Overtourism: The Canary in the Coalmine? How much more tourism can the world take?

Overtourism: The Canary in the Coalmine?
Credit: Prescott Horn


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Overtourism has been around for decades, but what makes it so pertinent now is that whole communities are being affected as well as natural landscapes. And while nature can’t speak out, people can. Residents in popular tourist spots have simply had enough, and their growing protests are a stark warning for local politicians that something urgently needs to be done. How much more tourism can the world actually take, and do we all need it?

Last year NOW reported on overtourism and what individual tourists can do to alleviate the problem, since when several governments and cities have begun to implement specific policies to help manage crowding. Amsterdam and Venice have imposed new taxes to help raise revenue for better tourism management, for example, while New Zealand has decided to collect a fee of NZ$ 25 from each of its international visitors. But residents want far more, and the broader question of tourism’s ‘license to operate’ has also crept into discussions.

Venice Carnival Crowd

Scenes of infamous overtourism hotspots such as Venice have encouraged other destinations and stakeholders to come forward and discuss the challenges associated with tourism growth. National park managers have closed off beaches such as Maya Beach in Thailand, while the Philippine Government closed a whole island (Boracay) to tourism for an extended period using the argument that nature needed to recover (it is now partially reopened).

Tourism growth has long been heralded as a magic bullet – in particular for economic development and poverty alleviation. But whilst this might still be true for some destinations, overall tourism is beginning to fall victim to its own success, most notably when it comes to its huge carbon footprint. According to the 2018 paper published in Nature Climate Change by respected scientist Lenzen and colleagues, tourism emissions make up a whopping 8% of global man-made greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s only the beginning as tourism is growing rapidly.


Could it be that the images of graffiti sprayed on the walls of Barcelona buildings are a harbinger of things to come? Are they negative sentiments against tourism? Will they get worse? We should be deepening discussions about whether the positive impacts of tourism outweigh the negative ones. Tourism is at a significant if not historic crossroads, and decisions need to be made about how the whole industry can rapidly improve its sustainability.

NOW features provide a wide range of ideas and inspirations about what can be done, from environmental reporting and certification to choosing low-carbon visitor experiences and working with local communities. But these actions still rely on a small number of innovators, early adopters, and those who are already passionate about creating a ‘better’ industry.

What we need now is a larger movement, a complete rethink of the whole tourism system, one that includes the question of how we define tourism success in the future and what the ultimate outcomes from tourism should be. More people and more money are no longer guarantees of wellbeing for the industry, for communities and for visitors alike. Instead we need to measure other kinds of impacts, from how happy residents are to levels of carbon emissions – and then make some tough decisions, which could even mean reducing the levels of tourism in places.

Susanne Becken
Susanne Becken

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As both an environmental scientist and frequent enthusiastic traveller, Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University in Australia Dr Susanne Becken was one of the first to link tourism with global problems. She has pioneered research on climate change and tourism, and is behind tools such as the world’s first tourism-specific Global Sustainable Tourism Dashboard. You can read our interview with her here.

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