Could giant theme parks provide the answer to overtourism?

Emma Cooke
CocoCay, one of a number of private islands aimed solely at tourists - Royal Caribbean International

Overtourism is on the up. The likes of Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona and Boracay have long been feeling the effects of overcrowding, while a host of other destinations, from Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts to Tel Aviv, are starting to struggle too. 

As overtourism gets its sticky fingers all over the world’s landscapes, both urban and natural, everyone from world organisations to local protesters have been getting involved in the fight against it. But a solution could come from an unlikely source.

Behemoth of both dreams and holidays, Disney recently announced it will be creating a new private island resort in the Bahamas as a stop for its cruise line.

It’s not the first of its kind. A clutch of other giant island theme parks, created for the sole purpose of accommodating tourists, have been built, many with huge brand names and budgets behind them.

These travel goliaths may seem counterintuitive to stopping overtourism, but by siphoning people into dedicated holiday spaces, they may be providing valuable relief to destinations buckling under the weight of their own popularity.

Boracay is struggling to keep up with tourism damage Credit: Getty

Too many people

Locals have been moaning about tourists for centuries. What has changed, however, are the numbers.

In the 1950s, the world saw about 25 million tourist arrivals per year. Now that number has grown to 1.4 billion, and the World Tourism Organization predicts it will rise to 1.8 billion by 2030.

In some destinations, the cracks are beginning to show. The Louvre closed in May this year after staff walked out citing management’s inability to manage overcrowding. In a statement released by the worker’s union, the message was clear: “The Louvre is suffocating.”

Meanwhile, Amsterdam has taken major steps to control visitor flow, and Thailand announced the closure of Maya Bay to tourists until at least 2021. These are only the most recent skirmishes against the rising influx of travellers.

The issue is simple. Too many people want to travel and the famous cities, popular tropical islands and coastal towns can’t accommodate them all. 

Too beautiful for it's own good? Maya Bay is now closed to tourists until 2021 Credit: Getty

Positive redirection

The travel industry is taking the issue seriously. Overtourism was a top priority at the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) global summit in Buenos Aires in 2018, and 2019 has seen an even stronger push for tangible action.

For many tourist boards, including those in Amsterdam and Dubrovnik, this has meant shifting focus to ‘positive redirection’, in an attempt to navigate the catch 22 of wanting to promote tourism without it being at the expense of local communities.

In essence, this means suggesting quieter locations and off-season travel to tourists. 

But not everyone wants to make the extra effort. Holidays, by their very definition, should be a stress-free treat, so it’s understandable that some are reluctant to look for harder-to-reach destinations. 

The answer? Positive redirection towards destinations tailor-made for holidays.

A one-stop paradise

Last month, Disney fans were delighted at the company’s announcement of Lighthouse Point, their new Caribbean island getaway. This is only the latest in a string of private island holiday retreats.

In 2018, CocoCay, the first in Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day Island Collection was revealed as part of a new series of exclusive private islands to be unveiled around the world, including in Asia, Australia and the Caribbean. 

It’s not all about islands either. American Dream, a mega attraction featuring a Nickelodeon theme park is due to open outside New York next month, and in April ITV announced a partnership with The London Resort to create the ‘British Disneyland’.

Crucially all these mega theme parks, whether island-based or not, will include hotel rooms. The London Resort will have a whopping 3,500 rooms, while at American Dream visitors can stay in luxury cabanas with prime views of Manhattan.

Rather than a port-of-call or destination within a holiday, these parks are being sold as a one-stop-shop for all your holiday needs.

A visualiation of The London Resort, a £4bn theme park planned for Kent's Swanscombe Peninsula

Freedom to unleash your inner tourist

The anti-tourist graffiti is on the wall. Reports of badly behaved revellers and tight-fisted day-trippers are all fueling a growing backlash against sightseers who like to follow the crowd.

Plan a trip to a mega theme park however, and you might be helping residents rather than infuriating them.

Disney’s Lighthouse Point, for instance, will be injecting resources back into the Bahamas via the Disney Conservation Fund.

Other companies may not be as involved in conservation work, nor will the idea of an untouched island being developed solely for tourists please everyone, but in a travel industry that’s showing no signs of slowing down there are benefits to these private parks.

By keeping tourists in an area exclusively for them, they’re arguably killing two birds with one stone. Holidaymakers can have an unrestricted experience, while staying out of the locals’ hair.

As visitor numbers increase, so does anti-tourist feeling Credit: Getty

A win-win situation?

Though it’s unlikely a Disney-run seaside adventure park will satiate anyone’s thirst for the culture of Amsterdam or the floating mystique of Venice, tourist-only islands may help take the pressure off overrun beach destinations.

The benefits go both ways. Thirty million people are expected to cruise in 2019, up from 17.8 million a decade earlier.

In the face of rising demand – and places like Santorini clamping down on visitor numbers –having an island’s worth of space for passengers will come in handy for big cruise brands.

Meanwhile, for destinations like New York inland parks could also be a solution to the dilemma of promoting tourism without compromising local communities.

A nearby mega theme park could keep visitors coming – but hopefully save treasured sights from drowning under their weight.

Do you think mega theme parks could help overtourism? Would you plan a holiday to one? Tell us in the comments section below. 

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