October 6, 2022

Sustainable Tourism

Guest Opinion
By Karen Mulvahill | Sept. 10, 2022

Traditionally, Labor Day marks the end of summer, the time when children return to school and tourists go home and locals breathe a huge sigh of relief. Following a gloomy, sometimes grueling winter, those of us who live in northern Michigan year-round feel like we’ve earned our beautiful summer. But by the time August comes around, we find ourselves longing for September.

Rave reviews in national publications have increased visitors to northern Michigan, as has the pandemic, with people looking for smaller, perceived safer communities to visit. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore broke attendance records in 2021, with 1.7 million visitors (mostly in July and August). That’s up from 1.3 million in 2010, and, given the same growth rate, will be 2.2 million in another 10 years. The total population of Leelanau County, where the dunes are located, is about 22,000. The Cherry Festival brings more than a half million people into Grand Traverse County, which has a population of 97,000. It’s no wonder we sometimes feel overwhelmed.

A few years ago, I visited a lake in upstate New York with a friend. The lake was rimmed with cottages and motels and carpeted with boats and jet skis. When we went to town for dinner, the sidewalks were elbow-to-elbow with people, and the restaurants had such long waits that we’d be ready for breakfast by the time we got fed. I wouldn’t visit there again and most certainly would not consider living there.

Yet, in more than one of our area’s towns this summer, I had the same feeling. Have we passed the tipping point from sustainable tourism to overtourism? How can we preserve communities that people actually want to live in, not just visit for a week or two?

The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” Overtourism is what happens when the “carrying capacity” of a community is exceeded. Carrying capacity includes physical (lodging), economic (cost/benefit), social (changes caused by tourism), and biophysical (ecosystem) metrics.

The impact of tourism is usually expressed solely in economic terms, specifically dollars brought into the community. Those dollars are mostly spent in hotels, restaurants, and retail shops. But the costs to the host communities are rarely itemized. These include wear and tear on the infrastructure, environmental damage, rising prices, noise, crowds, and changing the culture of a community.

Left unchecked, tourism affects many other issues in the community. For example, as short-term rentals proliferate, year-round housing is eliminated. Lack of affordable housing then limits the people who can live here and eliminates a source of labor for the very businesses that benefit from tourism. Year-round populations diminish, reducing support for schools and other community assets. Communities are in danger of becoming hollowed out shells in the winter and Disney-like villages in the summer.

Some say that any attempt to stifle or regulate tourism is motivated by people who found their slice of paradise and now want to keep everyone else out. The fact is, if we don’t carefully plan and regulate tourism, we will lose the character that attracted people in the first place.

The Michigan Association of Planning produced a document called “Master Planning for Tourism in Michigan” in 2020 that addresses many of the issues and impacts related to tourism. It provides “guidance…to plan for tourism that supports the community’s economy and quality of life while protecting and enhancing the unique cultural and natural assets that attract these visitors.”

Here are some things other communities are doing to ensure that tourism’s overall effects on the host community are positive: curtailing or eliminating short-term rentals, especially in areas zoned residential; providing financial incentives for affordable housing; reducing the size and duration of summer events and moving some to other times of the year; eliminating advertising programs designed to increase tourism; developing winter tourist activities to spread out the visitors and provide businesses with a more stable base of customers; and taxing tourist revenue to offset infrastructure expenses.

If we are at or approaching overtourism, we need to be especially vigilant about analyzing the impact of new developments designed to bring even more tourists. Local governments and planning commissions can and should address the potential negative impacts of tourism in their planning processes. This is within the purview of community planning commissions.

Volunteer to serve on your local planning commission (I spent six years on mine), or attend their meetings and ask about tourism planning.

If you know not where you’re going, any road will take you there. But you may find it’s not a place you want to be.

Karen Mulvahill is a writer living in northern Michigan.

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