Couchfish: Suntory time

One drink for every time I type sustainability


When I was in my twenties I kicked around Spain for a bit, but I never made it to Barcelona. I know little of the city, other than pre-Covid19 it was often trotted out as one of the over-tourism all-stars.

Studying sustainable tourism makes me feel like how Bill Murray looks.

The other day I was pointed to two stories about the city. One, published in 2019 was a classic over-tourism piece. Cruise ships, housing affordability, pollution, too many tourists, and protests. The second story ran a few days ago, on October 17. In it, many, though not all, bemoaned the lack of tourists. Again a classic piece, though this time, a classic post-Covid19 take. Bankrupt businesses, closed hotels, unemployment and no tourists. At least there were no protests—or none mentioned anyway.

There has to be a middle ground here

A few years ago, I took a trip to Japan. A friend said I had to make time for the Suntory Yamazaki Distillery. I didn’t do anything more than add it to my notes on “stuff to do when in Osaka”. Close to departure, my friend asked if I had booked my visit? Booked? Unfamiliar with the booking museums thing, I didn’t know I needed to—I wasn’t going to do a tour, I just planned to have a look. You know how this story ends, no Suntory time for me.

Note the couple far left to get an idea of the scale. Kelingking, Nusa Penida. Photo: Sally Arnold.

It turns out the distillery uses a system like this to manage visitor numbers. Even if you’re not doing a paid tour, you still need to book a time. Why? To make a visit enjoyable for all. Should I ever make it to Japan again, I’ll be booking my museum slot right after I book my flight.

Back to Barcelona

The stories are interesting for the counterpoints at play. “We need to get back to pre-pandemic tourist numbers as soon as possible,” says the hotel association director. That’s an understandable sentiment I guess, given 40% of his members are closed and losses are over US$3 billion. Others though see an opportunity to convert hotels into social housing. The tourism department head hoses that one down—“It’s not our goal to reduce the number of tourists.” Who is he really serving? I bet he isn’t a public servant.

A few have met their maker at Angel’s Billabong on Nusa Penida. Photo: Sally Arnold.

I’m all for converting them into social housing. The views of the hotel association and tourism dudes though, will probably be the reality. For all the talk of “not wanting to return to 2019,” these vested interests could think of nothing better. It is, after all, where the money is—or rather, where their money is.

The resident’s view though is sadly nothing new. George Doxey coined his “irritation index” in 1975. It models rising resident irritation with tourism and tourists. The salad years are euphoria, followed by apathy, then annoyance, and finally, antagonism. We’re all been there right? Who hasn’t yelled “You stupid tourist!” at least once?

Talking heads keep bringing up “sustainability” but sustainability for whom? For hoteliers? Residents? Tourists? Destinations? It is a term I’ve grown to loathe in a very short time, so malleable it can be turned to almost any meaning you want. No surprise then, the UNWTO has embraced it wholeheartedly.

Carving new tourist access into the cliff at Atuh, Nusa Penida. Photo: Sally Arnold.

The Bali view

The thing is, I don’t need to look to Barcelona to see this playing out. Abandoned, bankrupt, closed—that is the post Covid19 ABC of much of the hotel scene here. Who knows when—if ever—tourism will have returned to a sufficient degree to make these hotels viable again. Is that revivalism even desirable?

One of the eighty-two bazillion official schemes for Bali is promoting it as a Work From Bali destination. Some government offices in Java tried it for a spell, till a new Covid19 wave blew it out of the water. Perhaps many of these ABC hotels, hotels that could well lack a viable market for years, could dovetail into it, though I do think the government’s taste tends to skew more upmarket. Not socialised housing, which might be ideal, but longer staying guests would still be a decent win. Government departments (one would hope) are not considering relocating people for two nights. Longer stays equal fewer flights, and that’s a good thing.

So much sustainability you can bottle it. Photo: Sally Arnold.

But hundreds of ABC hotels are but one of the challenges—what used to fill them, people—are the real problem.

Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is to Suntory’s whiskey house is to any number of crowd-pullers in Bali. Be it Tegallalang terraces, Puri Lempuyang, or Penida’s Kelingking or Atuh, crowds are the number one issue.

Destinations need to think about intelligent and equitable ways to manage visitors to places most want to see. Commission studies to figure out how many people a place can handle. Let’s say, to make the math simple, a location can handle 1,000 people per day.

Split these 1,000 into two groups, say 700 and 300. The 700 can be booked in advance, and in return for a small fee, you show up at the assigned time and can walk straight in. The 300 are available “at the door” on the hour (or whatever the time break-up is) on a first-come-first-served basis. These tickets are free. After consultation with local communities, a further appropriate number of tickets could be set aside for local residents.

This swing not flash enough for the Instagram crew. Photo: Sally Arnold.

This way the destination knows exactly how many people they’ll be dealing with at any one time. The tourists know exactly what they get when. Most importantly, the destination never exceeds capacity. This last point is crucial. There’s no point just charging admission without a maximum number of people. That is not sustainability—that is revenue raising.

If the sight is full for the day you want, you have my sympathies—it is not your Suntory time, please try again tomorrow. Or the day after. Or after that. You’ve run out of time? Sorry, you should have stayed longer—or been more organised.

Overall numbers almost certainly will fall. Though they’ll fall only because the old visitor numbers were unsustainable. That’s not the only benefit though. With predictability, traffic can be better managed, making residents (hopefully) less irritated. Staffing can be better managed and the overall experience at the site will, one hopes, improve. Best of all, it will still be worth visiting a decade from now.

Slow down, learn more. Desa Tanglad. Photo: Sally Arnold.

Turn on Google maps and zoom in to Nusa Penida. Take a look at Kelingking, Angel Billabong, Guyangan or Atuh. At each, the car park is almost as big, if not bigger, than the attraction.

Without change, how big will the car parks be in another decade?

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