Palau: A Conservation Culture

The Micronesian nation of Palau has been gaining a reputation not only for trail-blazing conservation measures, reports Tiffany Chan, but also for putting the brakes on irresponsible mass tourism. Now they’ve set their sights on carbon neutrality.

[Above: The Rock Island archipelago, a major tourism draw for Palau. ]

Micronesian Archipelago Leads the Way in Pacific Stewardship

Children of Palau
I take this Pledge
To preserve and protect your beautiful and unique Island home.…
—The Palau Pledge

The tiny island nation of Palau is known worldwide for its marvelous environment – turquoise waters, unexplored lands, biodiversity – and for the innovative regulations that have been implemented to ensure its pristine condition.

This Micronesian country of hundreds of islands, however, has been facing many challenges due to high-volume tourism growth and a dramatic increase in budget-oriented travel. Tourism accounts for approximately 31% of Palau’s GDP, as well as 38% of jobs in Palau’s private sector. In recent (pre-Covid) years, annual visitors to Palau averaged almost seven times greater than the local population. Prior to 2014, higher spending consumers in the diving market fuelled tourism in Palau. Thereafter, a large spike in pre-packaged travel groups from China resulted in lower in-country spending and a shift towards mass-market tourism.

Tourists enjoy the Milky Way, an often crowded mud bath in the Rock Islands.

As identified in the Palau Responsible Tourism Policy Framework 2017-2021 by the Bureau of Tourism, “dramatic increases in visitor arrivals within the past two years and the rapid proliferation of budget-oriented tourism development to service those visitors have led to concerns about devastating consequences on the industry, environment and society.”

A Conservation Leader

Led by a president focused on natural conservation, Palau is on the path to discourage mass tourism and promote destination sustainability, with innovative policies and initiatives, such as:

    • The world’s first shark sanctuary, created in 2009. Given that half of the world’s oceanic sharks are at risk of extinction, this sanctuary protects an area about the size of France where commercial shark fishing is banned.
    • The world’s sixth-largest marine sanctuary, established in 2015 to protect 80% of its maritime territory, meaning no fishing, or other uses such as drilling for oil, in an area of tuna-rich ocean.

      Unique among responsible tourism pledges, the Palau Pledge is the entry visa stamp – and directed to the next generation.

    • Introduction of the “Palau Pledge” in 2017, the world’s first mandatory eco-pledge. This signed promise, stamped in the passport of all incoming visitors, is a pledge to respect the environment and preserve it for the “children of Palau.” The pledge received almost 6000 signatures within the first two weeks.
    • A “reef-toxic” sunscreen ban restricting the manufacturing and import of sunscreen containing toxic chemicals that lead to coral bleaching in 2018, followed by a world-first ban on selling harmful sunscreen products in 2020.
    • Palau joined the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) in 2020 along with 13 other world leaders, in a commitment to sustainably manage 100% of national waters by 2025.

To ensure compliance with environmental responsibility, the Responsible Tourism Education Act was passed in 2018. Apart from endorsing the Palau Responsible Tourism Policy Framework, the Act requires tourism businesses to provide visitors with environmental education, conservation awareness and sustainable options, such as reusable alternatives to disposable plastic cups, straws, and containers.

How did Palau do it?

These conservation efforts and mitigation measures are largely led by Palauans in both the public and private sectors. Various groups outside of the government have pushed for each of these initiatives and made it successful by collaborating with the government to create laws and regulations, along with the assistance of international partners when needed.

According to Ivory Vogt, a Palauan sustainable tourism consultant, “The essence behind our conservation and mitigation policies stem from our traditions and culture. These ideas can be reflected in Palauan words like bul, which means to restrict the use of a natural resource to allow it to regenerate over some time, and mengereomel, meaning to conserve a resource in a way that you replant what you harvest, so you always have a good supply of it.”

The main tourism authorities in Palau are the Palau Visitors Authority and the Bureau of Tourism. The former plays the role of marketing and the latter in regulating the tourism industry. Prior to 2021, the Bureau of Tourism was part of the same Ministry, called the Ministry of Natural Resource, Environment and Tourism.

Aspiring to Become the World’s First Carbon-Neutral Destination

It seems clear that Palau is a pioneer in addressing environmental sustainability and tourism management issues with innovative solutions, and its most recent development is no different. Apart from overtourism, climate change is one of the greatest threats to Palau. With most Palauans residing, working, and producing food in low-lying areas, the global rise in sea level will be devastating for the island state, not to mention tropical cyclones, typhoons, and severe weather patterns posing massive threats to the livelihood of vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

A taro patch, key source for the Palauan diet.

To improve climate resilience, the Bureau of Tourism is collaborating with Sustainable Travel International, Slow Food and the Palau Pledge to make Palau the world’s first carbon-neutral tourism destination. This program is led by the Bureau of Tourism with the assistance of several international partners, such as the TaiwanICDF. By aspiring to be a carbon-neutral tourism destination, Palau will have to market the program to their visitors and encourage them to offset the carbon footprint of their trip.

Building on previous sustainable tourism efforts, the program began in August 2020 with a value-chain analysis, and later data collection from tourism-related businesses and a needs assessment with a small group of local food producers. The goal is to mitigate the tourism-based carbon footprint by promoting local food production along with a carbon management program for travelers. Less reliance on imports and a redirected focus on local food production allow for better food security and local economic opportunities, all while lowering CO2 emissions.

A national dish, demok (taro leaf soup) is favored by visitors.

To compensate for tourism-associated emissions, visitors will have the opportunity to voluntarily calculate and offset the carbon footprint associated with their trip through a digital platform. Using 2019 arrival numbers, a projected $1 million could be generated through the calculator if all visitors offset their trip. The contributions would then be reinvested into conservation projects and certified carbon offset initiatives. Due to COVID-19 and the transition to a new government administration, the Carbon Neutral program is still in progress, with the hopes of the calculator being completed soon.

A Pioneer in Conservation

Within all of Palau’s initiatives, the people and biodiversity of Palau come first. Overtourism has taught Palau the importance of prioritizing high-value tourism. In today’s climate, destinations that once suffered from mass tourism have been given an opportunity to rethink how they will handle the pent-up demand. For the sake of building a more resilient and regenerative tourism economy, COVID-19 recovery plans must not ignore the intersection of climate change and sustainable tourism development. Palau’s latest initiative in carbon neutrality is a destination-level approach that can act as a guiding model for other destinations. Balancing tourism growth with climate action is a difficult feat to accomplish, but with countries like Palau taking the lead on such initiatives, there is hope that other destinations can implement similar initiatives into their climate action strategies, while also fostering sustainable economic growth.

