We love you to death: Top tourist destinations under threat

In Trends by Peter Gearin

How destination marketing content is contributing to the worldwide scourge of over-tourism.

Barcelona has some of the most unique and inspiring architecture in the world. Start your days off with tours of Antoni Gaudí’s whimsical architecture, including Casa Batlló, La Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell. Grab lunch at the bustling Boqueria Market then kick back and relax on the shores of La Barceloneta Beach with a cool cerveza (beer) in hand, all the while enjoying a picturesque view of the Mediterranean. After a brief siesta, hit up the nightlife in Las Ramblas or the Gothic Quarter. And if you’re a fútbol fan, you can’t leave Barcelona without a visit to FC Barcelona’s headquarters, Camp Nou Stadium.

So begins a typical “what to do” travel guide for Barcelona. It’s yet another rollcall of what tourists must do while visiting one of Europe’s most popular cities. But the Catalan capital is not just famous for its cathedrals, gardens and flamenco dancers – it’s the poster child for global over-tourism.

Spain is the third most popular tourist destination in the world, and more than a third of its visitors end up in Barcelona. Although just 1.7 million people reside inside the city limits, it attracted 8.36 million international visitors in 2016 alone.

Many of these tourists come to Gaudi’s extraordinary La Sagrada Familia – a monumental Gothic-style Catholic church still unfinished despite construction starting in 1882. It attracted more than 4.5 million visitors in 2016 alone. That’s 12,500 people per day.

The problem for locals and anyone wanting an authentic “Barcelona experience” is that tourists end up doing many of the same things, inspired by similar advice from hundreds of thousands of travel blogs, articles, branded and sponsored content and guide books. Instagrammers and other social media mavens brandishing selfie sticks visit that spot to take that iconic photo, desperately searching for likes and admirers.

Like other famous cities, such as Rome and Venice, Barcelona is being strangled under the pressure of unrelenting international travel content. Much of it is user-generated; some of it comes from tourism boards and travel operators pushing people into popular activities. Many lifestyle brands – from high-street retailers to luxury goods makers – are also producing content that they hope will connect their products with desirable destinations.

Every day, someone publishes another lazy listicle offering the same “top five things to see”. Writers and bloggers often accumulate these “experiences” through desktop research from the opposite side of the world.

Tourism, on the whole, is a desirable pursuit. Last year, it contributed more than $10 trillion to the global economy, generated 10 per cent of the world’s GDP and provided 292 million local jobs. But at what point will over-tourism make it challenging to visit the world’s most interesting destinations? And how can popular countries ensure the content created to promote their tourist icons doesn’t kill their allure?

Perils of over-tourism

Tourism Australia’s former global content editor Andrés López-Varela says destination marketers are like any marketers: “they want to create habits and stimulate deliberate natural behaviours”. He is concerned, however, that creating content that targets people and draws them to a specific region or encourages certain activities may have the opposite effect.

“It’s really important for destination marketing bodies, particularly when they’re under pressure from member organisations, councils or governments, to keep locals’ perspectives in mind,” he says. “The locals still need to feel like it’s their place. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to be most interesting and appealing about it [for the visitor].”

López-Varela, who co-hosts a travel podcast called The Destinationists with Storyation’s Lauren Quaintance, is worried about the local impact of over-tourism. “It can absolutely happen in places like Sydney,” he says. “It’s already one of the biggest challenges we have at the Great Barrier Reef.

“Kangaroo Island [off the South Australian coast] is a scantily populated place. You don’t want to start putting in five- or 10-storey resorts and having tour buses barrelling down the dirt roads 24/7. Part of the attraction is that you spend a few days there and live like a local. Too much tourism will begin to tear apart the fabric that locals love about living in a particular place.”

“When you get people wanting to go back, you need to give them stories that get under the skin.”Suzanne Cavanagh

The problem, Lopez says, is tourism often makes up half of a regional economy, and demand is fuelled in large part by content created by local operators and tourism boards. But if it’s left unchecked, he fears, tourism “could become the new Big Oil, wrecking places”.

