United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Case Study: Challenges and Responses to Overtourism in Cambridge, UK.
Dr. Michael B. Duignan, Senior Lecturer specializing in the management and development of the Visitor Economy at Coventry University, School of Marketing and Management, Coventry Business School, UK.
– Mrs Emma Thornton (Chief Executive of Visit Cambridge and Beyond, DMO);
– Mr Ian Sandison (Chief Executive of the Cambridge Business Improvement District);
– Mr Joel Carre (Head of Environmental Services at Cambridge City Council);
– Mrs Tracey Harding (Director of VisitEly, DMO).
Our case focuses on the real and perceived challenges associated with over tourism, focused on the touristic-historic city of Cambridge, UK – informed by knowledge and research by the author, and four central perspectives provided by the contributors. Senior perspectives are triangulated against a series of strategic and policy documentation focused on understanding and managing tourism at the city and regional level. The case attempts to capture both written, agreed objectives, tactics, mechanisms, and targeted stakeholder groups related to Cambridge’s approach to tackling over-tourism – and – weaves in more informal, but critically important approaches outside of fixed strategic and policy documentation to add texture and to fully understand actions taken across the city. Writing this case has provided the author and contributors with a unique impetus to bring together what can often be a disparate set of strategies, policies, and on-the-ground actions – to examine exactly what the city and related stakeholders are doing – to tackle the pervasive objective and subjective threat – and local resistance to – over-tourism.
A clear concern for Cambridge, and for other cities perhaps is the question of: How do you know when you’re over (tourism) when you do not have an objective tipping point – or benchmark – to know how many visitors a destination can accommodate at a particular time? This is not a criticism of the city, contributors and related stakeholders, but an issue posing an epistemological challenge: How can we access and find out such practical knowledge, and what inclusion and exclusion criteria can we apply to generate such a value? After all, the city is an amorphous, permeable geographical construct with a fluid boundary structure, unlike a fixed, bounded organizational structure of let’s say a hotel with a set number of bedrooms. Unless you’re in a walled city you can’t (easily) close to the doors to visitors – they bleed in. If we don’t quantify and qualify whether or not a city is ‘over’ a quota – cities like Cambridge may well fall victim to the social construction of the threat – as opposed to an objective, rather real threat of being over-crowded, congested, and stretched beyond its limit. And if left to the imagination of its population: an intellectual collective of scholars, highly educated individuals – the socially-constructed threat of over-tourism becomes greater. After all, the threat is relative to those with the power, influence and language to construct it.
On 1st February 2016, VisitCambridge and Beyond Ltd (VCB) was launched, an entity evolving out of the Cambridge City Council tourism service. VCB is the official, overarching Destination Management Organisation (DMO) for Cambridge and surrounding areas. They have a series of core values and objectives: i) to develop more value from the visitor economy, ii) provide a great visitor experience, iii) established to consider and subsequently develop a long-term sustainable model for tourism management and delivery for Cambridge and the surrounding area. Operationally, VCB manages visitors – and their experiences – through enhancing visitor: i) welcome, ii) information, iii) professional tours. Strategically, VCB serve to market and promote Cambridge and the surrounding area, advocate for certain policies that help achieve aforementioned operational and strategic objectives, and engage in research, intelligence and business support. Additionally, they work closely with local universities (Anglia Ruskin and University of Cambridge) to achieve these ambitions, and have engaged closely with other tourism cities (e.g. Heritage Cities group), regional and national tourism bodies (e.g. VisitBritain) to bid and secure grant money to achieve organizational objectives stated above. VCB is 97% self funded with less than 3% public funding. – therefore – they actively look for external funds like research grants, and are a business led partnership with representation from a broad range of stakeholders representing all those who have a stake or are affected by the visitor economy.
Prior to outlining the specific strategies, objectives, measures, stakeholders involved and results, the author asked the contributors to reflect more broadly on the current and future state of over-tourism. Line of questioning focused on:
- i) “the over-tourism problematic” – including: i) whether they thought the city has an issue with over-tourism and visitor pressures, why that may be the case, and what are the attributed social, economic and environmental pressures such conditions may have for the city. And ii) what have been, and perhaps continue to be the main cases for over-tourism, and broadly speaking what needs to be done to overcome some of these issues.
