Crowd Control: The Events Industry and Overtourism

Authors: Jennifer Dienst       
Barbara Palmer       

Illustration by Paul Thurlby

With a perch on the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast and a wide variety of Instagram-worthy attractions, it’s not hard to see why Barcelona’s streets are lined with tourists. But with 9.1 million annual overnight visitors to a city whose resident population hovers around 1.6 million, it’s also not hard to understand why locals are feeling crowded, some to the point of revolt.

The city’s cruise port, the busiest in Europe, feeds thousands of passengers directly into the heart of the city, home to many of its biggest draws — Gaudi’s stirring architectural masterpieces, the market stalls of La Boqueria, and the beaches of Barceloneta. For tourists, most of these sites, along with others, are conveniently contained in a compact, walkable footprint. But that very ease also creates mass congestion when visitation is at its highest — tourists pack the tree-lined pedestrian street, La Rambla, and lines snake out from Basílica de la Sagrada Família.

It’s a scene that’s replicated in similarly picturesque and popular cities, including Venice, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Croatia, and elsewhere around the globe, as the number of international travelers continues to climb. There are more than 7 billion people in the world, and 1.4 billion international visitors crossed according to Oxford Economics Group.

La Mercè, a festival in Barcelona that celebrates Catalan culture, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors who cheer on teams building human towers. (Photo Courtesy Turisme de Barcelona.)

By 2030, the number of travelers is expected to double, according to a 2017 World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) report on overcrowding in tourism destinations. (See “4 Reasons Global Travel is Skyrocketing.”) The amount of revenue generated by tourism has grown along with the numbers of visitors. Last year, travel and tourism accounted for more than 10 percent of the global GDP — in Barcelona the number is 17 percent — and one in 10 jobs is supported by travel and tourism worldwide.

But lately destinations are questioning whether the costs of tourism, measured in terms of damage to the environment and residents’ quality of life, have been outstripping the rewards. The European Federation for Transport and the Environment reported that Barcelona was the most-polluted port in Europe — cruise ships create nearly five times as much air pollution as the city’s automobiles over the course of a year. In response, Mayor Ada Colau has promised to reduce the number of cruise ships allowed to dock in the city; two years ago, the city passed a measure that restricts development in the city center. In the face of mass tourism, “there’s a sense,” Colau has written, “that Barcelona could risk losing its soul.”

Anti-tourism sentiment has rarely tipped over into violence — although an anti-tourist group slashed rental car tires in Mallorca last month — but pushback against visitors is being felt all over the world. Over the Fourth of July weekend, as cars backed up on Highway 1 in central California, local residents unfurled an “Overtourism is Killing Big Sur” banner over the side of a bridge. Protests erupted last year on Waiheke Island off Auckland, New Zealand, after double-decker tour buses appeared on the area’s two-lane roads.

“People are finally understanding that the sentiments of the people who are being visited are paramount,” Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, said in a recent interview with Condé Nast Traveler. The conversation once was about “where the traveler should go, how to entice them, what the traveler should do, where they should stay, have fun, and explore,” she said. “Now the people in the destinations are coming to the forefront, and that’s critical.”

What’s the Events Industry Got to Do With It?

At first glance, it would seem that the selfie-stick wielding crowds that descend seasonally on top tourist destinations have little to do with those who travel for business events. As one event organizer told Convene, “We don’t really care about crowds that much.” With the exception of maybe a special event or two, she continued, “all activity will be held inside the facility we contract.”

And it’s true that there are key differences between leisure and business travelers. Business travelers tend to travel outside of high season and during weekdays, notes the recently published WTTC report, Destination 2030: Global Cities’ Readiness For Tourism Growth. What’s more, according to the report, “business travelers spend less time in key tourist attractions, thus relieving some of the pressure from a crowded city center.”

Aside from how their behavior differs from tourists’ patterns, there’s another reason why business travelers are more beneficial to destinations than leisure travelers. On average, they bring in more revenue per capita than other visitor segments.

According to San Francisco Travel’s analysis of traveler spending, business travelers accounted for 40 percent of the domestic visitor volume to the city in 2018, but nearly 63 percent of traveler spending. In London, where one in seven people is employed by the tourism sector, business travelers represent one-quarter of the volume of tourists overall, but spend on average twice the amount of money per night than all other visitors.

