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When COVID-19 recedes, will it be business as usual?

In Dubrovnik, Croatia, stand-in for Game of Thrones’ iconic King’s Landing, hundreds of thousands of avid TV watchers arrive by cruiseship, bringing noise and crowds but spending little, forcing residents to move away in exasperation.

The small island of Santorini in Greece—with its whitewashed buildings and famed sunsets—is choked as tourist numbers double in a decade from 15 million to 33 million.

A 12th-century Hindu temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia is damaged after more than 2 million tourists flock to its ruins in one year after seeing it in a Tomb Raider film.

Machu Picchu, Peru—struggling with increasing visitor numbers for decades—is on the brink of being added to UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” after visitor numbers topped 1.5 million in 2018.

The crowds may have thinned with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the issue of overtourism isn’t going away in the long term.

“We know that growth in tourism is anticipated to almost double from 1 billion tourists in 2012 to close to 2 billion in 2030. So there is a real concern that too many travellers could visit a destination to death,” said Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher, during a May 14 virtual panel discussion on the future of tourism hosted by the Whistler Institute.

Overcrowding or overtourism can negatively impact sensitive ecological environments, while simultaneously undermining the guest experience and the lives of local residents, Fisher said.

“So the goal for a destination to truly be successful is to find alignment, stability and balance,” she said.

COVID has provided a moment of sober reflection for tourism, but the core challenges haven’t gone away. Will the industry use its forced pause to shift to true sustainability, or will the years ahead be business as usual?


The challenge ahead

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Whistler (much like the popular destinations listed above, if to a lesser extent) was feeling the squeeze of overtourism.

“After many economically challenged years ranging from 2008 through 2014, Whistler experienced exponential growth from 2015 through 2019, and that growth reached a tipping point for local residents,” Fisher said.

In response, Tourism Whistler undertook a tourism visioning and place branding exercise to gather input from the community.

“We wanted to understand what is special and unique about Whistler, and what do we want to protect and celebrate for generations to come?” Fisher said.

Further, what does ideal tourism look like in the future, and what are the barriers and solutions that will help Whistler realize it?

The end result of the place-branding exercise was a renewed purpose for Tourism Whistler, Fisher said.

“So Tourism Whistler’s new purpose is to honour and celebrate the magnitude of Whistler’s rugged mountain environment, and the bold and adventurous spirit of the people who love it—and that includes both residents and visitors,” she said.

Tourism Whistler’s new updated vision, Fisher added, is to be the most valued, respected, and sustainable four-season mountain destination in the world.

“To be clear, the focus there is on being the most valued, not the most visited; on ensuring respect, both for our people and for our place, and for being sustainable, socially, economically and environmentally,” she said.

As visitor numbers explode, the role of tourism bureaus has shifted, she added. Rather than being solely about destination marketing, it’s also about management.

“Awareness building and growth are no longer the sole goals, but rather managing and shifting visitor travel patterns, influencing and changing visitor behaviours, and identifying challenges and opportunities within the visitor experience to recommend and/or to make improvements to,” Fisher said.

“So from a marketing perspective, it’s no longer about mass-marketing and mass-growth, but rather laser-focused, data-driven marketing to targeted, high-value audiences, who are passionate about and respectful of our place and people.”

In Whistler, that means focusing on strategies to smooth out year-round visitation; reducing the peaks while growing the valleys by offering off-peak programming and “dynamic” pricing.

Having consistent (but manageable) year-round visitation attracts year-round employees that can then secure more affordable year-round housing, “which creates greater well-being,” Fisher said.

“It’s also about educating new visitors on expected behaviour, specifically with regards to the outdoors and sensitive natural environments … and it’s about monitoring both resident and visitor sentiments to determine whether we are winning or losing against our goals, noting that that does take time.

“We know we have a lot of work ahead of us, but we also are up for the challenge.”

Data-driven decision-making

Despite several painful months for tourism operators—precipitated by a 63-per-cent downturn in B.C.’s tourism industry since the advent of COVID—the pandemic has presented an historic opportunity for destinations, said Megan Epler Wood, director of Harvard’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative (ISTI).

“What some scholars have found is that when we have these difficult times, we always reinvent ourselves,” Epler Wood said.

“It’s part of our creativity as a species, apparently, and it’s quite exciting to see that in fact, despite this difficult time, a lot of creativity and innovation has been brought to the table.”

Overcrowding at tourist destinations is lowering their desirability while increasing the demand on local resources—a metric that is currently unaccounted for, Epler Wood said.

Local authorities are left carrying the biggest burden, which may lead to hefty tax increases for locals as demand for services like electricity, water and waste management skyrocket.

“Obviously, the idea is to find a greater balance between tourism’s use of vital resources, and it does take data,” Epler Wood said.

“What we really want to know is how to begin the process of transitioning from managing just demand to managing supply and demand.”

