Tourists hot spots are re-opening but not everyone is thrilled
Although Hawaii re-opened to tourists in October, it took a combination of spring break and pent-up travel fever before the airports felt close to normal again. By mid-March, the number of arriving domestic passengers exceeded 2020’s anemic levels by 400%.
A surge in visitors is undoubtedly good for the state’s hard-hit tourism economy. But is it good for Hawaiians? A year after the state’s borders were first shut due to Covid, many locals have embraced a new normal: uncrowded beaches, free-moving traffic, and cleaner air and water. In one recent poll, nearly half of Hawaiians said that tourists are no longer worth the trouble. Around the globe, other tourist-dependent economies have spent Covid appreciating life free from the visiting hordes. That, in turn, is renewing a global debate about who exactly should benefit from tourism.
Over the past decade, the travel sector has had to confront some uncomfortable truths. One was the industry’s effect on climate change: Tourism accounted for fully 8% of global greenhouse emissions between 2009 and 2013. A related problem was that low-cost flights were simply delivering too many people to the world’s hot spots. Venice, a city of 60,000, was visited by a catastrophic 5 million tourists in 2017. Such overcrowding has contributed to both environmental degradation and a slow but steady exodus of locals.
Hawaii isn’t quite ready to depopulate, but frustration with tourism runs deep. In 1959, the state had 243,000 tourists; in 1990, 7 million; in 2019, 10.4 million — all sharing space with a mere 1.4 million locals. With the influx of visitors came notorious traffic bottlenecks and new threats to treasured ecological sites.
Hanauma Bay, an iconic wildlife refuge formed in a volcanic crater and covered in corals, was once a remote site enjoyed by locals. By the time Covid hit, it was receiving 1 million tourists a year. Among other problems, those visitors trampled corals and left behind 412 pounds of sunscreen per day in the waters.
Of course, diagnosing overtourism is easier than finding a cure. In 2019, tourism contributed $8.9 trillion — or 10.3% — to global gross domestic product and employed 310 million people (directly and indirectly). Its contraction has been tough everywhere, but especially in smaller, emerging-market countries where the sector can account for as much as 50% of GDP. The losses haven’t just been economic. As tourists stayed home during the pandemic, some ecologically fragile regions saw devastating increases in wildlife poaching.
Plenty of solutions to this challenge have been floated in recent years. The flight-shaming movement sought to dissuade tourists from long-haul air travel. Fed-up locals, especially indigenous communities, became more vocal in their criticisms and even started protesting. Some destinations adopted sustainability pledges for travelers. Although visitors to the Island of Hawaii won’t be barred for refusing the Pono Pledge, its message of personal responsibility could hardly be clearer.
Yet even if every tourist in the world signed and obeyed such a pledge, their impact would still be a problem. Recent surges in places such as Miami Beach (for spring break) have only added to worries that the end of Covid could mean a resumption of the old normal for communities beat down by too many visitors.
Fixing these problems will require some new thinking. An important first step should be reforming how to measure a “successful” tourist business. Historically, visitor numbers and GDP have been the gold standard. But groups like the World Tourism Organization could help establish a range of new metrics that take sustainability into account — for example, by publishing the ratio of tourists to locals in a given region or accounting for tourism’s impact on the local environment. Businesses, too, should recognize that harmful overtourism isn’t in their long-term interests.
Airlines and hotel chains, for instance, could commit to sustainable tourism by reducing carbon emissions, improving waste management and investing in local communities. Social-media sites like Instagram contribute heavily to the problem — everyone is after that perfect shot, after all — and should think of ways to educate their users about overtourism and discourage excessive crowds.
Nobody wants a lecture about a post-Covid vacation. But the message doesn’t need to be alienating: Traveling right just means thinking more like a local.