A UN summit in Kazakhstan last week on tourism in cities brought together leading public and private actors from around the world to try to make urban tourism a win-win for residents and tourists alike.

It may come as a surprise to you that “over-tourism” was one of the most popular words of 2018.

But if cities could talk, they may agree. More than 500 million of the 1.4 billion international tourist trips taken worldwide last year involved a visit to some of the globe’s 300 most popular cities, many of them in Asia.

Last week Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s newly renamed capital, hosted the 8th United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Summit on Urban Tourism. The event aimed at “identifying the challenges cities face as tourist numbers continue to rise around the world, and to explore solutions so that this growth can be properly managed,” as Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general of this UN agency, described the event.

“Globalization is leading to the removal of barriers for tourism,” Altai Kulginov, mayor of Nur-Sultan, noted during the opening ceremony of the summit, which drew mayors and representatives from more than 80 countries.

Depending on who you talk to, this could be good or bad news.

As the Declaration that emerged from the event admitted, “the growth of urban tourism also creates important challenges in terms of the use of natural resources, environmental changes, socio-cultural impact, pressure on infrastructure, mobility, peace and security, congestion management and the relationship with host communities.”

Negative impacts

Mochamad Basuki Hadimuljono, Indonesia’s Minister of Public Works and Housing, said at the summit: “It is crucial to preserve our environment and the local culture from the negative influences that tourism sometimes brings.”

“We need to teach in schools that tourists not only bring prosperity to the city. If residents seek to interact with our visitors, they will be enriched too,” Bekturova Malika, deputy mayor of Nur-Sultan, told Asia Times.

Officials speaking in Nur-Sultan agreed that over-tourism – or congestion, as the UNWTO refers to it – is never a citywide phenomenon, but rather, an annoying concentration of visitors in highly popular areas. It is an event aggravated by the seasons.

“We need to create a greater variety of spaces attractive for tourists, so that they are not only spread more evenly over the city, but also have an incentive to stay more days,”  said Khachit Chatchawanit, deputy permanent secretary of Bangkok’s Metropolitan Administration.

Khachit spoke on the sidelines of the summit. With 23 million tourists received in 2018, Bangkok has been the world’s most visited city for the last four years.

High-tech solutions

The overarching conclusion from this summit was that the future of urban tourism belongs to smart cities – places where innovation, technology, accessibility, sustainability and good governance address the downsides brought by the masses and manage growth in the sector.

The Nur-Sultan Declaration – called ‘Smart Cities, Smart Destinations’ – envisions how big data, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, virtual and augmented reality will help cities better manage their flows of visitors.

“Technology can make a difference in exposing tourists to other areas and activities in the places where they travel. For example, the Chinese city of Hangzhou uses SMS, online applications and social media to inform visitors where and when a place is exceeding a comfortable degree of visitation, proposing alternative places to visit,” Sandra Carvão, the UNWTO chief for Market Intelligence and Competitiveness, told Asia Times.

Ms Carvão was citing a UNWTO report she helped edit that also features how Macao has developed virtual reality applications to help tourists complete their visits to some of the city’s most overcrowded sites, in case they could not manage to explore them all.

“In Helsinki we use a WeChat application to help Chinese tourists navigate the Finnish capital,” Pia Pakarinen, the deputy mayor of Helsinki, said.

But technology and better management alone will not ease the inconvenience that over-tourism presents to urban residents. For the “tourist go home” slogan seen in some of world’s most popular cities to be a thing of the past, visitors themselves should make an effort to learn and respect the local customs, as they try to reduce their footprint in the places they chose to go.

“Bangkok still has the capacity to welcome more tourists,” Khun Khachit said about the world’s most visited city.

Such confidence probably echoes the view of most cities around the world. The meeting in Kazakhstan showed that at least, this ambition comes with the recognition that “business as usual” is not an option.