Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Webinar on Over Tourism in National Parks and Protected Areas Released!

One result of the essays on the notion of Over Tourism was a Webinar sponsored in part by the Tourism and Protected Areas Specialist Group of IUCN, the PUP Global Heritage Consortium and the 10YFP of the UN. You can watch it here: If you watch, please hit the Like button. Thanks!

Friday, August 11, 2017

What is Overtourism and What Can We Do About It
Part V

This series of essays has been designed to bring some order to the dialogue about what is now referred to, principally in Europe, I think, by the term Overtourism. Certainly, the concerns are well founded. However, as professionals we bear a special responsibility to clarify, deliberate and respond. Overtourism may, at its simplistic be a peak loading issue, but is likely far more challenging, enduring and complex than we currently imagine.

So what have we learned? First, we need agreement, at least at a general level of what overtourism is, and that is why I suggested a working definition. Clarification means that we communicate with intention and an explicitness that moves dialogue forward. And it also means we are efficient in our communication.

Second, we need to understand the context before we act. This context is specific to each protected area, although the variables may be similar. And we know that at a broad level, this context is one of complexity, uncertainty, change, and often one of conflict. We need to understand this complexity before we apply simple, and many times, simplistic responses (for a good discussion of this for protected areas see

Third, we need to act upon conceptually sound principles, of visitor management principles derived from science and experience. Those principles exist, and application of them can lead to innovative ideas and clarity about management actions.

Fourth, a framework of which there are several, including the new Interagency Visitor Use Management Framework which is referred to earlier, help us “work through” complicated challenges. These frameworks have been applied in a variety of situations and work where there is an organizational committment to see them through.

Fifth, we need to think more holistically about our planning. I did not write much about this, but our planning in general is not working well because our mental models (basically a science based, expert driven paradigm) of conventional planning is built upon assumptions that are no longer valid.
And finally, we need to build the managerial capacity to function in the context of complexity, change and uncertainty. Our capacity to manage visitation and tourism is very limited. There are few opportunities for continuing education and training in our field. I have facilitated several of these. But we need more. Just a few dozen managers receive training in visitor management each year as near as I can determine—mid level decision makers who must translate policy dictates into operational programs have few opportunities. While this need is recognized by WCPA ( there seems to be little international leadership in developing courses aimed at mid-level tourism and visitation managers. I hope I am wrong, please list courses you know of. Perhaps this is a role for TAPAS.

In sum, we are confronted with a great challenge, of providing opportunities for high quality visitor experiences (which are at the foundation of connecting people with nature) while ensuring negative impact to values protected is maintained at acceptable levels and while attempting to build resilience in local communities. Are we going to do something about overtourism or are we going to stand at the sidelines? If we do something, what shall we do as professionals?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What is Overtourism and What Can We Do About It?
Part IV

I concluded the last part by proposing a tentative definition of what Overtourism is, and now I will turn to presenting a starting point to addressing it. In this Part, and the concluding Part, I will cite some literature, most of it accessible, but written in English. Few people write about management of visitation and tourism in protected areas, so nearly all of what I cite is my own work and that of close colleagues. I invite others to add to this work in responses to these essays.

To address Overtourism, a number of things are needed. We need a set of principles which underlie planning and management actions, and we need a framework to help us build our situational awareness and help apply critical thinking skills (see for example Of course, we will also need to reflect upon our own mental models of the situation and recognize that we can benefit from complexity thinking ( We need to plan more holistically, as Jon Kohl and I noted in the Future has Other Plans.
Text Box: Table 1. Principles to guide visitor and tourism management in protected areas.
Principle 1. Appropriate management requires explicitly stated objectives.
Principle 2. Diversity of social, biophysical and managerial conditions in and among protected areas is inevitable and may be desireable.
Principle 3. Management is directed toward influencing human-induced change.
Principle 4. Impacts on biophysical and social conditions are inevitable consequences of human use.
Principle 5. Impacts can be temporally or spatially discontinuous.
Principle 6. Many variables impact the use/impact relationship.
Principle 7. Many management problems are not use density dependent.
Principle 8. Limiting use is only one of many management options.
Principle 9. Monitoring is essential to professional management.
Principle 10. The decision-making process separates technical decisions from value judgments
Principle 11. Consensus among affected groups about proposed actions is needed for successful implementation.

