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Prague's famous Charles Bridge is often jam-packed with tourists. Photo by Clark Norton

Prague’s famous Charles Bridge is often jam-packed with tourists. Photo by Clark Norton

You may have experienced it yourself when battling humongous lines to enter San Marco in Venice, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, or the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, or when you found yourself in a wave of fellow travelers struggling to get a peek at the changing of the guard at palaces in London, Athens, or Prague.

You may have been put off by hordes of drunken revelers in Amsterdam, Mallorca, or Berlin (of which, we trust, you were not one yourself).

You may have found small Alaskan ports or Croatian islands too overrun by your fellow cruise ship passengers to appreciate the beauty that attracted you to such cruise itineraries in the first place.

You may have sought out privacy in Iceland’s hot springs, only to find them packed with Game of Thrones fans drawn to the original home of “fire and ice.”

You may have discovered that that “authentic” floating market in Thailand that your guidebook waxes rhapsodic about has become little more than an op for selfies for other visitors jostling for angles to cut other selfie-takers out of their pictures.

You may have found that the crowds of tourists jamming into Kyoto’s fabulous temples and shrines have overwhelmed any sense of serenity they once enjoyed.

Overtourism: The Latest Buzzword

If you find yourself nodding in recognition of any or all of these situations, you’ve experienced the effects of “overtourism” — which has become the latest buzzword in the worldwide travel industry.

Overtourism is what happens when too many tourists spoil the spot. The numbers are striking : in 2017, travelers took 1.3 billion international trips. That’s more than  50 times the number taken in 1960, when jets ushered in the dawn of mass tourism.

Global tourism is now the world’s biggest industry, accounting for about one-tenth of global economic output. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, total global tourism spending amounted to $1.3 trillion in 2017 — $94 billion more than in 2016. More than 300 million people are employed worldwide in the industry.

Small ship cruises such as Island Windjammer's Sagitta are less intrusive on already overrun destinations. Photo by Catharine Norton

Small ship cruises such as Island Windjammer’s Sagitta are less intrusive on already overrun destinations. Photo by Catharine Norton

While the economic benefits of mass tourism have been vital to many destinations (nearly 15 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product, for instance,  stems from tourism), the most popular cities are feeling the crunch.

Last year, some 670 million people visited Europe alone. Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Prague, and other hotspots are being overrun by visitors who may just be loving them to death.

The new waves of tourists have been buoyed by the rise of cut-rate airlines and large cruise ships; alternative (and often cheaper) lodging options such as Airbnb and VRBO; the ease of booking flights, accommodations, and package tours via the internet; and the emergence of China, Russia, and the Arab world as potent new sources of world travelers.

There is also the increasingly expressed sentiment that mass tourism has brought a new, unsophisticated type of tourist to town — the type who drinks too much, is loud and unruly, who doesn’t appreciate the cultural and historic significance of the destination, who only interacts with other tourists, is obsessed with selfies, and spends money that mostly benefits a relatively few places that cater to the very same unsophisticated traveler.

The Loss of Authenticity

Critics point to the adverse effects overtourism can have on local populations.

Shops and other local businesses geared to serving tourists replace those that once served residents: bookstores give way to souvenir shops, bakeries are taken over by chain eateries, rental apartments once occupied by local families are now occupied by short-term visitors. Prices for housing and goods and services go up, forcing some to flee the cities altogether.

Airports are often stretched to the max these days. Photo by Tara Lee Tarkington on twitter.

Airports are often stretched to the max these days. Photo by Tara Lee Tarkington on twitter.

Venice — considered the original poster child for overtourism — has seen its population drop to half of what it was a few decades ago.

All this means that the authentic experiences tourists are presumably looking for are fast disappearing — ironically due to their own ubiquitous presence. As the German publication Spiegel Online put it, “Tourists sit in traditional restaurants devoid of locals as they watch other tourists.”

Some residents are fighting back, trying to discourage the “tourist hordes.”

Banners and graffiti are popping up exhorting “Tourists go home,” while protesters in places like Mallorca, Barcelona, and Venice have taken  extreme measures against tourists such as harassing them in cafes, slashing tour bus tires, and trying to block cruise ships from entering their ports.

What Some Destinations Are Doing 

Harassing folks in souvenir T-shirts and slashing tires won’t solve anything. Inevtably, the tourist tsunami will only grow more intense in coming years.

Some destinations — such as Antarctica, the Galapagos islands, and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu — have long imposed strict limits on the number of visitors, but those are impractical for most cities.

Still, fearing that their quality of life has diminished and their infrastructures are strained to the max, inundated communities have started to take some preventive measures.

  • Dubrovnik, Croatia, population 42,000, whose old walled town is now besieged by 800,000 cruise ship passengers annually — as well as thousands of Game of Thrones fans seeking out locations where some of the series’ most dramatic scenes were shot– has been warned it may lose its UNESCO World Heritage status. In response, the municipal authorities are planning to limit the number of visitors to 8,000 a day — still a very large wave.
  • Venice has banned huge cruise ships from docking near the city center
  • Barcelona has placed a moratorium on new hotels, and Paris, Berlin, Palma de Mallorca, and Amsterdam have placed limits on Airbnb and other rental apartment approvals. (It’s worth noting, though, that from a tourist’s standpoint staying at a neighborhood Airbnb can offer a more authentic experience than staying at a hotel.)
  • Amsterdam, with a population of 850,000 and 18 million annual visitors, has also banned new hotel construction and diverted cruise ships from the city center, and has even banned new shops and eateries that cater almost exclusively to tourists, such as souvenir shops and crepes stands. The city has also instituted heavy fines for drinking alcohol on the streets and drunken behavior, collectible on the spot, and is heavily monitoring the red light district.

