Overtourism and Art Movement 1: Impacts of Overtourism

Written by Changhee Hong

1. Symbols of Suitcases and Protests in Venice

               The Art Unlimited section at the Art Basel Art Fair held in Basel in 2016 featured huge and diverse installations that suggested multiple meanings. One of them particularly touched my heart: a large-scale installation composed of dozens of stretching red yarns and old suitcases that were floating from the floor to the ceiling of the space to represent a flock of birds. The closed suitcases seemed to hold various stories symbolising our individual memories. The different shapes, colours, and positions of the suitcases were perhaps meant to depict different human beings. This installation, Accumulation: Searching for Destination (2014–16), was created by a Japanese artist named Chiharu Shiota. Through her installation, spectators were, depending on their point of view, able to recall memorable family journeys or to think of current issues relating to global refugees. In this respect, Ms. Shiota’s installation presents us with various symbolic questions ranging from the individual to the common. (Artbasel 2014)

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Fig 2. Marcel Duchamp Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), 1948, Yale University Art Gallery Photography on https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-9-artists-who-turned-suitcases-into-works-of-art

Another example of using a suitcase is provided by Marcel Duchamp, who is considered to be the father of conceptual art. He put miniature versions of his entire oeuvre of 69 artworks into a suitcase in a work entitled Boîte-en-Valise (Box in a Valise) for a total of 300 editions from 1935 to 1941. He commented on the importance of this work in 1952, saying “everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase” (artsy 2016). He produced a new concept of art, the notion of unique and multiple vs. original and reproduction, through this series. This notion brought about innovation in the art world at that time. For Duchamp, a suitcase might be a symbol that was able to compress not only his precious artworks but also his whole thoughts on art into one point. What does your suitcase mean to you?

By way of contrast with the above artistic representations of suitcases, hundreds of residents of Venice carried their own suitcases and an artificial giant suitcase on the streets in order to stage a protest against increasing depopulation in November 2016 (BBC 2016). What has happened in Venice, which is historically the most beautiful and romantic city in the world and where the famous author, Ernest Hemingway of The Old Man and the Sea (1952) fame, used to live?

Fig. 3. (Left) A giant suitcase signifying the residents’ fears of an exodus from the city has been erected Photo by EPA
Fig. 4. (right) A protester’s suitcase had the message: ‘Without Venetians, don’t call it Venice any more’ Photo by EPA Photography on http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37963136

This is a city of water that plays host to great and small international events all year round, such as the Carnival of Venice, Venice Biennale, and the Venice Film Festival. Therefore, there are always a lot of tourists everywhere in the city. According to Gavin Hains (2016), a journalist at Telegraph Travel, 60,000 tourists visit Venice each day, for an estimated 22 million annually, whereas the population of the historic city of Venice is under 55,000. Hold on, that’s right—this is the main reason inhabitants have staged protests against depopulation and tourism in Venice since 2013. Because of the excessive number of tourists in Venice, the population of Venice has paradoxically decreased by about 1,000 every year: it was about 175,000 in 1951, which is about three times bigger than 2016. Why have many Venetians had no choice but to leave their hometown? What kinds of changes have appeared in their living conditions due to the increasing tourists? Are there any specific causalities between decreasing natives and increasing tourists? Before tracing the answers to these questions, I will look at how tourism has developed in modern society with its capital relations. 

2 Tourism and Economic Distinctiveness 

               When did tourism start? According to Ray Youell (1998, 3) in his book Tourism: An Introduction, historically, “the origins of tourism can be traced back […] to pre-Egyptian times” in order to participate in “religious celebrations” and “festivals”. In Egyptian times, the purposes of travel were “trade” and “religious activities” between different areas. In contrast, the modern style of mass tourism started at the end of the Second World War by improving “the social and economic conditions” (Youell 1998, 6). However, Peter Murphy asserts (2013, 1) in his book Tourism: A Community Approach that the initial wave of tourism after the war was “unaware” and “unprepared”, and stated that the potential of development as a “post-war economy” was manipulated by private investors rather than by the government. Hence, tourism was focused on “growth” and “promotion” rather than regulation and preservation. For this reason, tourism has simultaneously provoked development and diverse problems.

Tourism has become one of the crucial industries in the capitalistic society (Murphy 2013). However, it is difficult to define tourism in a word due to its distinctiveness. As Middleton (1998) mentions, tourism is made up of multiple industries that are complexly connected with each other; “although travel and tourism are invariably identified as an industry it is best understood as a total market….[which] reflects the cumulative demand and consumption patterns of visitors for a very wide range of travel-related products” (cited in Burns 1999, 31). Middleton’s definition of tourism is focused on business, whereas MacCanell (1992) takes a more anthropological view: “tourism is not just an aggregate of merely commercial activities; it is also an ideological framing of history, nature, and tradition; a framing that has the power to reshape culture and natures to its own needs” (cited in Burns 1999, 83). I feel that both views ably illustrate the power of tourism in our capitalistic society today.

