Varshini's world tour(ism)

Varshini's world tour(ism)

by aurora planning

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay 

Having co-produced last month's Spotlights, our intern Varshini has now provided the inspiration and research for this month's blog, drawing on her experience of having travelled widely to bring an international perspective to the planning issues that can result from over tourism and how these might be addressed. This follows our blogs We're all goin' on a summer holiday and Happy Campers from earlier this year, which looked at the increased demand for holiday accommodation in the UK as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the planning issues associated with that, many of which will be familiar to people living in visitor hotspots around the world. These are though not the only issues which such places experience and, as tourism is an international phenomenon, it seems fitting to have an international view of this. For which, over to Varshini...

Varshini’s world tour(ism)

Coming from a place which is culturally rich, diverse and at the same time challenged by over-population and over-tourism, I always wondered if there were other places around the world which faced similar complexities. This made me a travel enthusiast who loved to explore cities and towns with diverse cultural backgrounds and was amazed by how the streets and public places were treated differently in different regions, particularly in respect of tourism. 

Tourism has always been a component of space, and it is vital to integrate the two in land use planning if this is to be sustainable. For example, issues such as the nature and location of tourist attractions or accommodation, and their impact on the region, its residents and cultural sites, are essential planning considerations. While tourism can bring significant economic benefits, over-tourism can have equally significant negative impacts on the natural and built environment, local infrastructure and the wellbeing of host communities.

So, what are the challenges arising from over-tourism in different parts of the world, what can planning do to address those, and what are some of the other considerations that might play a role in tourism planning?
Reflecting on my own travels, as well as having researched the matter for my MSc dissertation, it’s clear that many places across the globe experience similar impacts from over-tourism, despite having very different characteristics and attractions.
For example, while Edinburgh is well known for its festivals, it has faced quite serious challenges due to the massive influx of visitors these draw into the city, with this resulting in increases in housing rents, traffic and congestion issues, and peak seasonal demand for cultural venues across the city. 
Other urban ecosystems have been over-branded and over-marketed for tourism, with residents of Barcelona and Venice for example worrying that their cities are becoming tourist destinations rather than homes for generations, with souvenir shops replacing butchers, bakers, and pharmacies. This results in a loss of sense of ownership and identity in some neighbourhoods and destinations losing their uniqueness, as well as them experiencing many of the issues also faced in Edinburgh in terms of the cost of living for locals.
Similar challenges are faced by Asian regions like Thailand and Goa. Thailand has long been a favourite of British travellers, but congestion and pollution, particularly in and around Bangkok, have harmed Thailand's famed beaches and beach resorts. Likewise, while Goa is noted for its stunning landscapes and diverse historical and natural heritage, coastal tourism growth has resulted in overdevelopment in some areas (sometimes encroaching onto land within 200m of the high tide line, and requiring sand to be removed from beaches for construction), but also a decline in visitor activity further inland, to the determinant of communities there. As realtors and land developers are vying for lush and unspoiled hills, land values have increased and former fishing towns have changed beyond recognition. For example, Calangute in Goa has become a concrete jungle due to rapid urbanisation and unplanned expansion, displaying all of tourism's flaws. Perhaps the most serious issues are though allegations of developers limiting local residents' access to beaches and evicting locals to make way for potential property developments. Goa's lawmakers and bureaucrats are now counting on the Konkan railway project's success to attract more tourists, but the question is whether such massive development would enhance or detract from Goa's charm.
Tourism may though attain sustainability through using land use planning to address some of these issues, with lessons to be learned from the experiences of different areas to assist both travellers and tourism locations, while also benefiting the environment and local populations. For example:

- as highlighted in June’s blog We’re all goin’ on a summer holiday, local governments in Scotland can take action in recognising short term let accommodation as a separate land use that requires planning permission, with it hoped that this will reduce pressure on housing in hotspots such as Edinburgh;

- Edinburgh’s Local Development Plan requires new hotel developments to be located in sustainable locations, such as the city centre, close to the airport, or in areas with good public transport connections so that visitors will not need to rely on private cars for transport, and traffic, congestion and parking issues are less likely to arise;   

- another sustainable solution available to places worldwide is to implement infrastructure improvements to make them more pedestrian and bike friendly and address issues associated with traffic, congestion and parking that way; 

- Barcelona's municipality has reduced street advertising and branding by roughly 20% to reduce the issue of over-tourism in the city, with this also re-opening up elements of the public realm to the benefit of local residents and contributing to the restoration of a sense of identity; and 

- in all cases, a robust planning system is needed to direct new tourism related development away from environmentally sensitive areas, with effective enforcement to ensure that unauthorised development doesn’t go unchecked.

However, whilst there is clearly a role for planning in managing tourism, we need to acknowledge that planning alone cannot solve the issues arising due to over-tourism. Some other interesting interventions include, for example, Thailand promoting their lesser-known towns with their ‘Go Local' initiative, which diverts tourists from crowded urban areas to less crowded secondary tourist locations that offer the same level of authenticity, with transport improvements having been made to help travellers reach remoter regions. Whilst Edinburgh, learning from cities elsewhere, has established the UK’s first tourist tax of £2 per day per tourist, which covers the fundamentals of sustainable tourism, such as balancing local and visitor needs and ensuring long-term survival.
Like many others, I’m keen to return to travelling and experiencing other cultures as coronavirus lockdowns begin to ease. I am though also conscious of the impact of over-tourism in many areas and the need to balance the desire for tourists to gather in particular hot spots with the adverse impacts that can sometimes have, and the very real and positive benefits tourism brings to communities. And, whilst planning can’t achieve that on its own, it certainly has a role to play.

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