I was deeply disappointed when President Rodrigo Duterte, the Head of State of the Philippines, recently made good on his threat of closing the Island of Boracay to tourists for six months. From now until October, the 2017 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Award winning destination will be off limits to all visitors.
In the President’s own words, this dream destination has turned into a ‘cesspool’. What a terrible precedent, a worst-case scenario and a stark warning to us all. This official ban on tourism results in an official shutdown of employment for thousands of residents. ‘Overtourism’ has them out of business. For their families, this means being left out in the cold.
This is not new news. In 2017, we saw numerous scathing articles as regards the ‘over tourism’ debate and the outcry from concerned officials in destinations such as Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Venice, who called foul of the excessive crowds and pressure on local infrastructure. The rumblings are no longer an early warning sign. They are a painful reality.
For those of us in the travel industry, we need to recognise that as the Northern Hemisphere summer rapidly approaches, we have a direct responsibility to address, head on, the risks and increasing realities of overcrowding. This curse of unmanaged growth of the sector is creating real problems for the very places – and their people – that are inspiring us to travel in the first place.
Tourism growth is not the enemy, nor are growing visitor numbers. Tourism can and should be a force for good, creating jobs and long-term sustainable economic growth. When managed carefully, holistically, and for the long-term, tourism has the ability to sustainably advance economies and societies, while protecting cultures and environments that epitomise destination identity.
But how do we stop the trend of the tragedy of not treading lightly? How do we unlock positive tourism growth and impact?
Frustrated at seeing the severity of the situation, I have established a three-step solution which I believe will aid long-term tourism management.
Step 1: Dissemination – Adopting a ‘365’ approach to tourism, working to ensure year-round tourism to ensure sustained destination visitation and resulting tourism business momentum. Our industry is about giving, not just taking. Sustaining a business for longevity and legacy means driving tourism activity beyond the peak season. Seasonal tourism management alleviates such pressures – it allows us to be enablers not eliminators when it comes to helping local businesses in the likes of Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona or wherever it may be. We must break the bottleneck approach by staggering travellers across the seasons.
Step 2: Dispersal – Encouraging discovery beyond the usual tourism centres, widening the guest’s travel path to discover other areas within the destination. At Trafalgar we take pride in encouraging our guests to discover the iconic as well as get below the surface of the places we visit by exploring villages, going beyond the expected and connecting with communities. Travel is about forging new paths, the adventure of delving deeper into destinations. By creating new and interesting experiences we not only promote lesser-known areas for our guests to explore, we ensure we are maximizing the immense benefits of for more people to experience the beautiful places we visit, all year-round.
Step 3: Direct Action – Let us all understand the power of direct conscious thought on what we do. We should recognise that at times we need to support, other times we need to approach what we are doing in a different way. A great example of this being the UNESCO listed Giants Causeway, which pre 2012 was struggling to cope with the ever-growing influx of fleeting visits. The National Trust wisely realised that by focusing on an initiative that would provide education and interpretation of the area, they could embrace the opportunity to welcome more visitors without impacting the environment. With the creation of a new visitor sustainable visitor centre to help manage people flow, it was designed with a roof seeded from local grasses and also blended into the surrounding environs in a place of natural beauty. In 2017, Giants Causeway welcomed 1 million visitors, a record for any Northern Ireland attraction. Moreover, the new facility demonstrated the importance of enabling and preserving as opposed to running the risk of eliminating, with people roaming without regard for what they are seeing. Trafalgar is proud to have been involved with such a commendable initiative.
It is imperative that when taking action in the destination, this must, must be done so in genuine partnership with locals – the emphasis being onworking with them to ensure the betterment of the places they call home. In doing so we ensure a focus on safeguarding the natural beauty, cultures and traditions of the people and places we visit, which is how we are able to instill the power of travel to truly change lives, both for travellers and for those people in the places they visit.
Reflecting on the above, I am reminded of a recent trip to Dublin, where I met with Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland. who advised that “Tourism is our largest indigenous industry, with more than 281,000 people across the island employed in the sector.” His pride and sense of determination was clear when he shared with me his enduring ambitions for his country of birth, stating: “In 2017, we welcomed approximately 10.65 million overseas visitors to the island of Ireland, delivering revenue of about €5.78 billion. In 2018, we aim to grow overseas tourism revenue by +5%, to €6 billion for the island of Ireland; and to grow visitor numbers to 10.8 million (+2%). Our aim is to position Ireland as a year-round, ‘must visit’ destination and to ensure that the contribution of overseas tourism to the economy continues to expand.” It was a true meeting of minds to hear him make such a statement.
Travel is one of life’s great gifts. We now know that it comes with great responsibility. We are blessed to be able to see beautiful places that excite our eyes and ignite a fire in our hearts. But we cannot let the places have a shared passion for be loved to the point of extinction. The future of our industry is now moving beyond exploration – let us ensure that becomes a firm step towards preservation, not elimination.
We must take action, now, or face the fact that the damage occurring may be irreversible. As little we are in this world, we can make a big difference by each of us changing our behaviours – opening our minds and eyes to how big a responsibility we have to help preserve our precious planet. This is our new travel destiny. Welcome to the new reality.