– And –
- ii) “understanding carrying capacity” – including whether they had an idea of current carrying capacities across the city broadly, and for specific urban zones, what could be the objective measures for knowing whether the city of ‘over’ capacity, and how could we – as a city – proactively measure this going forward.
Summary of responses: Everyone identified that over-tourism is a very-real, persistent objective – and subjective – challenge. By objective, we mean the clear influx of visitors at the peak of summer season (late June to mid-late September). Joel claims that “visitor numbers to the city have done up approx. 3 million in approx. 3 years – the majority of these coach borne day visits”. He added that there are clear, objective indicators placing pressure on city center services (i.e. public toilets, and what he refers to as ‘public realm cleansing’ which includes bin emptying, litter picking). He suggested that despite the large visitor numbers there is actually little direct local economic gain, as day trippers go to, retain and consume within often central “honey-pot” sites – causing inner-city congestion, management problems (i.e. coaches) and conflict between local population, pedestrians and cyclists [it is however important to note that visitors, whether day – or longer-stays – is central to local economic growth: we must however, where possible convert day trippers into longer, deeper cultural stays and encourage visitation beyond central sites]. Ian suggested that the Cambridge BID has 5 City Centre footfall counters, alongside a wealth of data from shopping centers (e.g. Grand Arcade, Lion Yard) and multi-story car-parks (e.g. Queen Anne, Park Street), “Park and Ride” (e.g. Trumpington, Babraham), the “Guided Bus” service collecting villages with the city – producing monthly reports on usage. Joel suggested that measuring coach drop off and parking capacity are central to understanding the extent of over-crowding and estimating over-tourism effects to inform the Cambridge City Council’s “Spaces and Movement Strategy” and add more objective, qualifiable measures to tell whether we are ‘over’ – or not. By subjective, we mean the ‘feeling’ of being overwhelmed and the use of anecdotal, as opposed to qualifiable, statistical evidence. This is not to say it is less-valuable than statistic, somewhat on the contrary – it adds a human-dimension, and a cultural (perhaps political) dimension to the local challenges of over-tourism. Contributors outlined how local thought on over-tourism is more ‘anecdotal evidence’ (Joel) and there is a “strong impression that certain streets: Kings Parade, Trinity Street, Quayside, Garret Hostel Lane get very busy” (Ian).
It was clear why Cambridge may – or may not – suffer from over-tourism. First, it’s a highly dense city, geographically compact with a significant number of cultural and heritage attractions situated within the very center. It has an international reputation for education and scholarly excellence. Most central attractions are focused on, in or immediately around the University of Cambridge colleges, buildings, landmarks – including punting activities that roam up and down the River Cam predominantly using the university as the backdrop. Even when admiring the streetscapes, religious buildings, cobbled streets, and market square day trippers need not venture too far off the beaten track. This is helped by bountiful, open green space within the central areas – combined with the river and stunning architecture – leads to the perception of Cambridge as a one day destination (or even worse, the 8 hour tourist problematic – see Duignan and Wilbert, 2017). Ian remarked that one of the key reasons why visitors do not stay is due to the high prices of hotels. The city has seen a major growth of in-bound Chinese visitors in the last decade – in no small part due to the famous Chinese poet Xu Zhimo who studied in Cambridge and who has a commemorative stone in the grounds of Kings College. It is all these things that can be done within a whistle-stop tour on a day trip visit from close-by cities London and Oxford et cetera – leads to a form of “tick-box tourism” as remarked by Joel.
