Coping with success: Managing overcrowding in tourism destinations

| Report

Travel and tourism is a cornerstone of the global economy. It already accounts for 10.2 percent of global GDP, and 292 million jobs. And the sector is growing rapidly, thanks to the expanding global middle class, improved digital and physical connectivity, and human curiosity. If travelers spread out around the world evenly, tourism would be relatively easy to absorb. Of course, that is not the case, now or likely in the future. By 2020, the 20 most popular countries will add more international arrivals than the rest of the world combined (exhibit).

Similar imbalances occur in cities and at individual sites. Overcrowding is a global problem, with places as diverse as Thailand’s Koh Khai Islands, Peru’s Machu Picchu, and Venice worrying about the side effects of the tourism they depend on.

In this report, McKinsey and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) introduce a simple, fact-based diagnostic to help destination leaders identify and address the challenges they face. We also offer specific ways for destinations to deal with overcrowding.

To put it simply: it is easier for destinations to prevent overcrowding in the first place than to recover from it. So long-term success lies in good planning and management. There are four priorities:

  • Build a comprehensive fact base and update it regularly.
  • Establish a sustainable growth strategy through rigorous, long-term planning.
  • Involve all sections of society—commercial, public, and social.
  • Find new sources of funding.

For destinations already struggling from overcrowding, the research found five approaches that have proved to help.

  • Smooth visitors over time by encouraging them to visit during nonpeak times of day, season, and year through actions such as arrival limits and ticketing systems.
  • Spread visitors across sites, for example, by developing new attractions and promoting less-popular sites and areas.
  • Adjust pricing to balance supply and demand by, for example, introducing variable or tiered pricing.
  • Regulate accommodation supply through regulations on home-sharing and additional hotel rooms.
  • In dire situations, limit access and activities to protect natural and cultural integrity.

Each of these approaches will need to use both carrots and sticks—rules, regulations, taxes, and fees, combined with promotion, marketing, and the creative use of technology. There is no single answer to overcrowding; what works in one place may not work at another. But the report canvasses efforts from all over the world to illustrate the possibilities.

This research represents a beginning; it will be refined as destinations try these and other innovations. We hope it helps to start conversations among government leaders, businesses, and residents about how to manage—or better yet, prevent—overcrowding.

Download the full report on which this article is based, Coping with success: Managing overcrowding in tourism destinations (PDF–4MB).