How would you react if you decided to travel somewhere and were told: NO, you can’t go there?
Well, it could happen.
But isn’t freedom to travel our right?
But wait… what if you found out your travels were actually helping destroy the places you love and hurting the people who live there? You’d want to do something about it, right?
As hordes of tourists descend on a favorite destination, overtourism is the result.
Knowing this, wouldn’t you be tempted to stay away?
Well, you’d be making a mistake.
Staying away won’t fix the overtourism problem.
In fact, it could make things worse because tourism has many benefits.
The benefits of tourism – it is often a good thing
- Tourism provides local jobs and career opportunities, both directly through employment and indirectly through the many industries that exist to support hotels, restaurants and resorts.
- This is important everywhere, but especially in developing countries where there are fewer alternatives. Tourism allows money to circulate through a community and may be the only lifeline local people have to a better future. One job in a developing country can support more than a dozen people, strengthening local economies and improving lives.
- Tourism generates huge tax revenue (park taxes, hotel taxes, airport taxes, restaurant taxes, boating taxes…) and that in turn benefits infrastructure: better roads and public transport are used by locals as well as tourists, and more money for local education and health services.
- Income from tourism can help improve a destination by paying for much-needed repairs and restoration of historical monuments and buildings.
- It can also pay for conservation efforts, helping wildlife in danger of extinction or habitats that are being destroyed for money.
- Tourism can earn essential foreign exchange for a country.
- Tourism is a lot “cleaner” than many other industries, like manufacturing.
- Tourism can help promote a sense of community, by highlighting its history and accomplishments and promoting local festivals and celebrations. It helps conserve natural areas and cultural practices – since they attract visitors.
- Visitors can see a place as it is and where there are problems – discrimination or crime, for example – they can raise awareness about it when they return home.
- Tourism = travel = fun! We all want to see the world, discover new places and new cultures, understand the world around us through its art and music and foods. The personal rewards of being a tourist (or a traveler or whatever you prefer to call yourself) are tremendous.
- And tourism opens up the world. By allowing us to meet one another, learn other languages and connect with different cultures, we learn to look for our similarities, understand our differences and discard stereotypes. Anyone who has traveled with the intention of learning about others has brought back something of great value, and anyone who has made the effort to have a conversation with foreigners visiting their own homes have learned something as a result.
According to Taleb Rifai, UN World Tourism Organization Secretary-General, “Every time we travel, we become part of a global movement that has the power to drive positive change for our planet and all people.” I agree.
Even Spain, where the anti-tourism backlash is strongest, owes 11% of its GDP to tourism. And in Barcelona, heart of many of the protests, half a million jobs rely on tourism, which brings in more than €20 million a day.
But too much of a good thing can become… a bad thing.
The downsides of tourism
Yes, plenty of these too.
- Destinations can become overcrowded. This is especially galling when those crowds are transient and don’t leave much money in the local economy, returning to their cruise ships for the night or even for meals. Other than buy a few trinkets, they won’t be leaving much money behind.
- Places can lose their character and way of life. Crowds can disrespect local customs, for example by wearing unsuitable clothing or behaving unsociably. Too many visitors can dilute local habits, turning a place into a fantasyland or theme park, in the process losing the uniqueness that attracted them in the first place. And let’s face it, local people don’t want their communities turned into zoos.
- We want to live like a local yet too many of us add pressure to services like sewage, garbage collection or water, making it harder for people who live there all year round.
- Tourist hotspots attract young people to jobs – and that’s partly good because it gives them jobs. But if these young people come from rural areas, their migration to beaches and resorts may help empty villages that are already losing so many of their young to the cities.
- Mass tourism can also contribute to social breakdown by introducing customs and lifestyles that are incompatible with local customs – excessive drinking or drugs, or nudity for example.
- Authenticity can be destroyed. We often travel to experience that elusive authenticity, but when there are too many of us, we drive out local residents and transform cities’ downtown cores into outdoor malls with cobblestone streets, devoid of any charm. If we want amusement parks, we should go to one.
- Mass tourism can cause physical damage. Fragile sites can be threatened or eroded by too many people climbing over buildings and statues or trampling over protected environments. There’s little fun in elbowing your way through crowded markets or bridges or gazing at a field whose wildflowers have been picked by passengers on the tour bus (who will throw them away minutes from now).
- Overtourism can undermine a city’s economy by turning residences into short-term rentals such as Airbnb-style accommodations that drive up prices by encouraging landlords to rent to tourists rather than to locals (who often work in lowly paid tourism jobs). This leads to growing property speculation and displacement. While multinationals based across the world get rich, local artisans and businesses are often pushed out. Many of these rentals are illegal, robbing a city of its tax revenue and creating unfair competition for other establishments that do pay taxes and abide by the law.