Contributors suggested that as a result of the feeling and sense of over-tourism, “anecdotally local residents complain of being put off using city center at peak times” as remarked by Joel and that “there is anecdotal evidence that residents visit the City Centre less on weekends in the summer because it is very busy (…) some streets get very crowded and there is a safety risk with cyclists, vehicles and pedestrians all sharing the same space”. Locals often deride day trippers as visitors that focus on a narrow range of attractions, akin to fairground rides – a quick selfie stop and a badge of honor, with little to no cultural depth, engagement and consumption taking place. As suggested earlier by Joel, Ian suggests that there is a “wear and tear” consequence: bins need emptying, streets cleaned, toilets repaired et cetera – all issues that pose resource and financial challenges for local authorities that repeatedly – and simultaneously – find local budgets reduced making it increasingly difficult to manage increasing visitor pressures. These socio-economic effects, complement the latent but growing concern over air quality in cities – in this case, degraded by coach emissions (although, there are strict protocols on more emission friendly coaches being able to pick up and drop off in central areas of the city).
iii) “stakeholder interests and involvement” – understanding who, how and why particular local, regional, governmental and non-governmental stakeholders see over-tourism as a salient issue related to future sustainable tourism management and development in the city – and more importantly – whose role is it to strategise and implement policies and practices to combat over-tourism.
Summary of responses: Outlines several key primary players responsible for tackling over-tourism, alongside a range of other governmental and non-governmental organisations situated centrally or regionally who have a key stake and responsibility. As identified in the Table in Section 2, all stakeholders are linked to specific strategies, objectives et cetera – and have a key role to play, alongside VCB.
- Primary stakeholders: VCB, Cambridge BID, Cambridge City Council, Members of Parliament at city and regional level, University of Cambridge and respective colleges (majority landowner of city center space, buildings and retail units), and the new Combined Authority led by Mayor: James Palmer, alongside local-Cambridge based Mayor of Cambridge;
- Secondary stakeholders: Local businesses, local residents, visitor attractions, and those generally operating within the visitor economy in and around Cambridge.
- iv) “local strategies, policies, objectives, measures, results” – helping to flesh out, alongside official strategy and policy documents exactly what has, is, and may be done in real-terms to tackle over-tourism. And, so far, whether we are seeing visible results and alleviations.
Summary of responses: Everyone identified that a strategic, coordinated approach to managing the flows, circulations and consumption behaviors of visitors to Cambridge is central to new, future and existing strategies and objectives to tackle over-tourism. Yet, among the author and contributors, the case identified that a more strategic, joined-up approach to managing and mitigating against the risks of over-tourism is needed going forward – something lacking at the moment. In response to whether Cambridge has an overarching over-tourism strategy, Ian remarked, “except for seeking to communicate with visitor groups, Visit England/Britain I would say no” and Emma remarked there are “no strategies at the local authority level” with all contributor either suggesting or intimating that there is simple no overall strategy currently in place, making this case study – both in analysis and in the lifecycle of over-tourism planning – apt, timely and much needed.
Yet, despite the lack of overarching strategy this does not mean that steps are not being put in place to manage and mitigate associated risk. It appears to be a matter of little overarching strategy and joined up thinking, as various proactive steps are currently being taken. As outlined in the table below, there has, is and will be a series of policies, practices and initiatives implemented at the Cambridge city level. These fall under several key areas:
- Governance – i.e. the development of VCB as primary stakeholder to tackling over-tourism challenges;
- (Re)configuring flows, circulations and consumption behaviours – i.e. redesigning coach drop off and pick up points at different areas of the city to (re)distribute footfall and encourage a wider and more multidimensional exploration of the inner precincts of the city
- “New narratives: Cambridge and Beyond” – i.e. focusing on the development of place, spaces, attractions, itineraries and tourism products that i) connect urban center with rural peripheries to spread the lead and flow of visitors, ii) spreading economic benefit to less visible cultural providers, iii) helping to strengthen the city’s destination offer (beyond the narrow view of just visiting the center – colleges and punting), lengthen and deepen cultural stays for social and economic benefit. Ideally overnight, weekend or longer – as nearly 90% stay between 3-9 hours;
- “Research and intelligence” – i.e. understanding tourist behavior, visitor numbers, social and economic contributions and challenges, alongside environmental impacts.
- “Leveraging pricing and promotional techniques” – i.e. work with tour operators to develop gift card schemes and/or discounts for off the beaten track / out of the center hospitality units, restaurants, attractions;
- “Related municipality policy” – i.e. indirectly related but contributory policies around Cambridge City Council’s “Spaces and Movement Strategy” that includes the management of visitors.
- “Technological innovation” – see point v) below.
