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Hamptons Life

May 20, 2019 2:26 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Overtourism Conundrum

Sunrise Highway traffic on Labor Day in 2018.
May 20, 2019 3:01 PM

While the advent of Memorial Day weekend marks the start of the summer season on the East End, to many year-round and longtime summer residents, it also elicits a cringe-worthy response. Tourism’s dilemma, which has been discussed for decades, is all about the potential killing of the goose that laid the golden egg. The problem has simply been christened with a new name, “overtourism.” When a destination becomes overwhelmed by too many tourists and an entire community is thrown out of balance, the end result is overtourism—and that’s unsustainable.

The effects of overtourism create a sense of estrangement for local residents, an overburdened infrastructure and harm to the natural environment. The Disneyfication of place can also create a disappointing tourist experience and, in some cases, diminish a locality’s cultural heritage.

There are solutions to these challenges being faced by the East End towns, and they are addressing them. But will they have the impetus to address them with more urgency now?

The East End has a $10 billion second-home economy fueled by tourism. All of this creates jobs for local businesses, the hospitality and building industries, while also funding infrastructure improvements.

Responsible growth has to offset the negative impacts of overtourism by taking into account protection of water resources, their overuse, as well as waste generation and pollution.

How much change has to occur before the numbers become unacceptable to the stakeholders? When there are no more parking spaces in the villages because of tourists? When beach parking lots turn people away at 10 a.m. on summer weekends? When everything is so crowded and noisy there’s no point to eating out on weekends or going to the movies? When shopping at a supermarket is best done on a Wednesday night? Or when the traffic is so congested that an ambulance might not be able to reach the hospital in time to save a person’s life?

Although the North and South Forks share problems, there are variations to the seasonal tourist time frame, and this affects each town differently.

The towns have been impacted by Airbnbs. There isn’t enough housing for locals as it is, and the popularity of Airbnbs has reduced available housing for them. In Southold Town, Airbnb rentals must have a minimum stay of 14 days, and this regulation has helped to limit the numbers of transient visitors. Southold Town covers 404 square miles, and its year-round population of 22,284 can swell to 140 percent in the summer.

Southampton Town is spread out over 294 square miles, with a year-round population of 58,439 increasing threefold during the summer.

The South Fork has to contend with the trade parade morning and evening, in addition to tourists from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The North Fork has an extended season with the heaviest volume of traffic occurring in the fall, as tourists come to experience “agritainment,” fall foliage and the wineries. The weekend traffic on Sound Avenue from Calverton to Mattituck during this period rivals Montauk Highway on the worst days of summer.

Year-round, Southold has the same dangerous “left turn problem” onto Route 25, Main Road, as Southampton and East Hampton have with Montauk Highway. Similarly, the weekends on both forks now start Thursday evening and end Monday morning.

According to Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, overtourism may not be the correct term to use in terms of dealing with tourism. He noted that in marketing the region, the infrastructure has to be in place to support the volume of tourism. The supervisor said the fact that Southold hasn’t changed is “by design,” and the decision to establish PDR (purchase of development rights) programs many years ago was a prescient one. Farming could be enhanced but not ignored, and over 4,000 acres of open space has been protected in the town.

Extending tourist events in the offseason with events like “Jazz on the Vine” has also added to the local economy. To relieve some of the traffic burdens, Mr. Russell is also focused on bringing more public transportation in terms of trains and buses into the town.

Riverhead has similar traffic issues as Southold, according to May Zegarelli, the deputy chief of staff for Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith. Between festivals, special events farm and winery traffic, the town has established a traffic task force to focus on problem areas and address clogged roads. More traffic control specialists have been hired and trained. Additionally, special events require an application that goes to the fire marshal and police to determine support requirements to manage traffic.

The problem of overtourism is here on the East End, but we can also learn from how other countries and places are dealing with this problem.

Venice, for example, has a year-round population of 50,000, but 30 million people visit the city annually. Locals can no longer find affordable housing, in part due to the Airbnbs. Between inexpensive air flights and cruise ships at the docks, the city has become gridlocked on a pedestrian level. Gondaliers have to fend off kayakers from collisions in the canals, and just three cruise ships can bring an extra 10,000 people onto the canals.

A “detourism campaign” has now been established to steer travelers beyond the most popular sites, as well as promoting more visits during the offseason.

In Mallorca, a per diem tourist tax has been imposed on hotel guests. The proceeds from the tax go to a sustainable model for the benefit of local communities, limiting Airbnb rentals.

In Machu Picchu, the ruins were so overrun that UNESCO threatened to place it on its “List of World Heritage in Danger.” In 2015, Peru developed a five-year, $43 million plan to protect the ruins by limiting the number of guided entries and establishing access restrictions to the trails and ruins.

Dubrovnik has become a destination in part due to the popularity of “Game of Thrones,” cruises and its historic architecture. Barcelona also has had trouble with saturation crowding. In Spain, the name for overtourism is turismofobia.

When Amsterdam stopped marketing the city as a travel destination, the tourists came anyway, because of the influence of social media—in particular, Instagram. The approach for Amsterdam went from marketing to guidance, which enabled locals to regain their way of life. The city expanded its focus range, and tourists started to go beyond the established sites. A live computer feed set up online allows for tourists to monitor the lines at a museum and then decide whether or not to visit it at another time.

A virtual reality app developed for Scottish tourism allows a viewer to visit a destination and walk around online to see if it is worth visiting. If whole tours were planned this way, and then coupled to a live feed, one may never leave home ever again!

People will always be attracted to beautiful and interesting places. On the East End, the real question is how to weigh the benefits of tourism versus the cost to quality of life.

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Thanks Anne, for this terrific synopsis of several of our challenges and some examples of other communities implementing solutions. We desperately need regional (East End) economic development and housing initiatives to reduce the addiction we locals have to wealthy tourists who are now here just two months a year. Our political leaders must commit to preserving localism which is the heart and soul of the East End.
By MichaelDaly (16), Sag Harbor, New York on May 25, 19 2:32 AM
southampton village is boring as hell. there is nothing but overpriced clothing stores. greenport and sag harbor are more interesting. i am a local and i hate this town in summer
By BrianWilliams (87), on Jun 10, 19 7:03 PM
2 members liked this comment
Much like Japan.

Anyone remember when people came on Friday, and left on Sunday?
By Mr. Z (11814), North Sea on Jun 10, 19 7:46 PM
Greenport has it down.I take my family there every week for dinner on the boat. Its still cheaper than going into Sag Harbor which is where we live. There is more to do in Greenport . Sag Harbor has that potential. Sag Harbor is falling into the same trap Southampton did years ago. Take away the cool local spots little by little and there is no foundation for a year round village.
By SHD management (13), on Jun 13, 19 7:09 AM