What is Overtourism and What Can We Do About It?
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.