Once Overrun, Dubrovnik Plans for Sustainability

Dubrovnik, Croatia, a UNESCO World Heritage city, is known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic Sea’, its historic city center surrounded by original medieval stone walls – and until recently, thronged with cruise ship passengers. In 2017, that began to change. The following before-and-after story has been provided by the Mayor’s Office, City of Dubrovnik (with a closing note on the Covid hiatus).

View over the medieval historic core of Dubrovnik, ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’.

[All photos courtesy of the City of Dubrovnik]

‘Respect the City’ Program Includes Limits on Cruise-ship Crowds

Dubrovnik, a champion of Croatian tourism, is a city that is both a museum and a performance stage, a unique combination of history and modernity – a city with a capital C. Its rich cultural heritage, different architectural styles, various cultural events, film tourism (think Game of Thrones), Mediterranean flavors, and superior accommodations draw millions of tourists each year. The old city center, surrounded by original medieval walls, has been under UNESCO World Heritage inscription since 1979.

The coastal city is a popular stop-off for cruises. In 2013, for instance, there were more than one million cruise passengers in Dubrovnik, occasionally resulting in more than 10 thousand visitors in the historic core at one time.

Cruise ships pack the main Dubrovnik port in times before “Respect the City”.

By 2017 the city was facing negative publicity in global media due to overtourism and  uncontrolled tourism development. The city was falling victim to its own success, and its citizens were becoming more openly critical. Amidst such chaos, many visitors could not fully experience the city’s history and culture. Eventually, UNESCO warned that the overwhelming number of tourists could result in its World Heritage listing being revoked and advised that no more than 8,000 tourists be in the historic core at any one time.

Signs of 21st-century mass tourism hang on a medieval street.

Shortly after being elected in June 2017, mayor Mato Franković introduced the multidisciplinary project “Respect the City” (RTC), aiming for more sustainable development of Dubrovnik. He began tackling the difficult challenge to reduce overcrowding through different measures for relieving traffic congestion and implementing smart city solutions. In particular, he reduced the number of souvenir stands by 80 percent and cut the number of restaurant tables and chairs by 30 percent. As a result, the City has lost some revenue, at least 5 million kuna a year (around €660,000 or US$786,000 ). To illustrate, the highest rent for a small stand at that time was more than 400,000 kunas annually, achieved at public tender.

‘Some of the measures we implemented are unpopular, but such moves are necessary if we want to reach the sustainable tourism we seek’, said Mayor Franković about financial losses. ‘Our task is to put the needs of citizens first. Everything we have done and will do in the future will greatly contribute to creating a unique destination experience and increase the quality of the overall service for all visitors’.

Various strategies have been implemented in cruise tourism. The City approached the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) and, in partnership with them, reorganized cruise schedules to stagger departure and arrival times. It is essential to emphasize that the cruise industry is an important segment of the economy in Dubrovnik. The city policy was that the number of people was never a problem; it was the flow. Better flow was achieved by organizing the ship-arrivals timetable more carefully, both daily and throughout the year. The maximum number of ships was set to two ships at once and the limit of visitors in the walled city coming from cruise ships at 4,000 – half the number suggested by UNESCO. Harmonization of arrival times has relieved pressure on the historic core in the summer seasons of 2018 and 2019 (pre-COVID years), compared to 2017 and earlier.

The 16th-century Pile Gate, main entrance to the old town, blocked by crowds in 2017 . . .

. . . and flowing freely in summer 2019.

CLIA´s repeated willingness to cooperate in order to resolve the existing problems in the spirit of partnership is precious to the City of Dubrovnik. As a part of that partnership and the “Respect the City” project, Dubrovnik in 2019 became one of the 30 world destinations for which the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has done a Destination Assessment and Action Plan. Development of the Plan represents the City’s firm commitment and unshakeable determination in moving tourism towards a sustainable future.

The City achieved 70% of excellence in the GSTC report, attesting to its focus on a sustainable future for tourism and the city. GSTC recognized numerous examples of good practices in the process, mainly regarding public safety, urban cleanliness, and a high degree of heritage conservation. These included the reconstructed Lazareti site, special measures for heritage protection, local festivals, products, and entrepreneurs, as well as protection of biodiversity, and monitoring the Respect the City project itself.

Sustainable Tourism for a Sustainable Future
‘This report represents a new beginning of the story of a sustainable Dubrovnik and a sustainable way of managing tourism as our main industry,’ said Mayor Franković. ‘Working on assessment in 2019, GSTC consulted with 70 stakeholders from national and local government, the private sector, NGOs and universities, and residents. All stakeholder inputs are very valuable to us, because we want our city to be a great place for anyone – residents and guests alike’, he concluded.

Evening in Dubrovnik, after many cruise passengers have left.

The conservation of cultural heritage, the quality of citizens’ daily lives, and the provision of the best possible experience of Dubrovnik as a destination – all those are motives for this shift in destination management. Respect the City attracted the attention of international media and the global tourism sector. Dubrovnik is increasingly becoming perceived as a city that has started managing its tourism in a sustainable way. As key factors in years to come, the City of Dubrovnik is planning to take over cruise ship shuttle services and gradually eliminate traffic around the gateway area.

In COVID-19 times Croatia was recognized as a safe destination due to its good epidemiological situation in 2020, and safety continues to be the focus in 2021.

Western Balkans—Tourism on the Cusp

[Above: Trebinje, Bosnia. All photos by Cristina Angeles; videos by Juan Carlos Rodarte.]

Our video project on the Adriatic’s Balkan coast shows what tourism should do—and not do.

Here at the Destination Stewardship Center we want to encourage sustainable tourism practices that preserve today’s impressive places for enjoyment tomorrow.

The Adriatic coast of the western Balkan peninsula is one of those places—a destination of great promise and also at great risk. Imposing mountains rise only a short distance inland from the coast, a combination that supports a diversity of ecosystems. The region enjoys a warm to hot Mediterranean climate, which makes it an appealing destination for vacations—and hasty development. Similarly attractive parts of the Mediterranean have already been touristically exploited. Just look over at some of Greece’s heavily built-up islands to see what is coming.

So we on the video team went there to see how the area is doing, and why it’s special. Listen to the people who live there talk about their home, in their own voices:

The hope of course is for tourism in the region to generate jobs and raise local people’s quality of life. But is it being done in the best way? We found the answer was “yes” in some places, definitely “no” in others.

Thanks to the collaboration with Western Balkans Geotourism Network (WBGN), we spent 21 days documenting the Adriatic regions of Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and meeting the people associated with the WBGN. They are the heroes of this story, working against tough odds to turn tourism in a better direction.

Our expedition revealed three red flags signalling touristic overkill: the coastal city of Sarandë and the archaeological zone of Butrint in Albania, and the coastal development at Kotor Bay, Montenegro.

