Pushing the Limit

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Pushing the Limit

Written by: Ethan Gelber

There are limits to the number of people that can cram into an elevator. Space restrictions notwithstanding, there’s only so much weight that can be contained by a metal box pinned to the end of a cable. Boats too have a maximum capacity; overload them and they become dangerously unstable. So grumble though we might when an elevator alarm or passenger counter screeches, we accept the warning about breaking points. There’s no need to put ourselves and others at risk.

Why then do we seem to believe that a place – a forest, a national park or even a city or a country – is able to absorb never-ending flows of people? Why do we cry foul at the mere suggestion of restricted entry? Do we really not see the risks involved in uncurbed access? And, most importantly, shouldn’t we be thinking very seriously about what it means, especially in light of our 21st-century planet-compromising excesses?

Questions like this are usually asked about pristine natural environments, but they are just as relevant when examining major cities. As a native New Yorker, I do my best to avoid certain parts of my metropolis, especially during times of heavy travel. Trying to move around Rockefeller Center or Herald Square during the holiday season, including doing any simple shopping or ordering a sandwich at lunch, takes special patience. It is not a pleasant experience for anyone – visitor or local.

Tourism by Numbers

If you have ever been to a travel-industry event organized by a tourism board, you know there’s no escaping learning how many visitors spend time and money in the host locality, as well as the value of their economic impact. They are fundamental measures by which success is gauged in the tourism market.

Take New York City – one of largest and most developed cities in the world, as well as the USA’s top port of entry, top overseas market, top generator in tourism spending and top big-city destination. Look at how it presents itself to the travel trade: NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing, tourism and partnership organization, has a link to “NYC Statistics” that boast first and loudest about total visitors, spending and economic impact.

In 2013, there were 54.3 million international and domestic visitors, exactly 50 percent more people than in the year 2000. That’s more than six travelers per resident, filling hotels to an average occupancy of 88.3 percent. Of the $38.8 billion spent by visitors in 2013, about $20.6 billion were “wages generated by New York City tourism” and $9.7 billion in taxes.

NYC & Company rattles off these numbers at live events as a source of great pride. After all, they have been on the rise for more than a decade.

But Is There an Upper Limit?

The numbers are pretty good. No, they are incredible. As described in a 2013 NYC & Company report, New York City is “seeing record numbers of visitors on an annual basis, all spending more and exploring more. The industry has become a critical revenue generator and job creator – growing into New York City’s fifth-largest industry by jobs.”

Who would dare counter an argument for this kind of economy-stoking growth, especially during times of hardship and stagnation?

Well, David Naczycz would. He’s the outspoken founder of Urban Oyster Tours, a Brooklyn-based, hands-on, small-group tour operator established around the conviction that “the neighborhoods of New York are treasured resources that require nurturing and cultivation in order to survive and flourish.”

“Places have something called ‘carrying capacity,’” Naczycz advised. “There’s a limit. If you go above it, you degrade the experience for everyone and threaten the viability of the place. There is such a thing as too many people.” Naczycz is not alone in wondering just how many more tourists the city can handle. Try hurrying across Times Square when you are late to a show and you might contemplate the same things. Factor in the wait times, slow-moving hordes and blocked views at the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and you know what he means.

Fighting Economic Leakage

“One big problem is that, if you dig into the numbers, I think you would find the overwhelming majority of people and their money go to businesses that are not based here, or if they are here it’s because they’re the headquarters of global corporations,” said Naczycz.

This is called “economic leakage” and it’s a global problem. Although reports vary widely, statistics show that the reliance on foreign suppliers rather than local ones – and the resultant shift of revenue – represents local losses of anywhere between 40 and 95 percent of gross tourism earnings in most places around the world, especially in developing countries.

To counteract this, Naczycz added, “You have to highlight a way of travel that the industry is not currently set up to deliver, that people have a hard time finding on their own and that the local segment isn’t necessarily equipped to handle… yet. But to get things started, you need to focus on the right measures. It doesn’t really matter how many people come to New York City, it matters how much money is generated for the local economy. In the larger interest of community, there need to be ways to look at the money spent in local businesses or the quantity of dollars that remain in the community. If you could generate the same amount of value to the local economy from half the people, wouldn’t you do it?!”

“There definitely has to be a better discussion about tourism in New York,” commented Cindy VandenBosch, founder of Turnstile Tours, a rare New York State-registered benefit corporation pursuing missions through well-researched, inclusive and engaging experiences. “We want visitors to get into other parts of the city, but collectively we need to be in conversation about incentives and impact. While it’s great that more people are coming to New York City, there are questions about how we can engage them so that residents can benefit and not be displaced.”

NYC & Company declined to comment on the questions raised in this article.

Setting New Priorities

“Destinations that focus simply on more – as in numbers or even gross revenues – serve neither their existing hosts nor their future guests,” echoed Anna Pollock, a tourism-industry veteran of 40 years and founder of Conscious Travel. “More is the easy option, but destinations that focus on better by striving to achieve the most positive net benefit for all stakeholders over the long term build loyalty, resilience and the capacity to adapt to changing conditions. It’s harder to do; tough choices have to be made. You may have to limit and divert, but a strategy focused on quality will deliver because it tells the world you care about that piece of the planet you call home.”

Naczycz could hardly agree more. “Thinking again about carrying capacity, this is, to a degree, about protecting New York. It’s making sure New York stays New York. The number of tours is having a negative impact in New York City, not only on residents, but also on tourists. Don’t get me wrong. NYC & Company is well run and on top of their game. They have done incredible work growing tourism in New York City. They’re the New York Yankees of tourism! However, I believe that it would be in the best interest of New York City if NYC & Co. and other local tourism groups focused on the quality of the visitor experience and maximizing the local economic benefit rather than just increasing the number of visitors.”