What is Overtourism and 4 Easy Solutions
Slow Travel,  Travel

What Is Overtourism? And 4 Easy Solutions

With more people travelling than ever before, this is what overtourism means today – and how we can avoid it.

You dream about these destination for years. Growing up, you stay up late reading your favorite adventure stories set in their rugged landscapes. You imagine their food and later recreate it from thick cookbooks. You make Pinterest boards.

These destinations inspire and feed your imagination whenever they appear in films or magazines.

But when you finally arrive, they’re not as you imagined. Because thousands of other people, from all over the world, also had those same dreams. And now you’re all gathered in the same spot feeling claustrophobic and dodging pushy souvenir vendors.

Who hasn’t experienced that sinking disappointment?

The meaning of “overtourism”

Overtourism is a new term that’s only been widely used for the past few years. The World Tourism Organization defines it as the negative impact that tourism has on a destination. It’s when an excess of tourist crowds impact the locals’ quality of life. And it’s when excessive crowds hinder the experiences of the tourists themselves.

Overtourism has been noted since the late 1970s when too many visitors to one place cause excessive noise and disturbance, impacting the local communities and the environment.

Walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik

Why does overtourism occur?

The sheer growth of the tourism industry has a major impact. It’s estimated there were just 25 million tourists in 1950. By 2018, that number exploded to 1.4 billion international arrivals per year, according to the World Tourism Organization. And the numbers are growing.

Tourists from China alone numbered 10.5 million in 2000 compared to some 156 million in 2018.

These days travel is affordable to more people than ever. Low-cost airlines have made short weekend breaks a reality for the middle-class, while cruise tourism has grown rapidly and lead to an influx of visitors to small cities (especially on the Mediterranean).

Vacation rentals have also made travel affordable by offering rooms in world-class cities at a fraction of the cost of traditional hotels.

What is Overtourism and 4 Easy Solutions
Dubrovnik

And then there’s social media and Instagram, where once obscure destinations have mushroomed in popularity thanks to legions of influencers promoting the trends. The media, for their part, regularly publish articles about this year’s “must-see” destinations and the hottest vacation spots. Many travellers base their value on the number of countries they’ve visited or the mountains they’ve climbed (which are experiencing traffic jams, too).

Overtourism is making headlines thanks to these ever-growing numbers and the frustrated backlash from local residents in the form of protests and “Tourists Go Home” graffiti.

Overtourism examples and destinations

Media have warned against visiting cities like Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona, and attractions like the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Santorini and Mount Everest because of overcrowding.

But overtourism isn’t limited to world-famous cities and destinations. It also strikes quiet English villages and tropical islands that lack the infrastructure – and the sheer physical space – to accommodate the crowds.

Though large numbers of tourists don’t necessarily cause overtourism. London, for example, sees millions of visitors each year but doesn’t suffer from overtourism. Those same numbers, however, would crush smaller cities.

Dubrovnik

Famously featured in the TV series Game of Thrones, Dubrovnik suffers from overtourism as legions of fans descend on the Old Town to see the setting for the show’s King’s Landing. It’s estimated that Game of Thrones fans account for about 60,000 tourists a year to this pearl of the Adriatic.

What is Overtourism and 4 Easy Solutions

On a single day in the summer of 2016, more than 10,000 people had tickets to visit the city’s famous city walls. That swell lead to threats from UNESCO who said they’d remove the city’s World Heritage Site status unless tourism was brought under control.

In 2018, the small Croatian city saw some 1.27 million tourists throughout the year.

Cheap flights, holiday rentals and cruise ships (where travellers get off for a few hours and return on board for dinner, contributing little to the local economy) have made it possible to visit Dubrovnik for cheaper than ever.

And the locals are quickly abandoning the medieval stone Old Town, which includes only 1,557 residents compared to 5,000 in 1991. About a quarter are considering escape, according to a recent survey, while complaining of excessive noise and crowds that make daily life difficult.

The Old Town’s main street gets so crowded that the feet of thousands of visitors have buffed its limestone sidewalks to a slippery sheen. The surface has to be roughed up before each summer season with hammers.

