Jordan: Vancouver is a very nice city to visit if you’ve ever been there, you don’t need me to tell you that. In fact, nobody needs me to tell them that. In fact, Vancouver itself would probably prefer I didn’t tell people that. The city’s tourism industry is booming, so much so that rather than ask themselves how to keep attracting guests, the city is wondering how to ask visitors to maybe stay at a place a little bit out of town, maybe go somewhere anywhere other than the marquee attractions like Stanley park. There’s no doubt that 10 million visitors per year can do some great things for a city’s economy. But what Canada’s most picturesque city is facing now is the same leg that has come for some of the oldest and most popular destinations in the world. There is such a thing as too many visitors. So how does Vancouver politely say, actually, we’re full right now. Maybe come back later in the off season? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Molly McCluskey is based in Washington, DC and she’s a contributor at CityLab, among other outlets, and she, uh, ended up going to Vancouver to report this story today. Molly, can you just start, I guess by telling us how you came across this story.
Molly: Well, I love Vancouver. I’ve spent a fair amount of time there, and I’m based on the West coast of the States now, although still spend a fair amount of time in DC. And so I was elected as a media scholar for the Women Deliver Conference, which is a massive international women’s rights and family planning conference that’s held every couple of years. And this year it was in Vancouver. And so as I was coming up to Vancouver, I kind of reached out to the tourism board and some other contacts in the area and said, you know, what’s really going on in your town that I should know about as a reporter, as somebody coming to visit, who maybe wants to see something that I haven’t seen before. And as a result of that conversation, the person I was speaking with mentioned almost as an aside. Well, you know, we, we really don’t promote Vancouver much in the summer anymore. And I thought that was such a fascinating idea because you know, the tourism boards, by their very nature, their job is to bring people to town, right? We see that all around the world. And the idea that there are some places that are maxing out on what they can, what they either can or want to accommodate tourism wise was really fascinating to me.
Jordan: Well, do you have an idea of the scope of that? Like, just how did tourism do, I guess in Vancouver in 2019?
Molly: Well, you know, the latest numbers aren’t finalized, of course, but when I spoke to them, they were expecting 10 million visitors in Vancouver in 2019. They were expecting about 230 cruise ships to come in. And of course, when you look at cruise ships versus other forms of tourism, it’s a little bit different because cruise ship passengers don’t necessarily stay in the hotels. They maybe don’t necessarily eat at all the restaurants, like other tourists might. So it’s a little bit of a different beast, but still, I mean, 230 very large cruise ships, uh, over the course of the year and up to 10 million visitors coming to Vancouver alone is a pretty dramatic flux of tourists, no matter how you look at it.
Jordan: Is that number increasing generally over the last little while?
Molly: For Vancouver it is actually. And you know, Vancouver this summer expected to be at 95% capacity, which for the city that means, and for cities in general, that means really looking at how often the hotels are booked, how often restaurants are crowded with the capacity of special events, and things like the Women Deliver Conference, how many people that’s bringing into the city, and if the rate of services such as transit or taxis or, you know, ride share, which as we now just launched in Vancouver, if that can keep up and keep people moving in an even, steady nondramatic flow.
Jordan: That was going to be my next question is, do we know kind of how, uh, approaching capacity impacts the day-to-day life of a city?
