A Trip Back in Time to Explore Community-based Solutions to Overtourism

"Destinations should be able to use tourism to their benefit, not be used by it."

Editor's Note: In this piece, Caitlin Graaf, Senior Global Activations Lead at the Impact Travel Alliance, explores community-based solutions to overtourism. You can find more perspectives at our Overtourism Solutions Center.


Overtourism seems to be on the tongues of locals, tourists, sustainability advocates and tour operators alike. Undoubtedly a loaded concept with significant implications for cultures, economies, and environments, a surprising dearth of constructive information is available online to proactively assist emerging destinations in how they might curb the momentum of overtourism before it begins.  

In an attempt to shed new light on a well-recognized issue, I explore the conceptualization of overtourism as the overconsumption of common pool resources and venture back to the 1990s to uncover how one female economist’s solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons might offer a more community-minded approach to tackling the problem of too many tourists.

Problematic tourism in the public domain 

Travel is an emotional exercise. It binds us together (or in unfortunate cases, breaks us apart) and etches new memories into our mental kaleidoscope of life experience. The act of travel is so intertwined with our personas and our humanity, that it even earned mention in Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller, Sapiens. Harari argues that our emotional ties to travel are rooted in romanticized consumerism, astutely noting that the travel industry “does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences… the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfil our human potential, and make us happier”. 

The monetization of experiences underpins the tourism industry; however, companies have rather ingeniously engineered a way to make money without spending it. By massaging non-excludable public areas into their itineraries, travel companies create value for free. A quick Google search for “most Instagrammed places in the world” returns New York City’s Times Square and London’s Big Ben, among other attractions that rest in the public domain. The issue remains that the negative effects of tourism in these public areas, such as overcrowding, noise pollution, litter, and degradation of historic sites or the environment are externalized to local communities, whose taxpayer dollars maintain these valuable areas for the world’s benefit. 

This positioning of public areas, also known as common pool resources as a core tourism product tips the balance of power away from local residents as they are increasingly responsible for the upkeep of their natural or built heritage, without appropriate compensation or economic benefit – the impact for which tourism is generally lauded. 

Common ideas to address overtourism

A myriad of viable solutions to overtourism have been shared by reputable organizations. These generally include demarketing or remarketing a destination’s image, tinkering with supply and demand by raising prices to curtail guest arrivals, investing in infrastructure to allow a wider distribution of tourism or the establishment of new circuits, promoting low season travel, placing stronger limits on temporary accommodation services like Airbnb, and instating tourist taxes which work to maintain the aforementioned public areas on which overtourism thrives. 

Mentions of community engagement are apparent in the monumental amount of digital literature on overtourism, such as in this Orbitz article offering 15 tips that travellers can follow to avoid overtourism. However, like many others, this article skews towards envisioning locals’ input into tourism as an afterthought to destination planning. Instead of seeing locals as co-managers of destinations, they are seen (rightfully so) as in situ experts that can offer off the beaten path advice. With turismophobia on the rise, I set out to see what frameworks for community engagement in destination planning I could uncover.  

Inspiration for community-based solutions

In 1990, American economist, Elinor Ostrom proposed eight principles for managing common pool resources. 19 years later, she became the first woman (and until this year, the only woman) to be awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009. Despite this, Ostrom remains on the peripheries of mainstream discussion on the management of overtourism, despite the fairly common conceptualization of overtourism as a classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons. 

Ostrom’s eight principles, borrowed from onthecommons.org, are as follows:

1. Define clear group boundaries.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Ostrom’s principles have strong implications for destination management and planning, namely the shift in decision-making power towards locals. Her design principles illuminate new avenues for sustainable tourism development for emerging destinations. I see Ostrom’s framework as complementary to a position taken by overtourism expert and Founder of Responsible Tourism Partnership, Harold Goodwin, that destinations should be able to use tourism to their benefit, not be used by it. A fresher, community-minded approach to dismantling overtourism, or stopping it before it starts could include:

  • The radical inclusion of residents into destination planning and management, allowing them to state their own acceptable parameters and thresholds for the impact of tourism, and to allow them to voice their greatest needs. 

  • The promotion of local voice in destination marketing, constructing more authentic narratives of experiences and allowing locals to showcase the real essence of a place beyond its most photographed highlights. 

  • The engagement of locals in monitoring and evaluating the impact of tourism, as well as timely reassessments of the rules in play to adapt to a dynamic industry. 

  • The provision of low-cost and formal means of conflict resolution to diminish anti-tourist sentiment. 

A healthy blend of Ostrom’s and Goodwin’s insights sets the stage for a progressive form of destination management. If emerging destinations can take stock of what they need from tourism by consulting a wide array of stakeholders, namely local residents, to build their parameters, setting standards, boundaries, and goals around destination marketing become easier. 

***

Caitlin Graaf

About the Author: Equally passionate about equality, conservation, and exploring new cultures, Caitlin has dedicated her career to improving the social and ecological impacts of travel. She holds a Master's in Tourism, Environment & Development from King's College London and has worked on sustainable tourism projects around the world. Caitlin acts as the Strategy & Engagement Manager for Imagine Scholar in South Africa and Senior Global Activations Lead at the Impact Travel Alliance in NYC. Connect with Caitlin on LinkedIn

Sources:

Bray, E (2017) 15 Ways you can help curb overtourism. Orbitz [online]. Access here

Cox, M, Arnold, G & Tomas, S (2010) A Review of Design Principles for Community-based Natural Resource Management, Ecology & Society, 15(4): 38. 

CREST (2018) The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics 2018. Center for Responsible Travel: Washington DC. Access here

Goodwin, H (2017) The Challenge of Overtourism. Responsible Tourism Partnership, Working Paper 4. 

Harari, Y (2011) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Penguin Random House: London. 

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