What do the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River, Italy’s picturesque Cinque Terre villages and the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru share in common? The answer is that all three tourism hotspots have implemented restrictive access policies to manage visitor numbers during peak travel periods.
The limiting of visitors at the Three Gorges Dam to a maximum of 30,000 per day during the 2016 Spring Festival holiday highlighted an evolving issue: too many tourists are traveling to leading cities, islands, and sites of natural splendor. As destinations across Asia and worldwide clamor to attract more Chinese tourists, it was intriguing to watch China’s own tourism planners adopt the once taboo issue of tourism dispersal.
Tourism dispersal—the sustainable management of visitor flows across a country to reduce overcrowding in the most popular locations—is a white-hot subject, particularly in Asia. Demand for leisure travel is thriving, and high-profile airport expansion projects from Beijing to Phuket and Yangon to Singapore signal that governments expect intra-regional tourism flows to continue on an upward trajectory.
Expanded flight networks are the catalytic factor. Asia Pacific carriers recorded a demand increase of 8.2 percent in 2015 compared to 2014, and while a protracted global slowdown looms, the financial ability and willingness to travel is proving a powerful force—supported by the inexorable rise of low-cost carriers across the region.
“Many airports are already operating at capacity, and it is only going to get worse,” notes the Boston Consulting Group in its report entitled "The Connected Airport: The Time Is Now." “Between 2015 and 2034, air traffic will grow at a projected 4.6 percent annually, even faster in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. These experiences will create delays and degrade the customer experience.”
China, of course, is a headline example because of its vast population—and with 120 million outbound travelers in 2015, it is contributing to the increased tourism numbers at the world’s most highly prized destinations. But as the headline writers focus on China’s overseas travelers, the compression effects on domestic tourism are often overlooked.
With an estimated 4.38 billion domestic tourism trips projected to be made within China this year, according to the China National Tourism Administration, the pressure on tourism and transport infrastructure is intense, particularly during the two week-long national holidays celebrating Spring Festival and China National Day. The Chinese capital alone claims to have received 273 million tourists in 2015, up from 261 million in 2014.
The physical impact of China’s increased propensity to travel is starting to show. Sections of the Great Wall of China are frequently shuttered for much needed restoration works caused by excessive visitation. In northwestern Xinjiang, glacier tourism has been banned, despite garnering an estimated RMB1 billion in revenues in the past 12 years, because high volumes of tourists are contributing to the accelerating rate of glacier shrinkage, state media noted in February.
Japan is also urgently seeking to disperse tourists more evenly across its landscapes. The record 19.73 million visitors to Japan in 2015, representing a staggering 47.3 percent uplift from 2014, fell fractionally short of the 20 million visitors target originally set for 2020, the year its capital city will host the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Visitors from China accounted for 4.99 million of the 2015 total, followed by 4 million from South Korea and 3.67 million from Taiwan.
While welcoming the tourism expenditure that its stagnating economy craves, the Japanese government is actively encouraging visitors to journey beyond the so-called “Golden Route,” of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. In November 2015, Japan’s Transport Ministry signaled its intention to reduce, or possibly eliminate, landing fees at 25 of the country’s regional airports. The Japan Tourism Agency is also promoting 12 tourism zones that are largely untapped by inbound visitors, including the Kujuku Islands, Yoshino River in Shikoku, and Hamanako Lake in Shizuoka.
The need to speed up tourism dispersal programs is casting a cloud over strong visitor growth in Southeast Asia’s emerging tourism economies. Myanmar welcomed 4.68 million international arrivals in 2015 (up from 3.08 million in 2014), with a disproportionate number flocking to the “Big Four” destinations of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake. Despite a frenetic build-out of new hotels and a new airport under construction in Yangon, Myanmar’s infrastructure is struggling to cope with peak season demand, and hotel room rates, in particular, have risen significantly.
In Cambodia, 4.8 million arrivals were recorded in 2015, with the Khmer temple ruins of Angkor Wat attracting 2.1 million visitors. Meanwhile, the Khmer Times reported, in a February article entitled "Koh Rong Samloeun’s Asia-Driven Tourism Boom," that the white-sand beaches on the island were “empty four years ago… [but] now workers can be seen scrambling over the frames of new bungalows along the shoreline, and speed boats arrive hourly from mainland Cambodia to drop off crowds of tourists bound for the island’s dive centers and resorts.”
Landlocked Laos is also gearing up for greater intra-regional visitation. Laos is South East Asia’s second smallest aviation market, but international traffic has doubled over the last five years, according to the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) (CAPA). Air passenger capacity could increase dramatically at the UNESCO World Heritage listed town of Luang Prabang, with four Asian LCCs likely to raise the weekly seat total above 20,000 by the end of 2016.
Against this backdrop of growth, forward-thinking strategies are needed. At the 2015 Mekong Tourism Forum, which brings together tourism officials from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, it was noted that national tourism boards have focused on improving infrastructure to cope with a rapid development of tourism. But now, with 70 million annual visitors to the region expected within a few years, the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office and the Asian Development Bank are promoting multi-country trails through the six Greater Mekong nations to disperse visitation into second and third-tier destinations and ease the pressure on the marquee cities and attractions.
This issue will become more entrenched in the coming years. Well-planned tourism dispersal policies are vital, not only for protecting Asia’s leading attractions but to ensure that traveling is enjoyable for everyone.