As tourists return to Europe, some top destinations want less

PARC NATIONAL DES CALANQUES, France – In one of the most picturesque national parks in Europe, the authorities have adopted a surprising goal: they want to make the site less astonishing.

Standing next to windswept pines reflecting in the turquoise Mediterranean water on a recent day, Calanques National Park ranger Alain Vincent did his best to talk about the place. There are too many people and no trash cans, he said, pointing to the beach filled with swimmers and bathers taking selfies with their dogs.

Every beautiful photo of this bay, Vincent said disapprovingly, is one too many.

As tourism professionals around the world eagerly await the return of visitors, the Calanques in southern France have a different message: Please, most of you stay away. .

Except during lockdowns, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped people from coming here; in fact, restrictions on overseas travel have caused an increase in domestic arrivals. Park rangers say the growing crowds, on the beaches and in the water, threaten the site’s sensitive biological balance.

In response, they launched an initiative that many other European destinations were considering before the pandemic but few acted on: a “de-marketing” campaign to reduce the number of visitors the park attracts.

To that end, authorities have started asking Instagram influencers to take pictures of the picturesque bays of the Calanques. The park’s website says the water is often cold and the beaches are “difficult to access, cramped, and crowded.” Upon arrival, visitors may soon be faced with a ticketing system.

The changes are likely to appeal to locals and some rangers, who have long wanted to see nature lovers rather than swimmers and boaters, more biodiversity-conscious people and less heavy drinkers, more interested in how the plants grow. pines and less who want to jump from tree branches into the sea.

“It is, in some ways, a pioneering effort,” said Jürgen Schmude, researcher at the University of Munich. “Other destinations must also go there. “

As the world’s leading international tourist destination, France has, in recent months, prioritized such measures to balance an industry recovery with progress towards greater sustainability. In parts of southern France, for example, popular GPS navigation software has been programmed to suggest alternatives to major crowded destinations.

“The crisis has certainly accelerated the process of reflection,” said Minister Delegate in charge of tourism, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, in an interview. The pandemic has caused “a lot of distress,” he said. “But it is also a moment of reinvention – we must not miss it.”

Experts fear, however, that despite the changes underway in the south of France and elsewhere, some of the European destinations most affected by overtourism are lagging behind. They say unless there is a major resurgence of the coronavirus, overpopulation could again become a problem on the continent as early as this summer, as Europeans go on annual vacations and vaccinated Americans are welcome.

“A lot of people can’t wait to get on the plane,” said Jeroen Klijs, a professor at the Breda University of Applied Sciences who studies the social impacts of tourism. “It’s almost like revenge tourism – people want their vacations back.

Jan van der Borg, a tourism management and applied economics researcher affiliated with several institutions, said major tourist attractions such as Venice and Prague have largely failed to recognize the pandemic as an opportunity for more sustainable models. Cruise ships are back in Venice, Prague’s famous pub crawls are back, and budget airlines have started selling deals again.

“I am quite disappointed,” said van der Borg.

Yet while many hotel and restaurant owners would be delighted to see an increase in arrivals, tourists may encounter more local resistance than in the past.

As the canals of Venice emptied of traffic, encouraging the return of dolphins, and the streets of Amsterdam were taken over by locals last year, many wondered what it would take to keep it that way. .

“Suddenly locals are on the streets, drinking a cup of coffee together on the sidewalk,” Amsterdam residents wrote in a petition last summer for the vacation rental ban and other measures. “It’s actually weird that these normal neighborhood scenes look weird.”

In Venice this week, authorities launched an ideas competition on how to move cruise ships and other large ships away from the historic city center, after years of complaints that the ships are damaging building foundations. UNESCO recently said Venice could be placed on its list of endangered World Heritage sites unless action is taken.

In the Calanques, Vincent, the forest ranger, can spot the impact of overtourism from miles away. From the top of a hill overlooking the national park, he pointed to a bay below that was once surrounded by dense stands of pine trees.

“The pines are gradually disappearing. There are hardly any more, ”he said, blaming the erosion caused by visitors.

“The destruction of natural habitats can be irreversible,” warned Zacharie Bruyas, park communications manager.

The Calanques have long attracted visitors, but historically on a more manageable scale. But as the nearby city of Marseille has grown in popularity in recent years, the park has also seen increased visitor numbers. The widely shared social media posts attracted more.

Laurent Lhardit, deputy mayor of Marseille in charge of the economy, described the influx of tourists last year as close to an “explosion”, upsetting the city and the adjacent national park.

Officials hope that better crowd control will also benefit visitors and give them a better experience. Some may discover new areas, like the top of the hill offering panoramic – and peaceful – views of the white rocks, sheer cliffs and green trees below.

The beach was “beautiful,” said Yasmine Bounguab, 24, leaning against a rock with a friend. But the crowds were too much for them.

“We had to go elsewhere,” she said.

For Schmude, the University of Munich researcher, the most promising trend in efforts to tackle overtourism could be a change in consumer behavior. “Some of the population will travel more consciously,” he said, predicting less air travel and higher ticket prices.

Klijs, the Dutch researcher, agreed that after an initial period of what he called revenge tourism, questions raised during the pandemic could prompt rethinking. But he warned that leaving the debate to consumers and the tourism industry would not be enough.

Government officials should use this moment to “get people to reconsider,” he said.

Calanques National Park can serve as an example that change is possible – but it won’t happen overnight. As Vincent and his colleagues move around the park by speedboat or car, they encounter offenders everywhere they look, from offenders in the parking lot to fishermen threatening them with violence.

“It takes time,” he said. “What is needed is a change of mind.”

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