Images of life below decks as we followed the saga of Kate and Leo aboard the Titanic will forever be ingrained in memory. James Cameron just really knows how to do it. Rat infested bunks with the unwashed singing en masse below, while mother of pearl caviar spoons with footmen to help you dress were just upstairs.

In the years since, travel has been democratized by record low fares and sharing economy solutions making “the only thing that makes you richer” more accessible than ever, to more people than ever. It’s been wonderful, and long may it last.

As a new era of travel is ushered in over the next year though, that may not be the case, at least not everywhere and it’s not airlines, hotels, or car rental companies want that to change, but destinations themselves. Airlines already offer “fast track” immigration passes to help breeze premium customers through immigration, and we don’t need to spend any time analyzing the differences across cabins.

Tourism boards are eager to jump start the “new normal”, complete with health screenings before you’re allowed to fly, creating a shift not only in what it takes to enter a country, but who the country wants to attract. For many destinations with limited space or natural resources, they want out of the mass market.

Looking forward, many destinations simply no longer want travelers who don’t positively contribute to the local economy in any substantial way, and in some places, locals are in strong support.

Putting it as bluntly as possible, they want fewer people coming to help with social distancing and environmental sustainability concerns, and to make up for it they want heavier spenders.

Santorini and the Bahamas are perfect starting points. In the old world of tourism, countries paid subsidies to cruise liners on the belief that guests from cruises would contribute to local economies. Then it all went sideways. The Bahamas realized it was paying $12,000,000 a year for nothing.

Cruises began to offer all you can eat buffets, haircuts, celebrity chefs and clothing stores on board, meaning destinations were just a place to stretch the legs for a few hours before the ship left port. No hotels booked, no meals consumed, just people and lots of them. The average expenditure of a cruise guest is typically below 50% of what any other form of traveler spends in a country.

A conversation began to center around what mass market tourism was costing a destination, not what it was bringing in. There’s a balance to anything involving natural resources or beauty, and the more is not always the merrier.

As Greece looks to usher in visitors this July, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN his country is looking to re attract “more high end tourists”, including yachting groups which come onto islands for food, provisions and meals.

Data from Santorini, where day trips are the norm, showed the average cruise traveler contributed less than $5 to the local economy, which typically just meant buying a bottle of water on a hot day. They’d eat to their hearts content at a buffet on board to avoid buying meals on the island, spend the day snapping pictures and then hop back on the gigantic boat to sleep.

For budget travelers that’s absolutely the smart play and nothing to frown at. People want to see the world; and for many that meant making sacrifices or shrewd budgetary decisions to make that semi possible. Countries just might not want to go along with it anymore, or at least not subsidize it.

Hawaii is said to be looking at how to attract a more premium version of tourist to better maintain natural resources and maintain its strong position in the virus battle. By having fewer people, but netting out via increased per visitor spend, the Pacific paradise could ensure greater longevity for its precious resources.

This has already been a trend from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia, as countries most dependent on the beauty of natural resources as a main draw for visitors look more toward protecting them.

Even before the pandemic, overrun Venice took a crack at tackling the issue by charging a tax on any non overnight guests wishing to come into the center of the city. Those simply in for the day, coming off ships or tour buses were made to pay a modest entry free, and it’s created millions in revenue to better protect city infrastructure long term.

Overnight guests in any city pay local lodging fees, which include city and country taxes, and are always more likely to spend money on meals, tours, shopping and other vital areas of tourist spend. For countries where natural resources are the main draw, the “one day” on taxing guests is now-now.

Boracay, the stunning island in the Philippines was literally overrun with sewage spilling onto beaches due to mass market expansion in recent years, forcing a closure of the entire island to tourism. In the years since the temporary closure, a shift towards attracting fewer guests who spend more has succeeded.

So how does that happen?

A variety of factors such as limiting the number of daily cruise ships, or incoming flights is a key first step. With global aviation at a virtual standstill, and no expectation of a triumphant return for years, it’s easier to turn down easy cash for allowing those extra flights.

Next, accommodation options. Destinations without laws placing fair restrictions or standards on Airbnb tend to have more properties than those that do.

That extra capacity creates lower prices, so putting limits on the number of places or setting minimum standards for those places tightens things up ever so slightly. Of course, there’s always new taxes and fees to levy too, which raise overall visitor costs.

Destinations that have successfully attracted higher end clientele have also worked hard to curate the day to day guest experience, deterring mass market restaurants in favor of authentic and locally owned establishments, even going as far as to limit what sort of things vendors can sell in markets.

When the luxury market sees “I Love New York” t-shirts and plastic key rings, they tend to turn the other way. The discerning traveler seeking unique and local experiences is nowhere near as readily found as those who want the comforts of home and a souvenir to say they’ve been somewhere, but they do exist.

Is This Fair?

Is anything in the world “fair”?

Destinations less dependent on the integrity of natural resources will have more flexibility to play the mass market game, and many countries will still prefer it. Regardless of desire, this sort of change doesn’t happen overnight, but budget travelers may begin to feel the squeeze in various corners of the globe.

