What is overtourism and what can you do to help?
If travel is a passion of yours (obviously, why else would you be here?), you’ll have heard the term overtourism. Whether it was Barcelona and Japan restricting the number of Airbnbs, Venice introducing strict rules around where you can sit, or Croatia having to limit how many people can visit the city of Dubrovnik at one time—we’re pretty sure you’ll have seen a story on the news about travellers overcrowding destinations to the point where locals start to find it unlivable. In some cases, the location or attraction may even be damaged.
The EU welcomes 1.5 billion tourists every year, a staggering figure, and most of them visit the same spots. Newsflash, that’s where the problems begin. But what exactly is overtourism, and how can you make sure you’re doing your best to travel mindfully? Let us explain.
What is overtourism?
Responsible Travel defines overtourism as tourist activity that “diminishes the quality of life for local residents and creates a negative experience for visitors”. It occurs when too many travellers visit a single destination at the same time. When we say ‘too many’, we aren’t referring to a specific number, but how many people visit a town that is in excess to what their local facilities and infrastructure can service before things start to turn bad.
We’ve seen this happen in Barcelona, Japan and to a growing degree, Lisbon, as homes are rented out as holiday rentals to meet the lucrative tourist demand. This can force rental prices to increase so locals (in some cases) can no longer afford to live there. This causes a breakdown in that community and can lead to locals moving away, leaving it as a tourist town, completely void of the authentic culture travellers came there to see in the first place.
It’s not just people, either. Overtourism places a strain on the environment as pollution increases due to extra cars and flights in the area, waterways get polluted from overflowing trash and wildlife becomes affected when crowds of people disturb their homes. There are only so many people who can stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon at one time, for example, before it collapses and then no one can enjoy it.
What are governments doing to stop overtourism?
In some places, government bodies are already policing tourism and putting restrictions in place to manage travellers. Venice is a famous example, with its many rules around tourist behaviour that may seem ridiculous until you experience the overcrowding first hand. Thailand is another well-known example, with the government choosing to close the idyllic island hot spot of Maya Bay due to tourist numbers destroying the pristine environment.
Since overtourism has only really become a problem in the last 10-15 years, governments are still learning how to overcome the problem. It was originally planned that Maya Bay would reopen at the end of 2019, but this has now been pushed back to 2021 as officials have surveyed the ecosystem and determined that it needs more time to recover.
It’s a wait and see game in some cases, but in others, governments and official tourist bodies have found ways to manage tourism numbers. Dubrovnik for example: instead of turning visitors away, now makes cruise ships abide to a strict, assigned arrival time in the stunning port so there is less overcrowding.
Europe has been forward thinking when it comes to long term solutions and amongst their list of 169 sustainability goals they plan to reach by 2030, many items speak to overtourism, like managing numbers, welfare of citizens and visitors, and protecting the environment. Peru is another good example, where they have capped Inca Trail hiking permits to only 200 per day and close it entirely to visitors for one month every year. This has helped immensely with preserving the trail and manage numbers, while never diminishing its appeal to travellers.
How can you help stop overtourism?
Once you start to understand the impact of overtourism, it’s only logical that you then want to avoid contributing to the problem the next time you travel. After all, no one wants an encounter with an angry local or to contribute to the demise of a beautiful destination. We all travel to discover cultures different to our own, and if locals are no longer able to live in these locations because they’ve been forced out, we as travellers are unable to have that authentic experiences while abroad.
But all is not lost! There are a few things you can do to help turn the tide on overtourism, and the answer definitely isn’t to stop travelling (never!), but rather, to spread the travel love:
- Travel to places off the beaten track: visiting iconic European cities like Paris and Venice are total musts, but maybe next time you travel to Europe you can visit lesser known (and less crowded) destinations to discover somewhere new and help those smaller economies and towns outside the already thriving cities. Eastern Europe, for example, is an amazing belt of countries that so many people have never been to and heading there instead of the big ticket destinations will have a lower impact on the environment overall.
- Travel outside peak season: this is a no brainer if you prefer fewer crowds and want to save some money, but it’s also just plain responsible tourism. Travelling to Europe in winter, Africa and Asia in their shoulder seasons and even visiting Canada in the summertime are all great options for those who want to travel to specific countries, but to experience it without contributing to the crowding.
- Travel slower and smaller: instead of flying from destination to destination, if you have the time, why not drive (or catch a train train) your way to the next stop so you can discover some lesser known towns along the way? If we need to convince you that sipping on an Aperol Spritz in an Italian village that only locals have heard of, is a good idea, then we’ll be disappointed. You can also choose companies that offer smaller travel groups. For example, many Contiki trips in Asia and Latin America are small group travel.