Molly: Yes, we do actually. And we seen it in backlash, uh, around, around the world. Really it’s, it’s really a global tourism boom. And keep in mind too, that so many cities depend on tourism as a huge part of their economy. And so, and that goes back to, you know, when we were all hunters and gatherers, and then switched over to an agrarian society and really suddenly started having more and creating more than we needed to consume for ourselves. Cities have always accommodated or expected to accommodate visitors for things like trade as they popped up on trade routes and rivers and that sort of thing. So this idea of tourism has, in some way, shape, or form, existed as long as we’ve had this idea of cities. But as you look at places like Venice or Amsterdam or Barcelona, where there’s just too many, there’s too many people coming to the same few attractions. Uh, we’ve seen in some cases like New York City and Ellis Island, where the tourists that are coming aren’t necessarily very mannerly. Um, the rise in social media and Instagram, and this idea of I need to get the perfect shot as opposed to experience the perfect sunset or visit the perfect museum has also changed the way that we, we travel and experience the places that we go to. Keep in mind too, that tourism in general is very trendy. So when I was living in Croatia, I lived in Zagreb the summer before Croatia joined the EU, the summer joined the EU, and the summer after, and suddenly Zagreb was the hotspot for tourists, and so everybody was there. And that immediately impacted things like services for residents and the prices of things and whether or not there were apartments available at reasonable rates or were foreign investors buying them up all the time. I know Vancouver had a similar instance where a lot of people were buying properties that they were not living in and keeping them as investment properties. So all of these things, when you, when you upset the balance of a city for its residents that occasionally accommodates tourists versus a city that is dependent on tourism to support its residents. It’s a different dynamic and that’s something that cities around the world are really having to grapple with as they are seeing more and more people traveling.
Jordan: What kind of actual evidence, uh, did you see in Vancouver or did they tell you about, just in terms of, you know, its impact on popular landmarks or the city in general, and what have other places around the world done to curb some of that, uh, 80 million people lined up for the same Instagram shot?
Molly: Well, if you take an instance like Quarry Rock in North Van, which I love North Van, I, uh, it’s, I climbed the grass grind a couple of years ago and fell and got to experience Canadian healthcare. Cause the first time I was ever in Vancouver. But if you look at something like a Quarry Rock, which was, you know, a community hiking trail, it was a place that the locals knew they’d spend a Saturday. And suddenly it became an international destination. And so you had very large tour buses trying to cram into parking lots that were really just meant for locals and for, you know, Sedans, um, maybe a minivan or two. The trail, you know, getting to the trail, there was lots of gridlock. There was community tension. This idea of we’re being invaded by people that are not in our town.
Jordan: I’m sure it must feel that way.
Molly: It caused a lot of tension. And so they put in, you know, there were new parking laws, there were new fines, there were overflow areas. They would, um, the locals would put up signs that basically said, like, the trail head is full.
Like this is not the day for you to come to the trail head. And as a result of working with the locals, the team at tourism Vancouver finally said, okay, you know what. We agree, we will just flat out not promote Quarry Rock at all, and we will start promoting other areas. And it’s that sort of dynamic that I found was really helpful in Vancouver and really set a standard where the tourism board is really engaging with the locals. They, you know, do a survey at the beginning and the end of each season saying, Hey, how do you feel about tourism? What was it like for you this summer? Were you able to get where you needed to go and enjoy your, you know, your regular standard of living that you normally would expect. And I also want to point out, and maybe this is, you know, old hat for Canadians, but Vancouver is a truly exceptional place. It’s, you know, it’s as a tourism destination, it’s stunningly beautiful. It’s very easily accessible. It has a great downtown city. I can hop on a bike and get around Stanley Park, which I love. I can, you know, hop on a bus in within, you know, a short distance be up at North Van and the grass grind and grass mountain. That sort of accessibility for somebody that wants to pop away for a weekend, enjoy a city, not have to feel like they’re out in the middle of nowhere, or they have to spend days getting to someplace really stunningly beautiful, is something not to be taken for granted. And it’s also something that that will make it even more attractive to folks that want to come visit. So Vancouver probably will have tourism problems or challenges that more remote cities, less attractive cities, less accessible cities will not have. I know in San Francisco, I love popping up to Vancouver for a weekend because it’s easy for me to do that. I couldn’t necessarily do that when I was living in Washington.
Jordan: Right, and so what does a tourism board do about something like that? Because on the one hand, they can work with the locals on specific locations, but, uh, on the other hand, they’re not going to go out there and tell people not to come to Vancouver, are they?
Molly: That was one of the questions that I asked was at what point do you say, we’re just closed.
Jordan: We’re full, go away.
