Sustainable Development

Protecting the magic of travel - and local economies

A snap of Brooklyn Bridge between two red brick buildings: Sustainable travel means managing overcrowding at popular tourist and Instagrammable spots.

Sustainable travel means managing overcrowding at popular tourist and Instagrammable spots. Image: Unsplash/Miltiadis Fragkidis

Topaz Smith
Project Lead, Travel and Tourism, World Economic Forum LLC
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  • Overcrowding at popular tourist destinations leads to clogged streets, pedestrian accidents and challenges for small businesses and makes travel less enjoyable.
  • Responding to a growing demand for sustainable travel options can support local economies and ensure that tourism dollars benefit local communities.
  • Expanding tourism offerings to include diverse and lesser-known destinations can help mitigate overcrowding and promote sustainability.

Each month tens of millions of global tourists come to Dumbo, Brooklyn – many of them to take photos of themselves at the intersection where the Manhattan Bridge frames the Empire State Building. It’s a view that’s made this one of the most Instagrammed spots in New York City – a feat for a location that wasn’t even mentioned in guidebooks a few years ago.

Dumbo’s success has led to clogged streets, an uptick in pedestrian accidents and challenges for small businesses who struggle to operate amongst the crowds. It’s a problem seen in over-crowded spots around the globe – from the streets of Tenerife to Machu Picchu’s temples to Bali’s holy springs and more. This tourism challenge brings congestion, pollution and even the destruction of historic sites.

But overcrowding also brings a less talked about and far more damaging problem for the sector – big crowds and littered streets aren’t what you want to Instagram home about because overcrowding makes travel less fun.

It’s not uncommon to see some of the world’s most famous attractions on lists titled “The worst places to go in Paris” or “the most boring places in the world.” And yet, we face a conundrum: tourism accounts for 10% of the global gross domestic product (GDP) and in some places such as Fiji and Samoa, upwards of 25% of the country’s GDP. The travel and tourism sector indeed changes local livelihoods, yet it can create an imbalance leading to the downsides mentioned.

Tourists who are not surprised and charmed by travel, will do it less and less

Topaz Smith, Project Lead, Travel and Tourism, World Economic Forum

As travellers embark on what’s forecast to be the biggest travel season yet, destinations must consider how to improve and protect experiences for travellers and locals. If they do this, it will mean meaningful destination stewardship practices that diversify offerings and embrace authenticity in different communities while tackling overcrowding head-on. That can lead to new business opportunities, tapping new markets and consumers interested in the kaleidoscope of human perspectives they can experience in a country.

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Diversity

Overwhelmingly, this year’s travellers are driven by the urge for discovery but the typical tourist corridor – airport, hotel, destination – does not often meet that need.

That’s partly because travel marketing does not typically tap into a destination’s diversity. Tourists coming to New York City might snag other Instagram-famous spots at the Empire State Building and Central Park but fewer will go to Jackson Heights, Queens, where 167 languages are spoken, where tourists could sample cuisines from the Himalayan mountains in Nepal to Alexandarian food in Northern Egypt.

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Tourists can overlook populations elsewhere, too. Germany has one of the largest Thai populations outside of Thailand; Peru offers cuisine from communities in Africa, China and Japan, and Italy has an unsung multicultural community with residents from Nigeria, China and more.

Such unique experiences are not typically marketed to travellers. However, expanding the options marketed to them can help tourists tap into services, cuisines, and history they could not find anywhere else, ensuring demand sustainability scores begin to improve.

Not tackling the overcrowding problem is a risk to tourism itself.

Topaz Smith, Project Lead, Travel and Tourism, World Economic Forum

Sustainability

Tourists today are aware of the impact of their travel. In fact, one survey found that 76% wanted more sustainable travel options. However, sustainability is more than finding ways to recycle a plastic water bottle or travel carbon-neutral. Travellers want to support local economies and the people they meet and visit. If their dollars aren’t truly supporting local economies, businesses cease to be solvent and travel ceases to be sustainable.

Demand sustainability (measuring the risk of overcrowding and other potentially unsustainable demand trends) has dropped by 4.7% since 2021 as it moved back to pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest World Economic Forum’s 2024 Travel and Tourism Development Index (TTDI).

As a result, applying destination stewardship principles – like using tourism intelligence platforms for inclusive and targeted policies or managing tourism flow for balanced urban spaces – is critical to sustainability in the sector.

An example can be seen in Buenos Aires, Argentina's Tourism Board's Tourism Intelligence System, which utilizes big data to inform tourism insights, policies, and promotions. For instance, the system can use mobile tracking, data, and reviews so policymakers can understand visitor behaviour. The system has already been used to develop fiscal incentives for hotel investment by analysing where improvements in accommodation supply can be made. The San Telmo Fair was also moved from Sunday to Saturday based on such insights.

Opportunity

However, the TTDI also shows travel and tourism as critical socio-economic drivers, especially for developing economies, revealing the sector’s pivotal role in emerging market growth and boosting employment and the development of higher-wage jobs.

Destination management organizations – those that promote a location as attractive to visit e.g. tourist boards, visitor bureaus – expanding their products and experiences to include a range of regions or areas can address sustainability while reinforcing tourism as a tool for socio-economic development by bringing money to communities that wouldn’t have that access to capital otherwise.

This positive impact would naturally extend itself to improved infrastructure and resources to accommodate travellers.

As mentioned, expanding the travel product will require investing in infrastructure to ensure that roads, accommodations, services, activities, food, and beverages can safely accommodate an influx of travellers. This capacity must be prioritized, with the voice and input of local people and public and private partnerships. To this point, locals are critical to a place’s authenticity and the lifeblood of tourism’s evolution.

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Realigning tourism objectives

Destination management organizations must first rethink the myths that have driven travellers to the same classic places. For instance, well-travelled places aren’t always safer – overtourism actually leaves travellers vulnerable to accidents and crime. Diversifying travel packages will not take away business; it will enhance the travel experience for their customers and appeal to a broader market and new travellers.

With the rise of digitalization in the industry, destination management organizations can identify the tensions between their tourism sector and travellers engaging with their experiences. Data tracking allows for better distribution of tourism flows, which can increase access to “secondary” destinations as new market opportunities.

We’ve seen the change in Airbnb’s rise. Since it was founded 17 years ago, its success has risen from the desire for more authentic experiences than the beaten path can provide. It’s also been seen in the rise in digital nomadism (such as Nomad List or Nomadx).

Tourists want to travel to new locales but aren’t always aware of all their options. Destination management organizations will need to consider what tourists have enjoyed when they’ve traveled and show how they can find their imagination captured in the same way, just in a much less crowded spot.

Destinations don’t just compete with other destinations for a tourist’s money. They compete with tourists' time and attention.

Topaz Smith, Project Lead, Travel and Tourism, World Economic Forum

Navigating change

Not tackling the overcrowding problem is a risk to tourism itself. Destinations don’t just compete with other destinations for a tourist’s money. They compete with tourists' time and attention. After all, tourists who are not surprised and charmed by travel, will do it less and less. The influx of technologies could make some wonder why they should leave their homes at all.

Tourists today huddle around the places featured on these “lists” but unnecessarily. We can create new classics, shift the conversation and help travellers see the world.

Destination management organizations must also carefully identify the leakages in communities and regions to best craft experiences that enhance the uniqueness and beauty of the diverse experiences around them, showcasing the country’s heritage and economies. They must mitigate the risk of locals fleeing because they can’t afford their newly trendy vacation town and ensure that tourist dollars truly fund local operators.

Fortunately, this shift is already underway.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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