Melbourne-based travel marketing strategist and consultant Suzanne Cavanagh shares López-Varela’s concerns about the impact of over-tourism in Australia. “Unless we learn from our northern brothers, in particular Europe, it’s something that could easily be visited on us,” she says.

Cavanagh has written a couple of recent articles on LinkedIn about why neighbourhoods are essential in tourism and the impact of narcissism on the travel experience. She believes marketers promoting destinations need to look beyond raw visitation figures and manage the impact increasing tourist numbers are having on local communities.

“The emphasis in the past was pretty much on tourism marketing,” she says. “We have to look a little bit more broadly and see ourselves as tourism marketers and managers.”

Cavanagh accepts many operators continue to create hyper-focused content about specific locations or activities because they have driven sales in the past. “Who wants to stand up to the board and say, ‘well, look, we need to take a different tack’. It’s not easy.” But the consequence of not doing this, she says, is a form of brand dissonance – over-tourism will promise an experience to customers but deliver something different. “Brands can move very quickly to being on the nose,” she says.

Search for authenticity

Many travel organisations also find it difficult to produce content that covers genuinely different, authentic experiences. They prefer to invest in “safe” material – something they know plays well to a non-discerning audience.

“If the extent of your marketing toolkit is your ‘top five’ or your ‘top 10’ sites, then what you’re really saying is you’re just going for the first-time traveller,” Cavanagh says. “But when you get people wanting to go back, you need to give them stories that get under the skin of these places. They will want to know about the people, personalities, heroes … things that are really interesting.

“We now have all these fabulous tools – video, user-generated content – to tell great stories. We’ve got the technology and we need to couple that with a bit of behaviour management on the ground. Some destination marketers are really good at content marketing. Others, you know, I’d sort of suggest they’ve still got to sort of lift their game.”

Travellers want personal journeys, she says, and this makes the availability of quality content crucial. “I’m expecting you to inspire me, seduce me, inform me and make offers to me based on my journey. Marketers need to provide content relevant to those points.

“People who travel a lot will become increasingly intolerant of lazy marketing because they have a choice. If you’re not doing it in your destination, you can bet other destinations are. There are some really highly skilled destination marketers.”

Fiona Corsie is content and communications manager for the APT Travel Group, Australia’s largest privately owned tour company. She says her clients enjoy the process of being educated, especially at the early research stage, and content needs to reach beyond cliches.

“As long as the story remains unique and authentic, I think you can choose any destination and find a story in it – another angle, another perspective,” she says. “Readers are looking for different things. They want an insider’s view on a particular place, a bit of insider knowledge, or things that interest them.”

Corsie says she is “a bit of a secret lover” of listicles. “You can glean a lot of top-level information quite quickly,” she says. “We can’t get too elitist in who we think our audience is because, don’t forget, there’s always the person who’s the first timer. There are some things that you really just have to do. Once you’ve done them, then you can start going deeper.”

A December 2017 report by the World Travel & Tourism Council and McKinsey & Company, “Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations”, found the top 20 country destinations – led by France, US and Spain – will add more arrivals by 2020 than the rest of the world combined. (Australia comes in 39th, between Switzerland and Bulgaria.) It concluded tourism and destination managers must work with public and private stakeholders to develop plans that focus on impacted communities.

Responsible Travel CEO Justin Francis says over-tourism is a global issue that needs a universal response. “It’s up to all of us as travellers, travel companies, destination managers, writers and travel lovers worldwide to help carve out a new destiny for tourism by listening to local people,” Francis told the South China Morning Post. “We need to free ourselves from the restraints of crowd-following and bravely seek out our own alternative adventures. This is where the magic of travel really lies.”

Links & references

Article at visit.org: How to avoid over-tourism in Barcelona (without avoiding Barcelona)

Brand Tales story on how eccentrics sell Tasmania

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