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.
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.Tweet
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