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When Destinations are Overwhelmed, are Toll Gates the Answer?

Venice keeps threatening to charge day trippers to curb tourism; Is it serious this time?

Think back to not so long ago. It’s early summer 2021 and parts of the world breathe a sigh of relief. Vaccinations bring hope, and the Delta variant hasn’t yet squashed our dreams of imminent recovery . Although COVID cases and deaths are on the rise in some places, most people still feel safe enough to venture out, especially as restrictions like mask wearing and indoor entertainment are lifted. Domestic travel is starting to make a comeback.

Some destinations that have welcomed vaccinated travelers without quarantine requirements reap the rewards. Croatia, for example, opened its borders to most travelers, even offering digital nomad permits. Tourism soared despite a late summer rise in cases. Greece also performed well, touting July/August visitation figures similar to 2019. But others felt regret – that they opened too soon and didn’t manage the onslaught of tourists properly. Hawaii got so many visitors after removing restrictions that by August it quickly had to do an about face and ask tourists – once again – to come back later. The U.S. National Park Service also saw the scary side to a burst in domestic summer tourism. In one example, Utah’s Zion National Park set a record in June for the most visitors in a month – ever. But celebrations were marred by overcrowding, vandalism, garbage, trail erosion and other issues, forcing Congress to intervene.

Then there is Venice. The city of love has raised eyebrows – and concerns – when it announced plans to enact a new tourist entry fee by summer 2022. While it wasn’t the first time Venice made this threat, technology advances have made the scheme even more ominous.

The new entry fees are designed to collect income from tourists who come for the day, don’t spend money on overnight lodging, and simply leave their footprints (and sometimes rubbish) behind. Venice’s strategy is to use cellphone data and surveillance video to track visitors and analyze their movement and spend habits to determine visiting patterns and hot spots. The catch isn’t just the payment (which could run between 3-10 euros depending on the season), but the fact that tourists would have to prebook their entry on an app – and run the risk of getting rejected if the city gets too crowded. The goal is to give Venice back to the locals, although its economy depends on tourist spending.

Venice has had a tourist problem for years; it just didn’t know what to do about it. Then there were the floods (2019). And COVID (2020-). The city credits the lockdown for its environmental revival in 2020 as locals once again relished in their city while tourists mostly stayed away. Until now; with Europe opened again, tourists are coming back, and Venice is on high alert.

Naturally there is backlash about a system that tracks the whereabouts of each tourist and assigns a “value” to them. Separating “desirable” from “undesirable” tourists seems risky and potentially anti-equalitarian. Is it OK to charge day trippers who want to experience an iconic destination (within their means), while more moneyed, longer-term tourists receive a warmer welcome? There are privacy concerns of course, although the government says the data it collects is anonymous. Still , to know your every move is being evaluated while you’re on holiday can be a bit creepy. But if the plan is well publicized and tourists can “opt in”, the scheme should also be evaluated for its possible merits.

The concept behind treating a destination as a “single attraction” or “event” that garners an admission price might be reasonable for some places. We are already used to paying more to experience things at their peak, whether it’s a championship game, a famous restaurant, fall foliage or front row seats to a popular performance. When things are sold out, we wait our turn or move on. But we’re always prepared to pay. Just consider Average Daily Rate (ADR) for major cities vs. secondary ones (prior to March 2020) or the price differential for flying on a holiday, and you can see supply and demand in action for the travel industry. But the concept of paying to enter a destination does seem difficult to execute – where do you pay ? Where is the “entrance” to Venice? Are you going to charge people just visiting their friends? There are many questions Venice will have to answer next year. If enough people get confused, Venice might just get its way as travelers, well, stay away.

Yes, Travel is a Right – For Some People

Travelers will have to reset their thinking if (and when) other major destinations follow suit and restrict certain types of visitors. Perhaps there are places we won’t get to experience after all, especially if we are limited to peak times. We’ll be steered toward other places, maybe not so popular or appealing. Will there be a waiting list? How much money or pre-planning will it take to fill our bucket list?

Other destinations are likely to follow suit, and some have already made moves to cap visitation, possibly through taxes, fees, and tourist limits. When we think of the negative impact of tourism on a destination we think of Barcelona, Hawaii, Machu Picchu, the Greek Islands, the list goes on. Citing sustainability and cultural reasons, travel arrangers are often asked by environmentalists to steer tourists away from these overcrowded destinations and provide alternatives instead – mostly recommending secondary cities that aren’t on the cover of tourist guides. Keeping a destination pristine, to be enjoyed selectively, helps the environment, pleases (most of) the locals, and can give those lucky tourists (who do pay an entry fee) an even better experience.

Is Venice crying wolf or does it really mean to turn people – and their cash – away? Can the city be self-sustaining without welcoming tourists of every type and from every place? It is likely that Venice will institute a fee when things are hot, but probably not when/if tourist spending wanes. That’s the beauty of its revenue management system. What Venice must remember is that everyone deserves a chance to discover its beauty, regardless of wealth or status. Tweaking the system until it’s “fair” will take time. Maybe traveling freely isn’t a right after all, but instead a privilege.

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