- v) “Role of technological innovation” – on related but side note, a single-open question around what extent technology has, is and may potentially relieve some of these pressures yield some interesting future considerations – key in the context of Cambridge as an established technology center with Silicon Fen and the Cambridge Science Park.
Summary of responses: there appears to be two different ways technological innovation and platforms are being leveraged. First, simple-traditional methods, i.e. VCBs “Strategic Goal 5” is concerned with “understanding how certain visitors demographics want to access visitor information and experience the city and responding to these needs in the way in which we deliver our products and services” as remarked by Emma. Joel emphasizes the role of social media to help promote beyond the center and “help encourage visitors to stay and explore more, though unclear how to break the ‘tick box’ tourism”. Second, Joel outlines how new technologies are providing a window into over-tourism effects, including footfall monitoring, and generally collecting data on how people are interacting with the city. Furthermore, the author along with colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University are working on a European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) project called “REACTOR” to work with local entrepreneurs and SMEs to develop new technologically-driven solutions to encourage “off the beaten track” experience – by installing AR, VR and gamification techniques. Ian remarked that “technology could help encourage visitors navigate around the city using digital apps (…) however, the take up of apps has historically not been good, unlike museum or attraction based applications – city wide ones are not”.
- Cambridge, UK: Strategies, objectives, measures implemented, stakeholders involved, and results
Note: to see all the columns in the table below, scroll across from left to right.
|Strategy||Main objectives||Measures implemented||Stakeholders involved||Results (if any)|
|United stakeholder vision toward sustainable tourism management and development.||Bringing together a disparate set of stakeholders and interests together, led by VCB, the new DMO for Cambridge focused on sustainable management and development of tourism. Helps to bring together a more united vision of these issues.||– VCB launched January 2016. Developed Board of Directors and Advisory Board of local stakeholders;- Development of a series of sustainable tourism management and development policies to guide VCB to 2020;- Operate a business led partnership as they are 97% self-funded, so local business members help to shape tourism marketing and management practices – many of whom are situated beyond the centre – helping to shift visitors out of the centre.||Cambridge City Council, DMO, BID, local businesses.||Greater presence of places, spaces and attractions beyond the centre;
Strategic plan currently implemented to 2020;
Holistic strategy designed to promote, and continue to develop “off the beaten track” forms of visitor engagement and consumption.
|“New narratives: Cambridge and Beyond” to encourage visitation out of the centre.||– Develop broader narrative of place, spaces and attractions beyond the centre;- Enhance the visitor welcome and ease of access information about broader areas;- Connect urban center and rural periphery and broader out of city / regional image and offer;- Spread the load, flow, circulation of visitors beyond the center to spread the benefit of visitor economy to less visible communities;- Drive longer, deeper and more valuable cultural stays in and around Cambridge – ideally overnight, weekend or longer.||– Branding: “Take your time”;- Publication outlining all things to do in Cambridge, an annual publication;- VCB ambassador scheme, helpers around the city providing assistance to tourists and advice on activities beyond the center;- Working with the new “Combined Authority” to develop a wider regional strategy for tourism for the region regarding the “Tourism Sector Deal” which is part of the UK Government new “Industry Strategy”.||DMO, local attractions, BID, local businesses, festival directors, Cambridge City Council, local VCB ambassadors, national tourism board: VisitEngland and VisitBritain.||Online marketing of broader narrative currently underway – online and in print publications by VCB;
VCB now have approx. 10 city ambassadors dedicated to providing detailed knowledge to tourists about central and peripherally located places, spaces and attractions.