In Barcelona, which ranks first on the International Congress and Convention Association’s (ICCA) list of European cities with the most meeting delegates, “the more congresses, events, and meetings we host in the city, the fewer low-quality visitors can come because we are booked,” Christoph Tessmar, director of Barcelona Convention Bureau, told Convene.

Even so, there are compelling reasons for meeting planners to care about how rising numbers of tourists may affect destinations — and their events, in turn. Overtourism can drive up the costs of hotel and airfare and decrease availability, points out Claire Smith, vice president for sales & marketing at the Vancouver Convention Centre. “It impacts negotiating ability and buying power when there is such strong tourist demand,” she said, “diminishing the visitor experience, creating huge crowds, line-ups, and making it harder to get restaurant reservations, tickets to attractions.”

And although they make up a smaller piece of the pie, business travelers account for a significant number of the total trips taken, and proportionate amount of the environmental costs that are generated. (See “A Watershed Moment.”) Plus, distinctions between business and leisure travelers are blurring, as the number of “bleisure” trips — combining travel and business — rise. In 2017, according to data gathered by Concur Hipmunk, approximately 2.2 million such trips took place, about 10 percent of all business trips.

UNESCO once threatened to remove World Heritage Site status from Dubrovnik, Croatia, unless it curbed tourist numbers. The city was where “Game of Thrones” episodes were filmed, which made it more of a tourist attraction. (Photo Courtesy Amanderson/Creative Commons)

And it would seem that regardless of whether visitors come for work or leisure, they get lumped together, at least in the local residents’ eyes. For cities and communities “who are struggling to deal with explosions in growth, traffic, crowds, waste, and security,” Smith said, “citizens start to question or care less about the economic impact of tourism and focus on how it negatively impacts their day-to-day living — while cities try to manage the costs and social and infrastructure impacts. None of this is easy.”

But perhaps the most compelling reason for event organizers to pay attention to overtourism? Because local concerns and residents’ perspectives are increasingly becoming part of the conversation when CVBs and meeting planners work together — and that can be a good thing. Earlier this year, Wonderful Copenhagen, the tourism organization representing Denmark’s capital region, published a manifesto-like strategy document titled “The End of Tourism As We Know It.” In its place, the organization was elevating “localhood,” they wrote, with Copenhagen as a destination where human relations are the focal point and “where we connect at scale by creating meaningful relationships with people.”

And meetings are in the center of that proposition: According to surveys with its stakeholders, the business of attracting conferences and meetings is “not only important to the future growth of our destination, but also the top priority for Wonderful Copenhagen to continue within coming years.”

For cities, building connections between events and local businesses, universities, and others sets the stage for benefits that surpass the traditional calculations of direct spending, including the two-way transfer of knowledge and experiences. For planners, looking beyond the traditional destinations and venues that host their events can yield new places, spaces, and experiences for meeting attendees who are eager to get off the beaten tourist track, as well as link them to people and ideas in their host destination.

Wider Impact

Every city in the world should work to find solutions that “everyone can live with — the locals, the tourists,” said Barcelona’s Tessmar. “If not, it’s going to be a big problem in the near future.” “Overtourism is a conversation that has been happening in the leisure space,” said Daniella Middleton, vice president, travel marketing and strategy at New York City–based Development Counsellors International (DCI). But, she added, not so much in the meetings space. “It would be a conversation that would be interesting to have. There’s an opportunity for the meetings space to really make an impact and to actually drive change. But in order for a spark to happen … [for DMOs] to have a business reason to do that, the meeting planners and the decision makers also have to make it a priority.”

From the viewpoint of destinations, the reason for promoting travel and tourism is clear: Tourism is one of the few economic sectors that is “relentlessly growing” around the world, wrote the authors of a report commissioned by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and published last year, with benefits that include global socioeconomic development, employment, and infrastructure development. But along with the benefits, the authors concluded, “there is a pressing need to set a sustainable roadmap for urban tourism and to position the sector in the wider urban agenda.”

For many destinations, those roadmaps are already in hand or being drawn up. In recent years, “many of us have changed from being marketers and salespeople to managers of our destinations,” San Francisco Travel CEO Joe D’Alessandro said during a panel about the future of destinations at the WTTC’s inaugural North American Leaders Forum, held in New York City in June. “In 2018, San Francisco, a city with less than a million residents, had more than 25 million visitors. San Francisco partners with local government and the private sector to ensure that the visitor experience remains positive for everyone,” D’Alessandro told Convene via email. So far it’s working: “Both San Francisco residents and travelers have a very positive view of tourism,” he said, as “96.1 percent of visitors want to return and more than 90 percent of residents feel that tourism is important to the local economy.”

