Some of the world’s most popular destinations are facing damage and overcrowding from an influx of visitors. Here, we discuss the concept of ‘overtourism’ and what to consider when planning your travels.
Ascending the stairs on a walk to Park Güell in Barcelona, I come across graffiti: “Tourists, go home”, it proclaims. Slightly affronted, I continue the walk to see the level of graffiti escalate in both frequency and in the number of expletives used as I get closer to the park.
Such sentiments are a regular feature in the Spanish city and are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discontent from locals towards travellers. It comes as a result of ‘overtourism’, a recently coined phrase, but an issue that has been gradually emerging for years.
The term refers to the negative consequences that befall a destination because of an excessive number of tourists visiting. These consequences can mean anything from the loss of local culture to environmental damage, overcrowding or displacement of local residents.
While worldwide travel used to be the domain of the lucky few who could afford it, the tourism industry has grown remarkably in the past couple of decades thanks to “economic development, lower transport costs… and a growing middle class in advanced and emerging economies”, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). More people are travelling now than ever before, and destinations are starting to feel the pressure.
Barcelona’s popularity as a tourist destination has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. In 2017 the city received over 32 million tourists, a number that had increased by five million from just five years earlier. This has led to local residents being priced out of the real estate market thanks to the proliferation of Airbnb properties, and overcrowding at popular locations and sites. The city has experienced a loss of local culture as small, independent restaurants and shops close to make way for kitsch souvenir shops and expensive eateries catering to tourists.
Venice is another destination that has long been paraded as an example of tourism gone wrong, largely thanks to the deluge of cruise ships that dock there every year. The issue again made headlines in June this year when the ship MSC Opera struck a wharf and riverboat, injuring five people. Locals have protested for years against the large ships, which can cause a significant amount of pollution, as well as threatening the fragile canal system. This is in addition to the millions of tourists they deliver into the city each year, who overcrowd the streets and canals, and some argue they don’t adequately contribute to the local economy.
While Barcelona and Venice continue to accept the still-growing number of visitors each year, other destinations have been overcome by the pressures of overtourism. The picturesque island of Boracay in the Philippines was officially closed to tourists for six months from April 2018 following years of unchecked tourism. The island’s infrastructure was not equipped to service the two million people who visited per year; its existing sewage treatment plants could only serve a small fraction of hotels and households. Some properties were even found to discharge their sewage directly into the ocean, leading to significant environmental damage.
It’s a similar story for Maya Bay in Thailand, a location popularised by the 2000 film The Beach. Thanks to a mass inundation of tourists each day, the once-idyllic and pristine beach was forced to close indefinitely in October 2018. It was found that approximately 80 per cent of the bay’s coral reef had been destroyed due to pollution from litter, boats and sunscreen.
Chris Flynn, president and CEO of the World Tourism Association for Culture and Heritage (WTACH), puts the phenomenon of overtourism down to mismanagement on the part of the destinations themselves, as well as too much of a focus on money and “commercial greed”.
“Governments are tasked [with producing] visitors, to drive their economy through tourism. The problem is, the majority of ministers have to report to their boss as well. They want growth, they want numbers. And we’ve got to stop looking at tourism through numbers; it’s the wrong lens. We’ve got to look at it through value because you can’t cope with numbers.
“It can’t be profit over people or place. We have to now consider our development in a completely different way.”
One of WTACH’s core tenets is to respect local cultures, traditions and values, and the organisation works with destinations to help them preserve their culture and heritage while sustainably managing tourism.
“Once culture is gone, it’s gone. You can’t plant it, you can’t re-grow it. Culture and heritage are the invisible skins that we all wear as individuals. It’s our past; it’s what makes us who we are today.”
International travel shows no signs of slowing down in the coming years. The UNWTO predicts that the industry will continue to grow to a point where, by 2030, 1.8 billion tourists will cross borders. So how do we stop the erosion of culture, the environmental degradation, the social discontent? The solution is manifold, with responsibility shared primarily within the industry, but with individual travellers too.
‘Undertourism’ is a term that’s slowly started to enter the lexicon, and could offer relief for destinations feeling the pinch from overtourism. According to Brett Mitchell, managing director – Asia Pacific of Intrepid Travel, undertourism refers to “destinations [that] have a much lower ratio of locals to travellers, and where they could benefit economically, financially and socially from responsible tourism.”
According to Intrepid Travel’s 2019 Adventure Travel Index, destinations such as Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Mongolia could stand to gain from ‘responsible’ tourism. However, these destinations need to be able to properly plan for and manage an influx of visitors.
It’s not only the destinations but other industry stakeholders like tour and cruise operators that also have a vital part to play in encouraging sustainable tourism.
“At Intrepid Travel, we ensure that 100 per cent of our trips stay true to responsible travel and, as part of that, we encourage travellers to get off-the-beaten-path and check out less visited places. Tour operators can also encourage travellers to visit popular destinations in their off-peak season [and] purchase ethical souvenirs from local communities,” says Brett.
“Working with local communities and councils to create new and innovative travel experiences that are off the beaten path is important. This helps disperse the tourist dollar more evenly while supporting communities through tourism.”
Whilst travel may be accessible, it remains a privilege to experience different cultures and countries. With that comes a responsibility to respect the destinations we visit, and the people who call them home.
Tips to avoid the cycle of overtourism
- If possible, travel to destinations in their low season, which helps reduce overcrowding.
- Support the local economy by shopping and eating in locally run stores and restaurants. This also leads to more authentic experiences.
- Seek out destinations and sites that are off the beaten path.
- Minimise your environmental impact by always properly disposing of your rubbish, and carrying things like reusable water bottle, coffee cups, shopping bags and cutlery.