Matthew Keegan
Jul 9, 2024

How destination marketers should tackle overtourism

There are many environmental and social issues associated with overtourism. Hence, not all marketing is good marketing when it comes to popular destinations such as Bali and Tokyo.

A crowd of tourists at a temple in Asakusa, Tokyo (Shutterstock)
A crowd of tourists at a temple in Asakusa, Tokyo (Shutterstock)

On a warm and sunny morning in May, locals in Fujikawaguchiko, a picturesque town known for its stunning views of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji, awoke to discover that a recently constructed barrier had obscured the view of the impressive 12,388-foot mountain peak from a popular photo location. 

The decision to build a 20-by-2.5-metre barrier was made to curtail the massive number of tourists who had been lured to this particular viewpoint, frequently resulting in traffic problems and littering problems.

Overtourism has become somewhat of a scourge for Japan ever since the country reopened following the pandemic in late 2022, sparking a spike in postponed travel and 'revenge travel’.

With over three million visitors, March 2024 proved to be Japan's most popular tourist month ever. Numerous individuals were travelling to the same locations, congested in Kyoto's winding alleyways and the Mount Fuji walking trails. While this has been a boon for the local economy, the sheer volume of visitors has brought about significant challenges, namely overcrowding and bad manners from tourists.

Finding solutions to address the growing overtourism issue is easier said than done. However, there is growing acknowledgement that destination marketing can play a vital role, and that more ‘sustainable’ approaches are required as ‘business-as-usual’ may no longer serve the industry and its stakeholders well.

Shifting from destination promotion to destination protection

"There has been an important shift among some marketers towards prioritising destination protection over mere promotion," says Peter Debrine, senior project officer for sustainable tourism at Unesco. "This shift recognises the importance of preserving the cultural and natural heritage of destinations."

One recent example of this shift is Tourism New Zealand, who has developed the 'Tiaki Promise'. The initiative is a commitment to care for New Zealand, encouraging tourists to act as guardians of the land. It includes promoting lesser-known destinations and encouraging responsible travel practices to protect the environment and local communities. This is done through social-media and inflight-video messaging which reminds visitors about their responsibilities such as caring for the ecology, caring for nature, driving on the right side of the road, and discouraging ‘freedom camping’. 

"Some destination marketers have been looking at protection says Freya Higgins, visiting professor, Centre for Research and Innovation in Tourism, Taylor's University, Malaysia. "One example is Aotearoa New Zealand’s 'Tiaki Promise' campaign which used social media and inflight videos to inform visitors about the special qualities of the country that the community wanted them to know and be responsible for, such as care for the ecology, safety in nature, driving on the correct side of the road, and against freedom camping."
However, while some destinations have explored the idea of destination protection and ‘demarketing’ as a way to address overtourism, the issue remains a very complex one.
"In my view, most destination marketing organisations remain in the pro-growth mindset; it has been a focus for a very long time and will be hard to shift," says Higgins. She added that efforts to teach tourists about responsible travel and tourism have waned in the past few decades and instead the idea that ‘if I pay for access, I can do what I want’ has been encouraged.
While there has been a shift towards destination stewardship from destination management organisations, this process is still in its infancy and is not as widespread as it needs to be.
"The issue is that most destination management organisations are funded by hotel taxes which means that the large accommodations tend to have a seat at the table which may control marketing and focus on increasing occupancy rather than dealing with management issues of overtourism," says Dr Rachel Dodds, sustainable tourism consultant and professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.
"Many destinations charge taxes which are claiming to be used for sustainability or conservation purposes. However, to my knowledge, I am not aware of many instances that have been audited and ensured that this is the case."
Can marketing help solve overtourism?

Overtourism can be defined as the physical capacity of a destination, but it also extends to the psychological aspect of community annoyance, perhaps due to disrespect and ignorance that result in tension between tourists and locals. Locals need tourism for their economies and may even enjoy the social connections it offers, but this needs context for it to work well.

