Anger Over Tourists Swarming Vacation Hot Spots Sparks Global Backlash

In Sonoma and Napa, we call tourist season, “right turn only season”.

“A wave of antitourism demonstrations took place in popular European destinations last summer, including Venice, Mallorca and San Sebastián, Spain. In Barcelona, youth groups were filmed slashing rental-bicycle tires, and officials banned tour groups from parts of the city.”

Anger Over Tourists Swarming Vacation Hot Spots Sparks Global Backlash

Tourism, once considered an easy way to diversify an economy, has become a mega-industry. And those millions of tourists who descend each year on top destinations including Venice, Barcelona, Thailand and New Zealand, are straining local infrastructure and prompting a new round of restrictions.

QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand—Towering mountain ranges, forests and glacier-fed rivers made New Zealand the perfect stand-in for Middle Earth in “The Lord of the Rings” movie series and a cinematic billboard for the country’s natural beauty.

Today, jet boats rip down rivers seeking the mythical Isengard, where the wizard Gandalf was imprisoned. “Freedom campers” in rented vans leave trails of waste. Tens of thousands of helicopter trips annually deposit visitors, some in flip-flops, on New Zealand glaciers that were once the realm of expert climbers.

One tour group had to be rescued after trying to walk barefoot to Mount Ngauruhoe, in apparent homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mount Doom.

Elected officials are weighing measures from new tourist taxes to tighter camper-van restrictions. One town is considering shutting Wi-Fi at night to deter campers. Queenstown, whose mayor says it has 120 visitors a year for every taxpayer, is weighing whether to restrict Airbnb rentals.

On Waiheke Island off Auckland, protests broke out last year after double-decker tour buses appeared, clogging two-lane roads. One man in shorts stood down a bus until the tourists disembarked. A resident elsewhere became so annoyed with jet boats in a river near his property he hired a digger to divert the water; officials threatened legal action if he persisted.

Tourism, which many countries once considered a business niche that could yield easy revenue, has become a mega-industry. And those millions of tourists who descend each year on small towns, once-lonely beaches and historic sites are generating a global backlash.

International tourist arrivals globally grew to 1.3 billion in 2017, the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization says. That is up from 674 million in 2000 and 278 million in 1980, propelled by the rise of budget air travel, social media, an emerging Chinese middle class and technologies that make distant places easy to navigate.

A wave of antitourism demonstrations took place in popular European destinations last summer, including Venice, Mallorca and San Sebastián, Spain. In Barcelona, youth groups were filmed slashing rental-bicycle tires, and officials banned tour groups from parts of the city.

Fodor’s in 2016 began publishing a “No Go” list reflecting concerns that tourism was destroying the world’s best places. Featured this year: the Galápagos Islands and parts of Thailand, and a designation for “Places That Don’t Want You to Visit” because their governments are trying to combat overcrowding.

Economic driverTourism remains a crucial and welcome economic driver in many places, especially developing countries such as Cambodia and parts of Africa where visitors’ spending has lifted many out of poverty. A number of countries with well-established attractions, such as Egypt, have been hurt in some recent years as tourism fell off during periods of unrest.

In New Zealand, “we’re hoping for a good debate about this and no knee-jerk reaction,” says Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa, an association representing hoteliers and tourist operators. “Tourists are a massive economic benefit.”

Many top tourist destinations, including U.S. national parks, have long worked to strike a balance between luring tourist money and controlling crowds.

The latest surge is different, say experts such as Simon Milne, who has researched tourism around the world, and says frustrations have been boiling at an unprecedented level, especially the past 18 months. “We can’t ignore the fact that tourists don’t have a good rap in many places,” said Mr. Milne, director of the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute at Auckland University of Technology.

Since last summer’s Europe protests, the industry has made “overtourism” a focus. More than 60 tourism ministers and private-sector leaders gathered in November to discuss the issue at a summit on the topic co-organized by the U.N. Overtourism was also a theme in March at ITB Berlin, a major industry convention.

Thailand said in March it would close Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh, an island where Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” was filmed, from June to September because overtouristing was damaging the marine environment. The Philippines in April announced that Boracay, an island once known for crystal-clear waters, would close to tourists for six months over concerns about pollution.

China’s emergence as a tourist source is adding to crowds. Outbound Chinese tourists rose to more than 60 million last year from fewer than 20 million a decade earlier, according to Chinese data.

The Chinese spent $261 billion vacationing abroad in 2016, more than travelers from any other country, and China has accounted for roughly 80% of the growth in global tourism in dollar terms since 2008, according to the U.N. New Zealand’s former prime minister, Bill English, last year declared during a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that 2019 would be the “China-New Zealand Year of Tourism.”

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