Tourism boards and travel agencies — which can play a vital role by redirecting travelers to lesser known but still desirable locations in their region — are starting to take notice; overtourism is the subject of several upcoming conferences.

If you're taking a tour, look for companies that limit group size. Photo by Amy El-Bassioni.

If you’re taking a tour, look for companies that limit group size. Photo by Amy El-Bassioni.

What We Can Do

As a travel writer who encourages baby boomers to see the world, I’m the last person to tell anyone not to go to destinations like Venice, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Barcelona, or Kyoto, all of which are among my favorite places in the world.

But if you’re concerned about the effects of overtourism, here are a few suggestions of what you (and I) can do to practice more responsible, sustainable tourism:

  • Travel to less-trammelled locations. And yes, that may mean avoiding travel magazines’ lists of “Hot Places to Go This Year” and “The World’s Best Beaches,” as well as Trip Advisor favorites.
  • If you do find yourself in a Venice or an Amsterdam, seek out off the beaten track neighborhoods and patronize shops and restaurants that may not see much tourist cash.
  • Travel in the off-seasons, which means avoiding Europe in the summer.  You’ll likely save money, too.
  • Take small-ship and river cruises rather than giant cruise ships that disgorge thousands of passengers daily on cities and towns that aren’t equipped to handle them.
  • If you take tours, choose companies that limit group sizes, take you to locally owned accommodations and restaurants, and give back to the communities they visit in some way. (Stride Travel is an excellent online source of such tours.)
  • Consider voluntourism or joining educational tours where you can really dig into the local culture (sometimes literally, if it’s an archeological tour).

The bottom line: Keep traveling but try to avoid being an “overtourist.” The locals will thank you — and you’ll probably have a more enjoyable vacation as well.

 

11 Responses to Overtourism: The New Travel Plague?

  • Add Liguria’s Cinqueterre to your list, Clark. Rick Steves’ endless promotions have turned what was once a hiker’s heaven into a pedestrian autostrada. Almost every building in its five villages is a pizzeria or b&b, and its cliffside trails are so crowded that they’ve bevome downright perilous, with the emphasis on down — hundreds of meters in some cases.

  • Now I’m really looking forward to my cruise in October out of Shanghai with 4000 passengers (mostly those novice Chinese tourists, presumably) and Kyoto’s crowded temples at the height of autumn color in November. On the other hand, Frank should note that the hiking paths at Cinqueterre in November are nearly devoid of tourists, although it rained the day I was there.

    • Dennis — I’ve been living for 20 years in Western Tuscany, 90 minutes’ by train from Cinqueterre, and I can tell you from personal experience that those trails were only devoid of tourists because of the rain. Sure, it’s less busy in November than it is from April to October 31 — 7 months of nightmarish crowds — but the sole period when the traffic is predictably reasonable is December 1 – March 31. The rainy season.

    • Bon voyage, Dennis! And evidence that sometimes rain can be a good thing, unless, as Frank notes, one plunges off a cliff.

      • Rain is seldom a good thing for a photographer. Only good photo at Cinqueterre was of the Vernazza Waterfront which is now a puzzle available in shops there. Frank should pick up a copy for rainy days.

        • Perfect rejoinder, Dennis. My grumpiness is due to the fact that I remember how wonderful Cinqueterre was when I first discovered it, almost four decades ago. I miss that place. Buonviaggio.

  • One important point that should be highlighted is the negative impact of overtourism on the local environment. The cities cannot handle the extra waste and sevage and the locals are paying for that and the overuse of their infrastructure with their own taxes and health.
    Personally I am not happy about your comment: “It’s worth noting, though, that from a tourist’s standpoint staying at a neighborhood Airbnb can offer a more authentic experience than staying at a hotel.”
    You should have pointed out that it is irresponsible for a tourist to rent a flat in a city or metropole via airbnb or vrbo. The only exception to this is renting in a pure vacation community. Locals cannot afford to live in their cities anymore because investors buy and rent out flats at higher prices to tourists and that has already changed the cultural uniqueness of neighbourhoods and cities. Europe is loosing its charme! Airbnb’s original mission was to help people share an extra room and make some extra money and they should stick to that. If you want a more authentic experience rent a room in a flat of a local…but do not rent a whole flat. I would have liked to read that in your article.

  • Thanks for writing, Vanessa. You add important detail to what I wrote about the environmental damage that results from overtourism. My point about Airbnb and VRBO is that — again, from a tourist’s point of view — the experience of staying in a neighborhood is often more authentic than staying in a hotel. From the POV of the city residents, which is what I highlighted in this post, many of these rentals, at least if not restricted in some way, can go a long way toward altering the nature of that same neighborhood. We’re in full agreement on that. But I do think that travelers can examine the nature of their rental carefully enough to discriminate between a local’s rental to supplement income and a strictly commercial enterprise, as my wife and I recently did in Japan and had wonderful experiences getting to know the owners.

  • Thanks, Clark, for an excellent article on an important subject. I, too, encourage other baby boomers to get out and travel the world like I love to do. But, it’s very good to keep this perspective in mind. Luckily, most of us boomers are not the ones staying out late, partying and getting drunk in public!

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According to government and private surveys:

  • Leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and seniors account for four out of every five dollars spent on luxury travel today.
  • Roughly half the consumer spending money in the U.S.--more than $2 trillion--is in the hands of leading-edge baby boomers and seniors.
  • Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) travel more than any other age group.
  • When asked what they would most like to spend their money on, baby boomers answered “travel” more than any other category, including improving their health or finances.

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