Today, I am going focus on principles and frameworks, but this will be very brief. For about 30 years, I have operating on a number of visitor management “principles” (they are probably more like insights than princples, but principles sounds better!). They have been derived from research and professional experience with visitor management, and they have been written in such a way as to cross types of protected areas, marine, terrestrial, cultural, natural, local parks as well as World Heritage Sites. These 11 principles are stated in Table 1. I will only discuss one of them, but you can read short summaries here (

I will not say much more about these principles here, but would like to demonstrate Principle 4, impacts are inevitable consequences of visitor use. Research on the use/impact relationship by such scientists as David Cole, Yu-Fai Leung and Jeff Marion (see for example, shows that a little bit of initial use leads to a disproportionae amount of impact the relationship looks like this, schematically with use level on the X axis and impact on the Y axis

The nature of this relationship means that where we already experience high levels of use, we will have high levels of impacts, and reducing use (and only use) will have little impact. This is true in both the biophysical and social domains. For example, the visitation at Yellowstone National Park is currently over 4 million visits per year, way to the right side of this graphic. It has a certain infrastructure that will not change even if use drops to 2 million or less visitors. The impacts of past decisions are here to stay, absent some major systemic level decision.

The graph also shows that focus of decisions ought to be ( and I respectfully suggest this) on the Y axis, the amount of impact that is acceptable. Since the curve that is in the graph is an average, there is variability around it. That variability means that factors other than use level influence impact, things such as visitor behavior, type of use, season of use, soils, visitor expectations and motivations and so on. For example on my recent family visit to Yellowstone. I knew visitation would be high, so my expectation were more in terms of family togetherness and learning, and viewing landscapes, and lots of bison than having the park to myself.

This graph also means that spreading use more evenly, sometimes advocated by protected area managers and academics is probably not the best strategy for minimizing impacts.
Finally, in this brief essay, we can think where we set the standard, at what point on the Y axis and how we make the decision and how that decision is made. Important questions about the role of science and public engagement.

Lets turn to frameworks for managing visitation and providing opportunities for quality visitor experiences. There are several, including but not limited to the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum, Limits of Acceptable Change, Visitor Experience and Resource Protection, Tourism Optimization and Management Model. They were mainly developed to respond to a carrying capacity approach which has failed both in theory and practice (for a short overview, see Each of these are described here, which was originally written for American protected area managers, so the first couple of chapters may not be that informative for many ( Warning, this last document is more of a book than a short article.

Recently, the federal land management agencies in the U.S. have put together an Interagency Visitor Use Management Process, which was the subject of two TAPAS sponsored webinars. I think this would also be a good starting point for discussions about what we can do about overtourism, although again, several of the components are related only to U.S. policy and law. Read about it here:

An important note: the frameworks here are not answers or solutions. What they do is help guide us through the critical thinking needed to address the challenges of managing visitors in protected areas. They are process oriented. Those who apply them use their own special knowledge of a local protected area and apply that in the frameworks.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What is Overtourism and What to Do About It?

Part III

I am one of the most fortunate people around. In my career, I have worked with many different protected area managers and members of the public. I know many of them, most of them actually, to be amazing people doing great work to protect incredible places under often difficult circumstances. Their passion is nature and they are eager to learn. Both are prerequisites for working in the complex, uncertain and changing times of the 21st century.

Learning is critical to success. And yet, we all carry around with us mental models that interfere with our learning. At the same time, diving deeper to understand and then change our mental models about managing visitor use and tourism is necessary because that is where our greatest leverage point for change lies. Lloyd Gardner in his comment on the TAPAS group List Serve  got at this when he noted that Maybe we should consider the issue of overcrowding from the perspective of impact instead of cause. Lloyd has suggested changing the mental model or question we ask which is very, very important.

Fundamentally, the question we face in managing visitors and tourism is “How much impact is acceptable or appropriate?” There are two parts to addressing this question. Part 1 is where science comes in, in establishing the relationship between visitation (and all aspects, not just numbers of visitors) and amount of impact, both biophysical and social. Its where we spend most of our resources when thinking about management, bringing in the scientist to tell us what to do. But the role of science is limited, because of Part 2, which is to make a value judgment about how impact is acceptable. That judgment must consider the science, yes, but also the trade-offs inherent in deciding if the maximum acceptable impact is higher or lower. Making that value judgment requires that all kinds constituencies be engaged to negotiate how much change we are willing to tolerate.