A recent white paper ‘A Roadmap to Move Destinations Away from Overtourism’, developed by Mabrian, the global travel intelligence company, found that 61% of travellers avoided destinations due to overtourism in the past year.

When it comes to overtourism, there are multiple factors at play. These include a disconnect between bargain airlines and destinations, social-media influencers who can turn a place into a bucket list item overnight, cruise ships who offload thousands of visitors who have a few hours to see iconic attractions, and offensive behaviour of selfish tourists from an increasing individualist and commodified mindset which may upset locals' sense of respect and sensitivities. For example, old European cities being visited by stag-weekend revellers who intent on drinking and mayhem; or social-media influencers who insist on photographing their bare bum at a sacred temple in Bali.

Large crowd of tourists wait for sunset with a drink at a beach bar on the famous Seminyak beach near Kuta in Bali (Shutterstock)

"Marketing can play a crucial role in addressing the overtourism problem by promoting lesser-known destinations and highlighting cultural and heritage sites that are often overlooked. Through strategic marketing, we can redistribute tourist traffic, thus alleviating pressure on overvisited areas,” says Brine.

"A holistic approach is needed. Involving careful infrastructure development, sustainable transportation options, local community engagement, policy changes, and sustainable tourism practices to ensure overcrowding is not just shifted to other areas."

Strategies for destination marketers 

Luca Romozzi, commercial director, EMEA & APAC, at Sojern, says that destination marketers should not solely focus on decreasing the volume of tourists.

"Reducing tourist numbers is not always correlated with an improved perception of residents towards an overcrowded part of town," says Romozzi. “Fewer tourists can also mean missed opportunities for suppliers. The key is to target the right tourists who stay longer and explore other parts of the destination. This is where marketing plays a crucial role for destination marketers."

Effective marketing helps communicate to each stakeholder—tourists, residents, and suppliers—the vision of the destination, including the values that everyone should embrace when visiting or living there. 

"It also involves delivering personalised messages that influence the right behaviour, perception of a destination and travel intentions, ensuring the best experience for both tourists and residents," adds Romozzi. 

Ultimately, rather than policing bad behaviours, there is an opportunity for marketers to encourage good behaviours. 

"In Japan, the local government employed nudge theory tactics to curtail tourist littering, designing trash cans that look like popular characters and play melodies when you put litter in them," says Shadi-Sade Sarreshtehdarzadeh, strategy lead at 72 and Sunny.

Sarreshtehdarzadeh adds that Marriott Bonvoy’s ‘good travel’ initiative is another example of how brands can encourage ‘good’ tourism. It encourages travellers to give back to the local communities they visit, facilitating experiences that contribute to environmental protection, marine conservation, and community engagement. This not just gives back to the local community, but also creates a unique travel experience for the tourists.

Another example is Palau’s responsible tourism campaign series by Host/Havas that creates a unique value exchange for tourists. Visitors can accumulate points for demonstrating responsible and regenerative behaviour during their stay, and in return, they can use these points to unlock unique experiences Palau has to offer, which have previously only been accessible to Palauans and close friends.
Destination marketers have a responsibility to bolster tourism while simultaneously encouraging visitors to be responsible and respectful of the destination itself. 
Some suggestions from Brine include encouraging travel during off-peak seasons to spread tourist traffic throughout the year; ensuring that tourism benefits local communities through improved services, job creation, local sourcing, and cultural exchange programs; providing information on responsible travel practices and the importance of heritage values and preserving cultural and natural heritage to educate travellers; offering travel packages that include eco-friendly transportation, sustainable accommodations, and activities that have a minimal environmental impact; as well as partnering with destination marketing organizations (DMOs) to create campaigns that highlight lesser-known destinations and promote sustainable tourism practices.
"By implementing these strategies, destination marketers can contribute to a more balanced and sustainable tourism industry. Marketing efforts should not only attract visitors but also instill a sense of responsibility towards the destinations they visit."
Campaign Asia

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