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Sustainable Tourism’s Pandemic Paradox

Before the beginning of the global pandemic, the tourism industry was grappling with how to handle the ever-increasing issue of overtourism. Barcelona, Iceland, Venice, Machu Picchu, and even Mount Everest, to name a few, led the pack as the “poster children” for the topic.  Overtourism, as defined by The World Tourism Organization (WTO), is “The impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences the perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitor experiences in a negative way.” 

In the decade before Covid, overtourism was effectively a runaway train accelerating rapidly. In March 2020, the train hit a wall and imploded. Like many sectors, the foundation of the travel industry literally collapsed unexpectedly and overnight.

Now, twelve months in, destinations such as Europe and Alaska face the devasting effects of a second season with almost no tourism revenue. The pendulum swung so far in the other direction, many destinations throughout the world now also face the equally disconcerting problems of undertourism. 

Roughly 10% of the world’s GDP is based on tourism, either directly or through ancillary business. Globally, it is the single largest employer. And given recent strides in sustainable tourism, the tourism industry provided much-needed employment opportunities for underserved communities, particularly for women and youth.

Overtourism vs. Undertourism: One might think that undertourism, to some degree, could be a good problem to have. In actuality, it is exactly the opposite. As mentioned, with authentic and significant sustainable tourism gaining traction, both in the public and private sectors, viable solutions had begun to combat overtourism. Numerous destinations were taking measurable protocols and steps to benefit both the local community and the visitors. Undertourism, however, is a far more complex issue to tackle.

Destinations and communities, many that had productively incorporated tourism into their economies, are now struggling to find means to make up for the lost revenue. In several instances, those channels do not and will not positively impact the environment, conservation, and sustainability efforts or extended, viable employment for their residents. Disturbing examples occurring already include increased poaching in Africa, illegal fishing off the Galapagos Islands, and accelerated deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. Further, local artisans, many of whom pass down their cultural trades from generation to generation, are now forced to find other employment sources, leaving behind their traditional crafts and sources of income.  

So, where do we go from here? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer for that. The process of the world opening again for travel will be fluid and on-going. Each country and destination is likely to have some variation on how, when, and where we can travel, and we will need to roll with it. What we can do is change our approach and perspective. Slow it down! Something we have all gotten very adept at this past year. Why not approach our journeys in the same way? When choosing a destination, stay longer and immerse yourselves be it for nature, culture, history, or all the above.

We are all stakeholders in this world, and best when we proceed accordingly. Consulting with a travel advisor or tour company will always be to your advantage. And don’t be shy about asking them questions regarding sustainability, overtourism, and undertourism, or any other topic relevant to the destinations you wish to visit.  

This past year has been crushing for so many. Countless businesses, many family-owned, were lost in the smoke of the pandemic. Let’s remember as we begin to move forward, there is no stronger community than our global community, and together, we can see that once again, the world’s beauty can come from the ashes.

By Justin