The Covid-19, or how a global shock can better fight against overtourism
Updated: May 1, 2022
EM Normandie - UGEI
Hugues Séraphin* (photo)
University of Winchester
*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute.
Article originally published on The Conversation France.
In recent months, these images have made the rounds of the world: the canals of Venice regaining their tranquility and clarity, the paradisiacal beaches of Thailand emptied of their visitors, the Champs-Élysées looking a little larger than usual... Among the many effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, those on the tourism industry are particularly visible and sensitive.
Defined by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as "the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts of it, that excessively and negatively influences the quality of life perceived by citizens or the quality of visitor experiences" overtourism encompasses all the negative consequences attributed to this sector.
In recent years, it has become a major concern for the industry. One figure is indicative of this evolution: with 1.4 billion international tourists according to UNWTO, 2018 was the ninth consecutive year of growth for the sector. The UNWTO expected to reach this milestone in 2020, but its forecast came true two years earlier.
Several factors explain this growth. Beyond the demographic aspects linked to the increase in the world population, the first reason is none other than the development of mass tourism. The generalization of paid vacations in many industrialized countries, associated with an increase in purchasing power, has made it possible since the 1960s to open up tourism to a large part of the world's population. This first wave was followed by a second, at the beginning of the 2000s, with the appearance of new segments of visitors coming from China, among others.
At the same time, the cost of travel has decreased considerably, driven by the economic growth of tourism, but also by the appearance of new business models, such as low-cost airlines or Airbnb. In addition, there is a general tendency among all tourism actors to seek growth at all costs, guided by the weight that the sector represents in multiple economies. This favors the short term but without thinking about the potential long term impacts.
The Covid-19, an unexpected opportunity
Today, many tourist sites in the world are victims of their own success and receive more visitors than their infrastructures can theoretically accommodate. The consequences are human, in particular as regards the living conditions of the local populations, but also and especially environmental: emissions of CO2 and greenhouse gases, pollution of the natural spaces, consequent need in energy and water, etc.
The Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru, for example, has seen its annual attendance increase from 200,000 visitors in 1987 to more than 1,500,000 in 2018, causing wear on the stone surface.
The problem is such that initiatives, institutional and individual, are becoming more and more pressing. Unesco, for example, has threatened to remove the Croatian city of Dubrovnik from the list of World Heritage Sites if the local authorities do not reduce the number of tourists there, while in Venice, residents have repeatedly protested against the impact of the number of tourists on their quality of life.
To address the problem of overtourism, several strategies are being considered or have already been implemented: from educating tourists to closing down sites, increasing prices and taxes, or spreading out tourists over off-peak periods. The scope of these actions remains limited, however, because they come from within the sector, i.e. from actors who are themselves heavily involved in tourism.
Previous studies have shown that, in general, for radical changes to take place, an external shock is necessary. Despite its disastrous consequences for the sector, a recent study also sees the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to combat overtourism.
Because of its unpredictability, but also its unprecedented power, the Covid-19 pandemic has indeed forced tourism actors to reinvent themselves.
In Lourdes, an e-pilgrimage
The authors of the article take the example of Lourdes. As the third largest pilgrimage in the world, the site has been hit hard by Covid-19. The most important measure taken by the structure to deal with the crisis was radical, to say the least: the creation of the first virtual pilgrimage in the world, "Lourdes United".
Held on July 16, 2020, this virtual pilgrimage took the form of a 15-hour marathon, with multiple online animations. The article reports that not only did Lourdes benefit greatly from this radical strategy as 80 million followers attended the event, but also that by moving from a physical to a virtual event, Lourdes found an unexpected solution to the problem of overtourism.
In Thailand, the return of wildlife
Another interesting example comes from Thailand, which has used the health crisis to pursue more sustainable tourism. Several local sites have long faced a problem of overcrowding, be it Bangkok, Phuket or Maya Bay, generating multiple environmental damages. But the global blockade following the first wave of the Covid-19 led to the closure of all these sites to the public.
Calmness found in Thailand during the months of containment.Wikimedia
Thai authorities were then able to observe under real conditions to what extent radical actions benefit the fight against overtourism. For example, closing parks during the pandemic allowed the natural habitat to regenerate and brought back wildlife, such as whales and turtles, to some sites.
Based on this forced experience, authorities have made the decision to close the parks annually for two to four months, starting in 2021, to improve the conservation of the areas.
What the examples of Lourdes and Thailand highlight here is that the exceptional circumstances provided by the Covid-19 crisis allowed tourism stakeholders to adopt exceptional strategies that would not have been possible under normal circumstances. Despite its disastrous consequences on the tourism sector in the short and medium term, the Covid-19 crisis could therefore have positive consequences in the longer term.
Article translated from French with https://www.deepl.com/translator
Les articles d'Hugues Séraphin sur The Conversation France.
Les articles & ouvrages d'Hugues Séraphin.