What is Overtourism and What to Do About It?
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.