From a realistic point of view, the development of tourism considerably contributes to the national economy (and brand). A professor of tourism at Katholieke University Leuven, Norbert Vanhove (2001, 128), asserts there is an interesting correlation between GNP and tourism demand, stating that “it is impossible to put forward an average income elasticity, but 1.5 to 2 is a very acceptable figure for long-haul tourism demand. This means that, with an annual GNP growth rate of 3 per cent, tourism demand is increasing by 4.5 to 6 per cent a year”. In other words, tourism has attained a more and more important position in the national economy in this era. For example, according to a World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) report in 2015, tourism in South Korea contributed to $US 82 billion of South Korea’s GDP in 2014, which was 5.8% of total GDP and also greater than agriculture’s contribution of 5.7%. This proved that tourism has become one of the major industries in South Korea. Furthermore, as Middleton and Vanhove stated above, thanks to the unseverable relations and effects between tourism and other industries, the benefits of tourism in South Korea have spread from the financial services sector to the real estate sector, which includes an impact on employment; $1 million in tourism consumption generates $1.1 million in GDP; the financial services sector gains $66,000 for every $1 million in spending on tourism; and for every $1 million in tourism sales, $94,000 of GDP is generated in the real estate sector in South Korea (WTTC 2015). Therefore, many countries (including South Korea) have strived to promote their culture and nature abroad through diverse channels in order to attract tourists.

3 Tourism and Information Technology

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Fig. 5 International Tourist Arrivals 1995 – 2016

            According to the latest report by United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) released January in 2017, there were 525 million international tourists in 1995, while the number of international tourists in 2016 hit 1,235 million, which is two and a half times bigger. These massively increased figures over the last two decades are not just related to global economic growth; they are also caused by globalization in conjunction with the revolution of information technology (Vanhove 2001). “Information is the lifeblood of tourism and so technology is the fundamental ability of the industry to operate” (Pierre et al. 2014, 87). In other words, information technology helps connect tourists, tour agents, and suppliers into one place via the Internet by producing and distributing all necessary information—such as that pertaining to airlines, accommodations, and car rentals—in real time (Vanhove 2001).

The place at which all this information is gathered is called the Internet Booking Engine (IBE), some common examples of which are Agoda, Expedia, and Skyscanner. The main pages of these Web sites feature attractive photos of diverse destinations to captivate potential customers’ heart, such as beautiful night vistas, grand landscapes, and fascinating city views. These destination images play a crucial marketing role in tourism in that they provide visual experiences while delivering desired stories about the places to the customers (MacKay and Fesenmaier 1997; Jenkins 2003). Hence, many travel agencies hire professional travel photographers, or encourage their customers to upload their own photos by using Social Network Services, to maximize those attractions for potential customers.

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Fig. 6. Computer Reservation System(CRS) Architecture, Source: TechTuners, 2013.

The systems that have most contributed to the development of information technology are the Computer Reservation System (CRS) and the Global Distribution System (GDS), which are core platforms to circulate IBEs in real time. CRS was defined by the United States Department of Transportation as ‘a periodically updated central database that is accessed by subscribers through computer terminals’. Vanhove (2001) cited the emergence of CRS as the ‘dominant technology’. CRS was the first information system in the travel industry and was initially used by airlines for inventory control. In 1962, American Airlines introduced the first commercial CRS, called the Semi-Automated Business Research Environment (SABRE), in cooperation with IBM for generating flight plans, booking seats, and scheduling crews. The initial structure between a travel agent and an airline CRS was very simple: it was able to be connected with just a single line, so a travel agent had to connect with each single CRS from each different airline. (Njegus 2013). In the mid 1980s, an innovative development occurred regarding CRS, which was the emergence of GDS. Through one single GDS, travel agents were now able to connect multiple CRSs of not only airlines but also hotels and car rentals at the same time (Njegus 2013). Since the early 1990s, tourism has been rapidly developed as a result of widespread Internet access (Vanhove 2001). IBE is an advanced and synthesized tool based on CRSs and GDSs. Thanks to these platforms, we are able to plan our travel without difficulty by comparing best prices within a couple of seconds via travel Web sites. For that reason, there is no doubt that these two information technologies, CRS and GDS, combined with the Internet environment, have contributed decisively to the development of tourism today.