Auron Tare, Albanian National Coastline Agency Director, shared with us his professional experience as a pioneer in the preservation of Albanian culture. Listen to his observations on overcommercialized Sarandë, once a quaint fishing town:

“The town went completely crazy with its tourism concept.”


In the red flag areas, rocketing growth of globalized products was overwhelming more sustainable local commerce and sacrificing the cultural diversity of lifestyle, so basic to destination appeal. Tourist complexes deface the scenery with buildings that do not respect the landscape. Reinforcing all this are thousands of people hopping on and off all-inclusive cruise ships.

Now overtourism has come to the Greco-Roman ruins at Butrint National Park, the World Heritage site preserved and managed by Auron Tare. He explains what’s happening:

“Butrint is at an overtourism crossroads.”
As for Kotor Bay, we asked our guide Jack Delf, chairman of the Western Balkans Geotourism Network, why tourism was out of control on the coast of Montenegro. Is a change in direction possible? The only way, he says, is to emphasize value instead of volume:
 

 
“We can’t preserve this through mass tourism.”
 
Is everything lost? Not at all. Various NGO’s and companies are seeking to develop and promote tourism products under management plans that protect the land, empower the locals, and provide them with market opportunity.
 
Nancy Tare, Albania Regional Director for the WBGN (and Auron’s wife), told us that a key factor for sustainability is the important role that locals can play in taking care of what is theirs. They have in their hands the power to sell their land, or not. They are the only ones that can preserve their natural, cultural, and social resources. Here’s Nancy on the true meaning of sustainability:
 

“Keep it real is by keeping locals involved. That’s a success.”

As an example, we present the destination Nivicë, the first village in southern Albania’s Project Nivicë route. What is it about this initiative that has impressed us? Its authenticity. Auron Tare is project coordinator, working with an emphasis on restoring vernacular architecture:

“What we’re trying to do here is set an example.”
 
Auron has a personal connection to Nivicë. “He is building a house in Nivicë on his grandparent’s land and enjoys spending time there with his family,” notes our producer, Erika Gilsdorf, who sums up his difficult task this way: “The town was abandoned during war, and now people are coming back. He wants it to grow and thrive but keep its charm and authenticity.  He struggles with maintaining balance.  If you promote it, it is at risk of exploitation. If you don’t, it is at risk of poverty and abandonment. So, he’s trying to see if they can manage it sustainably, grow organically, and do so slowly to handle challenges as they arise.”
 
For projects like this and in general for the Eastern Balkans, is there an economic argument for their sustainability? Yes! Jack Delf explains why:
 
“Adventure tourism is now a 680 billion dollar business, growing at 23 percent per year.”


During our expedition we had the opportunity meet the various personalities who are charting the routes to sustainability. One of them was Kirsi Hyvaerinen, a board member of the Global Ecotourism Network, who calls for redefining tourism for her adopted home of Montenegro, confirming that the ultimate goal is to capture value and not volume, and that local people are the key:

“It’s not too late.”


Environmental millionaires?

In a globalized world, poverty is commonly equated with lack of money. We often heard that a main reason for growing tourism in the region is to generate jobs and so improve the people’s quality of life. Whereas the purpose may be noble and the solution correct in economic terms, it is precisely the migration of this concept into this region that we see as a major challenge. What we admired in the people we met was the means of production they already have, the freedom they have to enjoy their day, the air they breathe away from polluting factories, and their community lifestyles.

In this sense, they are environmental millionaires. They can feed themselves with pesticide-free produce harvested in their backyards, far from the problems that come with the processed products of the industrialized world. Many people in the Balkans that have no job can still live off their land.

Food of the land, Albania.
Bounty of the land, Albania.

To learn more about why we found so much of the western Balkans to be an unspoiled, immaculate, and authentic place, please see our account (originally posted on National Geographic Open Explorer) and soon to appear as an Esri StoryMap. It was sad that Open Explorer closed, since the WBGN came into being in conjunction with the National Geographic’s geotourism initiatives of the 2000s, which defined geotourism as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.”

What have we learned from this raw, unexpected travel experience? Erika offers an answer. She writes: “Hidden in stone, food, and ancient trails, far from the coasts, lies the hope and heart of old Europe. And in its past lies its future; not just for the western Balkans, but for destinations around the world who struggle to maintain the balance of growth and preservation.

Please let us know your comments, doubts, or questions about this beautiful region. We are Erika Gilsdorf, producer of the expedition, Juan Carlos Rodarte, in charge of videography and editing, and Cristina Angeles, your storyteller.

Advice for a Basque Destination

[Above: Gaztelugatxeko Doniene hermitage sits on an islet on Urdaibai’s Bay of Biscay coast. All photos courtesy Urdaibai Magazine.]

How should undiscovered coastal destinations handle tourism?

Earlier this year, Urdaibai Magazine, based in the Basque country of Spain, interviewed Destination Stewardship Center director Jonathan Tourtellot about how to build  responsible tourism activity in this coastal region containing the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. With permission, we present an English-language version of that interview. The answers could apply to any seaside destination that is seeking a better approach to tourism. You can read the original, in either Basque or Spanish here.

Declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984, Urdaibai, northeast of Bilbao on the Bay of Biscay (Bizkaia in Basque) combines a maritime and rural environment with deep cultural traditions. The place is striving to be one where “humans and nature coexist in a framework of respect and sustainable development.” The interview follows.

  1. Urdaibai Magazine: What are the global challenges facing tourism today ?

Jonathan Tourtellot: Overtourism, climate change, and a decision-making mindset that assesses tourism value only in terms of industry transactions—money—with little if any regard to the quality and character of the destinations on which tourism depends.

Urdaibai’s marshes and estuary form core of the Biosphere Reserve.

  1. U.M.: What basic measures do you think should be taken by a small and still underdeveloped tourism territory, as is the case of Urdaibai’s Biosphere Reserve, to integrate tourism activity in a sustainable way?

J.T.: Measure tourism success in terms of value, not volume: Value in terms not only of revenue, but how well tourism benefits are shared by the community and how well they help preserve the natural and cultural heritage that visitors are coming to experience. Invite the kinds of tourism that bring other benefits to the community as well, from education and volunteer help to philanthropy and appropriate business development. Do not measure success just by number of tourist arrivals. That’s quantity, not quality.

  1. U.M.: In order for the tourism to be an activity with a positive impact on the population and the territory, what kind of actions should we avoid when planning our tourism promotion and promotion strategy? What could we regret?

J.T.: Well, let’s look at what not to do! Avoid developing look-alike tourism resorts, hotels, and attractions that could be seen anywhere. Generic facilities are a good way to attract generic tourists—people who seek only better weather than they have back home and who will happily go elsewhere if another destination offers the same thing cheaper.

