The (Crowded) Future of Travel

For the international tourism industry, this past summer brought mixed messages.

Business was good, because it’s never been easier to be a tourist: discount airlines, massive cruise ships, Internet price competition, Airbnb, even the rise of English as a more-or-less standard tourism language (and when that fails, Google Translate.)  And the growing middle class in Asia and Latin America have proven to be eager tourists. 

Yet at the same time, local antagonism to tourism is growing quickly.  

Grumbling about tourists, of course, is nothing new--just ask New Yorkers what they think about Times Square in August or December.  

But now anger is turning into action--even where tourism is key to the economy.  

In just four years the number of hotels on the small Greek island of Santorini grew from 35 to 141; this summer the mayor halted further building and announced: “We have reached saturation point.  The pressure is too much.”  Two thousand residents marched in Venice protesting impossibly high rents and giant cruise ships.  In Barcelona, activist groups slashed tires on rental bicycles and tour buses.  Dubrovnik installed cameras to count visitors and will stop tourists from entering its UNESCO-listed old town when the streets are too crowded.  

And the number of tourists is likely only to increase. 

If there is a solution it may lie in how younger travelers are moving away from mass-market sight-seeing tours to more customized “authentic” local experiences. 

But how to find those local experiences?

An example in Italy is an project called Eloro District, that focuses on a small area in southeastern Sicily.  The app pulls together local lodging, food, and experiences with a simple location-based interface that lets tourists easily assemble itineraries.  A website reaches tourists while they’re still at home, and ads and flyers promote the app locally.

What’s interesting, says founder Fabio Santuccio, is that the app has proven to be equally valuable as a way for traditionally fragmented local tourist businesses to think of themselves as a larger ecosystem--working together to establish the area as a destination.

In a sense, the giant Internet sites like Expedia, Airbnb and others, have organized global tourism from the top down--and helped create a massive corporate business.  Now, local entrepreneurs are creating sites that organize the local tourist infrastructure from the ground up.    

With luck, the future will not just be more tourists, but intelligently distributed tourism.