Molly: We’re completely full. And I’ve had the misfortune of being in some cities that maybe they should have hung out the closed sign for a while because you couldn’t walk down the street and you couldn’t find a hotel and you couldn’t really find any food to eat cause all the restaurants were packed. So that makes it just unpleasant for anybody. But you know, I really appreciate that, as I was talking to different officials, and I should mention that the different cities that I profiled in my story were cities that I have familiarity with. They are places that I’ve lived in their places that I’ve traveled to and have looked around and said, wow, there’s just too many people here. There’s just there’s too many people. Um, there’s too many people that are trying to get around, and you know, the signs aren’t such that you can get around easily, and so now you have a lot of frustrated tourists getting lost. Um, but one of the things I really liked was looking at the solutions piece of it. Right? Because there are solutions, there are some seemingly simple cost-effective solutions to ensuring that people that are coming to visit are not all clustering on the National Mall in Washington, for instance. Or they’re not all driving down, you know, Lombardy street in San Francisco. That there are resources, there’s information on where to go that’s interesting and unusual and not super crowded. Um, I loved the example of, um, Travel Oregon. When all the wildfires were going on in the West, and the tourism officials that travel Oregon said, you know what? Like, we have the same tourist as Washington state and the state of California, and we’re all basically on fire at this point. So there’s really no point in trying to convince our tourists that, yes, you absolutely need to come to Portland or Bend, uh, and, and complicate things when there’s a natural emergency. And they, the officials that travel Oregon and the travel bureaus in Washington state and California collaborated and figured, you know, if, if you were going to be coming to Portland, for example, let’s redirect you to Bend, which is also a really cool city. Or if you were going to come to Seattle, there’s, you know, maybe a little bit too much going on in Seattle. So let’s talk about Tacoma. And they really collaborated to make sure that people that were coming, keep in mind, people book vacations ages in advance, they’re coming internationally. It’s a huge expense. Maybe it’s the one week vacation you get a year with your family. You don’t necessarily want to have a bad experience. That also leaves a really bad taste in your mouth. If you hate Vancouver, you will never come back to Vancouver and you will tell all your friends not to come back to Vancouver, for instance. So this idea that we’re going to spread people out and we’re going to collaborate and let people know where the resources are. It’s just a really fascinating one, and I think it’s the direction that a lot of travel agencies are going to be going in.
Jordan: Is there anything places like Portland, Oregon, or like Vancouver or even other Canadian cities can learn from Europe where they’ve been presumably dealing with this for forever?
I mean, you mentioned Venice and Barcelona. I was in Dubrovnik in Croatia at the height of the game of Thrones popularity, and it was just lines down the block to take that one picture on the steps where whatever happened. How long has Europe been dealing with this and what have they done that we can do?
Molly: Well, you know, it’s fascinating that you mentioned Dubrovnik because when I was living in Zagreb, we were all, we were all in Dubrovnik and we were, you know, enjoying our little cafe in the Plaza. And as you know, Dubrovnik’s a walled city and there’s a little gap that leads down to the port. And we didn’t realize we were there on the first day of the cruise ship season. And so we’re sitting there and we’re drinking her coffee and we look up and we just see this huge swarm of tourists coming through like locusts into the Plaza, and we actually cut our vacation short and hop the bus to Sarajevo because it was just, I’d never seen anything like it.
Jordan: Well, you can get a real sense in a place like Dubrovnik, that is a walled city, of just how much room you have. And then when these extra people come in, there’s a finite amount of space, unlike in kind of like Vancouver or Toronto, where, you know, the blocks get progressively more crowded, but there’s no actual walls.