Everything developed for tourism should reflect distinctive aspects of Urdaibai, or Euskadi, or Spain (in descending order of importance). That mix of authenticity can provide tourists with a rich experience that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. What’s more, revenues from visitors who are sincerely interested in the Urdaibai area will benefit local people and encourage them to protect of the natural and cultural heritage upon which their income depends.

  1. U.M.: You are the creator of a concept as attractive as “geotourism”: the geographical tourism, which could be interpreted today as a paradigm of sustainable tourism. How do you define geotourism? In this context, what should be the tourist’s attitude to make their impact positive and to help ensure that tourism does not become a global problem?

J.T.: The definition of geotourism as we put forth via the National Geographic Society is “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” Our research shows that people interested in those things—“geotravelers”—stay longer and spend more than the average tourist.

An aside: An alternate, much narrower definition of “geotourism” focusing explicitly on geology has gained traction in connection with the international geoparks movement. While clearly different, the two usages are compatible and complementary. In terms of tourism quality, each adds interest to the other, as set forth in the Arouca Declaration (downloadable in four languages) made in 2011 at the International Geotourism Congress in that Portuguese city.—J.T.

If you’re a traveler with a geotouristic attitude, you want your presence to help enhance a place rather than degrade it. The simplest way to do this is to support the businesses that support the quality of the place—businesses that not only practice basic sustainability but also showcase the nature and culture of the place. Spend your money there, not with an international franchise hotel or eatery just like the ones back home. Each Euro you spend is like a vote. Support variety, not sameness. You’ll have a richer trip and take home more memories.

Santimamiñe cave drawings in Kortezubi, Urdaibai date from more than 12,000 years ago.

And of course, you need to be a responsible visitor and encourage the same behavior in others: Recycle your trash if possible, respect local culture, and treat historic sites with care. And do put away that selfie stick. Sure, take a couple of shots of yourselves, but then turn the camera instead toward the place and what it has to offer. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? If you’re visiting just to prove you have been to one more destination, you’re no geotraveler, just a selfie narcissist taking up space and adding to the overtourism problem. Instead, learn everything you can and tell the people back home about it. Put those things on Instagram and Youtube, rather than your own face.

  1. U.M.: Compatibility: Is tourism interested in the culture, historical heritage, the character of the territory, its natural environment, and the peculiarities of the societies it visits—is such tourism compatible with what is understood as “the tourism industry”?

J.T.: Yes and no. Yes, if “industry” is defined as any business that relies mainly on tourism, then it certainly is part of the industry.

This open-air Erregelak dance is one of numerous traditional Basque dances.

No, if it is mass tourism, high on volume and low on value per tourist footprint. What’s more, destinations catering to mass tourism tend to repel the tourists with the geotourism array of interests. Crammed beaches, amusement parks, and lots of T-shirt shops are not what they are looking for.

  1. U.M.: As certifications for quality, process, origin, etc. gain importance in all areas of society, do you consider it necessary for destinations obtain tourism certifications of sustainability and commitment to the environment?

J.T.: Certifications or ratings (my preference) help, partly to differentiate yourselves from those destinations that care nothing about sustainability, partly to encourage any less-motivated stakeholders within your own destination, and partly to monitor your own progress.

  1. U.M.: The National Geographic Society has been a pioneer and a world reference in the dissemination of natural wealth, culture, heritage and science and of the combination of these disciplines with travel and adventure, coming to create a style, a way of seeing the world. From your perspective as a representative for sustainable destinations, what do you think is the role of the specialized press in the development of respectful, integrated, and non-invasive tourism?

J.T.: Travel media have a variety of ways they can improve the conduct of tourism. It’s better to honestly inform than promote. If you do a good job as a travel journalist, the story you tell and show your public will do the promotion job for you. Increasingly, media need to encourage alternative destinations and sites—some media have already started doing this—to avoid overcrowding the famous places. Media need to encourage responsible travel and do the same with their advertisers. Even more than other specialties, travel media are notoriously close to their advertisers, a reality forced by the expensive economics of travel. Now, media may need to help educate their advertisers in how to promote destinations, tours, and accommodations more responsibly. Better to take focus off of generic resorts and golf courses and encourage advertisers instead to focus on the unique characteristics of the destination they are marketing.

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Overtourism, Airbnb, and the Numbers Problem

[Above: Tourists pack a walkway at China’s Hongcun Village, a World Heritage site. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

Airbnb Addresses Overtourism

My Foreword to Airbnb’s recently-released report, Healthy Travel and Healthy Destinations (download it here) sets up some basic issues of destination stewardship and the problem of overtourism. The balance of the report makes Airbnb’s case for its support of sustainable tourism over mass tourism, which you can judge for yourself.

While nonresident units on home-sharing platforms obviously contribute to overtourism disruption in popular city centers, the balance of Airbnb’s effects on destinations may equal or surpass the benefits of conventional tourism, all while dispersing a portion of visitor traffic. Full reveal: Airbnb paid me for the Foreword, but they let me write it the way I wanted, and—barring new information—I stand by its content.

Part of Airbnb’s conundrum stems from its swift evolution, morphing from a true home-sharing platform—i.e., a room in a home or in the mother-in-law unit next door—into one that also lists hosts’ often-empty vacation units and eventually those of commercial “hosts” who buy up and rent out multiple units dedicated only for tourists—not home sharing at all. Each of these rental patterns can have very different impacts on the destination.

Airbnb has at least demonstrated a (sometimes reluctant) willingness to work with communities in coping with overtourism. Meanwhile, other players keep trying to pack in the crowds like commuters on the Tokyo underground. Most concerning are the government and tourist authorities that continue to call for ever more tourist arrivals, as noted in our GWU/Travel Massive webinar held in February.

Last year I addressed overtourism in National Geographic Voices. That platform may be soon replaced, so I repeat the Nat Geo post here, as it ran on 29 October 2017:

Tourism has a numbers problem.

The world’s population explosion has finally arrived. It has manifested itself not in global waves of famine as was feared half a century ago, but in waves of Airbuses, tour buses, and minibuses. Tourists by the millions.

This population explosion overwhelms St Mark’s Square in Venice. It pushes through the streets of Barcelona, angering residents. It forms hours-long queues in China for the cable cars up Mount Huangshan and fills all the lanes in the World Heritage Village of Hongcun. It paves the beaches of the Mediterranean in simmering northern European flesh. In the Louvre it blocks your view of the Mona Lisa with forests of smartphones held high in selfie mode. It pushes through the ruins of Tulum in Mexico with busloads of Spaniards, Americans, Chinese. It even creates traffic jams on the climbing routes up Mount Everest.

It has spawned a new word: Overtourism. Too many tourists.

Taking selfies with the Mona Lisa. Photo: Krista Rossow

Overtourism has been manifesting itself for over two decades in popular countries like Spain, Italy, and France. But somehow the population pressure hit the red zone this year. Says one colleague, “It’s the topic du jour. The phrase is on the lips of every travel expert, every pseudo-expert, and every travel industry opportunist.”

