The scourge of overtourism

Rather than killing the tourist industry in Malta, what sane people want is careful tourism planning and management.

For as long as I remember, from when I joined the travel industry at AirMalta in 1973, the perennial discussion was the development of quality tourism.  Over the years, a small group of people within the airline, the tourist industry, and the national tourism organisation had warned that Malta was too small to be a mass tourist destination.  I recall working with Paul Galea and others at the tourism ministry on the first-ever carrying capacity study.

Little did we know that the discussions, research, and strategy development were all a sham to induce people to think that somebody was serious about sustainable tourism, while the real intention was to go hell-bent for big numbers.  Sustainable tourism was the sacrificial lamb on the altar of a succession of governments who decided the easy thing to get economic growth was an ever-growing number of tourists, supported by building contractors who knew zilch about tourism but were experts in buttering their bread.

What has changed since then?  Little.  Now, I admit that the big numbers have been crucial in economic growth  ̶  one only has to remember the heavy blow to our economy and foreign exchange when tourism collapsed during Covid.  Nor can one forget the creation of jobs in hotels, catering establishments, and all the supporting services tourism requires.

But has it been sustainable?  No way.  Through the years we have had much hand-wringing and public outcries about the excesses of tourism development  ̶  the stealing of public access to beaches, the enormous strain on the infrastructure, the privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses, and other disbenefits.

How can change happen?

Do you think anybody has ever conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the industry?  I am not aware of any.  All the studies I have seen address the contribution of tourism to gross value added, foreign exchange, employment, and its multiplier effects.  Anybody out there who knows better, please contact me.  Even the recent Deloitte proposal to the Malta Hotels & Restaurants Association for a carrying-capacity study, which is excellent in terms of the issues it identifies for study, does not purport to assess the negative financial, social, and other impacts of tourism.

Will this ever change?  Not it we are left to our own devices.  As usual, I think that what will bring change in the end is what happens elsewhere in the world to make us see sense.  I see hope in the emergence of serious concerns about ‘overtourism’ all around the globe.  Already in 2019, angst over excessive tourism growth was so high that the UN World Tourism Organisation called for “such growth to be managed responsibly so as to best seize the opportunities tourism can generate for communities around the world”.

While the pandemic was expected to usher in a new normal where responsible and sustainable travel would emerge, this shift was evidently short-lived, as demand surged in 2022 and 2023 after travel restrictions eased.  During the pandemic, I was asked for my views on the future of tourism in Malta and I had proposed that, ironically, the gloom induced by Covid was the right time to rethink our strategy and go for quality tourism.  To make a provocative point about it, I had even half-jokingly suggested that the whole of that tourism slum which is Buġibba should be flattened and be rebuilt into a real high-grade tourist resort. 

It’s everywhere

Concerns over excess tourism have not only been seen in popular cities but also on the islands of Hawaii and Greece, beaches in Spain, national parks in the United States and Africa, and places off the beaten track like Japan’s less explored regions. This was especially evident in cities like Barcelona, where anti-tourism sentiment built up in response to pent-up frustration about rapid and unyielding tourism growth. Similar local frustration emerged in other famous cities, including Amsterdam, Venice, London, Kyoto, and Dubrovnik.

You might ask what the term ‘overtourism’ means?  The term was employed by Freya Petersen in 2001, who lamented the excesses of tourism development and governance deficits in the city of Pompei. Her sentiments are increasingly familiar among tourists in other top tourism destinations more than 22 years later.  Overtourism is more than a journalistic device to arouse host community anxiety or demonise tourists through antitourism activism. It is also more than simply being a question of management.

Overtourism is often described as being a problem of too many tourists. That is an over-simplification since it fails to acknowledge the myriad factors at play.  Over-tourism also has cultural drivers that are intensified when tourists’ culture is at odds with that of host communities – this might manifest as breaching of public norms, irritating habits, unacceptable behaviours, place-based displacement and inconsiderate occupation of space.

The issue also comes about when the economic drivers of tourism mean that those who stand to benefit from growth are instead those who pay the price of it, particularly where gentrification and capital accumulation driven from outside results in local resident displacement and marginalisation  ̶  remember the reaction of Valletta residents to loud music and whole streets being taken over by restaurants?

Overtourism is associated with a range of environmental, economic, and social impacts. Some of the issues include resentment of tourists by the local population; litter; environmental degradation, increased pressure on finite resources; overuse of public facilities; devastating impacts on local flora and fauna; changes to society; reduction in authenticity; tourists’ needs prioritised over locals’ needs; increases in crime; and rises in the cost of living.

Breaking the overtourism cycle

Radical policy measures that break the overtourism cycle are becoming more common. For example, Amsterdam has moved to ban cruise ships by closing the city’s cruise terminal; Venice has introduced a daily tax on tourist entry into the city and banned cruiseships from the Grand Canal; Greece has implemented a time-slot system for visitors to the Acropolis; Florence has banned new short-term private vacation rentals in its historic centre; the local council in Portofino is fining tourists as much as €275 for lingering for selfies in “no-waiting zones”.

Some destinations have been engaged in demarketing, with varying degrees of success. However, whether this can address the underlying factors in the long run is questionable, particularly as social media influencers and travel writers continue to give attention to touristic hotspots. In Malta, it is like asking visitors to avoid St John’s Co-Cathedral and Caravaggio and instead recommend they go to Ħal Millieri chapel.

How many is too many isn’t always easy to determine, but there are some tell-tale signs that a destination is suffering at the hands of overtourism. The Responsible Tourism Partnership refers to it as ‘destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. It is the opposite of Responsible Tourism, which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently’.

Rather than killing the tourist industry in Malta, what sane people want is careful tourism planning and management. Adoption of the principles of sustainable tourism is fundamental in managing overtourism. From a top-down perspective, policies should be put in place to manage aspects such as overcrowding. This could include changes in fees or limitations in ticket sales, for example.

The solutions to dealing adequately with the effects of overtourism are likely to be many and varied and must be tailored to the unique, relevant destination.  The tourism supply chain must also bear its fair share of responsibility. While popular destinations are understandably an easier sell, redirecting tourism beyond popular honeypots like urban heritage sites or overcrowded beaches needs greater impetus to avoid shifting the problem elsewhere.

Local authorities must exercise policy measures that establish capacity limits, then ensure they are upheld, and if not, be held responsible for their inaction. The entrepreneurs investing in tourism should support initiatives that elevate local priorities and needs, and not simply exercise a model of maximum extraction for shareholders in the supply chain.  The Malta Tourism Authority and destination management organisations must support development that is nuanced and in tune with the local backdrop rather than simply mimicking mass-produced products and experiences.

Finally, from a grass-roots perspective, there are many things that tourists themselves can do to help prevent overtourism. Tourists can choose to visit destinations off-peak or at quiet times in the day, visit less known destinations, and demonstrate responsible behaviour when travelling.

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