San Francisco Travel’s strategy includes encouraging visitors to explore all parts of the city, “including both the most-popular and least-known neighborhoods,” D’Alessandro said. And since “the city is also a gateway,” he said, the CVB provides information about venues and experiences outside — far outside — of the city itself, including Monterey County and the Sierra Nevada region. (For a look at how New York City is marketing its event spaces beyond Manhattan, see “A Five-Borough Business Events Strategy.”)

At Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority of Ireland, internal research and international benchmarking don’t indicate that there is a problem with overtourism, said Sam Johnston, manager of the Dublin Convention Bureau. “But sustainable growth is fundamental to the development plans at Fáilte Ireland and a core growth lever is what we call ‘regionality,’” he added, “which is about creating compelling tourism propositions throughout Ireland.” The authority’s strategy aims to spread visitors across the regions — “not only to avoid pinch-points in particular areas, but to ensure that every region can benefit from increased visitor numbers and revenue.”

“Non-tourist-overloaded destinations” — aka second-tier cities — are more attractive than ever to association meeting organizers, in part because housing and food costs are generally lower, said Deb Sorgel, manager of meetings and expositions for the Kellen Company. But, in order for them to work, they have to deliver the appropriate infrastructure, she said, including hotels with sufficient meeting room capacity, good air lift, reasonable distance from airport to hotel, and walkability.

In Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, the number of association meetings has doubled in recent years. (Photo Courtesy Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau)

In Thailand, where Bangkok received more visitors than any other city on the planet in 2018, the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) has a policy of diversifying business events into regions outside of the capital city, said Supawan Teerarat, TCEB’s senior vice president for strategic business development and innovation. It’s not because of overtourism, Teerarat said, but “to drive and generate economic impacts in other parts of Thailand.”

The strategy includes certifying that the capacities of hotels, venues, and other infrastructure aspects of destinations meet industry standards and creating a comprehensive database to centralize information for event organizers and suppliers. In addition, TCEB has designated four cities in regions outside of Bangkok as “MICE cities,” to develop their capacity and market themselves, Teerarat said. The number of meetings in Chiang Mai — a cultural center in northern Thailand known for its markets, temples, and hiking trails — has increased by 100 percent over the last five years.

At DCI, Middleton sees an opportunity for planners willing to hold programs “in the next emerging destination, looking at where they could build a legacy or looking at where they could be ahead of [leisure visitors].” It allows meeting attendees to experience a new destination from a unique perspective, she said. “It’s a risk, but if you work with the destination,” to get to know the suppliers and the venues, “it could be a risk worth taking.”

That might require planners to view these emerging destinations with “softer eyes,” she added. “Especially when it comes to accessibility and flights — that’s usually the driving factor. When [planners are] looking at these cities … they may have to say, ‘Okay, if we have the opportunity to drive business to a destination that is on the rise … it might mean relaxing a few of those criteria.” 

Off-the-Beaten Track

In uber-popular Barcelona, the bureau actively promotes outlying neighborhoods as alternatives, Tessmar said. “We encompass the city center and the surrounding provinces, so we have a lot to offer — wineries, just a 30-minute drive away, along with smaller cities, for example,” he said, adding that business travelers often ask for, and appreciate, options like these, especially if they are repeat visitors to the city.

“The first time, everyone wants to see the iconic [sites], like la Sagrada Família, for example,” he said. “But then, what we’re seeing, is that many attendees want to see Barcelona like locals. They ask to go to non-typical restaurants, the local places, alternatives to the typical sites.”

Manchester, the third-most visited city in the U.K., has a history of innovation that dates back to the First Industrial Revolution. (Photo by Adobe Stock)

Looking beyond the best-known meeting locations can offer event organizers the opportunity to align their meeting attendees’ interests with unique local expertise, sometimes with almost uncanny precision. Perhaps best known for soccer and music, Manchester, in North West England — about two hours by train from London — is “where the atom was split and where the first programmable computer was created,” said Sheona Southern, managing director at Marketing Manchester. The city, which has the largest cluster of event and conference spaces outside of London in the U.K., is home to the University of Manchester, where a chemist launched the nuclear medicine era in the 1940s by developing radioactive “tracers.” Next month, the IEEE Nuclear Science Symposium and Medical Imaging Conference and the International Symposium on Room Temperature Semiconductor Detectors will hold a weeklong joint meeting at the Manchester Convention Centre.

