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Seoul Spearheads Global Efforts to Promote Sustainable Urban Tourism

Local residents in Bukcheon Hanook Village began to feel burdened and overwhelmed by the large number of tourist coming to see their traditional Korean houses | Image credit: Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs

“Tourists, go home.”

“Tourists: Your luxury trip, my daily misery.”

“Your tourism kills my neighborhood.”

These kinds of sentiments have likely been heard in travel destinations that have become victims of their own success and attractiveness. Indeed, for many residents living in popular landmarks, tourism can often be a nightmare rather than a dream.

While many cities have been overwhelmed by mass tourism and what is now called “overtourism,” Seoul has been striving to promote alternative forms of tourism that do not put pressure on destinations and offer quality experiences to citizens as well as visitors.

As the host city of last week’s 7th UNWTO Global Summit on Urban Tourism, the South Korean capital is determined to spearhead global discussions and efforts towards fair, responsible and sustainable urban tourism.

The burden of overtourism

Over the past decade, international tourist arrivals (or overnight visitors) have grown steadily across the world to reach a total of 1.3 billion, according to estimates published by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). In 2017, international arrivals grew by 7 percent, the highest increase since 2010, and are expected to exceed the threshold of 1.8 billion by 2030.

The world third-largest export sector, tourism is a fast-growing industry that accounts for 10.4 percent of global GDP through its direct, indirect and induced effects, and represents one in 10 jobs on the planet. Due to the investment and economic benefits or opportunities it provides, tourism has become a priority sector for many countries, especially in developing nations.

The benefits of tourism have been acknowledged by the United Nations and the international community: At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012, global leaders recognized that “well-designed and well-managed tourism” can contribute to the three dimensions of sustainable development, to job creation and to trade. Tourism is clearly mentioned in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and three of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and the UN General Assembly designated 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

Having said that, tourism-development strategies have usually focused on quantitative rather than qualitative objectives, namely increasing the number of tourism arrivals, most of the time without any specific plans to prevent, control and monitor the negative impacts of tourism.

As a human activity, tourism is a heavy consumer of local resources that are often scarce. Occasionally dubbed “an industry without chimney,” tourism can cause environmental damages and pollution, including noise and visual pollution. Even if tourism has been taking its toll on destinations for decades, the term “overtourism” is actually quite new and became a hot topic and concern only a few years ago. According to a 2017 report by the World Travel & Tourism Council and McKinsey, it can be associated with a variety of issues, including alienated locals, degraded tourist experience, overloaded infrastructure, damage to nature, and threats to culture and heritage.

Moreover, a recent study by the University of Sydney quantified the carbon footprint of the global travel and tourism industry across the supply chain, and revealed that it contributed to 8 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 70 percent of them due to transportation. It is likely that this contribution will continue to grow in the future, and some tourism experiences and even destinations might disappear due to climate change.

In addition to megatrends such as globalization, urbanization, demographic shifts, rising middle-class and affluence – together with technological innovations leading to increased convenience and awareness, the emergence of new tourist destinations, and the rapid rise of low-cost carriers – have fueled the expansion of international travel at a tremendous rate. Due to the overcrowding of their environments and the subsequent nuisances and disturbances, local residents have been feeling the stress, leading to a growing rejection of tourists and tourism, sometimes called tourist-phobia. This has been worsened by the emergence of home-sharing platforms that have priced residents out of the property market.  

At the same time, there has been a growing interest or even demand for more responsible and respectful forms of tourism that have net positive effects and impacts on the visited areas and their residents, at environmental, social and cultural levels. The concept of fair travel, responsible tourism or sustainable tourism has emerged as an attempt to reconcile and harmonize the sometimes opposing needs and experiences of all tourism stakeholders, while optimizing their immediate and future effects on local economies, societies, cultures and environments. In the end, sustainable tourism can be defined either as a strategic vision (or visionary strategy), a business model or a lifestyle.

Overtourism and cities

Research indicates that the volume of tourism demand for city destinations has increased by approximately 50  percent worldwide in the last decade.

Some key destinations, particularly European cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Venice, just to name a few, have been exploring various measures to preserve the quality of life of their citizens without giving up on tourism development, promotion and competitiveness.  