All this makes it sound as though tourism is a terrible thing, but that’s not the case at all.
What people are getting angry about is the type of uncontrolled mass tourism which adds bodies to the streets without adding any value: little money spent, no interaction with residents, no cultural exchange. It’s all take, take, take.
This all leads to a difficult situation that pits visitors against governments, destinations and residents, and we’re already seeing it play out in overcrowded places around the world.
Top tourist destinations are in protest mode against mass tourism
For many residents of top tourist countries and cities, enough is enough.
The very places that courted tourists not long ago now want many of them to leave – it almost seems as though they’re biting the hand that feeds them.
Spain is leading the pack – not surprisingly, given that in 2016 it was the world’s favorite country, with a record 75.6 million visitors. Barcelona, Bilbao, Palma de Mallorca, San Sebastian and even the hedonistic Ibiza have all been in the headlines for their protests, from demonstrations to graffiti to slashing tour bus tires. In Barcelona, anti-tourism activists even hijacked a tourist bus and set off flares.
In Amsterdam, locals have taken to the streets in anger about sky-high rents driven upwards by booking agencies.
Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul, South Korea is a delight, and popular with tourists who pose for pictures in doorways (relatively innocuous) or who have been known to make excessive noise, discard litter or even urinate in alleys, causing residents to move out and to take to the streets in protest.
And we’ve all heard about the innumerable protests against cruise ships in Venice, where many of the remaining 55,000 residents are fed up with the 20 million visitors who turn their town into a cruise ship pit stop each year, making streets impassable for all but those with the sharpest elbows and tongues.
So what can be done about overtourism?
Every group has a role to play.
Here’s what destinations are doing
They’re cracking down, that’s what, and imposing restrictions.
- Antarctica, Cinque Terre, Dubrovnik, the Galapagos and Machu Picchu are regulating the number of tourists they allow in.
- Santorini is capping the number of cruise ship visits and a ban on cruise ships in Venice should be in place by 2022.
- In Rome and Milan, measures to improve locals’ lives include new littering and loitering laws. In Milan selfie sticks and food trucks are being banned and in Rome, drinking on the streets at night is being regulated and buses restricted from the center (buses have protested the new rules).
- The Thai island of Ko Tachai shut down to recover from tourism, while three other islands have severely curtailed tourist numbers. Maya Bay – which starred in the movie The Beach – has been temporarily closed for rehabilitation, as has Boracay in the Philippines.
- In Barcelona, new hotels can’t be built downtown and cruise ship stopovers are discouraged. The popular La Boquería market is off-limit to tour groups at certain hours and the city is trying to preserve its “food market” nature by keeping away tourist fast food fare.
- In Bukchon in Seoul, tourists will be restricted to certain hours and banned altogether on Sundays.
- In Rwanda, permits to track gorillas are limited to eight a day and cost hundreds of dollars, keeping tourist numbers down (and only the wealthier in). The Seychelles are banning large developments, restrictions are being placed on climbing Mt Everest in Nepal and Bhutan has found a solution by enforcing a (high) daily minimum spend among visitors (although this is another example of segregation by income).
And that’s just the beginning.
- Norway is considering limiting visitors to some of its more popular sites, like Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) and Trolltunga (Troll Tongue), to reduce the number of accidents that take place there.
- Overcrowding and erosion are prompting officials at Zion National Park in Utah to consider establishing visitor limits.
- Iceland is studying the impact of excess tourism and considering measures such as limiting such services as Airbnb. (It is also illegal to drive off-road but… it still happens, threatening the delicate landscape and ecosystems.)
And the list goes on, adding new destinations far too regularly.
While destinations grapple with their individual problems, governments too are having to step in. With more money and power than tourist authorities, they can shift laws and policies more quickly.
Governments too have things they could do
- They could stop squabbling, working together at all levels to develop tourism management plans that take a long view into the future and look beyond what money can be earned to things like how to satisfy residential needs for lodging, how to upgrade infrastructure or now to conserve existing monuments and treasures.
- Make a decision about what kind of tourism they want. If they want tourism at any cost, then don’t blame the tourist for coming. But if they want some sort of preservation, then put in place the necessary limitations – whether cost, or time management or a cap on numbers – and perhaps over time these can be eased.
- Provide potential visitors with more than just glossy promises of a destination: give us the real story so we can decide not only whether to visit but HOW to visit. I for one would respect a government that told me: “Please come. But we have problems. Here’s how you can make your stay pleasurable while respecting people who already live here.”
- Provide the proper taxation frameworks. Take our money: I don’t mind paying a few dollars to make sure infrastructure is built and art restored. (Just don’t use the extra tax to buy the latest model LandCruiser, please…)
- Change the marketing mindset away from the number of tourists to the type of activities they could enjoy.
