The impact of Tourism and what can be done about it

Jim Fletcher, Arc's well travelled Tourism Partner explores the subject of mass tourism that has grabbed headlines in recent times.

Mass tourism is resulting in increasingly negative impacts upon a range of destinations, cultural heritage sites, cities and attractions world-wide.

The cases of Venice and Barcelona are well documented, where overcrowding are serious issues. In Thailand, the government has banned tourists from staying overnight and introduced a daily limit on the number of visitors who can access the Similan islands as a way of tackling environmental issues caused by overcrowding.

Overall there needs to be greater planning for and management of visitor numbers – this includes tourists from both overseas and domestic markets.

Angkor Wat, the temple complex in Cambodia (pictured above) is an archaeological masterpiece and the 7th Wonder of the World. The number of visitors has increased hugely in recent years as a result of the expansion of the airport at Siem Reap and improved accessibility through the introduction of direct flights from major regional cities. On a recent visit, I saw that numbers at peak times at certain of the most popular temples are not being managed adequately. There are signs asking tourists not to climb on the monuments, but these are being ignored by people who are determined to take the best selfie and other pictures. If this continues, not only will the monuments suffer physical damage but the very lack of respect for the site itself creates a negative experience for other visitors.

The management of large visitor numbers through the use of “timed” tickets is a successful approach in certain situations which means visitors can only gain access within a specific time frame. This isn’t appropriate for Angkor Wat as a whole since the site is so vast and open but the carrying capacity of certain temples at peak times is limited and requires careful monitoring and management. Day ticket prices to the archaeological park have recently doubled for international visitors (entry is free for Cambodians) but this is not expected to moderate visitor numbers. One approach to manage numbers at the popular sites could combine timed access with visitor number constraints. The number of staff at the site would need to be increased and strengthened to manage this.

It is a difficult situation, balancing visitor access with site protection, when improved management and protection of the site will increase staffing and other operational costs but the recent significant raising of ticket pricing, with its limited impact on visitor ticket sales, will contribute additional funding to cover such costs.

Bhutan, winner of the Earth Award at ITB Berlin in March 2018, is tackling the problem head on by preventing it in the first place. It requires most international visitors to buy a pre-booked packaged trip from a Government licensed tour operator, with a minimum cost of $200 to $250 per day, depending on the month of travel. The minimum daily spend covers a 3 star standard of accommodation, meals, local ground transportation, a licensed tour guide and camping equipment for trekking tours. Tourists can choose to stay in 4 or 5 star standard accommodation and therefore will pay far higher daily rates. The idea behind these measures is to constrain the number of tourist arrivals in order to avoid the limited infrastructure, fragile environment and cultural heritage sites from being overwhelmed by overseas visitors. Its policy seems to be working.

Tourism chiefs have to tailor their responses to the particular circumstances of their own situation. Other options to manage visitor numbers include taxation, pricing, planning regulation and transportation planning, or follow Bhutan’s example and market the destination in a different way.

Management of domestic tourism visitors rather than international visitors can be a more pressing issue in some situations where admission charges to heritage sites are negligible or free, alternative recreation opportunities are limited and overcrowding can result. At the Ajanta Caves in India, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Buddhist caves dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C, famed for their fragile paintings and sculptures, are threatened by the growth in visitor numbers and thus need introduction of measures to constrain access.

One option was to build a visitor attraction some 4kms from the site which included four replica caves, an interpretation centre, shopping bazaar, food stalls and picnic areas as an alternative recreation choice. Visitors can enjoy a day out and a picnic as well as learning about the significance and importance of the World Heritage Site nearby through the interpretative and educational facilities. This recently built centre is now attracting a large number of local people and it is helping to relieve the pressure of visitors down at the original heritage site.

There is an education job to be done to make people (local and international visitors) more respectful and understanding about the spirituality of sites as well as the decorative fabric of ancient buildings. When visitors purchase tickets and packages, introductory orientation and information should be provided at this stage then reinforced through the availability of well-trained guides at the site.

Some destinations have taken matters to further extremes. For example, at the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a remarkable high-definition replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened in 2014. Built nearby to the original tomb, with additional interpretation facilities, this move has been necessary to protect the paintings, murals and fabric of the original and replaces it for tourist visitation purposes. The original tomb is now closed except for specialist access.

In conclusion, tourism chiefs, working closely with local government, local communities, the tourism sector, and other concerned parties have to monitor the circumstances and the effectiveness of the visitor management approaches in place. The problem of balancing the interests of local communities, the protection of tourism destinations and fragile heritage sites with growing levels of visitor numbers is now on the political agenda, especially in cases such as Venice and Barcelona. Achieving that balance will be critical to satisfying all sides while securing the characteristics of the very visitor experience that draws the tourist in the first place.

Jim Fletcher, tourism economist, Arc Consulting Partners, has over 35 years’ experience of working in the tourism sector, having travelled to 80 countries. His core skills include tourism development planning and economic analysis. Arc Consulting Partners assists owners and investors to identify, appraise and maximise the performance of businesses, development and project opportunities in hotels, resorts and hospitality.