“Too many tourists!”

No surprise. From Barcelona to Venice, from Reykjavik to Santorini, residents have raised a chorus of protest: “TOO MANY TOURISTS!” Plenty of visitors chime in: Not what we came for. How can a visitor experience the delights of a foreign city if the streets are packed with thousands—yes, thousands—of cruise-ship passengers and lined with global franchises to cater to them? Serious travelers increasingly dismiss such places—“too touristy.”

Pressed beyond tolerable limits, some destinations are fighting back. Dubrovnik is instituting severe caps on cruise passengers, as is Santorini. Italy’s Cinque Terre is ready to impose quotas on people hiking between the five picturesque villages. The Seychelles wants to limit hotel sizes to protect their reputation as an Indian Ocean paradise.

Yet Some Insist: More Is Better

Despite all this backlash, development bankers, government planners, and tourism ministers—many of them political appointees with little knowledge of sustainable tourism principles—still continue to press for yet more tourists. And boast about it.

Just see what I discovered as I was getting ready for this year’s [2017] international conference of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). It convened a few weeks ago in the cool air of one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet: Chile’s northern Patagonia region of Aysén. Even here, overtourism was the hot-button topic.

Tourists in still-uncrowded (sometimes) Patagonia. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

GSTC’s purpose is to work with governments and companies to help protect both the planet and the delights of travel—a delicate balancing act. In addition to countering such threats as climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and overdevelopment, GSTC now confronts the predictable but long-disregarded threat posed by tourism itself.

I moderated the panel addressing overtourism. To prepare for it, I went online and did a search. It took only 30 minutes to find these statements, all published in the previous week:

  • “Jamaica is on target to hit its record goal of 4.2 million visitors for 2017.”
  • “For 2017, Bali’s foreign arrivals target is an ambitious 6 million.”
  • Peru hopes to “double tourism arrivals to 7 million by 2021.”
  • Vietnam “has set the target of attracting 13 million-15 million foreign visitors…year-on-year growth of 30-50 percent.”
  • Sharjah, U.A.E.: “Draw 10 million visitors a year by 2021.”
  • Maldives:Tourist arrivals have crossed the one million milestone, on course to reach an ambitious target of 1.5 million.”

And those announcements were issued in just one week!

Quantity, not Quality

For government officials it’s easy to set goals by using the convenient turnstile of a passport check to count international arrivals. It’s more trouble and expense to collect more significant data: How long did visitors stay? What did they do? How much did they spend, on what, and who got the money? How did their presence affect local society, culture, and environment? Or the question rarely asked: How many is too many?

Tourists explore atop Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. The geopark wants fewer tourists; the county wants more. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Simply striving for more arrivals leads to tourism quantity over quality. That doesn’t seem to bother national leaders who favor a simplistic “more is better” approach to economics, especially if guided by the World Economic Forum’s very informative but flawed Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, which among other oddities measures a country’s cultural wealth by number of stadium seats, as noted in a previous post.

Officials and businesses seeking only to boost tourist quantity can undermine the stewards who try to protect destination quality. An official at western Ireland’s popular Cliffs of Moher, for instance, told me that the number of coach tours was getting out of hand, raising fears that the clifftops would gain a reputation as an overcrowded tourist trap. So geopark management wants to raise the fees for buses, but the County Clare government has so far refused. It might hurt their tourist arrivals target.

Could overcrowding be a problem even down here near empty Patagonia? Yes, it could. On my panel, Hernan Mladinic, Executive Director of the Fundación Pumalín, described traffic jams and competition for camping sites in Patagonia’s great national parks. In only three years, camping demand has more than doubled in Chile’s new Pumalín Park. This problem can at least be solved, as there’s room for more campsites.

Tour buses at the Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentine Patagonia. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

So the overtourism situation is far from hopeless.  An art-history buff we know spent a week last summer visiting crowd-plagued Florence. She avoided the tourist routes, hit the museums at slack times, stayed in a charming neighborhood across the river, and had a great time. Fine, but overtourism is a bullet one should not have to dodge. Its negative impacts on Florence and many Florentines are undeniable.

Population + Technology + Money = Boom!

The tourism explosion is due not just to more people, but more people with money. A significant portion of the Earth’s population has grown more affluent—think India, China, Brazil, among many others—and travel technology from jumbo jets to the sharing economy has grown cheaper, bigger, and faster. The result: According to figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, international tourism has grown 40 fold since commercial jet traffic began some six decades ago. The places that these people visit, however—the museums, the archaeological ruins, the natural attractions, the narrow medieval streets of historic cities—are still the same physical size. These cups runneth over, as I somewhat clumsily demonstrated for the Reinvent project (3:00 on the video) earlier this year.

That means that if there were, say, five people admiring a painting at a given time back in 1960, there are 200 trying to see it today. Unpleasant, and ultimately unsustainable. Last year saw more than 1.2 billion international arrivals. By 2050, according to David Scowsill, former head of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), some 3 billion people will be affluent enough to make such trips.

Overtourism Has Come to My Beloved Iceland.

Since my first visit in the 1970s, I’ve loved Iceland for its wide views, its unique culture, its geological wonders, and, well, its freedom from crowds. The saddest compliment I ever received was from a long-time friend in Reykjavik, where tourists now seem to rule the downtown throughout summer. “Everything that you said would happen,” she told me, “has happened.” She was wrong actually; while I had warned of the changes that high-volume tourism could bring to Iceland, I never imaged just how much volume. According to a Skift report, almost half a million tourists visited Iceland in 2010, far exceeding the national population of 330,000. That was then. Now quintuple it: Some 2.5 million tourists are expected to have visited this year.

Tourists visit Skógafoss waterfall in southern Iceland. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Her husband, a former captain with Icelandair, tried to talk his old employer into providing passage for me to visit and speak about the value of improving the quality of tourism rather than boosting the quantity. He didn’t get far. The response was along the lines of “Are you crazy? You want us to bring a guy here to argue for fewer tourists?” Airlines like to add more planes and fill more seats.

Thus the tourism industry is both victim and vector of overtourism. Even as some hotels and tour operators seek ways to avoid crowding, other elements of the industry that benefit from high volume—cruise ships, airlines, taxi services—continue to encourage tourism quantity over quality. That dissuades the true travelers, who don’t clog the streets for a couple of hours just to take some selfies, buy a T-shirt made in some other country, and then go back to the ship for dinner.

Solutions, or stop-gaps?

The good news, if long overdue, is that tourism media now brim with opinions on how to deal with overtourism.

Pollock is on to something. Most of those overtourism recommendations merely mitigate the problem. The population explosion has already happened. The term “overtourism” may lose its cachet from overuse, but the problem is here for generations. It cannot be solved until world leaders face a simple geometric reality:

It is impossible to pack infinitely growing
numbers of tourists into finite spaces.

