Its travel and tourism sector.

The result was a series of award-winning marketing campaigns. They powered tourism arrivals from around 500,000 to over two million in just seven years. Tourism earnings almost doubled.

Tourism is a force for good. It brings income and jobs. It breaks down barriers. It offers life-affirming experiences.

But can you have too much of a good thing?

Some recent media reports have focussed on the negative consequences of Iceland’s explosive growth. Destinations like Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik are also struggling to find the right balance.

There’s plenty of space for growth in many destinations of course. On a global scale, the problem of overcrowding remains relatively limited. It’s often experienced only at specific times of year. But as growing middle classes in many destinations start to travel more and air routes continue to expand, effective management and planning becomes even more important.

So how do we make the most of the myriad opportunities afforded by tourism without the potential pitfalls?

Firstly, we need to spot the danger signs early. But, how much tourism is too much? The answer can vary massively. People living close to tourist spots might feel there’s too much, while local hotel owners might still want more.

What the industry needs is a reliable set of metrics.

A recent study by WTTC and McKinsey & Co offers just this. It uses six key indicators that can be compared across destinations.

1. Overall context

Firstly, it makes sense to consider the context for each destination. How important is tourism to its local economy and how fast is the sector growing?

2. Degraded tourism experience

Too many other tourists and the experience for the visitor is degraded. Using review data from Trip Advisor and seeing the magnitude of negative sentiments in visitors’ experiences is an effective way to gauge this problem.

3. Alienated local residents

Rising rents, noise and rubbish are common concerns. This problem is primarily one of volume of visitors. We can quantify this by taking the numbers of tourist arrivals to the destination and dividing by its size. Additionally, we can compare the number of tourist arrivals with the number of local residents. In Venice, daily tourist arrivals outnumber inhabitants: that’s clearly an issue.

4. Overloaded infrastructure

Crammed public transport, degraded roads and even power shortages are symptoms. This is harder to quantify in terms of working out the impact that tourists have compared to locals. Seasonality is a useful metric. Are there times when infrastructure is particularly stretched? We can assess this by looking at the difference between arrivals in a peak month and a low season month. Concentration of attractions is another metric. Destinations where there are lots of sites grouped together are at particular risk.

5. Damage to the natural environment

Wildlife under pressure, poor waste management and air pollution are all examples of this problem. This is currently the hardest category for finding trustworthy, common data across all destinations. The most widely available and consistent is air quality.

6. Threats to culture and heritage

Here we’re talking about things like climbing on sacred buildings, graffiti and ancient traditions becoming tourist attractions. Understanding the proportion of sites in a destination that are of historic, cultural and spiritual merit is a useful indicator. The greater the density of these sites compared to all attractions that tourists visit here, the higher the potential for problems.

For the first time then, we have a meaningful collection of data sets for comparing the risk of overcrowding across different destinations. It also makes it possible to see where the biggest risks lie for each particular place.

The report shows how four major destinations measure up: Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Chongqing and New York City.

Which do you think is most at risk? Find out now.

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