Game of Tourism: Cities Seek to Limit Tourism while Others Woo Foreign Visitors
If you have been inspired by Game of Thrones to visit beautiful Dubrovnik, Croatia, the site of the fictional capital of King’s Landing, you may find yourself out of luck: the Mediterranean city, long a popular tourist destination, has been so overrun that mayor Mato Franković announced plans to limit the number of visitors allowed into the town. Such a move will add Dubrovnik to the growing list of cities, including Venice, Machu Picchu, and Santorini, that are looking to limit tourism in order to preserve the very sites that draw these crowds. Western tourists are not the only ones drawn to these glossy sites: as the middle class expands in China and India, home to nearly 3 billion people, both countries are experiencing an international travel boom. Chinese travelers outnumbered Americans in 2016, with around 135 million tourists roaming the globe and spending over $260 billion. Tourism is not just about sightseeing, however: geopolitical forces also play a role in who goes where and when, and the increase in the volume of travelers from Asian countries may alter the hot-spot destinations. Dubrovnik, Venice, et al, could slowly find themselves falling out of favor as countries like the United States, Russia, and the UAE take steps designed to make visiting more attractive for Chinese and Indian tourists, such as removing visa restrictions and playing up shared heritage sites.
The global tourism industry is worth about 10% of world GDP and is currently outpacing world economic growth. Every year the number of tourist arrivals increases, with nearly 1.2 billion international travelers crisscrossing the globe in order to see new sites, visit friends and family, and, perhaps most importantly, spend money. Croatia, as an example, was struggling with an economic recession until 2014, when the country finally turned a corner and began to experience moderate GDP growth. Tourism—especially Game of Thrones-related tourism—has been credited for contributing to the economic recovery. For countries and regions like Aruba, the Maldives, the Seychelles, and Macau, revenue from the tourism industry makes up over 50% of total GDP, as well as a significant portion of total employment.
With those kinds of figures, it is no surprise that international visitors can easily overwhelm popular destinations, in some cases outnumbering the local population by figures as high as ten-to-one. This is not only frustrating for locals, who find themselves battling hordes of visitors in order to go about their daily business, but can raise property prices and erode the environment those tourists have come to see. As the volume of outbound travel from China and India grows by double-digit percentages, issues related to overcrowding are only going to grow, as well. Attempting to put caps on the number of available beds or halting the construction of new hotels is a good start, but, as some of the more whimsical offerings on Airbnb demonstrate, people can be very creative in finding ways to travel without staying in a traditional tourist accommodation. Alternatively, promoting programs that encourage tourists to visit less popular, well-known locations seems a more sustainable solution.
Of course, not all countries are worrying about ways to reduce the flow of tourists in the face of the rising tide of international travel: many in the United States and Russia, for example, are courting Chinese tourists and trying to woo them—and their Renminbi—away from other possible destinations. Despite the current political tensions with China, American hotel chains like the Marriott, Hilton, and Four Seasons have launched programs to make Chinese tourists feel more comfortable, providing typical Chinese foods and amenities, offering Chinese-language television, and partnering with companies like WeChat. Russia boasts tourism agencies that specifically cater to Chinese groups, and, with their Bolshevik heritage, is a prime destination for the red tourism the Chinese government encourages to communist history-rich locations. In fact, the Russian and Chinese governments recently signed agreements to boost tourism between the two countries, which has led to a proliferation of specialty tours exploring early communist-era hotspots in both countries and double-digit increases in tourism.
Following the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment washing over Western Europe and the United States, countries like Russia could become even more appealing to tourists from China, as well as those from India and a dozen other Asian and Middle Eastern countries that will no longer need visas in order to visit. Jordan, the UAE, Israel, and Australia have also loosened visa restrictions and begun offering special packages in order to draw Indian tourists. Croatia, Venice, Barcelona, and other cities struggling with a surplus of Western tourists may not have to worry after all, as it becomes easier, and more appealing politically, for the latest group to travelers to visit locations in Russia, the Middle East, and North America. The landscape of international travel—which locations are considered hotspots, what landmarks draw the biggest crowds, and who needs to apply for a visa—will likely start to change as more of India and China becomes outwardly mobile, and those cities that are closing themselves off may find themselves loosening restrictions in order to vie for a piece of the estimated $365 billion Asian tourists are expected to spend by 2025. Or, the residents may find exactly what they wanted: a little peace and quiet.