What’s missing is destination-specific, science-based data that includes regular monitoring and local participation, with a focus on critical tipping points, she said, noting that the ISTI team has been working to fix that in recent years.

“What we wanted to do was discover how we could measure the invisible burden, but also with the same measures, help to have ongoing reports on how destinations are meeting [sustainable development] goals and lower greenhouse gas emissions,” Epler Wood said.

The idea is to create a data hub that can “measure on an ongoing basis the requirements to keep tourism at the lowest possible GHG emissions, and also cover the cost and mitigate the impacts of the invisible burden,” she added.

“We do believe that will require a very modest centre for destination information technology and capacity building to help all the partners build up their own capacity to manage this kind of centre and this kind of data.”

Wherever the future of tourism goes, the massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions the industry creates remain the most pressing challenge.

“The elephant in the room is that travel is built almost entirely upon fossil fuels … [If you] fly more than once a year, especially if you take an international flight, you’re causing a huge amount of greenhouse gas pollution,” said Rodney Payne, CEO of DestinationThink!, a consulting firm focusing on sustainability in tourism.

“There’s currently no pathway to decarbonization within a meaningful timeframe, and aviation is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, sectors in our global economy to decarbonize.”

The push for decarbonization will be as disruptive to tourism as the internet was, but it’s something the industry can’t afford to ignore.

“If the rest of the economy is decarbonizing without us, we risk losing our social license to operate, and we can’t afford to do that,” Payne said.

It’s an immense challenge, to be sure, but some destinations are beginning to step up.

Valencia, Spain is the first city to measure its carbon footprint as it relates to the visitor economy. A recent report determined the 2 million or so annual visitors to Valencia account for 1.3 million tons of carbon emissions (81 per cent of which come from people getting to the city itself, either by plane or automobile).

The city has a lofty goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2025.

With no answer to the air-travel conundrum in sight (at least not before 2025), Valencia will have to focus on reducing emissions in other categories to reach neutrality, such as public and private infrastructure, waste and water management and transportation within the city.

Ideas being floated include maximizing the use of renewable energy sources (including a fully-electric public transport system) and enhancing more than 2 million square metres of natural spaces to absorb more CO2.

“This doesn’t need to be about sacrifice,” Payne said.

“It can lead to incredible benefits for the community—public health, clean air and water quality, economic opportunities—and I think destinations don’t need to be rudderless and at the mercy [of external forces].

“Every place can have conversations to determine where they want to go, starting with first principles and really thinking, what’s the most [equitable] outcome we can imagine?”

Building back better

For tourism destinations to move towards true sustainability, they first have to understand what the costs are “per tourist,” Epler Wood said.

“Once we can put some numbers around that I believe we should go for what I would call recovery packages that essentially invest in a more low-impact and lower greenhouse gas emission economy,” she said.

Epler Wood’s next recommended step is to follow in Valencia’s footsteps, and look at what it will take to become carbon neutral.

“What is the carbon emissions per tourists, and then what will it take to lower that impact? [Then] figure out the best investments that can be made in that category,” she said.

“It’ll move a lot of interest—it will get the national interest, and it will also get business interest as well.”

Engaging Whistler’s business community in a conversation about fundamentally shifting how the resort does tourism may be difficult at the moment, Fisher pointed out.

“It would be a challenging [discussion], because many of them aren’t going to survive past this year … The economic indicators are at nil,” she said.

The flipside of that, she added, is the real possibility that pent-up demand for outdoor spaces after more than a year of COVID-19 will lead to another surge in visitation to Whistler this summer.

“I think from our perspective, that’s about how we’re going to use education to build back better—how we’re going to talk about the importance of responsible behaviours when you’re visiting outdoor places, and that we have to go beyond our own potentially selfish needs and we have to think of the greater good.

“[We want to] have messaging that strikes a chord with people, that each and every one of us have to step up and do our bit.”

While things like hotels have built-in capacity limits, the same restraints don’t exist for outdoor spaces, she added.

“And so this is where it’s a tricky one—how do we find systems where we can welcome people to come enjoy our natural environment, but recognizing that we can’t all do it on the same day?” she said.

“Is it reservation systems? Are there ways that can help different destinations? And I’m thinking specifically of sensitive ecosystems and park areas where we can monitor those volumes.

“These are tricky subjects, and we’re all, I think, working through them.”

While every aspect of tourism is hurting right now after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, the answers to the industry’s big questions lie in strong leadership, Payne said.

“What’s our responsibility as leaders to get really real about … what’s coming in the future?” he said.

“Is it fair to build back dependent on a fundamentally unsustainable industry, or is that a conversation we should be forcing right now and take the medicine while we can?

“It’s not easy; if it was easy, we’d all be doing it, and we wouldn’t be stuck in this place, worried about [if we are] going to build back better or snap back to 2019.”

Watch the full panel discussion HERE.