WASHINGTON: Rowdy groups of bachelor parties. Backpackers asking locals to pay their way. The hordes that pour daily off cruise ships, choking up city centers.
It wasn’t so long ago that tourists were (relatively) feted in the destinations they visited, with locals relishing the chance to earn money through a tourism economy.
But today, with traveler numbers becoming out of control, and tourists dwarfing local populations in popular cities from Amsterdam to Venice, things have changed.
Today, the challenge is to be a “good” tourist. And as we try to travel to places without making a negative impact, destinations are becoming emboldened to speak openly about which kinds of travelers are welcome — and which are not.
Tour operator Matt Mavir says that sometimes hotels take some persuasion to accommodate his clients. Mavir is the founder of Last Night of Freedom, a UK-based tour operator exclusively working with “stag” and “hen” (bachelor and bachelorette) parties.
Since founding the company in 1999, the market has changed dramatically, he tells CNN. In the past, destinations that were less desirable to a global market would court travelers wanting to go to cheaper, more “adventurous” places — including bachelor groups.
But as previously little visited destinations get more mainstream, the intrepid travelers are getting pushed out.
“Budapest is a great example — back in the early 1990s, it was probably on the frontier of where people thought was OK to travel to,” says Mavir.
“But now, people go to Budapest with your spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend, with the kids — it’s not like Paris, where everyone’s been, and it’s easy to get to.
“All of a sudden, hoteliers with rooms you’d have picked up for next to nothing are thinking, ‘Would I rather have couples and people who are definitely not going to cause any problems, or a group of 12 lads who’ll probably be fine but might not be?’
“Do people ever really, really want stags? I don’t think they do.”
Of course, there’s a reason bachelor parties have a bad reputation, but Mavir says that groups using a tour operator tend to be better behaved — all his clients are assigned a tour guide for the duration of their stay. What’s more, they’re of the opposite sex — which tends to make the visitors better behaved, he says.
“Our guys have spent more money, they’re slightly more cultured, more interested in doing activities, and we take deposits, itinerarize and guide them. For hotels, you’ve got 12 guys who will drink in your bar and be reasonably well behaved — that can add to your hotel.
“Once you take [a bachelor group] and realize they’re not as bad as you think, it’s OK, but if you’re trying to make things classier you’re probably looking for more couples. And that has a knock-on effect.”
Bachelor parties aren’t the only kind of tourists being squeezed out by destinations. Over the last two years, social media has seen the rise of “begpackers,” who busk or ask for money in the street to fund their travels.
In July 2019, Bali — one of the destinations where the phenomenon is most pronounced — announced plans to report Western begpackers to their embassies so that their national authorities can foot the bill for their upkeep.
Begpackers have also been called out by disgruntled locals in destinations from Hong Kong to Seoul, says Denis Tolkach, assistant professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
“It has definitely created a lot of negative commentary online,” he tells CNN. “The reaction of the authorities appears to be related to the negative media.”
Before the current political protests, Hong Kong was a begpacker hotspot, says Tolkach — adding that Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea are also seeing the phenomenon.
For an academic study on begpackers, Tolkach interviewed some in Hong Kong and says that they’re a diverse group — not just in terms of where they’re from, but also in how they ask for money.
“Some busk, try to develop their performance skills, others beg and may even attempt to deceive local residents claiming they lost their wallet.”
Tolkach says that authorities around Asia are “definitely” cracking down on the practice.
“The reaction of the authorities appears to be related to the negative media. Some of our begpacker interviewees noticed that the attitude from the police has changed. It has become more likely that police check their documents and ask them to leave.” However, he says that arrests “appear to be rare.”
Bali isn’t the only destination to be cracking down. Tolkach says that border officers in Thailand may ask for proof that a potential visitor has enough money for their stay, and Hong Kong has got stricter on the “visa run” that backpackers used to do — traveling to nearby Macau for the day to “reset” their visa stay.
Every destination wants to maximize its income from tourism, of course — but while many places encourage luxury travelers, others are going all out to discourage backpackers and those on a lower budget.
Since 2014, Qatar’s official tourism strategy has pushed for “well-off families” and “high-income travelers.” In 2011, chairman of the Qatar Tourism Authority Ahmed Abdullah Al-Nuaimi told Reuters that the Gulf state was focusing on high-end visitors.
“We don’t want people to come for a $50 room to lie on the beach all day and walk around with a backpack and shorts,” he said. “These are not the type of people we’re targeting.”
And in 2016, the CEO of its national airline Qatar Airways told reporters that the country wanted to “attract people of a higher standard.”
“Normally the backpackers are just there to lie on the beach and spend as little as possible,” said Akbar Al Baker.
Neither Qatar Airways or the Qatar Tourism Authority responded to a request for comment.
Australia — long known as a destination for young travelers, who often work their way around the country — introduced a controversial “backpacker tax” in 2017.
While Australian workers have a tax-free threshold of A$18,200 (US $12,500), people on working holidays are taxed 15% — although in October 2019, the tax was ruled illegal for citizens of eight countries which have treaties with Australia, including the UK, US, Germany and Japan.
It doesn’t look like things will change any time soon for budget travelers.
“Most destinations are focusing on high-yield market segments now,” says Denis Tolkach. “Backpackers are traditionally known for exploring destinations off the beaten track, purchasing local products and interacting with local residents, but in large numbers they can inflict damage to the local environment, culture and community through partying and misbehaving.”
