Overtourism refers to the tipping point where the drawbacks of having a lot of people at a destination outweigh the benefits, and many worldwide tourist destinations have reached and gone beyond it. While ‘overtourism’ has been around since humans started to travel to different places and take a ‘holiday’, it’s become something of an urgent contemporary phenomenon as our capacity to travel knows no bounds and only increases year on year.
Many of us have experienced the thrill of discovering a new place that no-one has seen before, from a wild picnic spot near our home to an island in the middle of a tropical ocean. We discover it, tell others about it in our excitement, and help make it ‘the’ place to go. Travel and tourism companies get involved and it grows and reaches its peak, after which time we might just regret sharing it in the first place.
From littering, long queues and overcrowding to bad behaviour induced by stress, popularity has its downsides when it comes to travel, and before you know it, the beautiful haven you found has turned into a dump that’s no good for anyone.
For years most unsustainable tourism companies have generally adopted the approach of ‘quantity over quality’. The idea has been to attract as many people as possible to a sight, area or country, often without any thought as to how this might affect the place or people who live there. There wasn’t any need at the beginning, perhaps, to limit numbers or safeguard communities and habitats. Locals were, it was assumed, hungry for business, and attractive and fascinating places still had their sheen. But this time has now passed for many.
Overtourism has hit the press in recent years with local protests against tourist numbers and behaviour in cities such as Venice, San Sebastian and Barcelona, but media coverage has been highlighting the problem for a long time in different ways. Countries such as Thailand have seen sex tourism, drug culture and badly behaved tourists turn popular places into overcrowded hellholes, while in other countries we know that forests are routinely cleared to build yet more resorts.
So what can be done? Travel agencies need to become more accountable and transparent and address the issue of overtourism for the safety and enjoyment of their clients. Most especially as the continued rise of cheap flights and cheap hotels and our growing world population will only make matters worse. We as sustainable travellers can also play our part to help solve overtourism. Here are a few tips.
How to help with overtourism
– Choose where you travel with care. Travel to countries that deliberately limit tourist numbers, such as Bhutan, or to those that are working on models of sustainable tourism, such as Costa Rica.
- Travel further wherever you go – most people only visit Havana when they visit Cuba, for example, but you can spread the tourist load by getting into the hinterland.
- Travel off season or in shoulder season rather than peak seasons – this limits the overwhelm of peak season, but also creates more certainly for local businesses so they don’t just rely on peak season.
- Ask a local – they have insider knowledge on when coach loads of people turn up and go home, and on lesser visited beaches or sites that are often just as beautiful and interesting, sometimes more so, than the ones pushed by tourist companies.
- Change your itinerary in popular countries – go to see a different Buddhist temple than the one you’ve been advised to see in Sri Lanka, for example – both are likely to be magical.
– Stay in locally owned hotels rather than Airbnb when you travel to popular cities – there’s a theory that in Venice, for example, the rise of Airbnb means locals are being pushed out of the housing market.
- Go somewhere different. Travel companies with large marketing budgets tend to push the same places over and over, so do your own research and branch out.
- Be a responsible traveller when you do travel. Buy and stay local, choose travel companies who care, avoid cruise ships and unsustainable chain hotels.
For more information, check out Responsible Travel, where founder Justin Francis and others regularly cover the problem of overtourism.