So what to do? A world of more than 7 billion people requires rethinking tourism, namely:

  1. Change the prevailing paradigm: More tourism is not necessarily better. Better tourism is better.
  2. Governments and industry should therefore abolish the practice of setting tourism goals based only on arrivals.
  3. Instead, incentivize longer stays and discourage hit-and-run, selfie-stick tourism.
  4. To help do that, destination stakeholders should form stewardship councils that help government and industry plan according to limits of acceptable change.

Who’s a stakeholder? You are.

If you are a thoughtful traveler, voice your opinion and vote with your wallet. Spend your money on destinations that take care of themselves, and on businesses that help them do it.

If you are a resident, team up with your neighbors and civic groups to take charge of how tourism is managed there. If you don’t, someone else will. With their own interests in mind, not yours.

That’s how overtourism gets started.

——————-

For more on overtourism, watch my February 2018 webinar, conducted in cooperation with the George Washington University and Travel Massive.

 

Controlling Overtourism Requires Destination Councils

Overtourism and Destination Councils: Hot Topics at September’s International Sustainable Tourism Conference in Chile.

Meeting in Coyhaique, Chile, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council addressed a variety of issues. I moderated a key panel on Visitor Management—notably, overtourism—and the need for stewardship councils to help cope with it. (See David Randle’s report in HuffPost for other issues discussed at the Sept 6-9 conference.)

Overtourism cropped up repeatedly. Here is a sample of recent news reports and commentary on a topic that’s not going away:

Two related pieces in the Guardian, one by Elizabeth Becker and another quoting Xavier Font.

Norie Quintos looks at ways to mitigate overtourism for ATTA’s Adventure Travel News.

Tourism impacts on Venice, on World Heritage sites and (below) on Barcelona:

https://skift.com/2017/08/01/video-barcelona-and-the-trials-of-21st-century-overtourism/?utm_campaign=Daily%20Newsletter&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=54994642&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–SHhq-WBpF8ZuRaaD2V_PF4pbcSryu9eu9AYH3lECY1pl6zSqlvrIUbBmoxX0-BAs4G1Iuca2d-GKWYMihaEjZzxtpjg&_hsmi=54994642

At Machu Picchu, implementation of a revised protected area management plan ~ after years of neglect.

The Master Plan: Machu Picchu Reconceptualized

I myself have written about overtourism in Nat Geo Voices, most recently on Oct 28, 2017, , also citing Florence before the word was entering common use. We have addressed it here on the DSC website as well, including a piece written by Salli Felton of the Travel Foundation.

The new WTTC President tells Skift she will to work on the issue, but TUI Group CEO Downplays Overtourism ThreatPatrick Whyte, Skift – Aug 10, 2017 10:00 am

Destination Stewardship Councils: Background
The tourism industry provides services, but the destination and the people that live there are the ultimate tourism product. In most cases, however, no entity—not even the government—takes care of the destination as a whole. A permanent task force can help destinations cope with tourism impacts and general stewardship. That’s why a council type of arrangement is called for in GSTC’s destination Criterion A2, which reads:

“The destination has an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, with involvement by the private sector and public sector. This group is suited to the size and scale of the destination, and has defined responsibilities, oversight, and implementation capability for the management of environmental, economic, social, and cultural issues. This group’s activities are appropriately funded.”

The only problem: Rather few of these holistic, council-type arrangements exist. The Destination Stewardship Center has begun to compile information on those that do meet at least some of the indicators put forth by GSTC and via National Geographic’s former geotourism program; see About Geotourism Stewardship Councils (PDF).

➤ We welcome any additional recommendations for notable stewardship councils anywhere in the world. E-mail us, and we will send a questionnaire to the contact that you recommend.

What To Do About Overcrowded Destinations

[Note: The following post is adapted from a presentation by Travel Foundation CEO Salli Felton at the Green Destinations Day conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 27 Sept.2016. Above: Tourists crowd Florence, Italy. Photo: Matt Haughey]

Tourism Leaders, We Have a Problem

Let’s take a tour to Venice. An amazing destination (below).

Venice's Grand Canal. Photo: Ian Dolphin

Venice’s Grand Canal. Photo: Ian Dolphin

Those of you who have been to Venice know that the reality is a little more like this:

Piazza San Marco, Venice. Photo: Gary Bembridge.

Piazza San Marco, Venice. Photo: Gary Bembridge.

If have been watching the news, you will know that the people who live in Venice are saying they’ve had enough. We’re seeing headlines like these:

Residents fear visitors are destroying their city
Mass tourism and soaring property prices have stifled life in the city

I don’t want to criticise Venice. Instead I want to use it and a few other destinations to highlight the increasing, unchecked growth in tourism.

Barcelona Tourism Overkill

Barcelona tourism overkill. Photo: Evan Bench

The same problem exists in Barcelona – where this sort of messaging you see at right is appearing on the streets. Or more disturbingly, “Tourism is a bigger problem than poverty”.

For tourists, this doesn’t exactly feel like a warm welcome. Destination authorities are being forced to respond: “The Mayor ramps up efforts to introduce caps on visitors”. The trend continues in Berlin and many other cities that are on the global bucket list.

The problem isn’t just restricted to cities. We’re seeing it on islands like Majorca, and in beach holiday destinations like Thailand.

For decades, tourists have chosen Thailand for a holiday because they want to see and experience this:

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Phalinn Ooi

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Phalinn Ooi

But these days, similar to Venice, what they are actually getting is this:

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Niruth Darid Bannob

Maya Bay, Phi Phi Islands, Thailand. Photo: Niruth Darid Bannob

So what’s the impact of all of these people?

Well, if you start with the tourists, they don’t seem to be that happy about it. They are being very vocal in telling their friends, family, and the wider TripAdvisor world that Maya Bay is “overcrowded and horrific”.

Ouch—not a way any destination wants to be described. Even more concerning, if you dig a little deeper, it quickly becomes apparent that the natural environment there is on the point of collapse. Nearly all the coral in the bay is dead or close to it. And like Barcelona, Thai officials are recognising the seriousness of these impacts. They are taking drastic action to stop the damage before it is too late. If in fact it’s not already.

Now all of these examples are from within the past 12 months. It’s pretty uncomfortable reading for anyone who loves to travel.

The Basic Mistake

However my objective is not to be all doom and gloom. I don’t for a minute believe that tourism is a lost cause or believe that all tourism has to result in the types of outcomes I’ve shown you here. I believe that tourism as an industry has one of the greatest potentials to be a catalyst for sustainable growth and economic development, bringing much needed income into local economies. I believe tourism provides a compelling argument for the conservation and preservation of natural and cultural resources. It provides the financial means to support this.