There is one place actively appealing to younger travelers, however. In 2018, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, launched a media campaign ad billing itself as “the G-spot of Europe.” The campaign was recently shortlisted for the “best city destination campaign” at the 2019 International Travel and Tourism Awards.
Inga Romanovskienè, director of Go Vilnius, tells CNN that the campaign aimed to position the city as “an alternative European city break destination” to the “millennial market with disposable income and an interest in lesser known destinations and experiences.”
The campaign specifically targeted visitors aged 18-35 from Germany and the UK, and it has paid off, with German visitors up 37.8% year on year, and UK guests up 20.5%.
“Our goal is to attract more young, curious travelers,” says Romanovskienè. “I think we’re on the right track to achieving this.”
Venice has a name for the tourists that do the most damage: “mordi-fuggi”, or “hit and run.”
Four out of five visitors to the lagoon city are daytrippers — and with 20 million of them a year, they outnumber residents on a typical day.
“Too often, their goal is to run to the main landmarks, St Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge, and this check-list approach leads to overcrowding on the city’s main axis,” says Valeria Duflot, co-founder of Venezia Autentica, a social enterprise which encourages responsible tourism in the city.
“As they don’t stay overnight, they do not pay the tourist tax and therefore do not help residents pay to clean and maintain the city — although they have left trash and used the infrastructure.
“And they don’t see the city off-the-beaten-path or seek to spend their time and money at small local businesses which are fighting to survive.
“This also means that most of the businesses on that main axis are having a hard time to survive, if they are not catering to the needs and habits of visitors in a hurry. This is one of the reasons why cities like Venice are losing their authenticity and identity.”
Duflot calls daytripping “a symptom of an industry that has gone wrong.” The local authorities are currently drawing up plans to introduce an entrance tax for daytrippers, but the start date has already been pushed back, and there’s confusion about how it will be applied.
Dubrovnik, another victim of overtourism. It is also planning to introduce prebooking for bus and coach visitors, allowing just 10 buses to decant tourists every 30 minutes. Authorities will monitor the crowds in the city, and if they get too large, they will cancel some bus permits.
“On a busy day, we can cut three or four buses — it’s a valuable tool to plan,” Dubrovnik mayor Mato Franković told CNN.
The city already charges buses a drop-off fee which works out at around €5 ($5.50) per passenger. From 2021, it will also charge approximately €4 ($4.40) for cruise visitors.
All around the world, cruise ships are being blamed for overtourism, as ships disgorge thousands of passengers every day. The famously bijou ports of Europe are particularly badly hit.
The spotlight has inevitably been on Venice, where locals have staged regular protests against the cruise ships docking in the city center, dwarfing their surroundings.
In June 2019, a ship even crashed into a city center dock.
Dubrovnik is another city struggling to deal with the cruise crowds, and again, locals are taking action themselves.
One local travel agency even decided in summer 2019 to stop working with any visitors who were taking a cruise in Croatia.
Alan Mandić, owner of Secret Dalmatia, tells CNN that he sends prospective clients links to news stories about Carnival Cruise Line dumping trash into the ocean — stories which, he says, prompted him to stop working with cruise lines.
“I was sickened,” he says of the stories. “So we tell anyone who’s taking a cruise that we simply won’t work with them… due to environmental reasons.
“We keep getting requests for day trips and I keep sending them the articles saying they should be aware that [cruises cause] a lot of damage.”
They have honored this season’s commitments, he says, but expect to turn down up to 300 bookings for next year.
“Travel is a wonderful business when you help travelers to really see Croatia and have a big impact on the local economy,” he says.
“It can be done in the proper way, but a cruise ship is not that.”
He says that cruise passengers, rather than other tourists, are “seriously damaging Dubrovnik” because of their sheer concentration.
“There’s an opportunity for everyone to visit Dubrovnik, but it has to be done in the proper way. Dubrovnik can do well with smaller ships, but [hosting] those with 3,000 people onboard is just insane. They’re all hurrying to Dubrovnik old town, hoping to pay as little as possible.
“The benefit for the local economy is zero.”
Think booking a group tour will make your trip easier? Not in some destinations, which are making a stand against large groups.
Amsterdam has introduced legislation to ban groups of over 15 people in the center from 2020, as well as banning tours of the Red Light District entirely.
“We are banning tours that take visitors along sex workers’ windows, not only because we want to prevent overcrowding in the Red Light District, but also because it is not respectful to sex workers. It is outdated to treat sex workers as a tourist attraction,” Deputy Mayor for Economic Affairs Simone Kukenheim told CNN.
The Dutch capital has also banned “free” tours, where guides encourage followers to join them, and request a donation at the end. Travelers on any group tour will also have to pay a tax, which is currently set at fee, currently set at 66 cents ($0.73).
Barcelona banned groups of 15 or more from the famous La Boqueria food market at peak times in 2015, after locals complained of being disturbed while grocery shopping.
The Japanese temple of Nanzo-in in Fukuoka Prefecture, famous for its huge reclining Buddha, refuses entry to foreign tour groups. It follows on the heels of the temporary closure of the Yatsushirogu shrine in Kumamoto Prefecture, reopened to visitors in 2018 having shut its doors on days that cruise ships were in port.
With global tourism hitting record figures — 1.4bn tourist arrivals in 2018, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization — destinations look set to become more and more likely to streamline who they want to let in.
So even if you don’t care about the effects your stay has on the local community, the community may be about to make you care.