Molly: Sure. So one of the things, I mean, so to answer your question about how long Europe has been dealing with this– for awhile, right? Um, Europe has always been popular tourist destinations. Uh, the thing too about Europe city, European cities, to keep in mind is travels trendy, right? So one city’s a hotspot one year, and it’s not the hotspot, the next year. I was in Barcelona, the year that there had been, um, terrorism attacks in Paris and Cairo. And, um, there were four of four or five– there were four or five within the same year. And so none of those places were getting the tourism numbers that they used to because everybody went to Barcelona. And so that completely overwhelmed the city. And of course Barcelona wasn’t going to say, no, don’t come. So, you know, the thing I really appreciated about the different European tourism boards that I spoke with was they really have been diligent about implementing alternative travel plans. I mean, I think, I give the example, you know, the Vienna tourism office has a random experience generator where tourists can go in to their little shop right on the Plaza and you know, push a button. And it’ll say, Hey, maybe try here. And then algorithm is based on, you know, where they know the tourists are, what the hot spot is that moment, you know, and, and redirecting people. Um, I also think I pointed out that Amsterdam has just stopped tourism promotion. Uh, they’ve shut down certain tourist attractions entirely. Um, Brussels has kept its daily cruise ship allowance from five to two. Monte Carlo I loved because they just flat out do not let anything more than a certain number of buses in per day. They do not market to the day trip crowd. They only market to people that can stay in the hotels, which, you know, there aren’t, um, hostels in Monte Carlo. There aren’t, you know, there’s, there are no budget hotels and Monte Carlos. So them saying, no, we, we really only market to a certain price point is really what they were saying. But they’ve done that very practically to keep the crowds to a minimum.
Jordan: How far away is Vancouver and maybe by extension other Canadian cities from having to take those measures as opposed to just, you know, directing people away from one or two landmarks?
Molly: Well, Vancouver is not shutting down for business yet. I mean, I think that’s important to mention. They are taking a couple of serious steps, including trying to host larger events, signature events in the shoulder seasons. They’re trying to do more in the spring and the fall and really directing people to that time of the year when the hotels are not as crowded. Keep in mind too, with the rise of, you know, things like Airbnb, the investment for infrastructure has shifted away from tourism in that manner. So more people are buying, say condos, than they would invest in a large scale hotel. And that makes it a little bit different in terms of tracking it as well. You know, who’s staying in your hotels. The numbers are there pretty clearly. Airbnb is, it’s a little bit difficult to tell, you know, people are renting out apartments or not, how many people are staying in town or not, whether it’s for tourism or for other purposes. It’s a different beast entirely, and I think a lot of cities are certainly struggling a little bit to keep up with that, get the reporting that they used to have, get the data that they used to have and then being able to adapt accordingly.
Jordan: Where do we go from here?
Molly: I think the way that we go from here is twofold. I think as travelers, we need to be more diligent about where we go, when we’re going, what we’re doing there. I think that’s key. I mean, everybody wants to see the Eiffel tower, right? But there are a ton of amazing places in Paris. Everybody wants to see the certain, you know, iconic items, and destinations, but maybe we’re more diligent about maybe not all going in July and August, or, you know, the first time I ever went to Paris in the middle of January and it was freezing, but I went because I got a super cheap airfare and discounted hotels. I think, you know, as travelers, we need to be diligent if that. As tourism bureaus, I think many places are taking very necessary steps, uh, to do things like surge pricing, ticketing, even if they’re free tickets to just metre out the people that are at any given point. And I think to the heart of any city is its people. And I think as long as cities are really putting their residents first and realizing that tourism plays a critical role, but just one role in a functioning healthy city that serves everybody that lives and visits there, there’ll be in good shape.
Jordan: Listen, if you, uh. Want to come to Toronto, do it now it’s freezing. There’s nobody here. There’s no one.
Molly: You know, I just moved back to California cause I missed the weather. So, but I’m dealing with wildfires and earthquakes and you know, it’s its own, its own chaos. So we’ll see. I’m hoping not to travel a whole lot this for the next couple of months.
Jordan: Thank you so much for joining us.
Molly: Thank you.
Jordan: Molly McCluskey is a contributor at CityLab. And that was The Big Story. We’re back now and if you want more, we’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca. We are also always ready to chat on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. If you’d like to see our whole network head to frequencypodcastnetwork.com or find us on Twitter, on Instagram, or on Facebook at @frequencypods.
You can find us anywhere you get podcasts, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, doesn’t matter. Unless it lets you rate and review, in which case it does matter and we need that five stars. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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