On August 16, 2019, Cable News Network (CNN) questioned whether the cruise industry is responsible for “overtourism” in many destinations across the globe. This interesting question is relevant in the Caribbean and more specifically The Bahamas. In this article, I would like to reference some of the relevant discussions in the report as The Bahamas continues its journey towards becoming a more responsible tourism destination.
Carrying capacity and limit of acceptable change
Firstly, what is this concept or phenomena called “overtourism”? This concept is an offshoot of the age-old concept of “carrying capacity” and “limit of acceptable change”.
The limit of development that a particular destination can allow or the limit in the number of tourists or visitors to these destinations is critical to the sustainability of these sites and to maintain the quality of the tourist experience at the site. Finding the right balance in development that will not totally wipe out our natural resources is critical. That is indeed the essence of the “sustainable development” concept. But realistically, finding the “magic number” for carrying capacity may sometimes seem preposterous.
Thus, in the field of tourism, the concept of carrying capacity can be used when seeking and selecting “appropriate” types of tourism development in these eco-sensitive sites and determining the number of tourists allowed before shutting down the operation. The physical and socioeconomic carrying capacity can be determined for environmental resources. The concept of carrying capacity is one which exemplifies the need to maintain development and activities at a level that is both ecologically and socially sustainable. Primarily, it aims to avoid environmental degradation and thus evade social conflicts. Hence, carrying capacity would define limits on tourism development in a place, such as the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time without causing environmental destruction and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitor satisfaction.
Nonetheless, the concept of carrying capacity is flawed because it is not always the mass number that determines the destruction of the destination, but also the quality and behavior of the tourists or visitors at the specified time. A destination may be within the limit of the carrying capacity but if the destination attracts tourists who are not contributing to the local economy, who are destroying the beaches and bringing in cultures and bad behaviors that conflict with local norms, then the concept has failed.
Trailing from the idea of carrying capacity is another, more acceptable visitor management concept called “limit of acceptable change” (LAC), that is important in environmental resource management. Determining the threshold number before a destination is destroyed is not as important as having a good management system to determine whether the destination is negatively impacted. Hence, the LAC concept describes the level of allowable variations in the quality of the environment before irreversible degradation is likely to occur. Environmental management, rather than development control, is of much greater importance in managing the finite environmental resources.
Overtourism is not a new problem. While the term was coined in 2012, it did not hit the headlines until the summer of 2017. Although tourism’s potential benefits are clear, especially in small island destinations like The Bahamas, the mistake is to think that it can only bring good. Hence, in 2017, the media and the travel industry across the globe began to further scrutinize mass tourism in holiday destinations and the term “overtourism” was emphasized. This was due to the sudden backlash from local residents against mass tourists in their fragile destinations in Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik (Croatia), Iceland and Skye (Scotland). As the balance tipped, this new concept was given a name by the protesters as “overtourism”. Local residents were marching in the streets with signs saying “tourist go home”. In response, some local councils in these cities responded by imposing and increasing fees, refusing to issue permits for more tourist-focused businesses in city centers and even closing entire islands to visitors. Thus, the movement of overtourism made the news.
According to Responsible Travel, a social enterprise that has been advocating responsible tourism since 2001, overtourism simply occurs when “there are too many visitors to a particular destination”. They further add that, “too many” may be a subjective term, but it is defined in each destination by local residents, hosts, business owners and tourists themselves. “When rent prices push out local tenants to make way for holiday rentals, that is overtourism. When narrow roads become jammed with tourist vehicles, that is overtourism. When wildlife is scared away, when tourists cannot view landmarks because of the crowds, when fragile environments become degraded – these are all signs of overtourism,” they add.
Overtourism from cruise industry
Typically, most cruise tourists wake up and eat their meals as they enjoy the majestic views of the ocean, as the ship docks in port after port across the Caribbean. At each stopover, cruise tourists may get to spend half of a day to almost a full day at the destination, with many remaining on board. If they do get off, there will always be a battle among these thousands of cruise tourists from the four to five ships that have docked – as can be seen at Prince George Wharf in Nassau – as they scramble to see the picturesque views, admire the sites and queue up in gift shops to buy some local mementos.
In short, the cruise industry is a booming industry. With the increase in the number of ships cruising in this region, it is no surprise when Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar projects that the number of tourists will increase to an all-time high of 7 million for 2019. For a small and archipelagic nation like The Bahamas, where tourism is an important contributor to the gross domestic product (GDP), the surge in the number of tourist/visitor arrivals, disproportionate to the receipt, is a problem of overtourism if this increase is not managed well by all of the responsible stakeholders.
With overtourism, typically most ports get busier (and more polluted) and local residents get only a trickle of the receipt from cruise tourists. According to the said CNN report, “In 2019, 30 million passengers are expected to cruise, up from 17.8 million a decade earlier.” Hence, what is the impact of overtourism on destinations like The Bahamas?