Now the term negotiate may seem terrible to some of you. But we are already doing this, and have done so since our genes came together to produce homo sapiens. We decide, often implicitly, and even subconciously, when environmental conditions are too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too barren, when there are too many predators that might eat us, or when there are not enough animals to support us. We respond by discussing the situation and changing our behavior. We have done this. In a more contemporary sense, we do this when developing standards for air pollution, water quality, acceptable unemployment rates, even when reading essays published on the internet (is this essay exciting enough, informative enough? If not we go elsewhere.)

When dealing with publicly managed resources, such as protected areas it is important to engage the constituencies impacted by them and their management. This is one reason behind the interest in connecting people with nature, to create a sense of ownership.

In terms of protected areas and the notion of overtourism, at the foundation is the values that are being protected, but also the visitor’s experience. We are pretty familiar with the biophysical values, but at the heart of the overtourism dialogue is deep concern about a visitor’s experience and also about what is happening in the local community and its residents (e.g., discussions about tourism in Venice).

Now sitting in a 2km long traffic jam in Yellowstone National Park is not my ideal visitor experience, nor I would estimate, the desired visitor experience of all the other visitors in that bison jam. But it is a trade-off you may have to make if you want to see the park in late July. But without a vision, without a statement of the desired conditions and experience, we simply don’t know, as managers, if we are being successful, because we have no explict presentation of acceptable conditions. (I note that managers will apply their personal standards of acceptable change but that is done implicitly and without the benefit of public review, deliberation and discussion.)

By visitor experience, I mean the kind of social-psychological benefits of participating in an activity within a particular setting. Things such as appreciating nature and scenery, learning about nature, challenge, a sense of adventure, escape, solitude, family cohesiveness, and so on. Not all these dimensions are equally important in every situation these and many other dimensions are potentially operative.

I would argue that overtourism occurs when conditions on the ground (e.g., visitor numbers, bison jams, visitor behavior) exceed our limit of acceptable change or our ability to receive the experience we seek, or management seeks to facilitate. It may also occur if conditions in communities fundamentally change its ability to function as a community its residents desire. And it might occur when negative impacts occur that are not acceptable to the values being protected. Maybe this is just a working definition and needs some improvement, maybe a lot of improvement.

Monday, August 7, 2017

What is Overtourism and What Can We Do About It?

Part II

Recognizing and agreeing that there is a problem is the first step to its resolution, understanding and framing the problem and its context comes along later, and still much later do we get to identifying resolutions (not solutions, as I will mention later) that we can propose and implement. I mentioned yesterday some dimensions of the challenge of tourism and visitor management in protected areas. So lets take a look.

The first dimension we need to understand is that that we live in a world of complexity, change and uncertainty, a world of turbulence, and a world of conflict. This context means we can no longer assume predictability and we must assume surprises happen, and that we must manage adaptively. This context means that we need planning processes, which are the processes to resolve problems, that are based on sound critical thinking and principles, and must be learning and consensus building focused. Since the world is everchanging, problems do not stay solved because their context is always changing; so the best we can do is to find responses to those problems that we can build a consensus around. These problems are also wicked and messy, technical terms proposed by systems thinkers such as Russell Ackoff, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. Wicked and messy problems are those for which no correct answer exists, which are connected to other problems and for which we need new approaches to planning.

Tourism and visitor management are not exceptions to the above context. Tourism is connected to many other social and environmental challenges and opportunities, such as economic opportunity and poverty alleviation; its revenues can be used to sustain traditional cultural events or practices, fund protected area management, or support access to health and education. At the same time, the social and environmental consequences of tourism, like every other area of human activity, can be negative, such as pollution, biophysical impact, conflict with locals over behavior norms or competition for favorite locations and so on. The negative social consequences of tourism are particularly intricate and thorny and require lots of attention for their resolution. This does not say tourism is bad per se, but that we recognize that tourism has both positives and negatives and both must be managed.
At the same time, when we look at problems of “overtourism” the first place we should look is in the mirror. We, speaking generally about academics, non-governmental organizations and management, are often the cause of problems we face because of programs and resolutions implemented in the past and in the theories we espouse. When we promote a park, without a corresponding management program in place, overtourism results (please note: our understanding of marketing among the protected area community is limited, promotion is only one part of marketing, which is making connections between people and places for experiences to occur).

