Why theme parks can be part of the solution to overtourism problems

August 23, 2018, 5:00 PM · At what point does a popular tourist destination become too popular?

As theme park fans, it's easy to answer this question selfishly. Everyone behind you in line is okay, but the people in front of you are too much and need to go.

But that's kinda how everyone involved in the tourism business feels. It's great to get a lot of visitors — and their money — but when the crowds start to hurt your experience, they've grown too large.

A German publication this week offered the latest run-down of people complaining about over-tourism.

Travel has gone from being a luxury product to an everyday good, with the boom in discount travel and the internet opening an increasing number of new markets. If you want to spend a few days in Palma, Barcelona or on the beach, it only takes a few clicks to find the right flight and accommodation. Often at a bargain-basement price.

But the infrastructure is no longer up to the task of handling the onslaught of travelers.

It's not just long lines at popular attractions. That's been an accepted part of tourism pretty much forever. Overtourism starts killing the communities people want to visit when the tourist market starts pricing out the stuff that residents need to live there. Groceries become fancy restaurants. Hardware stores become souvenir boutiques. Office buildings become trendy hotels. Real estate investors start buying up homes to run them as Airbnbs, and soon no one can afford to actually live in the neighborhood full-time.

And that's before we consider the environmental impact of cramming thousands of people into spaces that evolved to accommodate far smaller crowds: the trash, the erosion, the air pollution, and so on.

If only there were major tourism destinations that were explicitly designed to handle millions of visitors. Ones purpose-built for tourism, so that they would not crowd out an established community and could mitigate the damage of large crowds.

If only.

Of course, many of you are now wiping my dripping sarcasm from your computer or mobile screens, because you know that we already have these tourist destinations... in theme parks.

Artists and engineers come together to create the perfect tourist communities when they design theme parks. No, theme parks are not national parks, or cultural heritage sites, or renowned places of worship. (Though some Disney fans might argue the last point.) But theme parks can carry the burden of serving a growing market of travel-hungry consumers from around the world when those other destinations no longer can.

Great theme parks reward their visitors with engaging storytelling that takes place not just on a screen or stage in front of them, but in a vibrant community that surrounds and welcomes their friends or family. They are creative works, just like movies or Broadway shows, that employ and reward thousands of creative professionals worldwide. Not to mention the countless trade, retail, hospitality, and operations employees who work for the parks, too.

With thoughtful site selection and responsible building practices, theme park developments can minimize the environmental impact of tourism by moving visitors from more fragile communities and destinations and redirecting them to places that can handle the burden of mass visitation. No, not every park succeeds here. But with its volume, the industry is learning quickly about how to manage large crowds with efficiency.

Theme park designers already have branched out into creating museums and branded destinations, redesigning shopping malls, and even influencing urban planning. No, not every distressed travel destination can recast itself as a theme park-style attraction. That's not the point. Instead, new and expanding themed resorts can take some of the pressure off overcrowded destinations by providing attractive alternatives, while teaching their neighbors some tricks for crowd and resource management that can alleviate the pressure of welcoming the world to their community.

So instead of dismissing theme parks as inauthentic experiences, the rest of the travel industry ought to embrace theme parks and learn from their designers.

Replies (9)

August 23, 2018 at 6:04 PM

People want to go see somewhere to see what it's famous for, not to see a replica of it. People go to New York to see the Met, Broadway, Wall Street, Statue of Liberty, etc. People go to Rome to see the Coliseum, Vatican, the forum. People got to Beijing to see the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Birds Nest. People go to Athens to see the Acropolis. People go to Orlando to go to theme parks. You see huge tourist hoards at the Met, you don't see many tourists at Great Adventure even with the worlds tallest coaster.

I agree overcrowding in tourist destinations has certainly become much more prevalent in recent years and now that the Chinese and Indians have been unleashed on the world these places are only to get more crowded. Now and in the future you need to get to places earlier, make reservations earlier, and accept the fact its going to be crowded. There is no way around it. The vast majority of people aren't going to go to Gardaland instead of seeing Venice .

August 23, 2018 at 6:53 PM

How many people go to Venice because they really just want to experience Venice, versus how many go because that's what everyone else is doing, or someone or something convinced them?

Social and traditional media enjoy huge power to influence people. Especially on something like "where should I go for vacation?" Few people would be going to Venice if travel writers and former visitors hadn't been flogging it as a destination for generations.

But as the experience of visiting overtouristed destinations continues to degrade, the social media reputation of those destinations might suffer. Or, at least, there will be an opportunity for other destinations to make their case. That is where new and expanding theme parks can step in. Not by pretending to be Venice. But by suggesting an alternate - and more comfortable and convenient - experience.

This is as much about changing and expanding tastes and consumer preferences as it building better parks. But it can and has been done and the destinations that do this to stand out in a crowded travel marketplace will be the enduring travel destinations for the next few generations.

August 23, 2018 at 8:42 PM

It's only going to get worst with the Chinese being unleashed on the world. America still isn't an easy country to get a visa for, but certain places around the world have been decimated by over tourism from the Chinese - i'm thinking Thailand.

August 23, 2018 at 9:36 PM

Theme parks won’t alleviate the burden of tourism. In fact, it incentivize the conversion of the local community to a tourist trap. Everyone wants to shop in a highly themed shopping center. Or walk on beautifully kept streets. Anaheim continues to have more interesting places to see like the Packing House. As for Venice, it’s often replicated, but never perfected.