Cruise tourism encourages day trippers, where visitors are less likely to inject money into the destination’s economy if they only stay a few hours. Most cruises are scheduled to port in a destination almost at the same time. Hence, having three to four cruise ships docking in a port like Nassau is the norm. This results in thousands of visitors surging downtown all at once, rather than being spread out across the day.
According to CNN, “A recent report from sustainable travel group Transport and Environment suggested that over the course of 2017, Carnival Corporation, a cruise operator that encompasses ten cruise line brands including Cunard, Holland America and P&O, emitted nearly 10 times more sulphur oxide around European coastlines than all 260 million European cars.”
We are also aware of the recent case against Carnival, which was caught trashing its waste in the waters of The Bahamas and polluting the air with thick black smoke while it was still moored at the Prince George Wharf in Nassau. It remains to be seen whether the Bahamian government will conduct any genuine investigation into Carnival’s “bad behavior”, but there is considerable evidence that Carnival’s malfeasance has already inflicted substantial damage on The Bahamas.
As the world is facing more and more intense environmental challenges, the survival of mankind in many destinations will be at risk if the largest industry in the world, tourism, does not do its part to clamp down on the “overtourism” phenomena. The cruise ship industry needs to change its obsolete, unsustainable business model, which is unethical and destructive in the long term for many small island developing states. Cruise ship companies should play a more important role in helping destinations resolve overtourism issues.
Although most reports may show that the receipt from cruise tourism is limited (especially in The Bahamas), to be fair, cruise lines do pay huge amounts of money to the port and local authorities to dock and be serviced in the port. To further increase the local economic contribution, the visitors from the cruise must be encouraged to get off the ship and use the local people to deliver excursions. The visitors should be encouraged to explore further than downtown. As a result, a quality product in the form of community-based tourism can certainly be the way forward for reducing the impact of overtourism.
The tourism trade is integral in many of the cities across the globe that are feeling the brunt of overtourism. According to the CNN report, “In 2019, Venice’s Port Authority President Pino Musolino told CNN Travel that cruise ships create up to 6,000 jobs for the city.” The cruise ship industry generated an estimated $134 billion in economic impact globally in 2017.
Nonetheless, it is not always about the economy or the money. What is the social impact? How about the overcrowding effect? Local residents feel the crowd and so do the visitors as this impacts their memorable experience and enjoyment. So, cruise visitors must also do their part to avoid being among the hordes of visitors trying to do the same thing at the same time at the same location. The website https://avoid-crowds.com is a good example of a visitor information site that estimates the crowd on a scale of 1 to 100. The site gives visitors information on when destinations are likely to be busy, sourced via publicly available tourism data. Thus, the site helps the travel industry and local governments by mitigating the effects of overtourism.
Communication with local communities and cruise companies is key. Many cruise companies are aware that their ships are growing larger and there are fewer and fewer ports on which they can call where there won’t be a significant impact. This will result in greenwashing, whereby many cruise ships will claim to be doing good to the destination, but in the long term the environmental damage to smaller islands where these cruises dock may be irreversible.
Overcrowding at a destination is certainly a problem if the destination is a small island with a small population like The Bahamas. Conversely, criticism is levied against visitors who do not get off the ship and spend money at the destination port. However, all successful cruise tourism packages sell the destination, not the cruise liner. So, it makes no sense if cruise tourists do not want to come off their ship at the destination. Most people want to go to their dream destination. Similar to other tourism destinations, some ports are better positioned than others to handle the influx of visitors. The cruise liners and the local authority then need to be operating at peak level to handle the environmental responsibility. In summary, what is critical is not the number of visitors coming off the cruise, but their contribution to the local economy, the kind of behavior they bring to a destination and how conscious they are in ensuring the environment is not damaged.
The environment is the resource base for tourism; without protection, the natural attraction that brought the tourists and visitors in the first place will be lost. Greening tourism under the name of eco-tourism or any other synonym can have the same harmful effects as that of mass tourism if all the stakeholders in the tourism industry do not strictly adhere to the precepts of responsible tourism. When demand rises, further development in areas that were previously untouched could cause extensive damage. Once destinations become popular, there is often no way to control development activities. Thus, environmental destruction becomes irreversible and gradually destroys the natural resources on which the tourism industry actually depends.
In conclusion, finding the right equilibrium between development and sustaining the environmental resources is critical for the survival of mankind. In years to come, the next World War will not be based on who controls the fuel (oil) but on who controls the energy, water and environmental resources. Hence, we need to set realistic limits for the utilization of our resources before they are all gone by the time our grandchildren are born. The various sectors and stakeholders need to work together and listen and communicate more effectively with local communities. The cruise industry needs to take prompt action and not contribute further to overtourism if it is to sustain its own business model. We cannot just talk the talk anymore, but walk the talk before these fragile destinations reach a critical breaking point.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.