Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN)
Ready, set, travel! Thanks to global vaccination campaigns, many European economies that depend greatly on tourism are eager to welcome foreigners again. Taking into consideration the impact of overtourism on the environment and culture of local communities, what steps should the EU take in order to reactivate tourism-dependent economies in a sustainable and responsible way?
Key terms: overtourism, tourist rental, housing market, local communities.
by Guillermo Tenney Díaz (ES)
1.Background and relevance
The economies of many Member States are deeply reliant on activities related to tourism, both international and domestic. In fact, in 2019 the tourism industry accounted for more than 10% of economies in ten Member States. The growth trend that tourism had been following during recent years was suddenly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic throughout Europe, with its contribution to the EU economy halving in 2020. Even before the pandemic, many international experts considered Europe’s dependence on mass tourism unsustainable as some of the most popular destinations were becoming increasingly overcrowded.
With COVID-19 vaccination campaigns succeeding throughout the world, the EU is looking forward to welcoming back tourists in summer 2021. However, local communities fear that the return of tourists may also cause instances of ‘overtourism’, which according to Forbes damages the tourist experience by alienating locals, overwhelming infrastructure, and threatening the tourist destinations’ cultural and natural heritage.
Thus, overtourism still presents a significant concern for local communities, which in some Member States protested demanding government action to regulate tourist activity. Even though governments are reluctant to take measures that affect the free market, in the case of Amsterdam, citizens made the city council consider a proposal to tackle overtourism by collecting up to 30,000 signatures. Citizens are starting to take political action in similar ways in cities struck by overtourism such as Venice, Barcelona or Prague.
The question of whether tourism is developing in a sustainable way resurfaces as travel becomes accessible to more people. Similarly, local, regional and national governments are looking into action they may take in order to regulate tourism in their countries. What role can the EU play in contributing to sustainable tourism in its Member States?
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth and offers support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide. Additionally, UNWTO encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, for maximising tourism’s socio-economic contribution while minimising its possible negative impacts. The aim is promotion of tourism as an instrument in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union, responsible for proposing legislation, enforcing EU laws and directing the Union's administrative operations. On a European level, the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) is responsible for EU policy in this area. Tourism is a supporting competence between the EU and Member States, meaning that the EU can only complement or coordinate national action through programmes and funding. Given the importance of tourism, Member States have ministries of tourism responsible for managing their national tourism industry and supporting local businesses.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is an advisory body of the EU that unites different economic interest groups of the European Single Market, such as employers, employees, and labour union representatives. Any proposals affecting tourism on EU level should be consensuated with the EESC prior to implementation.
Click here to view this Stakeholder Map on Miro.
3.Challenges and measures in place
Impact on local lifestyles: social aspect
Some argue that the lifestyle of locals living in popular tourist destinations is negatively affected as a result of overtourism. The wide availability of tourist-oriented businesses often comes at the expense of more essential daily services and amenities. For example, in the centre of Venice, locals have expressed difficulty finding essential services such as a pharmacy, whereas souvenir shops and restaurants appear everywhere.
Additionally, disruptions in the housing market may occur when owners rent their properties for short periods of time to tourists, rather than offering long-term contracts to locals. This form of business earns owners more money, while rents are forced up and locals find it harder to establish long-term accommodation. According to M. A. Ferigo (2020), these disruptions have also led to ‘owners getting away with renting tiny, insalubrious apartments and having them filled anyway’ in the city of Venice. Additionally, locals who are willing to live in the city centre are often forced to share small apartments with several others.
While the EU has investigated the implications of overtourism and examined sustainable alternatives, it has largely left cities to approach it autonomously. Such is the case of the city of Barcelona, which has ‘aggressively’ attempted to address the tourism-induced housing issue by regulating and prohibiting rentals shorter than 30 days. The purpose of this restriction is to minimise vacation rentals to tourists, in an attempt to prioritise the housing security of local citizens and reduce what is seen as ‘out of control’ tourism in the city. Still, such measures are perceived as controversial , with their effectiveness being questioned by some economists.