August 23, 2018 at 9:47 PM

I would like an immerse theme park (like the world circle around epcot, but a lot bigger and grander) that has replica's of selected world capital monuments. It has to be very high quality so maybe start out with only 2 cities. what is the big deal in just saying I've been to paris or London. I think that is it for a lot people. just bragging rights to their friends that they can afford a vacation abroad X times in their life or this decade for some social circles

August 24, 2018 at 3:58 AM

Props for using Efteling as the headline image, a park who've kept ethical development at the heart of their expansion over the years. They're a non-profit, have a great relationship with their neighbours, and pursue a strong environmental manifesto. (The theme park is more or less set up to support the nature park - which, although it isn't talked about much, is just as essential a part of the resort.)

DLP's Villages Nature is worth mentioning too. WDI's know-how (including Rohde's leadership) poured into a truly state of the art resort that is designed to handle crowds in an eco-friendly way.

FWIW, Venice is hell. Hell. So many of the people pouring off buses there have no idea why they're there, as Robert suggested. (Or those that do have that idea obliterated by the dense array of cameras and baseball caps as far as the eye can see.) Most of them would have a considerably better time if the bus took a detour and dropped them off at the incredible (and largely tourist-free) cathedral in nearby Padova. Or Movieland!

I live not too far from Stonehenge, and at one point there was a plan to build an exact replica a few hundred metres away, to help alleviate pressure on the original. I wish they'd gone ahead with that - it would have been an interesting experiment in how bothered people actually are about the authenticity of what they're seeing vs grabbing an Instagram shot.

Here's hoping VR develops well enough to provide a good enough replacement for people visiting over-crowded places. I know, I know - "it's not the real thing." But honestly, places like Venice stopped being the real thing a long time ago, thanks to crowds and tourist traders.

August 24, 2018 at 4:27 AM

I think people wanting to visit a popular cultural destination and people wanting to visit a theme park are different.
Also - at least in Italy - there's a prejudice that theme parks (often described as "playgrounds") are just for kids.

When asked, most people I know tell that they've been to a theme park 'just once, when I was [age from 5 to 10] (we have 4 parks at 2 hours driving, including the most popular, Gardaland and Mirabilandia). Most of them wouldn't even consider going, because it's too expensive (though the prices are half than in the US), but wouldn't resist attending a much more expensive event like a concert or a disco.

Why? I think it's just perception. If you think something is just for kids you'll probably skip it.

If we want to turn the things (as heart-breaking as it sounds to me) the only option is to bet on popular IPs. If, say, they opened a Wizarding World/Star Wars Land/ other popular franchise land, then maybe people who wouldn't have ever gone to a theme park would instead. And maybe would become a parks fan.

The European problem is that almost just Disneyland Paris can afford such IPs. The second most popular park in Europe is unknown to many.

I don't know if what Robert hopes will ever become true. If it will, at least not soon

August 24, 2018 at 6:40 AM

The secret of visiting any city anywhere in the world, is not to become part of a tourist horde. Arriving by coach for the day with hundreds of your fellow travellers all milling around and being shepherded from one instagram opportunity to the next. Then off to some "semi-cultural" souvenir hawking tourist trap, like a real world version of Chester & Hesters.

My wife and I had a fantastic weekend in Venice at the beginning of July. No tourist hordes, just the soaking up the atmosphere, sitting by the canals, enjoying a glass of Prosecco, people watching and visiting the sights we wanted to see.

Visiting any major tourist destination should be treated in the same way we would all plan a visit to Disney or Universal.

1. Do your research before you go. Know what it is you want to see, why you want to see it, what interests you. So when you arrive at your destination (or rope drop) you aren't standing there which way to go and you aren't simply following the crowds of other people.

2. Don't rush it. You can't do Universal or DisneyWorld in a day, so why think you can visit any other major tourist destination in a day. Rome wasn't built in a day and certainly can't be visited in day. Don't try to pack every sight into a 12 hour window. To truly experience the pace and heartbeat of a different culture you need to stay a few days. Relax. Breathe in the air. Experience the city like a local (or a season pass holder to a theme park).

3. Get off the tourist trail. In a theme park you know all the E-ticket attractions will either have been booked on fast pass days in advance or have long standby queues. Its the same at any major tourist destination, the 4 or 5 sights that are listed in all the guide books and all the websites as the "must see" attractions will have long queues. But we all know there are quiet corners in theme parks where you can stop during the day relax a take a few quiet moments. So when in Venice just take a wander along the canals and see what you find (one good idea is to set of and every time you come to a junction take the quieter path, you'll soon leave all the tourists behind and find a quiet and affordable restaurant or bar). If you are in Paris spend a day exploring some of the outer arrondissements.

4. If you really must have that same instagram shot of you and your family standing on main street with the castle in the background; or standing in front of the Trevi fountains or the Eiffel Tower. Plan to get the shot at a time of day when it may be a little bit quieter. Often early evening is a good time, many of the day trippers will have a left and if you are a photographer, the soft early evening light will enhance your picture.

August 24, 2018 at 2:21 PM

I live in Arcen, a small tourism village in the Netherlands. There is a famous brewery (no not Heineken that is dog piss), a castle with gardens, a nice historical center and stunning nature surrounding the area. Everyone is working together and not as an individual, that is like how a theme park works. And it works great and keeps the place livable even when there are 10x more tourists than locals.

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