Like any practical optimist, I’m waiting to see how the highly anticipated tourism boom plays out. Dramatic change has both positive and negative consequences. After bringing an industry to its knees, Covid is undoubtedly an opportunity for tourism to return as something better.
A few months before the pandemic, I stood on a stage in Wellington to warn tourism marketers in New Zealand about the problems of over-tourism. It feels almost quaint now, those reports of tourists overrunning attractions to the detriment of the environment, the industry, and experience of those tourists themselves. I like to think there’s a boardroom somewhere where global tourism power players sit around a table to plan and plot the new normal. I like to think they debate how the industry can return more responsibly, sustainably, and committed to the positive values of tourism as opposed to revenues above all else. I still shudder when I think about Bali, Angkor, Western Australia’s Monkey Mia and high-season traffic in Vancouver’s Stanley Park: pre-Covid, it was getting ugly out there.
Now there’s a Catch-22: can we blame any tourist experience for doing whatever it takes to reclaim their lost dollars and keep their business alive? Oversell, underdeliver, cut costs, hang on - what do people expect after the past 18 months? Yet the industry has a rare and unexpected opportunity to reboot and avoid past mistakes: to deliver quality over quantity, focus on meaningful connections, include more voices and diversify, and protect the environments and communities in which they operate. No doubt some companies, agencies and marketing organizations will get it right, and some will get wrong. This is where you and I come in.
This time, we can get it right. We can choose to spend our money on companies and experiences that are committed to the future of tourism the planet needs. If prices increase as a result, we can insist those costs are passed onto hardworking employees, community supports, and environmental protections. If this means we can’t afford to hop on a plane and fly overseas like we could, let’s re-focus our energies on the incredible local experiences that have sat under our noses all along.
I know. All this is rich coming from someone who’s ticked off their bucket list in over 100 countries, or never spent a cent to offset carbon credits (primarily because travel writing is not one of those professions with too many cents to go around in the first place). I wrote about how I was complicit in over-tourism before, I just don’t want to have to write about it again.
We have an opportunity to force the closure of exploitative attractions for good. We can stop treating old Europe as a strip-mall parking lot for massive cruise ships. We can keep crowd limits and pre-bookings in place. Unchecked growth was shaping a disaster. As growth finally returns to the battered tourism industry, let’s do what we can to check it.