Hit by a Tourist Boom, Cities Wonder When to Stop Self-Promotion

A tourist takes a photo of the Vancouver skyline. The Canadian city expects 10 million visitors this year.

Vancouver, BC—It’s early morning when the first cruise liner of the day approaches Vancouver’s waterfront. The vessel is one of more than 230 similar ships that will dock here this year, adding its passengers to the stream of 10 million overnight guests that the Western Canada city will host this year.

From now until the end of the summer season, Vancouver will be at 95 percent tourism capacity, according to Gwendal Castellan, manager of Sustainable Destination Development at Tourism Vancouver. That is presenting him and his colleagues with a once-unthinkable challenge: Do they just stop promoting the city?

“We’ve been watching this happen all over the world,” Castellan says. “We haven’t hit those edges [of oversaturation] yet, but we’re not far off.”

The global tourism boom that’s inundated legacy destinations like Venice, Amsterdam, and Barcelona has birthed a term—overtourism—to describe the harried state of a city besieged by too many visitors. A recent report by the World Travel and Tourism Council, Destination 2030, looked at cities’ readiness for tourism growth and concluded that Vancouver, as well as other traditional favorites Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Prague, Rome, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Toronto, had “visitor volumes and activities with potential to cause strain on the city.”

In Vancouver, some signs of this strain can already be seen as the summer tourist season heats up. Quarry Rock, a community hiking trail in North Vancouver, became an international destination seemingly overnight, drawing tour buses that local parking lots were never intended to accommodate. The sudden popularity led to gridlock and community tension, with signs for miles away warning that the trailhead was full and people should turn back. New parking laws, fines, and overflow areas have attempted to curb some of the crowds. And Tourism Vancouver has stopped promoting the trail altogether in response to residents’ and local officials’ requests.

For Castellan, the Quarry Rock problem was another sign of how visitors who come to Vancouver to enjoy its abundance of natural areas can quickly come into conflict with residents who prize a certain amount of serenity. In the city’s centerpiece downtown green space, Stanley Park, tourists are crowding bike trails and making rider etiquette a growing issue. “We have to ask, are we at the edge yet, when we need to move cyclists (off the trails and onto the streets)?” Castellan asked. “The challenge is, what is the signal? You want to determine how to respond appropriately.”

Another challenge: where to put everyone. As in many cities, Vancouver has seen an explosion of house-sharing availability, thanks to the rise of services like Airbnb. But the number of hotel rooms in the city hasn’t kept pace with other major developments, including the expansion of the Vancouver Convention Center in 2009.

Vancouver has been trying to divert city visitors into nearby communities that could also use the tourist dollars: Castellan coordinates with the 13 surrounding towns and tourism boards to spread out the hotel rooms, promote attractions, and schedule signature events, often in the “shoulder season.” And the city is no longer promoting summer travel at all in any of their traditional or online marketing outreach, opting instead to focus on lesser-traveled seasons.  

In the Pacific Northwest, one key that helps cities manage their tourism flows is to collaborate with former regional competitors. During last summer’s fire season, for example, Oregon officials worked with counterparts in California and Washington to redirect visitors away from smoke-shrouded attractions.“A lot of our visitors are the same. They’re probably driving from San Francisco up to Portland, or vice versa, and we need to provide the resources they need,” says Linea Gagliano director of global communications for Travel Oregon. “Fire and smoke doesn’t care about borders, so why do we care about borders?”

Overtourism mitigation is old hat in Europe, and the continent’s municipal marketers have pioneered a host of tactics for controlling crowds. In the tiny city-state of Monaco, for example, tourism boosters aim their promotional efforts only at visitors who can stay in the limited stock of Monte Carlo hotels: “The Monaco Government Tourist Authority does not develop the sector of day-trippers that is only fed by the notoriety and events in the Principality,” Guy Antognelli, general manager of the Monaco Government Tourist and Convention Authority, told CityLab. All tour buses into Monte Carlo are managed by a control center that allocates hours of entry and exit, and they’re banned entirely from the city center.

Vienna’s tourist office on Albertinaplatz, meanwhile, is equipped with a “random experience generator,” which directs visitors to less-heralded attractions. The Netherlands has stopped all tourism promotion and is contemplating shutting down certain Amsterdam tourist attractions entirely. Bruges has capped its daily cruise ship allowance from five to two, and like Monte Carlo, is attempting to dramatically reduce the number of day-trippers by yanking advertisements from Paris and Brussels.

Similar techniques to dissuade, disperse, or delay visitors are showing up in North American cities hit by the tourism boom. In visitor-jammed New York City, the National Park Service has banned commercial tour groups from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, citing overcrowding and “bad behavior” among guides and visitors alike. In San Francisco, a new bill would charge a toll to tourists who want to wind down its famously crooked Lombard Street, an effort to curb the long lines that block traffic and disturb residents in the tony Marina neighborhood.

Surge pricing, ticketing, and reservations at the most-visited attractions, along with smarter planning and management, can help with crowd control. When Sacramento, which has grown into a major culinary and wine destination, started its Farm-to-Fork Festival in 2013, 20,000 people came; last year, more than 130,000 showed up. To accommodate the ballooning crowds, officials expanded the festival’s footprint, added an extra evening, and pushed taking mass transit or biking to the event. “The extra space can go a long way for guest experience; it keeps vendors from being on top of one another and allows attendees to navigate the event without feeling trampled by their fellow visitors,” says Visit Sacramento president Mike Testa. “We’ve been able to alleviate some of the congestion that comes with increasing popularity.”

To avoid overcrowding in Washington, D.C., which drew a record 21.9 million visitors in 2018, officials are trying to get tour groups to explore off the beaten path. “We’ve been making great strides to get people to come in and yes, and see the federal treasures, visit the Smithsonian Institutions, and go to the Capitol Visitor Center,” says Kate Gibbs, a spokesperson for Destination D.C. “But more and more our marketing is about, once you’ve done that, spend the next day or weekend exploring our neighborhoods. If you’ve been to the White House, go to Anacostia to visit the Frederick Douglass house, or President Lincoln’s Cottage in Petworth, which has an amazing view of Capitol.”

Back in Vancouver, city officials are listening closely to residents: At the beginning and end of every high season, the tourism board polls residents about the impact of tourism on their city. So far, Castellan says that the results have been consistently positive; if that were to change, he and his colleagues would recalibrate their strategies accordingly. But despite the growing crowds, they don’t plan to stop promoting Vancouver altogether.

“This is still a competitive environment,” Castellan says. “We can’t take our foot off the accelerator altogether.”  

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