It’s not been a good summer for mass tourism, but tourism can be better.

The first piece of research I ever undertook was at A level, (in the early 80’s) looking at tourist honeypot sites – sites that attract a large number of tourists which not only cause over tourism issues at the site but also result in other locations left unvisited. Over-tourism and honeypot sites are not a new phenomenon and Tourism Concern has been campaigning for over 25 years against over tourism and for tourism that is welcomed by and benefits local people. We have tirelessly raised awareness of these issues, although until this month the mainstream media has largely ignored the negative impacts of tourism.

So although we have seen demonstrations and grievances against tourism, not only in the major honeypots such as Barcelona and Venice but also in places such as Skye this year – the issues are not new. However there appears to be a hostile backlash against tourism developing, which is unfortunate as tourism done well is not only good for local communities and travellers but in a time when isolationism and xenophobia are on the increase, genuine cultural exchanges are more important than ever.

There is no doubt that tourism creates jobs (it is estimated that 1 in 10 jobs are in the tourism and hospitality sectors) and can bring benefits to local communities. Equally, nearly all governments see tourism positively and spend taxpayers money on encouraging tourists to visit their countries – although success is often measured in numbers, rather than any benefits.

However, it is also true that for one of the largest industries in the world it is surprisingly poorly regulated and managed. Many destinations have suffered from unregulated tourism growth and frequently the initial benefits disappear as local communities become more dependent on tourists. There is also no getting away from the fact that large numbers of people flying around the world have a huge environmental impact.

A lot of tourism is fuelled by cheap air travel which often means that for many people a weekend break in a foreign city is cheaper than an equivalent domestic break – resulting in high volumes of tourists descending on destinations not only for a limited time but at the same time. Equally the increase in cruise tourism is also a feature in many of the destinations with grievances; as is the rise of Airbnb. There does also seem to be a very consumptive attitude to tourism – people feel the need to see (and be seen at) tourist attractions, rather than taking the time to actually get to know local people and enjoy a place.

So instead of measuring success on numbers, destinations should be looking at value – a low number of high-value tourists are obviously better than high numbers of low-value tourists. Increasing the length of time tourist’s stay, ensuring local communities benefit and minimising the impact of tourists should be prioritised over numbers. Encouraging repeat visitors, who have already been to the honeypot sites and are likely to spend more time exploring alternative attractions, would also help.

Numbers per se are not the only problem – London, after Bangkok, has the highest number of international visitors a year; Paris has one of the highest tourists to population ratios (8 tourists per resident) but both cites seem to cope with large numbers of tourists. There are however a couple of specific issues which do seem to cause local issues – and both issues that Tourism Concern has highlighted.

Cruise Ship Tourism

Last year we highlighted our concerns with cruise tourism, which is one of the fastest growing segments in the tourism industry. Although cruise tourism brings some benefit to destinations, the reality in most cases is that ships convey large numbers of low-value passengers, who have limited time for meaningful cultural exchange and leave behind large amounts of rubbish and pollution. The large cruise ships have an enormous ecological impact and notoriously poor working conditions and their sheer size can culturally overwhelm smaller destinations. Additionally, many destinations have become highly dependent on this form of tourism, which can inhibit the development of other, more sustainable forms of tourism. In both Barcelona and Venice cruise tourism was highlighted as an issue – tourists spend only a limited time on shore, overwhelm the popular honeypots sites when they come ashore and spend very little money in the destinations, as they will go back on board to eat and sleep.


Airbnb has been praised for creating new opportunities to generate income for homeowners and renters – saving money for travellers whilst putting the under-utilised assets of people’s homes to work. Founded on the principles of the sharing economy, the business has seen exponential growth and now claims to offer accommodation in more than 65,000 cities and 191 countries. 
However, Airbnb is coming under increasing criticism, including for changing neighbourhood dynamics, disrupting the housing market, and avoiding taxes. Issues of safety, trust and discrimination have also been raised. Critically, the driving down of costs is thought to be impacting on the pay, working conditions and rights of workers, whilst also threatening jobs in the hotel sector.

The Mayor of Barcelona has made tackling tourism a priority and introduced measures such as dealing with illegal tourist apartments (in December 2016, only 60% of the vacation apartments in Barcelona were legal), regulating the growth of the hotel sector, and spending funds from a so-called “tourist tax” on the city’s neighbourhoods and public transport.

There are issues about how tourists behave and this goes back to people’s attitudes to tourism. While there may be a debate about whether travel is a right or a privilege it is certainly true that as tourists we are taking our holiday in someone else’s home and should act accordingly.

The relationship between local residents and tourists is always complicated – but local and national governments could help make tourism better by:

  • Market destinations in a way that ensures tourism benefits the destinations – e.g. encourage tourists to stay an extra day or two and visit sites outside the main tourist areas;
  • Regulate the number of tourists’ beds in a city.
  • Regulate or control the use of sites such as Airbnb.
  • Limit or tax cruise tourism.
  • If needed tax tourists higher, but use the money to improve local communities.
  • Landlord licensing schemes and enforcement against unlicensed tourist accommodation.
  • Regulations on second / holiday home ownership

Whilst there are implications to all these measures, a well-managed tourism industry that is welcomed by local people, is better than tourists being labelled as terrorists.

Further local and national governments should:

  • Ensure tourism-affected communities have a say in tourism planning and development and can benefit from tourism income.
  • Implement a human rights-based approach in tourism policy and development;
  • Abolish subsidies to air travel, which lead to market distortions at the expense of more sustainable travel options;
  • Ensure responsible resource management, which addresses the negative impacts of over-tourism and respects environmental and cultural carrying capacities;
  • Eliminate structural disadvantages and create an enabling business environment for small and medium scale enterprises as well as community-based initiatives;
  • Introduce and enforce legislation guaranteeing fair and decent working conditions including living wages.
  • Ensure tax justice by implementing effective tax regimes with fair mechanisms for distribution;

Our next piece of research, (Airbnb research proposal outline – funding dependent), is to look at the impact of Airbnb on specific locations. Although there are ways to deal with Airbnb’s impacts on local communities – San Francisco have introduced licensing, while Amsterdam have insisted that Airbnb has a mechanism on its website that will make it impossible for users to rent their properties out for longer than 60 days per annum – we are  also concerned about workers, who clean and service Airbnb properties, who are likely to have poor working conditions.

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