But if this is the case, why are we seeing these trends growing? How has tourism been allowed to go down this path in so many of these instances? To understand this we have to look at the root cause of the problem. You don’t need to be a genius to see that it’s all about putting quantity before quality.

When done badly, tourism focuses only on one simple measure: numbers of tourist arrivals. The assumption is that more people are better. More people mean more money, which in theory means more benefits for everyone. The theory doesn’t always translate into practice. It’s pretty clear that the people of Venice, Barcelona, or Thailand are not realising more benefits.

In the early stages of tourism development, visitor numbers can be a useful proxy indicator, as more visitors often translates into more benefits at this stage. But as destinations become more established, the relationship between volume and benefits weakens and so the measure of tourist arrivals becomes fundamentally flawed. More people might be bringing in more money, but where does it go? Does it stay in the country or does it leak out? And what are the environmental and social costs of more people? Does all this money they bring in cover these costs?

From these examples, more people don’t seem to be making tourists, residents, or destination authorities happier. They just seem to be creating major problems. If destinations are measuring only numbers of tourist arrivals, they can’t possibly have a clue:

  1. Whether tourism is providing economic benefit to all members of a destination community;
  2. Whether tourism is having a detrimental impact on the very resources that sustain both residents and tourists, or
  3. Whether destination residents feel that their interactions with tourists are positive.

The number of tourist arrivals just tell us about quantity, not quality. So, in order to ensure that tourism fulfills its potential to encourage sustainable development, we need to understand what impact tourism is having on destinations. We need to find ways to measure this so that destinations can do a better job of managing tourism proactively.

There is a Solution

This will require global tourism frameworks to set new measures and targets to drive the way tourism is planned and managed for the future. The sorts of questions destinations need to be thinking about are:

• What types of tourism provide the greatest possible benefits at the least cost?
• What is the carrying capacity of the destination? How much is too much?
• What environmental and social costs will be encountered from tourism and how will mitigation be paid for?
• What limits need to be set to ensure destinations prosper from tourism whilst maintaining their long term sustainability?

All of these things will help destinations define what good growth looks like. If we can’t define it, how can we expect to achieve it? Understanding and measuring impacts is essential, but that’s not necessarily evident to the key stakeholders with the power to change existing practice. I’m talking about the government ministries who manage and regulate tourism and the private-sector travel companies who put together the packages that send tourists to the destinations. Aside from such destinations as Slovenia, Bhutan, and a handful of others, it appears that this message has not sunk in very widely.

So let’s think first about the private sector – the tour operators, hotel chains, ground handlers, and cruise companies. Are they measuring the impacts of their activities? Do they know if their businesses are having a positive or negative impact on the destinations they are selling? Maybe for a very small handful, yes—but across the board? No.

And what about the destination authorities, have they measured the impact tourism is having on the natural resources that sustain them? Or the impact tourism is having on the social fabric, such as quality employment, opportunities for small business growth, levels of crime, and the general well being of residents? Are they planning ahead and trying to attract the types of tourism that will provide the greatest positive impact? Again—a very small handful, yes, but generally, no. Why not? Because these things aren’t currently deemed to be the important measures of successful tourism.

This needs to change.

And changing it is. Over the past 10 years we’ve seen a variety of destination management frameworks being created to gather the sort of data that would be required to measure impacts. Among the numerous contributors to this effort are the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Green Destinations, the European Tourism Indicator System, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which has published Indicators of Sustainable Development for Tourism Destinations and launched a Network of Tourism Observatories with the aim to begin implementing these new policies and measurements.
metricslogos
So we are heading in the right direction. But it’s too slow, and there are two key issues that we still need to address.

Two Steps to Success

First, it’s clear that only a small number of converted champions are actually using these frameworks. They’re often ignored in destinations feeling the greatest negative impact from tourism or by the companies that help create these impacts. We need to work harder and faster at making these frameworks mainstream. To do this, we need to resist selling these frameworks primarily as a promotion or marketing tool. That is a fortunate by-product, not the reason to do it in the first place.

Instead we need to show companies and destinations that these frameworks add real value. The data and information they provide show where things are going wrong, how to fix things proactively, and where the greatest benefits can be gained. Simply put, measuring impact is good for the bottom line in the long term. Without it, we are just working in the dark. That is how impact assessment needs to be sold.

Second, the extra step to analyse this data needs emphasis. I’m not convinced these frameworks provide simple, clear, and practical ways for companies and destinations to analyse the data they collect. Destination authorities need to understand the material impacts of tourism. Yet, in my humble opinion, most of them don’t know how to do this. They’re still struggling to work out which indicator scheme to use! Whilst they might be collecting the data, they also need help using it to support strategic decision making.

So I put this challenge to you. The UN has declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. We need to make the most of it and ensure it results in a positive step change. Let’s work together to build a new way to measure tourism success based on impact—and by doing so, unlock its potential to support happy, thriving destinations for generations to come.

Two Billion Footprints: Good News Or Not?

[Above—A two-hour wait: Tourists queue in drizzle for the cable car up Mt. Huangshan, China, a World Heritage site. Annual visitation c.4 million.  Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

Celebrated on Sept. 27, World Tourism Day is an observance championed by the U.N. World Tourism Organization and intended to point out the value of tourism. Initiated 35 years ago, much of the impetus for World Tourism Day sprang from the desire to convince governments and industry that tourism was bigger and more important than they realized. This is understandable, because tourism is bigger and more important than almost anyone realizes. When tourism works well, it’s fun and beneficial. It boosts the economy, helps preserve cultural and natural sites, and educates the public. When it doesn’t…well, that’s the dark cloud inside the silver lining.

This year’s theme was “One billion tourists—one billion opportunities!” Nice and upbeat, but it smacks of the more-is-better boosterism led for years by an officialdom that calls for ever-increasing numbers of arrivals.

This attitude is naïvely out of date. Better to think more realistically of “One billion tourists—two billion footprints.” Tourism, counted among the very largest industries on Earth, is changing the face of the planet and posing challenges with its relentless growth.

Of all the famous malaprops attributed to the late, beloved Yogi Berra, none rings truer in the tourist world than: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Over the past half century, international travel has increased almost 20-fold in terms of arrivals. Domestic tourism worldwide has kept pace, at four or five times the volume. Growth continues unabated, but the places all these people visit are still the same size. Resorts and vacation homes gobble up coastlines. You can see the press of numbers most clearly in the world’s great cultural sites, from Venice to Angkor to Chichén Itzá.

Early this year, I was privileged to visit Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier, famed for steadily calving into an Andean lake. It’s in Los Glaciares National Park, a World Heritage site. It lies far, far south in Patagonia, down toward the end of the inhabited world, 1700 miles (2700 km) south of Buenos Aires. In short, not a place you’re likely to visit on the way to some other region. Yet annual visitation ranks in the hundreds of thousands, with over 600,000 people moving through the airport at the booming gateway town of El Calafate.