The seventh-largest city in the world with almost 10 million inhabitants and the third-largest metropolis with more than 25.6 million people, Seoul has been actively and efficiently promoted as a top urban destination for leisure and business over the past decades, which resulted in a significant growth of international arrivals.

In 2016, the Seoul Metropolitan Government recorded 13.5 million foreign visitors. It was estimated that the milestone of 20 million arrivals would be achieved in 2018, boosted by the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. In comparison, Venice’s 63,000 residents receive 30 million visitors a year.  

Concurrently, various landmarks in Seoul – for example, the villages of Ehwa and Bukchon in the central district of Jongno – have already suffered from excessive noise, traffic congestion and littering due to overcrowding. Due to its well-preserved Korean houses known as hanok, which date back to the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897), Bukchon village has become a key tourist attraction, receiving a daily average of 10,000 visitors, 70 percent of them foreign tourists. In the 2000s, Bukchon residents were encouraged to renovate their hanok through government support so that these traditional houses could be promoted as key sightseeing spots and even offer home stays. However, the locals quickly started to feel overwhelmed by the uncontrolled flows of tourists; according to an academic study released in 2017, the tourism boom in Bukchon contributed to a 14 percent decrease in the number of residents over the past five years.

This situation prompted Seoul to explore sustainable strategies through developing new tourism experiences and contents, focusing on value over volume – through indicators such as the level of spending per visitor, the propensity to consume, and revisit rate – and establishing a series of measures to prevent overtourism.

Fair and sustainable solutions in Seoul

Image credit: Millennium Destinations

The first Seoul International Fair & Sustainable Tourism (SIFT) Forum was held in 2016 to discuss topics related to sustainable tourism and community-based tourism in megacities, including Bukchon. Hosted annually by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in collaboration with UNWTO and organized by the Seoul Tourism Organization, the SIFT Forum has gathered global and local experts and policy-makers, representatives of tourism business and academia to advance strategies and practical solutions to address the needs of the local communities as well as the visitors.

The Seoul International Fair & Sustainable Tourism Forum 2018 took place on 18 September, in conjunction with the 7th UNWTO Global Summit on Urban Tourism in Seoul. The Session was attended by hundreds of high-level representatives from national tourism administrations, city authorities and related tourism stakeholders, and offered a venue to share policy strategies and action plans to handle overtourism and to promote harmonious relationships between all stakeholders/co-creators of the tourist experiences, including travelers, host communities, tour operators, etc. Five panelists representing the cities of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Cape Town, Venice and Seoul tourism organizations provided their insights on how to adopt a local approach to economic and social development in urban destinations by integrating the local community into the tourism value chain.

Two of the major outcomes of SIFT 2018 were the launch of the UNWTO report Overtourism? Understanding and managing urban tourism growth beyond perceptions; and the signing of MoUs between the Seoul Metropolitan Government and Venice Municipality Council, and between the Seoul Tourism Organization and Amsterdam Marketing for the joint development and promotion of fair and sustainable tourism.

Promoting compassionate and responsible travel behaviors

As a result of the two first SIFT Forums, the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Jongno District last month announced a set of eight measures aimed at promoting fair and sustainable tourism in Bukchon through better management of the flows of tourists. Moreover, during the 7th UNWTO Global Summit, Seoul announced the second edition of the Fair Travel Living Together" campaign, aimed at promoting mutually beneficial relationships between tourists and host communities.

Now in its second year, the global campaign seeks to:

  • Raise global public awareness of the issues related to fair travel and sustainable tourism;
  • Mobilize action from all involved stakeholders, particularly urban destinations and global organizations involved in tourism;
  • Promote fair and sustainable behaviors and respect from travelers for host communities. 

Good planning and management have been identified as key factors of success not only for sustainable tourism development, but also for overcoming the challenges of overcrowding / overtourism. Based on its experience and the lessons learnt throughout its modern history, Seoul has proven its willingness and capacity to become a model of a smart, sustainable, resilient and hospitable city. Each destination is unique and should have its own agenda, but all tourism stakeholders must continuously engage and join forces, so that the sector can grow in a responsible way, towards peace, global prosperity, social inclusiveness and environmental sustainability.


Catherine Germier-Hamel is founder and CEO of Millennium Destinations, based in Korea.

[Read more about Catherine Germier-Hamel]


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