- Shift tourism to less congested areas. Give visitors an incentive to lighten the tourism load at a destination. But this would mean several destinations working together…
- Put in restrictions on the number of visitors but also on such things as the number of flights or automobile access.
- Be innovative. Some solutions that have been floated include raising entry fees, launching a lottery to choose visitors or severely capping the number of visitors (or banning them altogether).
Not all these solutions are viable, some are frankly discriminatory, and they won’t all work everywhere. But unless authorities confront overtourism and begin finding solutions, some cherished destinations may soon no longer be ours to see. I don’t want Venice to be off limits, nor do I want to be banned from Barcelona.
But they have their work cut out for them. For example, a hotel chain with headquarters overseas doesn’t care about short-term loss of charm or authenticity: all it wants is to fill rooms and repatriate profits. The taxes they pay on those profits keep governments sweet – and allow them to “overlook” local problems.
And we, the travelers, can also play a part
Our actions alone won’t halt overtourism, but they will help, immensely. Not only will they alleviate the problem of overtourism itself, but they will send a clear message to residents and authorities that we understand, we care, and that we want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
We need to look at HOW, WHERE and WHEN we travel. Here are a few tips just to start the conversation.
- Avoid high season and travel in low or shoulder seasons in tourist hotspots. It’s less crowded then, so more fun for us, and better for the destination. No, it’s not possible for everyone – some of us are teachers or otherwise have commitments that restrict our travel windows. But we can try. If we must travel in the high season, perhaps we can adopt some of the behaviors below…
- Indulge in UNDERtourism – visiting offbeat destinations or nearby destinations that get far fewer tourists than they’d like. Try to uncover places not yet overrun, benefitting a new generation of locals in places that see far less tourism.
- As a corollary, go to places clamoring for tourists – the “town next door” that everyone bypasses because it’s not “quite” as perfect.
- Boycott cruises that visit places under threat, like Venice and Dubrovnik or mega-tours that whisk you from A to B at the speed of light.
- Don’t travel in big groups. Travel solo or independently.
- Contribute to the local economy when you travel. When renting an Airbnb, use due diligence to make sure it is a bona fide home rental by people who are registered and pay taxes, rather than the commercial and illegal ventures that are pushing people out of neighborhoods. If you can’t tell, then book a homestay or stay in a hotel (preferably a locally owned one).
- Try to become part of the community or travel like a local, even if it’s only for a day: be courteous, obey local laws, try to connect with local people and frequent establishments that don’t belong to global conglomerates. Travel more deeply. During a week in Istanbul, I stayed in the suburb of Sariyer. I rode four or five different public transport systems to get into central Istanbul each morning – but I caught a glimpse of everyday life in a local fishing village on the Bosphorus – and felt incredibly welcome.
- Buy food at the local market and have a picnic. Or choose a restaurant locals frequent (the lack of a multilingual menu is a clue.) Book a meal at someone’s home.
- Avoid places that exploit or pollute: chances are they do far more damage than what we can see.
- Give some thought to the attitude of entitlement some of us unconsciously wear like a fluorescent mantle, the one that gives us a so-called right to travel, even where we aren’t wanted.
- Stay near a major attraction and take public transport to visit. Stay in Girona and ride the train to Barcelona, for example. You may discover a new destination that steals your heart.
This will help far more than staying away, which could cost people jobs and local economies income.
Some alternatives to overtouristed destinations
If we want to help take the pressure off overtouristed places or escape the crowds, why not try some of these alternatives?
Skip the crowds in…
- … Venice and try Ljubljana and its picturesque canals or France’s delightful Colmar
- … Bali in favor of Raja Ampat or Sulawesi – or Cebu in the Philippines
- … Iceland’s Blue Lagoon and head instead to the Myvatn Nature Baths
- … Dubrovnik and try Rovinj or neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina
- … Amsterdam and discover Hamburg or Stockholm
- … Barcelona for Valencia’s tapas bars, markets and beaches
- … Rome and trade them for Verona (it has its own Colosseum)
- … Paris is tempting – but have you been to Lyon or Bordeaux?
- … Cinque Terre and stroll around Porto Venere
- … Vienna and discover Mozart’s birthplace – Salzburg – instead
- … London and explore York or Edinburgh
- … Santorini for the whitewashed houses and authentic feel of Naxos
- … Machu Picchu for its far less crowded near-twin Choquequirao
What is overtourism, exactly?
We’ve been talking a lot about it so perhaps it’s time to actually define overtourism.
According to Skift, who say they invented the phrase, overtourism is “a new construct to look at potential hazards to popular destinations worldwide, as the dynamic forces that power tourism often inflict unavoidable negative consequences if not managed well.”
Or more simply put in Collins Dictionary, it is “the phenomenon of a popular destination or sight becoming overrun with tourists in an unsustainable way.”
