Proposals for an alternative model of urban cultural tourism that avoids overcrowding

The limitation of the number of visitors and an improvement in the quality of the trip (with guided tours, tourist routes and experiential and virtualized tourism), the basis of a more sustainable urban tourism

Luis Alfonso Escudero Gomez

Urban tourism was a machine in continuous growth until its abrupt halt, at the beginning of 2020, with the arrival of covid-19. At that time, tourist cities suffered the negative impacts of overcrowding and situations of excess tourism proliferated. The pandemic served to abandon, at least momentarily, the path towards the unsustainable.

The pandemic lockdown

The coronavirus has had a huge impact on world tourism. Since mobility was a crucial activity for the spread of the coronavirus, it was severely restricted when the health crisis broke out. Even today, international travel still requires requirements such as proof of non-contagion.

Before 2020, heritage cities suffered from a situation of overtourism that affected both the satisfaction of visitors and the quality of life of residents. Cities like Toledo, Barcelona, ​​Venice or Amsterdam, among many others, were experiencing a conflict between their heritage and tourism.

The forced stoppage due to the pandemic was a unique opportunity to propose an alternative model. However, it seems that the recovery of the business to the pre-pandemic level and style has been chosen. In this article we briefly present our proposals for an alternative model of urban tourism.

Back to tourism business

The recovery from the tourism crisis is being addressed without making decisions that lead to a model of a sustainable future. On the contrary, it is trying to achieve the recovery of the previous situation while providing an economic subsidy to the sector.

In some cases, the shutdown is being used to expand capacity in the future. Athens has decided to increase the capacity of visitors to the Acropolis, its main attraction, by widening its access road.

When the most restrictive measures were lifted in 2021, tourist destinations made an effort to adapt to the new health regulations imposed by the pandemic. In addition, and above all, they made an effort to launch promotional campaigns to attract visitors. For this, concepts such as proximity, reopening and security were used. Regions such as Castilla-La Mancha («Your holidays have never been so close») or Galicia («Galicia returns») and cities such as Toledo («Toledo open») or Zamora («Zamora, vital space») have done so.

Finally, the reality today, even in a pandemic, seems more aimed at returning to urban cultural overtourism.

Tourist overcrowding in Santiago de Compostela during the covid-19 pandemic. /

Author's photographs

an alternative model

The pandemic is an opportunity to change urban tourism, which needs a drastic reform to move it towards sustainability. The goal must be to put an end to overtourism and its negative impacts.

The limitation of the number of visitors and an improvement in the quality of the experience, through guided tours, tourist routes, experiential tourism and virtualized tourism would be the basis of this model.

There are places where the number of visitors has already been restricted, such as Machu Picchu and La Alhambra, in search of an improvement in their sustainability. It is a solution that can be successful if the steps taken to achieve it are reasonable, transparent and fair.

If there are already capacity limits at major sports and music events, it may also be appropriate to apply them to heritage spaces in cities.

More quality, less quantity

The optimal strategy for sustainable tourism is to increase the quality of the visit and reduce the number of visitors. Starting from the already mentioned limit of their number, it would be about fulfilling the desire of tourists to enjoy the destination with little overcrowding and with excellent tourism. To do this, four ideas would be intertwined: guided tours, tourist routes, experiential tourism and virtual tourism.

Tour guides and groups in Santiago de Compostela (1) and Alicante (2) during the pandemic. Author's photo.

However, its application requires a new governance for urban cultural tourism, which centralizes tourism management and planning. Policies, procedures, and guidelines should be developed to monitor, measure, and control impacts. Regulation of private tourism agents should also be established. Strong political leadership, clear rules and the support of residents and visitors are needed.

The balance between all the interests that come together in the tourism development of a place is necessarily based on achieving an efficient governance system.

Which option do we choose?

This moment of bifurcation can be an opportunity to tackle the phenomenon of overtourism in heritage cities. We must propose and make better decisions for the future and avoid continuing to make mistakes.

It is key that cities, their citizens and their managers, rethink the type of cultural tourism they want for their future. And that tourists also think about how they want their visits to heritage cities to be.

Let's bet on a future in which cities are less dependent on mass tourism. In exchange, there would be benefits for the residents, who could take back their city. At the same time, visitors could enjoy urban cultural tourism of higher quality and not overcrowded. And, in addition, it could help the growth and improvement of the labor market in the sector.

This article has been published in 'The Conversation'.

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