If we now see that much tourist traffic about as far as you can get from the human population’s center of gravity, it’s no wonder more accessible, better-known destinations are drowning in it. Florence, for example, must cope with 16 million tourists a year, many of them day-trippers who clog the streets while contributing little to the quality of the city.

World Tourism Day should now carry an additional mission. Not just: “It’s big! It’s great!” But also: “We will learn how to manage it better!” We need deeper, more meaningful and memorable travel experiences and fewer busloads armed with selfie sticks.

Another one of Yogi’s sayings was “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” That impossible ambiguity fits tourism leaders who maintain: Quantity, quality, can’t we have both?

In most cases—no, you can’t.

New Tsunami Hits Phuket: Mass Tourism

[Crowds seeking nightlife in Phuket. Photo: Terrazzo]

Recently waiting in Phuket airport for my delayed Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, I found myself surrounded by Russian travelers queuing up for nonstop flights to Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, and a few other cities whose names were only vaguely familiar to me.

Facing congestion in Phuket, whether at the airport, on the roads or on beaches has long been a familiar phenomenon. What is different is that the congestion is mostly caused by the onslaught of mass tourism from Russia and China.

Due to the recent ruble nosedive, it is now the big Chinese tour groups that are changing – rapidly and probably forever—what was once a quaint beach escape destination. Despite Phuket’s growing commercialization, Fortune magazine in 2005 still called it one of the five most attractive places in the world to retire.

A local hotelier I spoke to reported a significant change. Once his hotel (whose identity he wanted to keep to himself) use to be monopolized by sun-hungry Scandinavians. Now, he said, they occupy a mere 10% of his room capacity. Signs everywhere from the airport to roadside cafes appear in Russian, Chinese, and English.

No wonder. Hoteliers all over Southeast Asia are gearing up to cope with the massive influx, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The figures tell the story: Today an estimated 50% of Chinese citizens hold passports. In a few years China will boast more dollar millionaires than in the US. It is their accumulated spending power that no doubt helps putting China in top position in terms of outbound tourism spending, with expenditures reaching US$ 165 billion in 2014—an increase of 28% from the preceding year

In 2013 Phuket received 8 million visitors. In an effort to meet the increased demand, Phuket International Airport has been spending close to 6 billion baht to accommodate an expected 12.5 million passengers annually, of which the great majority will be foreigners. Soon a majority of these will be carrying a Chinese passport, up from a mere 20,000 Chinese arrivals in 2007! The Chinese presence is felt not only in southern Thailand, but all over southeast Asia: In 2014 the China National Tourism Administration recorded more than 107 million trips abroad, up 10.5% from the year before.

According to Thom Henley, an American travel writer and Phuket resident, tourist crowds bring the ratio between foreigners and locals in high season well above ten to one. The environment takes a beating. “I only rarely go for a swim in the ocean,” he says, “it’s just too polluted, and poses a public health threat, unless you stick to the Northern part of the island, or all the way down at the Southern end, where the strong currents wash effluents and debris away from the beaches.” Which perhaps explained the somewhat pallid skin color of the Russians waiting in line for their return flights; they seemed to have spent more time in Phuket’s numerous bars and massage parlors than in the surf.

What was once a densely forested island with lush hillsides facing wide stretches of beach now boasts 1,100 resorts with 24/7 traffic jams. Writer Tony Parsons (his recent 2012 novel: Catching the Sun) recommends North Phuket’s two national parks—Sirinath and Khao Phra Thaeo—as escapes for travelers trying to capture at least some of Phuket’s old magic, a safe distance away from the hordes in Karon and Patong. Here, he writes, “the beaches still have their steep natural slope so that giant turtles can crawl ashore and lay their eggs.”

Five years ago the government tried to launch a “green tourism” campaign, hiring police and soldiers to enforce a clean-up of polluted areas. At the same time, however, they allowed the construction of a monstrosity called Fantasea, a shabby reproduction of a Thai-style temple, where tourists flock to be photographed on the back of gaudily dressed live elephants, Las Vegas-style.

It is not an enviable fate to be “loved to death” by two populous nations whose citizens only recently can afford foreign travel, and who are not known for their environmental sensitivities. But Thailand’s record in the stewardship of its own nature capital is not to be applauded, as the ecosystems of countless island has paid a high price in the chase for short-term foreign currency.

Casinos: A Bad Bet

Atlantic City’s recent woes provide a lesson for any destination hoping to find gold in the glitter of casino development. By last month, four of the New Jersey beach city’s 12 casinos were closed, with two more reportedly teetering. Some 8,000 people are now out of work.

What happened?

The key point: Casinos are a manufactured tourist attraction. Usually, their architecture, decor, and guest experience have nothing to do with their geographical location—no inherent link to the character of the destination. (Indeed, they often try to evoke some other place, theme-park style. For some reason, Italy seems to rank high in providing such fake ambiance, from Caesar to the Renaissance to Venice.)

Without sense-of-place as a unique selling point, any destination dependent on casinos is vulnerable to new competitors in more convenient, cheaper locations.

That’s what happened to Atlantic City.

The resort city had been on the decline in the early 1970s. By then, it was known mainly for its street names featured on the Monopoly game board and the Miss America beauty pageant, itself a franchise of shrinking prominence. Introduced in 1976, casinos were to be the city’s salvation.

For nearly a generation, they were. Atlantic City was monopoly come true: the only legal gambling destination east of the Mississippi.

But laws changed, and new casinos sprouted in neighboring states and on Indian reservations. Adding to all this new competition, the strain of the 2008 financial collapse signaled the beginning of the end for the tiring gambling mecca. During the years of casino success, the city had failed to develop its character in other ways, to make itself inherently an interesting, attractive place to visit and live. It depended on the monoculture of gaming, a fatal error.

Even at their height, Atlantic City casinos attracted a large proportion of day trippers, people who rode in on buses from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New York just for a few hours of gambling. They didn’t buy hotel rooms, dinners, breakfasts, or much of anything else. Many didn’t even go to the beach. The economic juice came almost solely from staffing and supplying casinos.

Casinos tend to be generic, hardly ever reflective of the locale. They do not attract tourists interested in the place; they attract people who want to gamble. Given the relentlessly increasing demand for beach tourism, there are few seaside cities that really need casinos for economic success. What’s more, the casino scene may deter more desirable overnight tourists who are looking for a less glitz and more focus on the pleasures of he shore.

Atlantic City shows that casino success may be fleeting. Long term, casinos are a bad bet for places that have their own inherent and distinctive attractions such as scenery, nature, and history.

Such destinations would be wise not to go “all in.”