Tourist-dependent businesses: economic aspect
After considering the negative effects of overtourism, it may seem that the tourism sector is quite destructive to local environments and lifestyles. However, businesses operating in the tourism industry generate much employment and benefit the host economies in various ways. Such are the cases of Croatia, Greece, Portugal and many other Member States. In 2018, tourism contributed to 3.9 % of the EU GDP and created employment opportunities for 11.9 million people. In the case of considering closer links of the industry with other economic sectors, significant increase in tourism sector’s figures is observed.
Due to some European economies being greatly dependent on tourism, national agencies and Ministries of Tourism across the Union are normally in charge of maintaining close liaison with the businesses such as transportation, accommodation, and hospitality, as well as labour unions involved in the sector, and ensuring their interests are defended by the government. Examples of business models that depend on tourism are the hospitality industry, specialised travel agencies, and local food restaurants, among others. Different stakeholders within the tourism industry may have different interests, whereby any action regulating or incentivising tourism may increase competition or even spark controversy between them. For example, Airbnb and hotels compete for the same market of visitors between them, as do taxis and ride-sharing services such as Uber. Thus, decisions affecting tourism should take these sectors into consideration, given that receiving enough tourists is crucial for their business success in the short and medium term.
Devaluation of tourist experience: moral aspect
According to a European Commission research report for the TRAN committee (p. 38), environmental impacts of overtourism are primarily the result of increased usage e.g. of resources, infrastructure, facilities, and/or touristic sites. Some instances of this consumption within overtourism may be short-term or temporary, for example the visit of a cruise ship, a short tourist season, or a specific event. Its implications are evident even in such isolated events, ranging from pollution and damage to congestion and overcrowding. Generally speaking, infrastructures in popular tourist destinations may not be prepared to support the excessive number of visitors. For example, in case of Venetian public transportation, an excessive number of tourists leads to the inability of locals to use transportation on a daily basis. The strain caused by this increased usage could be mitigated by a more equal distribution of visitors throughout the year and in different destinations.
As of today, measures against overtourism are not widespread. Rather, specific local authorities have issued regulations aiming to overcome its effects while certain groups work on raising public awareness in efforts to transition towards sustainable tourism. For example, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as The Travel Foundation have proposed sustainable travel practices centred around combatting overtourism through a mentality shift among tourists. Recommendations and proposed solutions addressing overtourism include incentivising tourists to stay longer in the destination, support local businesses, and respect the local environment and culture. Additionally, they may involve a diversification of the tourism experience by travelling during the low-demand seasons and visiting destinations that are not already overcrowded.
In which aspects can the EU act to help mitigate the effects of overtourism?
How can overtourism be regulated without harming tourism-dependent businesses?
Which measures should be taken to distribute tourist visits more equally throughout the year, if any?
What can authorities do to minimise the impact of tourism in the housing market?
5.Faces of Sustainability
Taking steps towards addressing overtourism and promoting responsible travel are important goals for Member States in transitioning towards more sustainable economies. In a more balanced setting, tourist demand would be enough to cover the supply of services in a diverse range of destinations. However, certain places are more popular, thus receiving an overwhelming influx of tourists during specific periods of the year that has significant negative implications on the local population of these destinations. Under these circumstances, it becomes necessary to adopt measures for the prevention of further environmental, cultural, and economic damage. Decisions should be made taking all the possible stakeholders and actors into consideration, as well as local environments and the scope of competence in which we operate.
6.Material for further research
Read this article regarding the rise of overtourism in recent years.
Read this article from the World Economic Forum on how controlling rent does not solve supply-demand issues in the housing market.
Read this article from Michigan State University regarding the importance of tourism and how economies rely on it.
Watch this short video from Sustaining Tourism on the social and environmental impacts of tourism.