How many visitors are too many?
When Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser flew off to Paris recently, his goal wasn’t merely to enjoy beautiful sights and fine cuisine. He led a delegation of nearly two dozen people who were on a mission to increase the number of French visitors to Louisiana.
The Louisiana Office of Tourism, which Nungesser heads, arranges such missions in an effort to keep international visitor numbers growing. Just like his counterparts in other states, he knows that the world’s top destinations compete fiercely for tourism dollars, and Louisiana must not allow itself to fall behind.
Over a period of decades, tourism has become one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, constituting a large chunk of international commerce and becoming a crucial source of income in many developing nations.
Louisiana, no stranger to the trend, has broken records in recent years for the number of visitors received and the amount of cash they left behind. Nearly 30 million visitors spent $11.5 billion in the state in 2015, according to a report by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center. The center estimates that the activity generates more than $800 million a year in tax revenue and directly employs some 170,000 people statewide.
Visitor destinations around the globe can point to similar impacts on their economies. But in more and more cases, people in these hotspots are realizing that growth comes with a price.
The influx of people into the world’s most popular destinations adds huge crowds to the resident population during peak travel periods and puts stress on priceless resources, such as historical structures that helped make the destinations popular. The added traffic can also put local cultural values under pressure and may damage the quality of life for local residents.
In Europe, where visitor numbers have grown steadily for decades, the concept of tourism “sustainability” has come into sharper focus, and Barcelona is the latest city to attempt to answer the question: How many visitors are too many?
Barcelona, where for years tourists have outnumbered residents, recently approved a law aimed at restricting the number of visitors by limiting the number of overnight rooms available in local hotels and tourist apartments. Mayor Ada Colau, who won office in part by promising to limit tourism growth, says such measures are necessary because the “way of life of all Barcelonians is seriously under threat.” City officials cite a shortage of resident housing and sky-high prices on existing units because some 17,000 apartments have been turned into tourist accommodations.
The impact of rising visitor numbers on both the local quality of life and the visitor experience itself has also set off alarms in Venice, a city being eroded not only by the water that surrounds and permeates it, but also by millions of visitors tromping across its fragile historic landscape.
Concerns of Venetians echo in visitor destinations from England to Croatia to Thailand, where officials cite ongoing destruction of that country’s natural oceanic resources due to visitor pressure. Similar worries have cropped up in U.S. cities from Bend, Oregon, to Jackson, Wyoming to New York City.
In Louisiana, some see the state’s largest city as a case study of the need for more serious consideration of sustainability. With annual visitors to New Orleans nearing the 10 million mark, yearly spending by tourists has topped $7 billion. But with the growth have come issues related to environmental, cultural and economic impacts.
Locals complain of increased litter, and say that wear and tear by visitors is taking a toll on already poorly maintained streets, sidewalks and parks. Some say neighborhoods are eroding under a growing transient population, and that the trend is aggravated by thousands of local homes being converted from resident to tourist use.
New Orleans also faces an issue shared by many other cities that are popular with tourists – housing has become expensive, forcing some residents, including many who earn paychecks in the tourism industry, to move farther away from the city’s core.
While some cities try to ease the pressures through improved policing and better enforcement of litter laws and statutes related to disorderly behavior, building a tourism industry that can endure into the next century isn’t just a matter of making a city cleaner and safer. Also crucial to the industry’s future vitality is more serious consideration of how many visitors any given locale can reasonably accommodate while delivering both a quality visitor experience and a high quality of life for full-time residents.
Around the world, such issues have led to the formation of groups whose mission is to grapple with the side effects of tourism growth. Several years ago, the United Nations World Tourism Organization launched one such effort by adopting a “sustainable tourism” agenda based around goals related to the industry’s environmental, ethical, societal and economic impacts, among others.
In January, the organization declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked leaders of some 140 countries for their support.
“Every day, more than three million tourists cross international borders,” Guterres said. “The world can and must harness the power of tourism as we strive to carry out our agenda for sustainable development.”
Putting tourism to work
The United Nations World Tourism Organization adopted 17 goals in support of a worldwide sustainable development agenda. Issues it targets include:
• Poverty and hunger
• Access to education and economic opportunity
• Social justice and equality
• Availability of clean water and sanitation
• Access to affordable, sustainable energy
• Conservation of natural resources
• Protection of ecosystems
• Promotion of peaceful, inclusive societies