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With cities and tropical islands around the world overwhelmed by tourist hordes, Katie Burton talks to Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, about his new documentary urging action to tackle a global emergency
It seems incredible that anyone would want to visit Venice, particularly in the peak summer tourism season. As yet another cruise ship looms on the horizon, the crammed streets have become the stuff of nightmares for anyone seeking relaxation. Yet the stream of tourists is unrelenting. For the few locals that remain, the situation is unbearable.
It was the desire to provide a platform for the voices of these locals, and others in similar situations around the world, that inspired Justin Francis to produce a new documentary Crowded Out: the story of overtourism.
As well as residents from Venice, the film catches up with locals on the streets of Barcelona and on the island of Gili Trawangan in Indonesia, where pristine beaches mask a rubbish pit hidden in the centre of the island. The influx of a million tourists every year has rendered life on the island unrecognisable compared to 30 years ago.
Tourist boards present the destination in the way they see fit, which is typically a paradise with no problems
“The desire to make the film came from sympathy and empathy with local residents. It was designed to give local people a voice,” says Francis. “That hasn't happened so far. Travel writers tend to speak on behalf of local people, while tourist boards present the destination in the way they see fit, which is typically a paradise-type environment with no problems.”
Though documentaries are new to Francis, the industry is not. Inspired by his travels around Africa and his time working with Anita Roddick as head of global marketing communications at The Body Shop, he left an unfulfilling career in advertising, undertook a Master’s degree in tourism, conservation and sustainable development and launched Responsible Travel in 2001. He’s been CEO of the company for the last 18 years.
Responsible Travel provides a match-making service between tourists and specialist tour operators, which are screened against a range of ethical credentials. Advertised trips prioritise using local guides and eco-friendly accommodation and emphasise conservation work and robust recycling policies.
This is not the first time Responsible Travel has taken an activist role: previous campaigns have been against issues such as orca captivity and unethical orphanage volunteering.
Though Francis has been aware of the tourism crisis for a long time, the rest of the world only recently took note. In his view, the tourism industry has had an easy ride for decades, protected by the general perception that tourism is good for everybody.
Success would have looked like addressing this before it got to this point
That changed in 2017, when locals in Venice and Barcelona took to the streets to protest against overtourism, waving placards and, in extreme cases, slashing the tyres of tourist buses. Suddenly, the world saw the dark side of tourism. Chairmen and CEOs of cruise liners, airlines and hotels were caught unprepared as they were asked to justify themselves. “Panic, absolute panic” is how Francis describes the industry response.
For Francis, the surge in interest conjured mixed feelings. “That was a new thing for me after fighting in the shadows. When that happens, you feel very sad because in a sense you've failed. Success would have looked like addressing this before it got to this point.”
But at the same time, he believes a lot will happen to improve the situation. “It will be an incredibly exciting time. More will change in the next couple of years than in the last 40,” he predicts.
Yet, while Francis encourages off the beaten track travel and any industry moves in the right direction, he maintains that government policy is the only way to truly change things.
“There are so many different private and public players involved in tourism, you come to the conclusion pretty quickly that only government can really address this. You’d need to be able to control the port, because that's where all the cruise passengers come in. You'd also need to talk to the airport and the airlines, because in some cases they are opening up more and more flights, which is part of the problem.”
The only people who can control the range of stakeholders is government
He goes on: “You'd need to talk to the visitor attractions about ticketing and managing numbers. You'd need to talk to local transport. You'd need to talk to local residents’ associations. You'd need to think about regulating hotels or Airbnb. Only by doing all of it could you really solve the problem and the only people who can control that range of stakeholders is government.”
There have already been moves from some local governments to regulate tourism, though they have been largely reactionary. In June, Thailand closed Maya Bay beach on Ko Phi Phi island as a result of damage to the marine environment, particularly the coral reef. The area, made famous by Leonardo Di Caprio in the film The Beach, simply couldn’t keep up with the number of tourists keen to tread his footsteps.
In Venice the government deploys a tax on tourists and, in May, erected separate turnstiles for locals and tourists, designed to limit the flow of people during the May Day weekend. It was later reported that local activists dismantled the turnstiles. In Paris, the city authorities are currently taking on Airbnb, a particularly contentious player in the tourism industry: locals claim the home-sharing website fuels property speculation and hoteliers hate it, for obvious reasons. Paris is suing Airbnb for failing to remove advertisements from people who have not properly declared their properties.
Francis knows that changing the tourism industry won’t be easy. He acknowledges the risk of a cyclical process, in which tourists move from a spoilt place to a new destination, repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Even 50 too many tourists in a small community can be a problem
One tactic to ease congestion in popular spots is to promote dispersal of tourists to smaller places that could do with the wealth tourists bring. In line with this philosophy Responsible Travel offers some trips to more remote, rural areas. Nevertheless, Francis is also aware that overburdening can happen very quickly.
“We face the same issues on a different scale. Even 50 too many tourists in a small community, or 10 going into a local restaurant, can be a problem.”
Despite the difficulties, Francis says he has never found it hard to combine activism with running a business. He intends to continue both selling holidays and campaigning, potentially through more documentaries. He stands by promoting Responsible Travel’s key tenet of “responsible tourism”, which he defines as, “creating better places to live in and better places to visit”.
“The order of that statement is important,” he says. “Creating better places to live in comes before creating better places to visit.”
Responsible Tourism Venice protests cruise ships clean seas