Over-Tourism is a Blight Afflicting Many Famous Locales
Everyone wants to vacation somewhere unique, off the beaten path, far from the madding crowd. For over 10 million people last year, this meant visiting the Louvre in Paris. You could contemplate your uniqueness in front of the Mona Lisa, in a forest of selfie-sticks with the other 15,000 unique individuals visiting that day.
Over-tourism has arrived.
I dare you to go see where Game of Thrones was filmed in Dubrovnik’s historic old town. Or to stroll along Venice’s canals. Or to find a hamburger in Skagway, Alaska when a few 5,000-passenger cruise ships have launched a concerted invasion.
These locations really are struggling with tourist numbers. Long gone are the days when only rich aristocrats could afford to swan around Europe. Or even when jet travel was so exotic that James Bond movies included scenes of the stylish spy sitting on a plane.
Flights keep getting cheaper, and sustained economic growth around the world has lifted hundreds of millions into the middle class. OECD economists say that the global middle class had 1.8 billion people in 2009 and expect that this will rise to 4.9 billion by 2030. The definition of “middle class” in China or Chile may not be the same as in Canada, but the statistics make it clear that billions more global citizens will have enough money to go on vacation.
Social media has, as we might have guessed, made the problem worse. Crowds of Instagram fanatics now seek out iconic locales for selfies, from the Taj Mahal to the Grand Canyon. For example, there are tens of thousands of self- ies from Utah’s Virgin River Canyon on Instagram, and the park has been forced to put in a bus system to handle the surging crowds. These Insta-crowds are so big that it can be difficult to frame your selfie so it doesn’t have a hundred other tourists in it.
Over-tourism has economic development agencies from Amsterdam to San Francisco switching from attracting visitors to trying to manage the collateral damage. Amsterdam allows AirBnB hosts to rent their units just 30 nights per year. Dubrovnik has a cap on cruise ship visitors. And Venice even charges a daily fee for tourists just to enter the city.
I sometimes find myself complaining that Whitehorse is overrun by tourists. But this only happens once or twice per summer when I find myself third in the coffee line behind some Europeans. Louvre tour guides wouldn’t have much sympathy.
The usual statistics can make it look like the territories have strong tourism businesses. Statistics Canada did a special, in-depth, study of tourism economics in 2014. It’s a bit dated, but things probably haven’t changed much. The study showed that tourism contributed $309 million to the gross domestic product of the three territories.
That sounds like a big number. Tourism is 7.5 per cent of the Yukon’s jobs, 4.7 per cent of the NWT’s and 1.9 percent of Nunavut’s. Again, these seem like solid numbers. The Yukon and NWT are well above the Canadian average.
However, these numbers only look substantial because we’re comparing them to our current economy, which is small.
Here’s another way to look at the statistics: the average amount a southern Canadian spends on tourism in the North, per year, is $3.08. That’s not $3.08 thousand or even hundred. It’s a loonie, tooney, nickel, and three pennies.
Clearly, southern Canadians don’t visit very often. I would be fine with this, as long as we knew southern Canadians had their heads down at their desks working and paying taxes to support our transfer payments. However, we know they sneak away for vacations to Florida and beyond. There are probably more Canadians in the Louvre as you read this than in the North.
Annoyingly, some parts of the North are more popular with foreigners than with our fellow citizens. International tourists spend five times more money in the Yukon than other Canadians do, according to Statistics Canada. In Nunavut, it’s seven times. Only the NWT gets more tourism revenue from other Canadians than from abroad.
Some people are against more tourism in the North. Hotel and hospitality jobs are often poorly paid compared to the cost of living. Tourism can cause agonizing Winnebago jams on the Alaska Highway. A few thousand cruise ship passengers can overwhelm a small northern port, as a visit to Skagway in the summer will make clear. There are environmental challenges dealing with traffic and garbage.
Nonetheless, the North doesn’t have a lot of economic options. Sensibly managed, our tourism industries could be several times bigger than they are.
Global over-tourism is our chance. Sooner or later, those tourists jammed into the Louvre or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco will figure it out. We should try harder to help them discover us. Shaming Canadians into visiting the North as their patriotic duty will only get us so far. We probably need to be more creative.
I hiked into the spectacular Kaskawulsh glacier this summer. Over the 23-kilometre route, we only saw half a dozen other humans. Maybe I should have posted a photo with the Yukon’s official hashtag #exploreyukon. Or maybe I could have taunted the people stuffed into Utah’s Virgin River Canyon with #gladyourenothere.
But I didn’t. And next year, if you hike into the Kaskawulsh glacier, there might be no one there at all.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children's adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.