Venice

This sinking city on the Adriatic is another victim of cheap flights, cruise ship crowds, vacation rentals and day trippers.

Venice, Italy

Venice gets more than 20 million visitors each year, compared to its permanent population of 55,000 residents (down from 120,000 people just three decades ago). Out of that 20 million, however, only about half spend the night in the city.

The city’s mayor cracked down in 2018 and promised that popular sites will be controlled and diverted if crowds grow too thick, with hefty fines of 500 Euros for noisy wheeled suitcases.

Cruise ships have also been under attack not only for bringing in crowds, but for their role in damaging the city’s fragile lagoon ecosystem. Despite protests and politicians’ promises – and a crash of a 13-deck cruise ship in June – they are yet to be banned.

Venetian port authorities have appealed to other cities along the cruise ship routes (including Barcelona and Dubrovnik) to unite and tackle the problems of massive vessels. Protesters have made headlines when they confronted the cruise ship crowds with signs saying, “Big Ships = Big Shits.”

Overtourism problems and effects

But overtourism doesn’t just mean massive crowds and long waiting lines.

In cities like Barcelona, unregulated holiday rentals have forced out local residents and replaced neighborhood shops with cheap souvenir emporiums.

Barcelona, Spain

Natural wonders like the Andes have become overcrowded with hikers rushing to scale all Seven Summits.

Angkor Wat, a destination you’d imagine as a slice of peace in the Cambodian jungle, is hardly a place for meditation with crowds of loud tourists and pushy temple employees.

Thailand’s Maya Bay, a location in the film The Beach, was closed after a sharp rise in tourists left it severely damaged. In Tulum, walls of stinky seaweed have washed ashore on the popular Mexican beach.

And many are blaming overtourism.

Solutions to overtourism

Overtourism is now so dire that the World Tourism Organization issued a report in 2018 filled with coping strategies like promoting lesser-known attractions in congested destinations, restricting visitor numbers, improving transport infrastructure and involving local communities in tourism development.

Many destinations are already managing their tourism industry, cracking down on cruise ships and tourist numbers.

Once seldom-visited destinations like Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands now limit the size of the cruise ships allowed to travel in their waters. Dubrovnik’s mayor promised in 2017 to cap tourism numbers to 4,000 a day by 2019. Santorini limits the number of tourists from cruise liners to 8,000 per day. While Greece promotes other lesser-known destinations and markets itself as a year-round destination.

Santorini and Overtourism

Increasing prices at well-known destinations and charging tourist fees is another tactic to curb unsustainable numbers.

Venice charges day trippers a three-euro fee, which will increase in 2020. At the Taj Mahal, officials hiked up prices in an effort to lower visitor numbers. While Machu Picchu has a four-hour time limit for visitors with no re-entries allowed.

The Netherlands tourist board is no longer promoting Amsterdam, but instead working on “destination management,” while promoting other Dutch cities. They’ve also banned mobile “beer bars” and said they don’t want tourists oggling sex workers in the city’s red-light district.

And when in Rome, it’s better to avoid swimming in fountains or dressing up in Gladiator costume. Both can lead to fines.

How to stop overtourism

Nobody wants a claustrophobic experience in an overcrowded destination, jostling with selfie sticks and overpaying for bad food.

How can you avoid that hassle?

1. Travel in the off-season.

The world’s most popular destinations are more manageable and charming. Lines are shorter and prices are lower when you avoid the tourist crowds and visit in the colder months.

Dubrovnik and Overtourism

2. Travel off the beaten path.

The top attractions in any given country aren’t necessarily the most incredible sites. Iceland’s Blue Lagoon is world-famous. But visitors to this Nordic island say there are other dipping spots that are just as majestic – without the crowds.

3. Spend locally and support the local economy.

This will ensure that local communities benefit from tourism and that the destination remains authentic.

4. Be respectful.

Don’t litter or make noise, cover up at temples, and be courteous to both the locals and to other tourists.

For more tips on beating the crowds, read 29 Practical Tips for Slow Travel.