(And by the way, if you are interested, these ideas are discussed in a new book authored by my colleague Jon Kohl and myself, The Future has Other Plans, published by Fulcrum Publishing.)

Do we ask: Are the management systems in place to take facilitate quality visitor experiences? Are we prepared for surprises? What is our vision of tourism and visitor use? What is our mission in implementing this vision? What are the fundamental princples upon which our tourism and visitor management program based? What have we done in the past that has lead to problems, and what have we learned from that?

Finally, and this statement may be controversial to many, conservation has beed framed as principally a biological problem when it is actually a political one. As a result, visitor and tourism management have not been at the forefront of planning and management, (neither has working with communities dependent upon resources within protected areas, building consensus around practical, implementable actions, working with constituencies to create a sense of ownership in the protected area and plan, or building trust). This conventional framing of conservation is not bad, but in the 21st century, it is not necessarily effective.

Our mental models of conservation and management of tourism and visitor use need to change to something more appropriate and useful. Wicked problems and messy situations will continue, surprises will happen, relationships between people and nature will change, in mostly unpredictable ways.

A bit more on this next time, then we will get more specific about managing tourism and visitor use.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

What is Overtourism and What Can We Do About It?

Recently, there has been growing mention in the social media about "Overtourism" and its negative consequences. 

First, I want to say that I have never heard this word before, so I am not sure what it means. So, looked it up on the internet and found a few references to it. Even this:

So, as there has been since the 1950s actually, when in the U.S., the Christian Science Monitor (a newspaper) published a series of articles about how American national were being “loved to death” there is continuing concern about the quantity of tourism, as there should be, for reasons I will describe. (I have to note that 60 years later the parks are still here, and have not died.)

So a bit of background first. I have just returned from visiting Yellowstone (one of the overtourists, I believe I am ) with my family and which has been cited as one of the places receiving such high amounts of visitation that we should be concerned. This happened during the absolutely most visited period of time (last part of July first part of August). There were probably over 30,000 visitors in the park during those days. And yes, the park was congested. At one point, we experienced a “bison jam”, cars stopped on the road because of a heard of bison, that was perhaps 2 km long. Now there were two reasons for the cars being stopped. First, there were occasionally bison blocking the road, and between a car and a bison, the bison wins. Second, people stopped their cars on the road to photograph the bison. Now this latter reason was most likely the cause of the bison jam, that is, not the number of cars, but rather the people driving the cars, in disregard of an infinite number of messages from the National Park Service to not stop the car on the road. So, the bison jam was a function of behavior more so than numbers of cars. So was there “too much tourism?”

The answer is “I don’t know”.

Some more background. I have been studying and working with protected area managers on visitor management and tourism issues for about 50 years, yes, 50 years. I started my graduate studies focusing on issues of biophysical impacts and then moved on to social science side of things, because it became clear to me that side of management was very challenging, thorny, if you will, and hardly any one paid any attention to visitors, except to complain there were too many. Even then.
I have visited Yellowstone many times since 1970, 5 times in the last year. Some trips were for business, others for holiday (I am very fortunate, I live 400 km from Yellowstone). But even on holidays, visiting Yellowstone required some thinking about what was happening.

Part of the challenge we have in addressing the question of visitation management is its complexity, part of the problem is that the problem has often been caused by solutions implemented in the past, and part of the problem is that we have ignored tourism and visitation management in our conservation programs. That may sound harsh to many of you. But the reality is that we devote few resources to designing public use plans, fewer to implementing them, and fewer still to building managerial capacity. The latter several of us wrote about in 2012 in the December issue of Parks.

For example, how many general management plans devote more than a few pages to managing tourism and visitation? How many have developed a vision of what public use should look like? How many have standards of acceptable change? How many have defined what a good visitor experience would be? How many monitor those experiences?

If we don’t ask these questions, we cannot answer the question if there is too much tourism, at least as professionals.

I will conclude now, but will write again shortly on how we can better frame the opportunity we have in managing visitation and tourism.