In the Netherlands, where the number of visitors has been growing exponentially, particularly in Amsterdam, the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions (NBTC) announced a shift from tourism promotion to destination management. In iconic locations, “excessive pressure may impact livability, whereas other places in Holland still benefit insufficiently from the opportunities and economic impulse that tourism may provide,” the NBTC wrote in a strategy document titled “Perspective 2030.” The NBTC has been broadening the message, Antonia Koedijk, the NBTC’s North America director, said. “We knew Amsterdam was top of mind and didn’t really change the message, because we were successful. But then we experienced growth, and the residents made it known that this wasn’t always working. So we realized, ‘What are we doing? Perhaps we should put even more effort into bringing Rotterdam or Utrecht to their attention.’”

The strategy, intended to spread the benefits of visitors to all Dutch citizens, clarifies for event organizers what other cities can offer. Rotterdam is less than an hour away by train from Amsterdam, but where the larger, more famous city’s cobblestoned center looks much like it did in the 17th century, most of Rotterdam’s medieval architecture was almost completely destroyed during World War II. Instead of rebuilding the city the way it was, Rotterdam reinvented itself, using modern design standards.

Over the years, the city has become known as much as a center for modern architecture as for being a model for sustainability. More than a decade ago, the city announced its intention to become 100-percent “climate-proof” by 2025 — it’s now home to the world’s first floating farm, built to model a potential way for communities to continue to grow food during flooding caused by climate issues, including rising sea levels and heavier rainfall.

Last May, the Urban Future Global Conference (UFGC), Europe’s largest event for sustainable cities, announced that it’s coming to Rotterdam in 2021, calling the city “a living lab where local government, knowledge institutes, corporates, innovative start-ups, and scale ups all actively work together to develop and implement solutions to global issues” related to sustainability.

Murals near the Hofbogen, an old railway viaduct now home to restaurants and fashion and design stores in Rotterdam. (Photo Courtesy Adrienne Wildeman)

And such events “help fortify Rotterdam’s image for sectors that are important to our economy — energy and clean technology, but also maritime and offshore industries, and life sciences — and raise their profile with international companies,” said Eveline van der Pluijm, manager of the Convention Bureau & Tourism Board at RotterdamPartners.

“Business visitors also bring — even if only temporarily — an interesting network and new knowledge to the city,” she said, “as they contribute to our international and entrepreneurial image.”

While destinations may be clear on how business events can benefit their communities, the organizers behind those events may be less focused on those benefits, particularly when it comes to sustainability and CSR opportunities.  One of the challenges for destinations, Middleton said, is knowing how to weave messages that emphasize sustainability or other unique selling points into proposals when meetings are in the bidding process.

Two of her clients, Thailand and Scotland, have long promoted visiting off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods and cities, volunteering, and the sustainability of their venues, but those factors don’t get much attention. “That’s what our clients struggle with,” she said. “It is very important, but ultimately it’s not the first thing that is in an RFP.” Unfortunately, with business events, “we get caught in the ‘tourism’ part of this conversation,” Smith said. “It is critical that we get our story straight, and be clear and direct about the broad positive impact to cities of hosting events. We need to get better at doing this and become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”

CMP Series: Earn One Hour of CE Credit

By reading these stories and accompanying material linked below, you can earn one hour of CE credit toward the CMP certification from the Events Industry Council.

  • Global Code of Ethics for Tourism” created by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, addressed to governments, the travel industry, communities, and tourists.
  • “Coping With Success: Managing Overcrowding In Tourism Destinations,” a report published by the World Travel & Tourism Council in December 2017, identified four major drivers of the increase in global tourism: Read Four Reasons Global Tourism Is Skyrocketing.
  • To spread the wealth of business travelers, NYC & Company has been working to educate event organizers on opportunities offered by the rest of the city: Read A Five-Borough Business Events Strategy for Overtourism.
  • Some destinations are finding that they can use technology to help lessen the problem of overcrowded sites and neighborhoods by nudging tourists toward less-traveled locales. Read Technology’s Role in Overtourism.
  • “There is indisputable evidence of travelers’ preferences for destinations and travel companies that are committed to sustainability,” said Laura Mandala, CEO of Mandala Research, and a former member of the U.S. Department of Commerce Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. Read The Trend Towards Sustainable Practices.

To take an online test to earn CE credit, and for access to additional CMP Series stories, go to Convene‘s CMP Series page.

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Events Industry Council.