|Research and intelligence – understanding visitor demand and behavior.||– Understand in more depth visitor behavior, by working with local organisations, including both Anglia Ruskin University and University of Cambridge business schools and tourism programmes.- Work with other similar touristic-historic cities, like Bath, Oxford etc to share good practices (i.e. Heritage Cities group)||– Worked with Anglia Ruskin University and University of Cambridge on student-led consultancy exercises;- On-going collaboration with other historic cities, regular committee meetings.||Universities, students, DMO, Heritage Cities group.||University reports outlining details about visitor demographics and behaviour that are influencing policy decisions are outlined across this Table.|
|Leverage pricing and promotional techniques to encourage visitation off the beaten track.||– Use traditional and innovative pricing and promotional techniques to drive tourists off the beaten track- And to less visible producers||– Working with tour operators to develop gift card scheme, including the new ‘Cambridge Card to be introduced in 2018-2019. The card serves to promote specific organisations both on and off the beaten track to promote a mix of central and beyond the centre visits;- Worked with local businesses specifically to offer discounts to encourage individuals to go off the beaten track.||DMO, local businesses, corporate businesses, Cambridge City Council.||Implemented a new ‘Cambridge Card’ for 2018-2019, with both global and locally focused businesses.|
|Market segmentation and new visitor markets||– Understand demographics of visitor markets to Cambridge, and identify new growth markets who may be interested in going beyond the center.||– Central theme of VCB segmentation for 2018 and beyond is focus on youth markets;||DMO, universities.||Dedicated stream of marketing and promotion by VCB focused at youth markets.|
|New product development||– Commercialise and mobilise existing tours into well-developed portfolio of products;- Seek external funding, i.e. via VisitBritain’s ‘Discover England fund’ to work with other regional partners to develop new products and cultural/heritage experiences.||– Professional, blue badge guides taking visitors across the city: central and beyond the main center;- Close working with locally-focused tour operators like Tiptoe Travel that offer tours outside of the city;- Worked with VisitEssex etc to bid and develop a brand new visitor product called “Friendly Invasion” focused on developing oral histories and connecting up regional airbases outside of Cambridge related to WW2.||DMO, VisitBritain, local businesses, local attractions, other DMOs like VisitEssex, direct collaboration with tour experience companies like Tiptoe Travel.||Bid and fully funded project Friendly Invasion aimed at attracting and dispersing visitors to Cambridge and beyond across the region;
Implementation of blue badge guide touring experiences by VCB;
Development of Tiptoe Travel, tour experiences beyond the centre.
|Revealing past/present/future of Cambridge and beyond history||Develop a state of the art visitor centre which showcases Cambridge past, present and future – and links in with broader narrative of the area.||– Informative visitor information centre, with information and literatures related to the past, present and future.||DMO, local attractions, local businesses.||Suit of resources now available from VCB to connect with past, present and future of the city.|
|Strategic event programming||Use events and festivals as a new way to generate visitation not only in the peak months, but in other months too. This has been a conscious effort from event managers in light of busy summer months.||– Cambridge LIVE led e-Luminate Festival at off peak month of February, outside of peak time;- EAT Cambridge festival, again strategically takes places just before the start of the summer in May, before pressures start to occur.||Festival directors, DMO, Cambridge City Council.||Festivals planned off peak across the visitor economy.|
|Technological innovation||– Draw on traditional media, and well developed digital platforms and social media to develop destination brand inclusive of places, spaces and attractions beyond the center- Draw on new, innovative technologies like AR, VR, and gamification to develop new ways to develop visitor experience and encourage engagement beyond the centre- Utilising online booking systems and information dissemination to develop Cambridge’s ‘Bookable Product’||– Utilising social mediums like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc to place market places, spaces, attractions;the author along with colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University are working on a European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) project called “REACTOR” to work with local entrepreneurs and SMEs to develop new technologically-driven solutions to encourage “off the beaten track” experience – by installing AR, VR and gamification techniques;- Development of local app: YoYo Lets Go – focused on developing local trails off the beaten track for both visitors and residents using gamification principles.- Use online booking systems via VCB to encourage visitors to book prior to arriving in the destination||Universities, DMO, local businesses, European Union.||Development of new app: YoYo Let’s Go delivering trails across the city and beyond off the beaten track;
Online booking system designed and developed and now online;
Regular social media updates of places, spaces and attractions in and beyond Cambridge for visiting tourists;
REACTOR project bid, won and supporting local SMEs to gamify the visitor economy to reposition heritage and culture.