It’s hard to imagine Mexico turning up its nose at budget and leisure travelers any time soon, since they’ve always played an integral part in their key demographics. The same could be said for Orlando, Florida, where leisure travels flood to Disney Theme Parks to the tune of 59 million visitors per year.

There’s nothing “budget” about a Disney trip, but it’s a prime example of mass market tourism where a destination works on volume – aka sheer number of guests – rather than curating smaller and more bespoke experiences.

Travel isn’t closing to those who would’ve been below decks on the Titanic, it’s just shifting. Tourism boards aren’t going to subsidize the mass market as much as they once chose to, and budget options may be limited, with new taxes or fees added in certain countries.

In the end, countries which attempt to attract higher spending guests will raise the costs of budget travel, creating greater divide between the have’s and the have not’s. A new classism is headed to travel, whether we like it or not. For the local environment, some of it may be necessary.

There will always be countries that thrive on volume and there will always be travel companies that cater best to that group. At the end of the day, a country can want a million Leonardo DiCaprio’s paying top dollar coming through the doors, but that doesn’t happen quickly.

A new classism is coming to travel, but it won’t be everywhere, and it won’t be overnight.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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17 Comments

  1. I mean, good luck to countries like Greece. Beggars can’t be choosers. No doubt that Greece is overrun by over tourism, I saw it myself. But there are other ways. Tourists alone bring in billions of dollars with a capital B to countries like Greece, so not sure how you’re going to replace that with the idea of high spenders and less people. Quality is great but quantity is what most of these countries need, especially the ones in dire financial situations. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel.

  2. A golden goose must survive. A golden sunset in Oia is better without thousands of cruise shippers jockeying for a prime photo op who evidently don’t support those that live and work on the island.

    Good piece Gilbert.

  3. Great article, whilst lots of other blogs are filled with guest reviews from 2019 etc, its nice to have some fresh content. That said lets I don’t think much will actually change long term once a vaccine or similar is produced, I’m predicating by the end of 2021 we will be back to where we were….

  4. Interesting article – the cruise industry has definitely caused overtourism in many countries, cities and islands so that will likely change. as for budget travelers there are hostels and budget hotels that aren’t going anywhere soon. sure DMOs will look to overnight visitors spending more money but they still need to add some night options, deal with airbnb and curate experiences they aren’t doing now

  5. In the short term, domestic tourism will benefit. Fewer Brits will visit Spain, Italy and Greece. And many will find local options. Great for domestic tourism.
    However, countries like Greece where tourism constitutes 20-25% of the GDP they will have to grow/diversify other parts of the economy to support their populations.

  6. I once had the bad luck to win a free cruise of the Med. We stopped in Venice for the day. I saw no locals, only thousands of tourists everywhere. I walked along the streets everywhere I went there was nothing but tourists gawking at things. The only thing you could buy were cheap trinkets, or list the same old chain stores you can find anywhere in the world. It was so disgusting I went back to the ship after less than two hours. It was more enjoyable to sit in my cabin watching TV than to join this stupid spectacle. To me that’s not travel.

  7. Great article. Force tourism to stay local also has a large impact on Global warming. You have to ask yourself whether the world is better off with or without the cheap bus service (airlines) flying cheap customers to cheap floating hotels (cruise ships) to overrun the sacred beauty of the planet. There are good things about this pandemic. The silver lining as we sit down to a family meal with greens from the victory garden!

    1. You’re free to do what you want and have a boring life, just don’t order me where I can go and where not for some crazy ideology, we’re experiencing now what flawed ideas can cause

    2. Thank you for your commentary highlighting the wholesomeness of travel, and the art of seeking to engage with local experiences, people, food and locations. This wholesome experience is far from boring.
      The article certainly highlights the challenges faced with mass tourism and experiential stimulation required for the mass market does highlight the divide.
      Went to Niagara Falls for a short break, and avoided the neon touristy experience, finding solitude in the parks and gardens both near the river but also in the surrounding area, including mall local eateries and wineries.
      Thinking back to Ancient Rome and the ‘Bread and Circuses’ keeping the people well fed and entertained, was essential to maintaining the social order. Perhaps these Cruise Ships are the equivalent in the 21st Century.

  8. We are seeing story after story about aircraft vineyards. It looks like there are going to be a significant number of cruise ships heading for elongated spells in dry dock. Havent seen any articles on this. Surely the current number of ships cannot be sustained for the foreseeable future?

  9. Unfortunately these are all the reasons I’ve almost stopped traveling altogether but I was fortunate. I worked for a major airline for 35+ years and there are not too many places I haven’t been. Nevertheless, there are still a few I would love to still see or go back to but the crowds, noise, trash and prices are a big turn-off. As well, after one has experienced the best of air-travel when ALL airline employees cared, white glove service was accessible and seating and meal service in coach was actually quite good, it’s a real disaster to even hope for some sense of a comfort. Now it’s just a case of transportation and getting in/out of airports and on/off planes as quick as possible without killing yourself. The older I get the more I can barely stand it. I’m even willing to pay a fare (versus non-rev standby) but the aggravation level is still too high for me.

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