Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations

Crowds in Johnston Canyon
Crowds in Johnston Canyon

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and McKenzie & Company very recently released a detailed analysis of overcrowding at popular tourism sites and destinations. The intended primary audience appears to be destinations, but it has much wider application within the industry. In-bound tour companies also have responsibilities for ensuring the sustainability of their operations.

I’m deeply concerned about the issue of overcrowding. I’m seeing its impacts on some of our country’s most loved national and provincial parks. Take the photo above for example. This is Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park during a normal summer day. Notice the long line of people waiting to grab a quick look at the falls close up from within a small cavern. Below, the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre teems with swarms of people during the peak season.

Crowds at Icefields Discovery Centre Jasper National Park
Crowds at Icefields Discovery Centre Jasper National Park

These are but two examples of overcrowding I observed in 2016 while leading trips in Banff and Jasper National Parks. Knowing that these parks would be overrun this past summer, I avoided them completely. Giving free admission to the national parks to mark Canada’s 150th made a bad situation worse.

The Problem of Overcrowding

The problem of overcrowding isn’t new. Park advocates, like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, have been sounding the alarm about it since the 1960s. What is new is the speed and scale of the growth in numbers.

Tourists on Athabasca Glacier
Tourists on Athabasca Glacier

The four mountain national parks of Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay have seen annual growth rates of about 5% over the past few years. Doesn’t sound like much perhaps, until you convert that to numbers of visitors. In 2016, the Canada’s national parks received nearly 15.5 million visitors. The growth rate for 2017 to 2018 has not been released yet, but if it holds at 5% that would mean another 775,000 visitors. Astounding to think about.

As the WTTC notes in the executive summary of its report, “…some destinations are in danger of being loved to death, before adding “After all, it’s hard to maintain a sense of wonder before Michelangelo’s Pieta when elbow to elbow with strangers.”

As I said above, same holds true for Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake or Emerald Lake as well as several other sites in the four mountain parks. It also holds true for many of the other parks and historic sites that Parks Canada manages.

Tourists at Moraine Lake
Tourists at Moraine Lake
Impacts of Overcrowding

In addition to a degraded experience, the WTTC found that overcrowding led to alienated local residents, overloaded infrastructure, damage to nature, and threats to culture and heritage. Their analysis also reveals that “overcrowding is easier to prevent than it is to recover from.”

Wildlife Overpasses in Banff National Park
Wildlife Overpasses in Banff National Park
Best Practices for Sustainable Tourism Development

“Good tourism management practices and stringent planning are key to the sustainable development of tourism,” they argue, before presenting four best practices:

  1. Build a comprehensive fact base and update it regularly;
  2. Conduct rigorous, long-term planning to encourage sustainable growth;
  3. Involve all sections of society – commercial, public and social; and
  4. Find new sources of funding.

I have profound trouble with the belief in sustainable growth. Too much of the time, growth is defined in narrow economic terms. More guests = more revenue = more profits = more re-invested into growth = more capacity to pump through more paying customers. This kind of growth generates significant negative impacts that undercut sustainability.

Throughout the report, I perceive a struggle within the Council. On the one hand, they want to warn that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Yet on the other hand, they unwittingly, perhaps, perpetuate the belief that there’s never enough.

For growth to be sustainable over the long-term, it must be defined in broader terms akin to the triple bottom line approach. Full cost accounting should also be considered prior to any proposed expansion of capacity.

Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park
Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park
Techniques for Dealing with Overcrowding

What are some of the practical approaches to overcrowding destinations could take? The WTTC suggests these possibilities:

  1. Smooth visitors over time;
  2. Spread visitors across sites;
  3. Adjust pricing to balance supply and demand;
  4. Regulate accommodation supply; and
  5. Limit access and activities.

These techniques have been around for several decades. They can be very effective in reducing overcrowding, if they’re applied within the framework of the best practices outlined above.  But even under ideal circumstances, significant challenges confront the application of these tools.

Tourists on Trail to Rock Isle Lake Banff NP
Tourists on Trail to Rock Isle Lake Banff NP
Challenges to Managing Overcrowding

For example, it’s all fine and well to want to attract more tourists in the off-season, but inclement weather (perceived or actual) can be a powerful deterrent. To meet this challenge, destinations and tour operators must be imaginative and pragmatic. Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, is often taken as a good case study. Years back, the town and nearby resorts were nearly dead during the cold, blustery, and rainy winter months. Then, someone came up with a brilliant idea: market the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of the powerful storms that lash this stretch of the coast. Since then, storm-watching has become a major tourism draw.

Recently a US-based tour company hired me to assist with the re-development of their Canadian Rockies excursion. I enjoyed doing so as I had the opportunity to encourage them to consider less crowded and equally attractive sites.  Spreading visitors across sites like this can really help to take pressure off overcrowded sites. It also gives lessor known destinations a greater share of the economic benefits of tourism.

Marble Canyon Kootenay National Park

Playing with pricing can be tricky business. As the WTTC noted: “But while increasing the costs of visiting a destination or site is likely to limit the number of visitors, it also raises considerations of elitism and the ability of domestic tourists to access their own heritage.”

In the past, regulating the supply of accommodation has been an effective way to managing growth. The explosive growth in home-sharing options, however, has been a game-changer. Short-term rentals now threaten to destabilize housing stock in some destinations. While this tactic increase supply to accommodate more visitors, it can also alienate locals and make housing for seasonal staff nearly impossible to afford. Tofino is one destination I know of that struggles with this challenge.

Limiting access and activities can be a highly controversial and politically charged approach. It challenges a largely un-examined sense of entitlement held widely. Travel, for many, is taken as a basic right. As a result, limits are usually very reluctantly applied. Additionally, limits must be enforced to be effective. Some destinations simply lack the capacity however.

Chateau Lake Louise Banff National Park
Chateau Lake Louise Banff National Park

The WTTC concludes that “each destination will need to identify the actions that address their specific challenges from overcrowding.” To meet the challenges, they advocate taking “an integrated approach” to using the five techniques for mitigating overcrowding.

Conclusion

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries. As such, it makes a huge contribution to regional and national economies. But if not managed carefully, this growth and the overcrowding that comes with it undermines the long-term sustainability of the industry. When this happens, everyone loses.

As the WTTC concludes: “Indeed, companies must take responsibility for destination stewardship and engage with governments to facilitate and encourage sustainable tourism planning rather than waiting on the sidelines for others to effect change.”

“Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations” by the World Travel and Tourism Council and McKinsey & Company merits as a must-read for everyone in the travel and tourism industry. Despite ambiguity around the notion of sustainable growth, the report presents important results and insights drawn from in-depth research.

Icefields Discovery Centre
Icefields Discovery Centre

Sources:

“Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations” World Travel and Tourism Council and McKinsey & Company Dec. 2017. Accessed Dec. 18, 2017 from https://www.wttc.org/research/policy-research/managing-overcrowding-in-tourism-destinations/

“Parks Canada Attendance 2016-17” Government of Canada https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/docs/pc/attend

 

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