Tourism is Heading Straight For a Cliff — and DMOs Only Have Themselves to Blame

TL;DR: All signs point to another big year for tourism, but if destination marketing organizations aren’t careful, they could push out the residents and local appeal that make these must-see places great.

2017 is shaping up to be another big year for tourism: The U.S. economy is strong, gas prices are going down and more people are traveling than ever before. But could all these people traveling ultimately be too much of a good thing?

Though cities and destinations have reaped the benefits, the oversaturation of tourists year over year threatens to put destination marketing organizations (DMOs) out of business.

It’s not a new story. Back in 2006, the New York Times reported that we would sooner lose Venetians than Venice “and the historic center could be reduced to a shell subsisting only on tourism.” Though the city is largely dependent on tourism, it has made even the basic necessities out of reach. The price of real estate has skyrocketed, making it near impossible for any community business, like a grocery store, to survive, and locals have no choice but to live outside of the city.

Most recently, Barcelona has felt similar effects due to tourism. At the height of the economic crisis in Europe, Spain’s unemployment rate reached nearly 30 percent in 2013 and tourism was a welcome relief as cities sought to rebuild. But in recent years, Barcelonans have openly protested the tourism industry, and earlier this year, the city passed laws to start to curb mass tourism in the Spanish city. Though millions visit the city annually, the money tends to cycle back into the tourism industry, bringing little benefit to the local people as prices on necessities continue to rise.

Cities aren’t the only areas hurting from tourists: Sparkloft’s headquarters in Portland isn’t far from dozens of hikes to waterfalls — just a few hours outside of the city in almost any direction. But the growing tourist interest in Oregon has overrun many of the state’s best-kept secrets. Oneonta Gorge in the Columbia River Gorge is an iconic hike, which is only accessible by trekking upstream through a river before you reach a 100-foot waterfall. If there was ever a hike made to look great on Instagram, it’s this one.

And if it sounds too good to be true, it is: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area recreation staff said in an interview that the astounding number of visitors are trampling the area, causing damage to the vegetation and water quality, which in turn is hurting the fish. Travel Oregon (full disclosure, a client), the state tourism organization for Oregon is working on strategies to reduce and mitigate the impact.

The U.S. National Parks are seeing similar issues throughout the country as people illegally camp or harass wildlife for a selfie.

If DMOs don’t get more actively involved in managing the visitor experience and impact, they will become a victim of their own success.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Should marketing budgets be spent on promoting peak travel periods? Or would it be better to try and attract more visitors outside those times?
  • How can potential visitors be segmented differently, be reached differently and be enticed to visit based on their individual motivations? Could a new approach to segmentation create better experiences for visitors and locals alike? Check out this unique example of Travel Oregon's award winning campaign marketing to Japanese travelers.
  • Should the marketing messages focus less on “tent pole” attractions that are well known and focus more on “off-the-beaten-path” products. 
  • People are looking for experiences (one of the reasons we travel more and buy less stuff). How can DMOs create new experiences that increase visitation either in low seasons or in locations that are less popular?
  • Can some of these experiences be pop-ups that are flexible, mobile and create urgency as they are ephemeral?

Tourism has grown a lot and it will continue to grow. But increased visitation in popular places will lead to more and more conflicts between visitors and residents. DMOs need to make balancing the needs of both groups a higher priority.