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10 Comments

  • Tracey Bacic

    I am giving up on ‘sights’. I never enjoy it when I get there. And there are so many places to go, so many beautiful spots that never make it into any guide books. I’d rather visit those. Now in Cornwall, England, I’ve avoided Lands End, the Eden Project etc and spent my time walking on the coast path – stupendous scenery and wildlife and only a handful of people.

    • Dee

      Cornwall is just incredible. Enjoy your time there!

      When it comes to the big sights, the key for me is research. I’ll read reviews and blogs to make sure those sights are really worth seeing – and it’s great that you can easily find many honest reviews nowadays and lists of alternative places to visit that are just as incredible as the well-known destinations.

  • Notta Holiday

    Thanks Dee, it is a definite problem. Off season travel was far more satisfactory and better for our sanity. Once the summer months hit we were off to further flung destinations for some peace and authenticity.

    • Dee

      I agree.. I don’t really like to do much sightseeing in those hot and humid months anyways. It’s always so draining and difficult to focus on what you’re seeing.

  • Nicola

    This is such an important topic, Dee! My husband and I went to Venice in January a few years back and it was absolutely heaving; I can’t imagine what it would be like in July! And, of course, everyone was walking through town on narrow platforms because it was winter so everything kept flooding (and people stopped on said narrow platforms to take selfies ?).

    And having lived for over five years in a popular tourist city (Edinburgh) I know first-hand how AirBnBs push locals out of the city centre, how the crowds literally stop traffic when you’re trying to get about your day, and how tourism begins to make life in the city unaffordable for the people whose livelihood relies on it the most (many of the sectors that benefit most from tourism pay minimum wage, in a city where rent on a 350 sq ft one-bedroom apartment is more than half the monthly gross pay for a minimum wage worker.)

    I think the problem with overtourism is complicated somewhat by the fact that travel being more accessible is a GOOD thing (it’s the same with conversations about the effects of flying on the environment). We don’t want to return to the days when only the upper classes had the privilege of travel and tourism. Instead, we need to make it more sustainable for everyone: the locals, tourists from all backgrounds, and the planet.

    Fortunately, some of the best ways to start at an individual level are all things that make travel easier and more comfortable for ourselves, as you’ve mentioned in your post. Travelling in the off-season and visiting lesser-known spots means we don’t have to deal with the crowds as much AND we’re helping contribute to the economy of an area when it’s needed (a lot of rural areas of Scotland where tourism plays a big role in the economy struggle in the winter when no one wants to brave the wind and rain and dark; personally I don’t see why as there’s plenty of wind and rain and cold to go round in the summer, too).

    And besides, if we move off the beaten track we’ll get more interesting Instagram shots 😉

    • Dee

      Thanks so much, Nicola! I’ve visited Venice in the summertime only once, in the mid 90s, though from what I’ve heard it’s much more crowded in the high season these days. I don’t do well sightseeing in very hot weather, so that’s one to avoid for sure unless it’s a very minimal itinerary.

      It’s definitely great how more people are travelling these days, especially in this political climate when there’s so much racism and xenophobia going around. Exposure to different cultures can be a powerful learning experience that gets people to broaden their mindset. But, like you said, if we don’t make more of an effort to combat overtourism then certain places just won’t be around in a few years – and we see that now with cities sinking and beaches having to close down because of pollution.

      It’s funny that you mention Scotland in the wintertime, because I suppose it’s all relative and it depends on what you’d consider exotic.. After more than six years of living in Cairo as an expat, where it seems the summers just keep getting hotter every year, I’d actually love to visit Edinburgh or Glasgow, or take a hike through the rural country, with the cool rain beating down on me, then a nice espresso in a cozy cafe. Now that would be a refreshing change ?

      • Nicola

        Well, if you want to take a hike in the countryside I *would* recommend avoiding the winter ?. The weather can be pretty treacherous and there’s only about six hours of daylight! But that’s really only a few months of the year (we visited the Isle of Skye in late-October/early-November and it was perfect), and the cities are lovely any season – though I recommend avoiding Edinburgh in August unless you specifically want to go to the festival, as that’s definitely the city’s busiest month!

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