Reflections on the post-pandemic approach to sustainable tourism


By Gregg Rockett

The unprecedented 18-month hiatus in the global tourism industry has been a unique opportunity for communities to assess the pros and cons of their current tourism strategy. Tourism receipts evaporated, but so too did the throngs packing the streets and disrupting the lives of locals. The big-name ‘Bucket List’ destinations were given some rare peace and quiet and, maybe (hopefully), time to consider that enough is enough.

Traveling in Portugal and Greece this summer, I witnessed first-hand the return of tourists to two of Europe’s most endearing travel destinations.  The European Union’s agreement to open borders to vaccinated travelers in May was clearly successful in enticing tourists weary from lockdowns.  Arrival figures published by the World Tourism Organization (WTO) show that the recovery of international arrivals in Europe during the month of July 2021 was best among all global regions and was most pronounced in the countries of Southern and Mediterranean Europe.

Tourism is fundamental to the economies of both Portugal and Greece, so the lifting of restrictions was a welcome relief, and clearly made a difference to the crucial summer season.  Greece welcomed more than two million visitors in July and August (more than any other European nation, according to the Greek tourism minister) and Portugal’s statistical institute, INE, reported substantial gains in registered hotel guests and overnight stays this past June and July versus the same months of 2020.  I must say that it was refreshing to encounter many landmarks in both countries bustling with tourists once again.


How quickly will the industry be talking about overtourism again?

With this in mind, I wonder how long it will take for the conversation about overtourism to replace the concern over ‘vacancy’ signs across the continent.  An October 2020 review of overtourism by CNN (calling it the “travel buzzword” of 2019) highlighted the plight of three European destinations – Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Venice – and their strategies for alleviating this in the future – starting with restrictions on holiday rentals and cruise ships, as well as diverting marketing efforts toward increasing local patronage.  However, it did not take long for the City of Canals to once again be overwhelmed; Venice returned to the headlines in August 2021 with reports that armed guards were being posted to control unruly tourists at the city’s crowded waterbus stops.

This was not my experience though when I visited a tranquil Lisbon this past August and it had me reflecting on the pre-pandemic situation of a city faced with a huge surge in visitation.  Skift reported (in 2018) that tourism arrivals to Portugal soared from 4.8 million in 1997 to 13 million in 2017, with the more accelerated ramp being in the second decade of that 20-year period.  It is unlikely that many Western European tourism destinations have growth rates in international arrivals that surpass those of Portugal post 2010.  No wonder then that Lisbon is identified by JLL and the WTTC (in Destination 2030) as a city that is truly being tested in terms of its “readiness for additional growth”.

So, with a likely pause in tourism arrivals expected during the upcoming autumn and winter months (well, in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), a window of opportunity still exists for destinations with a legacy issue of overtourism to assess their respective post-pandemic futures as it relates to sustainable tourism: what are the measures to implement and how effective will they be?


A model to replace ‘more is better’

A July 2020 webinar sponsored by the International Institute of Tourism Studies at the George Washington University focused on this issue in “Paving the Way Toward a Resilient Tourism Industry: Responsible Tourism for COVID Recovery.”  The panelists of this webinar were in general agreement that emphasizing quality over quantity as it relates to tourism development strategies should be the way to go post-COVID.  Governments and local authorities need to rethink what it means for a tourism industry to thrive without aggressive, unsustainable growth.

One model that has promise is the concept of ‘dispersion’ as a destination management technique.  Consider a research study undertaken by the University of Tasmania in response to the local tourism industry’s desire to know where tourists actually go.  The study began as the ‘Sensing Tourist Travel in Tasmania project’ and tracked 472 tourists’ itineraries through Tasmania over an extended, two-week period.

That project is now called “Tourism Tracer” and represents an approach to understanding tourist flows that relies on GPS enabled smart phones and a tracking application.  While the University of Tasmania promotes this approach as, among other things, a way to improve decisions regarding marketing and infrastructure investment, imagine the leverage this technology can provide in push-promoting a dispersal of tourism flows away from highly concentrated areas.


Finding the right balance

The aforementioned Destination 2030, a joint publication by JLL and the WTTC, stresses ‘balance’ as a fundamental strategy to achieve sustainable tourism growth.  This begins with a vision for a strategic plan that capitalizes on the “clear essence or DNA of the city” and follows with an assessment of the tourism ecosystem of the destination.  The report identifies over 75 indicators of scale and concentration of the sector that should be assessed and what are behind these as contributors to the overall ecosystem.  Sustainable goals and the accompanying road map should be driven by engagement with the community and be supported by development policies, legislation and flow management.  As with the implementation of any strategic initiative, monitoring and measurement of outcomes is necessary to determine if the strategy has been effective.


Deterring the ‘Bucket Listers’

Conde Nast Traveler has just published their Readers’ Choice Awards, among those the “best countries to travel to” as voted by their readers.  Portugal was awarded the top spot (among 20 countries) and has been recognized as among the top three running since 2019.  Greece has also featured on that same list of 20 for the last three years.  With consistent recognition at a high level, it should not be unusual to expect ‘Bucket Listers’ to be lining up to score a photo op at popular attractions in award-winning destinations, just as we witnessed at a packed Acropolis on a weekday afternoon this past September.  The time to reset is now, but blink, and an opportunity to find the balance that preserves quality of life for residents and quality of experiences for visitors may vanish like an Instagram Story.