When ‘the hell of other people’ is part of the tourist experience

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The problem of overtourism is being intensified by bad behaviour. Will this just continue to get worse, and what can destinations and visitor attractions do to keep the peace?

This is the second of three posts which will deal with the consequences of tourist overcrowding or ‘overtourism’ in cities and what can be done about it.

In recent years, each peak tourism season in Europe’s most popular city destinations has brought with it a higher tide of tourists, frequently peppered with stories of scandalous behaviour and exasperation by local residents. In some cities residents have even set up protest groups to pressure local authorities and raise awareness about the impact of tourists on their daily lives. This has gained them much exposure in the local, national and even international press, and probably caused some embarrassment for the authorities concerned.

All of this matters for the tourism industry as overcrowding risks disappointment for visitors (in a survey of tourists in Barcelona this year, 58% thought that there were too many tourists in the city) damage to the destination’s brand, and confrontation between local people – some of whom gain a lot from tourism and some of whom suffer as a result of it. When temperatures soar and visitors fill the streets it’s logical that local people will ask ‘where’s the limit?’, ‘do we really have to put up with it?’, and ‘what can be done?’.

In some cases, a cap on visitor numbers, regulated by paid entry by ticket (as scheme started this year by the villages of Cinque Terre in Italy) may make sense. However in the case of large cities, it’s much more difficult to impose a cap on visitor numbers and calm the rising tide of what Hosteltur calls ‘turismophobia’. Instead cities have to work out different methods to control visitor flows and modify behaviour. What is clear is that this is not just a problem for local authorities to manage but one for all stakeholders (residents, local authorities, tour operators) must help to solve.  After all, we’re dealing with people being, well, people, and the question of getting deadly serious with holidaymakers who are trying to enjoy themselves is actually quite a complex one.

When great attractions aren’t so attractive

The question of ‘whose job is it to educate tourists?’ has occurred to me more frequently since I worked on the study Stepping Out of the Crowd, a major piece of research that looked at the implications of future tourism growth.  The report forecasted massive growth in outbound travel from Asia (and China in particular) in the coming years. We took a sample of over 1,000 people aged 16-35 from 13 outbound markets in Asia who had travelled overseas in the past 12 months.

Stepping Out of the Crowd, Copyright PATA 2016

Analysing how Asian Millennials feel about visiting crowded attractions (Copyright Pacific Asia Travel Association 2016)

As the graph shows, we asked about visits to popular attractions, and what they most disliked about the experience. The red, orange, brown and yellow bars indicated ‘dislike’ from strong dislike to minor irritation, while the blue bars indicated that they didn’t know or weren’t bothered. ‘Disruptive behaviour by other visitors’ was what caused the most irritation, followed by slow-moving crowds and the risk of crime such as pickpocketing. Other aspects such as waiting in line or having limited freedom to move around also caused irritation, and this was made worse by rude staff. Meanwhile, aspects such as having to walk a long way or pay a higher ticket price or endure long visiting time (perhaps accepted as more inevitable) were more acceptable. You can find the full results by obtaining the report from the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

The sliding scale of bad behaviour

Clearly, when it comes to disruptive behaviour by other visitors, the word ‘disruptive’ could mean a lot of things. In fact, many different actions could be placed on a sliding scale all the way from ‘outlandish and dangerous’ to ‘people being people’. Here’s my sliding scale, starting with the worst:

  • Downright dangerous. Tourist behaving very badly, risking death. These are the stories that usually hit the headlines. Examples include jumping from bridges in Venice, or (see Guardian article). You don’t have to be a savvy local to know that what you’re doing is really stupid and puts yourself and other people in danger.
  • Outlandish or offensive. Also involving a serious lack of common sense resulting in media exposure, this type of behaviour causes offence to local people, especially if it means violating a local cultural norm in a local way, or damaging some type of local heritage. Examples include getting naked (those Italians in Barcelona), the Brits who stripped off on the sacred Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, or the Chinese guy who etched his name on to an ancient pyramid.
  • Being seen (and definitely heard). Many visitor attractions such as places of worship, art galleries and museums require their visitors to maintain a respectful level of silence so that people can concentrate on what they’re looking at, and reflect in silence. People shout, talk loudly, argue or behave aggressively for lots of reasons, but obeying the rules where silence is required, is mostly about common sense. So what to do about people who don’t obey these rules?
  • Photography. In my opinion, photography is in a league of its own. The use of smartphones and real-time sharing has meant that arguably the majority of tourists feel compelled to capture what they see on camera. Recent inventions such as selfie sticks and Go Pros help tourists to do this, but arguably they also make people a little bit more daring and self-obsessed when it comes to getting that magic shot. This leads to the very modern phenomenon of death by selfie, or even posing for a photo like the German tourist who fell from Machu Picchu mountain this year.

