Martha’s Vineyard, the island vacation spot off the Massachusetts coast, has a worldwide reputation as a bucolic retreat. But these days, the high season tourist crush brings gridlocked traffic that can make the place seem more like Times Square than a charming, rural escape. The old Vineyard “was almost like a secret … lovely, peaceful and not crowded at all,” resident Rose Styron recently told the Vineyard Gazette. “Until the Clintons came.”
For five summers during the 1990s, Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton vacationed on the island, drawing a surge in publicity and tourist interest. Two decades later, another American First Family, Barack Obama and his wife and daughters, visited the Vineyard often during his presidency. Today, amid the meandering bike paths, sun-kissed beaches, and quaint cottage-lined streets, the island is strained by soaring prices, housing shortages, and overburdened infrastructure. It’s a prominent American example of a major international problem: overtourism.
But another island, just 53 miles west, has escaped that fate. Block Island, Rhode Island, a 10-square-mile gem blessed with gorgeous-but-fragile cliffs, beaches, and fields, looked warily at the Vineyard’s burst of popularity two decades ago and chose a different path. How Block Islanders did it — from proactive planning to preemptive limits all informed by a clear, widely-shared sense of self — offers a model for other alluring destinations threatened by too many visitors.
The term “overtourism,” which made the Oxford Dictionary’s shortlist for 2018 word of the year, describes a visitor deluge that damages the local environment, the attractions, and the tourist experience, leaving a diminished quality of life in its wake. According to a 2017 study by the World Travel and Tourism Council, while tourism accounts for nearly $8 trillion a year in direct and indirect spending — a robust 10 percent of global employment and gross domestic product — the toll has become severe.
In Barcelona, a tsunami of tourism triggered by rave reviews from visitors to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games has sparked street protests and a crackdown on Segway tours and Airbnb rentals. Venice has moved to curb cruise ship access and more aggressively police visitor behavior. (The city also hopes to slow a “Venexodus” of locals fleeing in horror.) Last spring, the Netherlands announced it would stop marketing Amsterdam to tourists due to overwhelming crowds, traffic, and rowdyism. Three popular islands off the coast of Thailand were closed to tourists after extensive damage to coral reefs.
And in a monumental irony, overseers of the Statue of Liberty — despite the oft-quoted welcome to international arrivals inscribed at its base — have banned commercial tours in hope of relief from the huddled masses of visitors creating pedestrian gridlock.
In 2016, one million visitors crowded into the walled Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, home to only 1,000 people.
Without dramatic improvements in the way tourism is managed, write the authors of a Travel Foundation report released earlier this year, “tourism growth will continue to degrade more destinations in ways that increase frustration.” Overtourism, the authors warn, could “produce more protests as local citizens see their most beloved historical centers, monuments, and vital resources degrading.”
The numbers are striking: While 32 million people visit Venice annually, the city has lost half its population in 30 years, dropping to 55,000 residents. That means tourists outnumber residents in Venice on an average day. France, the world’s most visited country, hosts 82 million visitors a year, compared to its population of 67 million; world-renowned tourist attractions in Paris, such as the Eiffel Tower, have become known for their long lines. In 2016, one million visitors, including 800,000 cruise ship passengers, crowded into the walled Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, home to only 1,000 people.
And that population surge can bring dire real-world consequnces. In sun-kissed Cancun, Mexico, the report notes, only 30 percent of sewage created by the tourism sector is treated, leading to pollution and coastal erosion; in the Dominican Republic, close to half of commercial greenhouse gas emissions come from hotels; in the Maldives, where 95 percent of solid waste is generated by resorts, waste washing up on local beaches is damaging the country’s “pristine paradise” brand. A backlash is building, the authors warn, as overtourism produces “more protests as local citizens see their most beloved historical centers, monuments, and vital resources degrading.”
Overtourism experts say wildly popular tourism destinations need rigorous long-term planning to manage and limit the vacationing throngs, lest the golden goose be trampled to death.
“These communities have to understand how much tourism is costing and how much tax they’re getting, and manage in ways that aren’t just about reorganizing their marketing departments,” says Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “You need a balanced form of decision making.”
Block Island, or “The Block,” as locals call it, has managed to do just that, without resorting to the draconian measures of Amsterdam or Thailand.
Limiting tourism, at a tourist destination, isn’t easy; it’s way too late for the Block to hide its world-class hiking, birding, and biking from a burgeoning tourist demand for such unspoiled natural splendor. “Tourist guidebooks aren’t going to stop publishing just because a place stops marketing,” says Eric Zuelow, a professor of history at the University of New England and the author of “A History of Modern Tourism.”
Still, “Block Island,” Zuelow says, “is an example of the local community being able to take charge.”
It began with intentional planning. For decades, Block Island has restricted development through aggressive conservancy efforts; close to 50 percent of Block Island’s land is legally preserved open space, a percentage Epler Wood calls “highly unusual.” And while the island’s economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism, with up to 20,000 visitors a day in peak season, Block Islanders have taken an array of steps to manage both the type of tourist who comes and their behavior once they arrive.
According to Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council, these include strict limits on the frequency of ferry trips to the island, the number of cars those ferries can carry, the availability of rental mopeds, and the types of planes that can land at their small airport (the runway is too short to handle large private or commercial jets). Curbing access “solves half the problem right there,” says Willi.
Televised images of Clinton and Obama golfing at high-end Vineyard courses helped boost the island’s appeal to wealthy tourists and their large carbon footprints. That’s not a problem on the Block, which has no golf course. Celebrities are “not our thing,” explains Willi. The island has few restaurants and no dress codes. “It’s not a scene.”
Epler Wood calls Block Island a case study of good destination management. But vigilance is required.
A ferry operator who wants to supplement existing service to the Block during July and August is meeting resistance. On an island where local ownership and sensitivity to local culture are prized, a national operator of boutique hotels has renovated a property on Old Harbor. That’s brought what Willi describes as “a different way of doing business” — for instance, demands for high-speed internet and instant plumbing repairs that the island’s balky infrastructure and limited service personnel can’t meet. Locals are watching nervously.
And simply paying attention to the ravages of overtourism is a key part of the solution. Block Island’s ability to avoid overtourism’s debilitating impact owes a debt to its residents’ observations of the Vineyard experience.
The Clintons visited Block Island only once, in August 1997. They created what the Block Island Times called “the grandest spectacle in the town’s history since French privateers stormed ashore on Crescent Beach to pillage the island in the 1690s.” Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton strolled through the island’s only town, New Shoreham, attracting a crowd of hundreds of vacationers and locals. They spent only a day on the island before flying to Martha’s Vineyard for a three-week stay.
My wife and I visited the Block a year later, in August 1998, as the Clinton effect was packing them in on the Vineyard. Our innkeeper told us that she and other Block Island lodging owners had refused Secret Service requests for dozens of rooms to accommodate a possible weekend stay by the First Family. “No way were we going to kick all our regulars who booked back in February,” she said.
“Besides, we saw what happened to the Vineyard. I think we dodged the bullet.”