When too many people descend on a destination, they can put a strain on its facilities and residents – and in the case of a natural setting – harm the local habitat. Smart destination management and marketing organizations [DMOs] are recognizing this issue and taking steps to steer travelers to less-visited sites, which may be eager for visitors.
From rugged national parks to buzzing city centers, “excess visitation continues to burden local infrastructure, historic landmarks and natural resources,” writes Cathy Walsh, senior research analyst at Phocuswright, in a 2022 report, “Off the Beaten Path: How Technology Is Dispersing Tourism Demand.”
“Destination stewards are balancing tourism dependence with the need to forge a better way forward by targeting higher-spend visitors and dispersing tourism demand within and across destinations,” Walsh says. “Many tourism organizations are already leveraging technology to understand how travelers behave and to influence tourism demand within their region or destination.” Travel Oregon is one such example.
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon’s only national park, struggled at the height of the pandemic “because of reduced staffing and closure of facilities combined with an influx of new visitors who were not following safety and environmental rules,” says Allison Keeney, manager, global communications at Travel Oregon/Oregon Tourism Commission.
Crater Lake leaders told Travel Oregon about the problems they were having, so the DMO tested a geotargeting campaign, using ads to present nearby sights as appealing alternatives. Crater Lake’s visitor count in 2022 hit the lowest point in a decade, The Oregonian reported earlier this month. Travel Oregon says geotargeting may have been one factor contributing to reduced crowd size.
“By dispersing visitors from the most crowded spots, we are helping to reduce traffic and parking congestion, trash and maintenance concerns, trail overuse problems, all the while supporting small businesses and those less-crowded areas that rely on visitors year-round,” Keeney says.
Economic and environmental benefits
Yet dispersion presents its own challenges, says Jeremy Sampson, CEO of the Travel Foundation, an international organization that promotes sustainable tourism. Less-visited places, he notes, “are even more vulnerable than the places where people were concentrated in the first place” because the heavily visited places likely had a lot of investment in infrastructure and visitor management capacity.
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Overtourism could mean three people “if it’s three people in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. “Are they ready for those three people? Was there the right engagement with the community to determine if they wanted to be hosts in the first place?”
Generally, Sampson says, dispersing tourists equitably can be a positive strategy if done right – “especially in a volatile economic situation, a volatile climate situation, everything’s quite uncertain and I think diversification is going to be key to resilience.”
Dispersion has long been a priority for Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority, according to Sam Johnston, manager of the Convention Bureaux of Ireland, which is part of Fáilte Ireland.
“Our role as a DMO is not to displace business from Dublin to the regions, but to incrementally grow the overall tourism, leisure and business events,” Johnston says. “We also help to develop businesses, growing them from very small enterprises and bringing them on a path whereby they are ‘sales ready’ for international visitors.”
Through the creation of Destination Experience Development Plans (DEDP), including for less-visited places, tourism officials seek to “help the visitor explore further afield from the ‘normal tourist track,’” according to Johnston.
For example, he says, the Dublin Docklands DEDP recently launched a mobile app that includes immersive trails using augmented reality, “combining history and technology to guide the user in the discovery of some of the... most loved sites and attractions” in the Docklands, a riverfront area in Dublin.
Dispersion helps by spreading revenue around the country and creating employment while “diluting the impact of visitor traffic” on the environment, Johnston says.
Striking a balance
In Athens, Greece, a focus on the Acropolis has caused tourists to see the city as a “stop-over destination,” says Epaminondas Mousios, CEO of the Athens Development and Destination Management Agency.
“Visitors don’t know about the urban life of Athens or that Athens has fantastic beaches 30 minutes from the Acropolis,” Mousios says.
It can take quite an investment for a place to really have the readiness and the skills that are needed and the workforce … to deliver on a high quality and sustainable tourism experience ... It’s not a switch that you can flip so quickly.
Jeremy Sampson, Travel Foundation
Tourism officials created a new online visitors guide “to show visitors how to explore Athens beyond the Acropolis, and to give them walking routes between familiar monuments and museums in order to encourage their visit to the spaces in between,” Mousios says.
Last year, Athens welcomed nearly as many visitors as in 2019 and increased overall revenue, Mousios says. All the while, the city seeks to strike a balance between “the benefits and impacts of tourism” while working to reduce carbon emissions 61% by 2030, Mousios says.
Such planning and analysis ahead of time — before an attraction becomes overcrowded — are a smart way to approach dispersion, Sampson says, noting that being proactive can save the reputation of the attraction before people’s experiences go sour.
He also recommends that DMOs look for early warning signs of overcrowding, such as times “an attraction is all of a sudden blowing up on social media in a huge outlier way because some influencer was there, or for whatever reason it just went viral.”
Delivering enhanced services is costly, and destinations sometimes ignore the cost or lack sufficient information about costs. Long-term degradation could outweigh any short-term economic gains, Sampson warns.
“It can take quite an investment for a place to really have the readiness and the skills that are needed and the workforce … to deliver on a high quality and sustainable tourism experience,” he says. “It’s not a switch that you can flip so quickly.”
Geotargeting to help spread the wealth
Travel Oregon collaborates with local tourism partners and land managers to address these concerns and make sure less-popular destinations have the infrastructure to support extra tourists, Keeney says.
“We want to make sure that we’re directing visitors to locations and businesses that are ready for them so that they can have the best experiences,” she says. “Additionally, we want residents to also have a positive experience with visitors in their area so they continue to be collaborative partners with us.
“We have lots of rural places in Oregon, and we definitely want to be making sure that they’re aware that we are retargeting people there.”
Travel Oregon’s geotargeting ad campaign has provided a boost to those efforts. The ads show up on Facebook or “dark posts,” unpublished social posts promoted as an ad to a specific audience, according to Keeney.
The ads appear on people’s cell phones based on their proximity to popular attractions. For example, potential visitors to Oregon’s North Coast received warnings that “trash has become a problem,” “facilities like restrooms may be limited,” and that it “can get crowded on weekends.” The ads suggest heading south instead and recommend three “insider picks” of lesser-visited destinations.
Travel Oregon similarly tries to turn people away from Smith Rock State Park, near Bend, because “you’re not going to have a good experience if you go during the weekend.”
“We really started to do [geotargeting] in 2020 when people were stuck at home and then [there was a] mass explosion out to outdoor recreation sites, and that created poor behavior and also overcrowding,” Keeney says.
The ads focus on visiting sites during off-peak times, suggesting alternative destinations nearby and providing tips for high-traffic areas to reduce congestion.
When wildfires have affected the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in recent years, the DMO has used mobile ads to recommend other attractions in Southern Oregon.
“We don’t just want people to be going to our key destinations and attractions,” Keeney says. “We really need people to have a better understanding of other destinations they can go. So that requires a lot of education and then obviously advertising and marketing on our end to get that information out to them.”
“It really is the rural locations, the ‘ma and pa’ restaurants that need our help with recovery. Our job is to inspire people to get out not only to the big destinations but to all of Oregon.”