4 Overtourism and its Impacts

               Despite the fact that the development of tourism spurred by global economic growth and advanced information technologies has brought incalculable value to modern society, it has ushered in unexpected issues at the same. From here, I focus on the issues created by tourism rather than the benefits. First, I would say the existing problems facing tourism are caused by ‘overtourism’, a phrase that appeared for the first time on Twitter as #overtourism in August 2012 (Goodwin 2016).

Overtourism essentially means ‘too many tourists’, or the negative effect on destinations by tourists, “without providing enough benefits in return” (Travelandtourworld 2017). World Tourism Market (WTM) London responsible tourism advisor Professor Harold Godwin announced through a press release that “overtourism” is one of the two themes of this year’s WTM London and “is becoming a critical issue in the travel industry. Many destinations are employing a variety of different strategies to limit tourism to improve the experience for both tourist, locals and the environment (Travelmole 2017)”. In a video interview with WTM London earlier this year, he cited Barcelona, Venice, Seoul, New York, and Reykjavik as representative cities facing overtourism (WTM L 2017).

What are some of the negative effects of overtourism? They can be divided into effects on urban environments and effects on natural environments.

Firstly, many major cities have transformed their urban surroundings by the ‘tourism gentrification’ performed in these cities. Agustin Cocola Gant (2015), an urban researcher, defines tourism gentrification as “a process of socio-spatial change in which neighbourhoods are transformed according to the needs of affluent consumers, residents, and visitors.”

The notable transformation by the influx of tourists is the commercialization of residential areas that leads to changing the forms of residential and local marketplaces into gentrified areas. This transformation provokes rapidly increasing costs of living for the original inhabitants, including skyrocketing house rents that can drive residential displacement and the expansion of commercial places (Cócola-Gant 2015). Fainstein and Gladstone (1999) insisted that the area in a city commercialized by tourism is dominated by a variety of entertainment facilities and “belongs to affluent visitors rather than to residents, resulting in the exclusion of working-class residents from the core” (Fainstein and Gladstone 1999, 23). In addition, Spirou (2011, 211) noted that tourism gentrification “breathes new life into tired and distressed localities, but it also contributes to the creation of culturally monolithic environments and a general sense of sameness”. With overtourism, our urban environments have been changed by investors for only commercial purposes without enough balance and harmony between natives and tourists, as in the case of Venice that I mentioned in the first chapter.

Secondly, due to the increasing number of tourists, our natural environments have suffered from severe climate change and a massive amount of waste. WTTC (2015) reported that the contribution of air travel to climate change ranges from 3% to 9%, depending on the measurement method, since a massive amount of carbon emissions is generated by airplanes. In a study on tourism and climate change by Goodwin and Wlamsley (2010), they found that of “five per cent of total carbon emissions generated by tourism, transportation causes around 75%, and aviation some 40% of this”. They also mentioned that tourism is not a major contributor to ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ except when it comes to airplanes (Goodwin and Wlamsley 2010). However, the growth of tourism cannot be separated from the development of ‘aircraft technology’ (Youell 1998), and if we think of the negative effect on our natural environments by climate change, the five per cent contribution can no longer be ignored.

In particular, climate change significantly causes the sea level rise, which leads to damage to marine-coastal environments and societies (Cooper et al. 2008). Unfortunately, Venice is experiencing some of the most serious sufferings from the sea level rise. It is no surprise anymore to tourists visiting Venice that there is frequently flooding of infrastructures. According to Carbognin (et al. 2009), the rising sea level of the Northern Adriatic Sea is likely to lead to “permanent submersion of lowest-lying areas of the lagoon and islands” in Venice. She asserts that Venice saw sea level rise records higher than 60 cm many times over the last 40 years. Moreover, she presents the shocking news that a “53 cm relative sea level rise is expected as of 2100. [….] 5 cm of land subsidence and is likely to produce as many as 250 flooding events of 110 cm or more each year” in Venice (Carbognin et al. 2009). Perhaps Venice’s nickname of ‘the city of water’ will be changed to ‘the flooded city’ in the future if we constantly ignore these warning signals.

Tourists pose for a photo in a flooded St. Mark's Square during a period of seasonal high water in Venice
Fig. 7. Tourists pose for a photo in a flooded St. Mark’s Square. Venice has become the poster child for overtourism. Photo Credit: Manuel Silvestri / Reuters

Overtourism brings with it not only phenomena like tourism gentrification and climate change but also the issues of a large amount of waste due to consumption by tourists that also threaten our natural environments and health. For these reasons, many forms of protests including art movements have been held by locals in Venice and Barcelona over the last decade against overtourism in order to protect their right to live and to appeal to the international community on these issues.


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