But you get the idea. It’s an imbalance – where too many people converge on a place that can’t sustain them. Simply put, it’s the danger of loving a place to death.
How did overtourism happen?
The vertiginous rise in tourism made it happen.
In 1950, there were 25 million international tourist arrivals. By 2017 that figure had skyrocketed to 1.2 billion – nearly 50 times higher.
And it’s not slowing down.
According to the UN World Tourism Organization, international tourism grew by 6% in the first six months of 2018 compared to a year earlier. And for the past ten years, annual tourism has grown 4.2% on average around the world.
How on earth did this happen, and so quickly?
- The advent of cheap flights fueled tourism’s expansion. It is now easier, faster and cheaper to travel than ever.
- The opening up of China added millions of enthusiastic (and newly rich) travelers who were catching up with the world after years of living in a closed society.
- The cruise industry has grown immensely, with super ships dropping millions of visitors off for the day in the world’s iconic spots.
- Tourism success has always been measured in numbers: the more people visit a destination, the better, with little attention to quality. In other words, it had something to do with profits and “the more the merrier”.
- Destinations weren’t paying attention while tourism grew, and grew. They exercised little control and even less management and when they did, it was too little, too late.
- Social media has turned certain destinations into iconic backdrops, making it compulsory to visit and snap that inevitable Instagram pose and share it with the world.
- And finally, the popularity of bucket lists has more people than ever trying to check off more places, not necessarily wanting to visit but only to say “Been there, done that”.
The fuel behind the anti-tourism fires: my personal experience
I get overtourism. Really, I personally get it. In fact I got it before it ever became a word.
For a time I lived in a French medieval village, the kind that wins prizes as the most picture-perfect and the one with the most flower arrangements.
In winter, it was paradise, with about 40 households and a moody, misty stillness rolling up from nearby Lake Geneva.
In summer, more than a million tourists crammed themselves into four tiny cobblestoned streets filled with restaurants and shops and, admittedly, a certain amount of charm.
My window cast shade in the hot summer sun and below it was a favorite spot for itinerant artists entertaining day trippers who had come across from Geneva by boat. But after the 180th rendition of “El Condor Pasa”, flute version, I was ready to drop a flower pot on the unsuspecting Andean musician.
I couldn’t buy food in the village because its winter population was too small to support a store. I’d have to drive to a nearby town, fighting through crowds who angrily pointed at a “no automobiles” sign. Yes, no tourist automobiles. Those of us who live here are actually allowed to come and go. Sorry to have to drive through the throngs but our parking spaces have long been turned over to tour buses.
So when the residents of Barcelona rebel against excessive tourism, I get it.
When Venetians express their fury at the floating behemoths that dwarf their city and shake its foundations, I sympathize.
Tourism is not a benign act – it has consequences
As tourists we are often caught between the clashing interests of business (make more money), government (bring more visitors), residents (maintain quality of life) and our own desires (enjoy a holiday in a beautiful destination of our choice).
I can’t read into the future but here are a few of the possible scenarios if things go on as they are:
- Visitors might start staying away. For some destinations, this would be a godsend; for others, a catastrophe.
- Travel might have to become more organized because we have to plan around “allowed” dates and times.
- We could end up paying for entry, like Disneyland, to places like Venice.
- Off-season travel might increase, at least for those who can get away.
- Certain types of travel might be banned – tour groups, for example, or travel at the cheaper end of the spectrum.
- Travel costs could increase as destinations hike up prices in an effort to keep people out. Only the wealthy would visit, making travel increasingly elitist.
- We could face antagonism at our destination or outright hostility.
It’s naive to think that travel revolves around our personal enjoyment: we pay, fly, run around or lie on the beach for a week or two and return home, all without a thought for what happens at every step of our journey. That lack of consciousness is a part of the problem.
I thoughtlessly stayed in a corporate Airbnb in Barcelona once – because I was lazy. I wanted to be near the “center of the action”. But for my next visit, I thought it through. I stayed in Girona and took the train in, discovering everything the smaller city had to offer me. I ate my meals in Barcelona, and spent my money on attractions there. I contributed to the local economy, but not to raising rents and pushing residents out.
This isn’t about not traveling. After all, I write about places and encourage people to travel, so you could easily say I’m part of the problem. But by highlighting safety issues for women, trying to be objective about a destination and encouraging everyone to travel as locally as possible, I’m trying to behave responsibly.
Thinking ahead is possibly the biggest contribution we can make to reducing overtourism. Thinking about where we stay, when we go, how we engage with locals…
Just imagine for a moment this was happening in your own backyard: busloads of tourists gawking at your house, leaning out to take pictures (bonus points if children or pets are playing outside), some even stepping over your lawn to take a selfie in your doorway, or taking pictures of you doing “quaint, local things” like weeding your garden or having a BBQ.
And just hold that thought next time you travel.