    Selfie sticks
    : Even when tourists are not standing on cliff-edges with them, carrying a selfie stick is rather like waving a golf club around, so it’s also not surprising that airlines or major attractions such as the Palace of Versailles have banned them, or people like this guy have become an online sensation:

  • People just being people. Being a tourist can be a tiring business. Long hours on your feet, bombarded with new sights, sounds and smells, and the need to be alert to your personal safety and the behaviour of others the whole time. Sometimes it’s tempting to sit down on the nearest step, patch of grass or shaded street, and chat with friends rather than keep moving or find a café. This leads to people collecting in large numbers, blocking walkways or steps in order to find shade or sit down causing pedestrian or traffic congestion.

Aside from people just being people, it must also be said that the problems of bad tourist behaviour can sometimes be linked to certain kinds of businesses and activities that operate in popular tourist hubs, such as beer bikes, Segway tours, pub crawls or the proliferation of certain types of ‘trashy’ or more down-market stores that are not linked to the traditional image of the city.

So, as we can see, the problems associated with overcrowding and bad tourist behaviour are quickly becoming more diverse and challenging for destinations but one thing is clear: this is something that all types of destination –whether they currently suffer from congestion or not- will have to plan for, and tackle in an intelligent way so as not to damage a significant stream of income for their local economy. In my next post I’ll talk about some interesting ideas on how to do this.

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Could ‘Paris Syndrome’ spread to your destination?

Peak season in Paris
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Excitement turns to disappointment when cities fill with tourists, making local people angry and visitors look for someplace else.

Peak season in Paris

This is the first of three posts which will deal with the consequences of tourist overcrowding in cities and what can be done about it.

“Headaches, palpitations, depression and suicidal thoughts”. Those were some of the symptoms doctors identified in the early 2000s among visitors to Paris – in particular Japanese – who were overcome with disappointment to find that their experience of the French capital didn’t meet with their dreams. The problem became so serious that in 2004 the Japanese Embassy in Paris set up a special helpline to support disappointed visitors through episodes of what became labelled as ‘Paris Syndrome’. That was over a decade ago. With armed soldiers now patrolling a city on edge, and some of the major monuments looking pretty tarnished, how would those Japanese visitors cope today?

Last week I was in Paris and happened to visit two of the city’s most popular tourism hotspots: the area around the base of the Eiffel Tower and the steps in front of the Sacré Coeur. Despite the latest reports suggesting that tourism arrivals in Paris have declined this summer as a result of recent terrorist attacks, this was still high season in the city and tourists were everywhere. The experience didn’t quite provoke Paris syndrome, but it came close. While roaming soldiers has become a sad but perhaps inevitable side to life in Paris, it wasn’t the only thing that punctured the romantic atmosphere.

No filter: one of the Sacré Coeur fountains mid-Augusts

No filter: one of the Sacré Coeur fountains, one morning, mid-August

The area at the foot of the Eiffel Tower had become a large dustbowl (it had lost its normally tidy grass since giant screens were placed there to show the Euro 2016 football in June) and was crowded with tourists waving selfie sticks while illegal hawkers pestered anyone and everyone non-stop as they tried to sell souvenirs and alcohol. The following morning the steps of the Sacré Coeur in the morning were more serene, but rubbish floated in the fountains, and hawkers and pickpockets circled among the crowds.

Where’s the breaking point?

The problems affecting Paris are certainly not unique to Paris, as many other popular tourist hubs around Europe are starting to discover. In fact, the residents of Paris have probably become used to the rising tide of tourism more than most (that’s not to say they like it). So while these problems are not new, there are a number of factors which are causing this problem to become more urgent:

Firstly, overall, international tourism arrivals are increasing. In fact, the UNWTO’s long term forecast to 2030 suggests that from now until 2030, an average of 43 million additional trips will be made each year. If some of the world’s tourist attractions are already at saturation point, what’s going to happen when these new tourists join the back of the queue and find they can’t get a ticket?

Secondly, city tourism bureaux used to be able to maintain some degree of control over tourist numbers by limiting hotel licences. In this way, a city could only accommodate the number of tourists that its hotels allowed. Tourists also used to hang out in the city centres or cluster around the main attractions. Of course this has evaporated as peer-to-peer rentals through platforms such as Airbnb have allowed tourists to stay above, below and to each side of local residents in private apartments, and increasing numbers of tourists seek to see their chosen destination through the eyes of a local, albeit with a leisure traveller’s frame of mind.

Finally, there’s ‘the sheer hell of other people’. When Jean Paul Sartre wrote in in his 1944 play ‘Huis Clos’ that “Hell is other people” I don’t think he was referring to drunken tourists (however it is possible). Nevertheless, this is the way that many residents of European cities have started to feel about the spaces in which they live, and their daily encounters with tourists who are going to more extreme lengths to generate fame online by doing dumb things. Examples include the Italian tourists who ran naked through the streets of Barcelona, or the increasing numbers of tourists who are jumping into Venice’s Grand Canal. In fact, Barcelona and Venice –both popular with weekend city break and cruise ship visitors – have both featured in the international press and the resulting coverage has arguably damaged each destination’s brand promise. However lots of cities have to deal with tourists behaving normally or badly, while trying to keep the peace between visitors and locals.

I’ll discuss this complex situation in more detail in my next post.

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