|Measuring over-tourism and symptoms.||Understand, in a more objective way the carrying capacity of Cambridge – and indicators for how we know the city is over-crowded.||– Drawing on tourism reports to understand inbound visitor numbers year-on-year;- Monitoring resources required to manage increased visitor numbers (i.e. litter pickers, bins to be emptied etc)- Assessing increasing level of complaints by locals;- Utilising footfall counters, data generate from shopping centers, Park and Ride, car parks, Guided Bus service – and regularly monitoring usage for strategic resource allocation.||Cambridge City Council, DMO.||Regular analysis of reports informing visitor behavior, and impacts to illustrate (or not) the social, economic and environmental impacts of visitors on public services across the city.|
|Related municipality policy||In light of increasing visitors, prepare spatial strategies for dealing.||– Review of increasing numbers and new strategy entitled: “Space and Movement Strategy” by the Cambridge City Council.||Cambridge City Council||Wider strategies to manage people movement across the city, helping to inform aforementioned practical strategies.|
Table 1 – Cambridge responses to overtourism
Our Cambridge case raises some interesting conclusions. First, the author and contributors recognize the need for cities to be creative in terms of reconfiguring the flows, circulations, the narrative of what the city has to offer inside and beyond “honey pot” sites and connect up both urban and rural spaces, places and attractions. By doing so helping to (re)distribute footfall, consumption and refocus the visitor gaze toward the less visible histories and cultural artifacts that make up Cambridge’s (and other cities rich in culture and history) destination offer, image and brand. As Ian remarks, we must “seek to navigate people more creatively around the city to disperse crowds away from the ‘hot spots’ is also key, to ensure they get a richer Cambridge experience, not just a sanitised tourist view”. We identify how technological innovations i.e. YoYo Let’s Go, and Tiptoe Travel may be central to encouraging off the beaten track visits. Second, to do the above, the city, inhabitants: both residents, businesses, local authorities, universities and wider national tourism boards need to understand and develop overarching narratives of plan, spaces and attractions and understand where they want to position the city and broader areas in terms of destination identity, marketing and development. Contributors all pointed to the need for the city to have a more joined up, strategic approach to tackling over-tourism – something that could be improved going-forward.
Third, we note limited data available that helps to evidence the effectiveness of policy and practices implemented. Yet, this does not assume ineffectiveness – merely the need to better causally/correlate link between policy, practice – outcome and result. Emma remarks that “it is too early to tell as VCB is only 2 years old and this is a beginning of a long journey to challenge and change deeply engrained perceptions and behaviours”. Forth, linked to the above, the need for a more objective approach to understanding and examining the threat of over-tourism. Our analysis reveals an emphasis on anecdotal, subjective feelings of over-tourism – but little objective/statistical measurement to decipher whether or not in real-terms Cambridge of ‘over’ carrying capacity. Without this, policy makers and populations may be responding merely to the political and cultural socially constructed threat (which may pose a challenge for policy makers in Cambridge with a history of activist, lobbying / pressure groups, with a high collective intelligence with the power, influence and language to construct the threat of over tourism).
Fifth, contributors identify that we are at the start of thinking about a holistic strategy for dealing with over-tourism, and to be truly effective we will need increased investment and political leadership/ support at sub regional level (new Metro Mayor and the new Combined Authority/ LEP), an innovative “Spaces and Movement” strategy, air quality and congestion management plans to deal with the threat going forward – policies underway by the Cambridge City Council. Other believe taxation and regulation is key as remarked by Ian suggesting “we should charge certain coach groups a fee, those who stay for a few hours only, per person, maybe £10 each, in the scheme of what they pay for the whole trip this would mean nothing. It may not deter many but it would provide funds to manage the issue. If it did deter some, it may improve the experience of those who still visit and mean they return. It may also encourage locals to use the city more in summer and they are what underpin many businesses”.
Finally, although VCB may take the lead in facilitating solutions to over tourism, it is a collective challenge which we own as a city and can only be addressed through working together. Particularly in terms of developing the broader narrative of place, spaces and attractions to encourage longer, deeper, and less central stays – vital for local economic growth, spreading benefits of visitor economy, and relieving over tourism and congestion. Perhaps it is not necessarily about the number of tourists to Cambridge, but rather the innovative ways we move visitors on and off the beaten track and connect up urban centers and rural places, spaces and attractions.
- More information
Author details: Dr Michael B. Duignan, Senior Lecturer, Coventry University. Email: Mike.Duignan@coventry.ac.uk | Mobile: 0044 7846061595