Illustration showing tourists not taking care of a location

What Is Overtourism—And Why We Should Be Talking About It

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Have you ever arrived at a travel destination after months of planning only to realize that thousands of other tourists had planned the exact same vacation? The term “overtourism” was created to describe this very phenomenon; specifically, situations where the impact of tourism at certain times or destinations exceeds that of which the destination's infrastructure, environment, economy, or society is capable of handling.

According to the UN World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals went from 25 million in 1950 to more than 1.3 billion in 2017. Travel is more accessible than ever, and combined with rapid urbanization due to global population increases, some of the world’s most popular destinations and attractions are seeing unprecedented numbers of visitors each year.

A group of tourists on the Ponte della Paglia, Venice
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How Overtourism Harms Destinations

In cities like Berlin and Lisbon, overtourism has inflated prices in housing as increases in rental accommodations raise rent prices, pushing long-time locals out. Those who own or inherit houses can make more money renting nightly to tourists than renting long-term to families.

In Barcelona, the number of tourists have quadrupled over the past decade to about 32 million per year—in a city with just 1.6 million full-time residents. According to the Guardian, in 2015, of the 32 million people who visited Barcelona, 23 million only stayed for one day, didn't stay in hotels, and contributed very little money to the city’s local economy. The following year, the city fined Airbnb more than $700,000 for advertising unregistered rental accommodations. While there were 75,000 hotel beds and 50,000 beds in legal tourist rental properties in Barcelona that year, the government discovered that at least 50,000 more beds were being rented out despite being unregistered for tourist use.

Venice, a city that faces a similar problem as one of the most popular cruise destinations on earth, sees 20 million visitors per year. Symptoms of overtourism have driven residents out; the population has gone from 175,000 in 1951 to only 50,000 today. Proposed solutions have ranged from banning cruise ships completely to introducing turnstiles and entry fees for tourists. Like Barcelona, the Italian city has faced battles between economies that depend on tourism and communities who believe the industry is creating more problems than benefits.

Tourists taking photos of sunrise, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
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The Difference Between Overtourism and Overcrowding

Overtourism and overcrowded aren’t necessarily the same, either; just because a place is full of people doesn’t mean it is automatically suffering from overtourism. During summertime holidays like Fourth of July, Disneyland gets so crowded that visitors can barely avoid bumping into each other. This doesn’t mean that the culture, economy, and very nature of the place isn’t equipped to handle the massive presence of tourists; in fact, it’s what it was built for.

Think instead of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia, where the tourism boom and its subsequent increase in population and development has resulted in more trash and less clean water. As a result of a fresh water shortage, the Siem Reap government began drawing thousands of cubic meters worth of groundwater per day to supply to locals. Residents who lived along the Siem Reap river began complaining that waste from the attraction had begun to pollute the waterway, making water that was once clean enough to use in their homes dirty and putrid. By 2017, UNESCO had serious concerns that the temple complex itself, which has stood since the first half of the 12th century, was beginning to literally sink due to the shortage of groundwater.

What exactly, then, constitutes “too many tourists”? It depends on the destination and its own unique issue and specific capacities. That’s why overtourism doesn’t have a “one size fits all” solution. In many cases, the answer lies in collaborative efforts on the parts of government agencies, stakeholders, visitors, and locals alike in order to overcome the negative effects of overtourism.

In 2018, officials made the decision to close Boracay Island in the Philippines for at least six months to give the environment time to heal from the barrage of tourists and to improve the crumbling infrastructure so that the economy (which was largely dependent on tourism) could bounce back sustainably. The government has since put a daily cap on visitor numbers and banned single-use plastics, smoking, and alcoholic beverages from the beach. 

No one really wins when it comes to overtourism; the impact of tourism on a destination can negatively or positively influence both its citizens' quality of life and the quality of its visitors' experiences. While the most cited—and perhaps most obvious—negative aspect of overtourism has to do with environmental destruction, it rarely ends there.

Overtourism creates conflicts between visitors and locals when the latter is unable to carry out their daily lives due to tourist congestion. In some of the worst cases, overtourism can interfere with or completely negate the local culture. The problem occurs when visitors start thinking of destinations, historical attractions, and natural sites as theme parks; unlike Disneyland, Boracay Island doesn’t have a full-time team of sanitation workers to help clean up visitor trash.

Boracay at Sunset
Ashmieke creations / Getty Images

How to Avoid Adding to the Problem While Traveling

There’s a reason why these beloved destinations have fallen victim to overtourism; they’re convenient, exciting, alluring, and just plain beautiful. Tourism accounts for massive economic value in popular destinations that local communities rely upon to pay their bills and feed their families; it’s responsible for generating one in 10 global jobs, after all. Not to mention, travel is instrumental in improving our understanding of other cultures and contributes significantly to the social, cultural, and environmental development of destinations.

When managed correctly and sustainably, tourism can protect wildlife and preserve cultures all over the world. The threat of overtourism doesn’t necessarily mean that these places should be avoided—just that visitors who travel there need to be more mindful of how their actions and attitudes affect their surroundings. Because no one wants to arrive at a destination they’ve been dreaming about just to have it covered in garbage or ruined by hoards of selfie-taking tourists. And no local wants to see the very essence of their home destroyed in the name of financial profit.

Travel During the Off-Season

Demand during peak season is a huge contributing factor for cities affected by overtourism; when the industry is reliant on just a few months out of the year for income, a substantial enough imbalance can create economic issues for a destination. Traveling during the off-season or shoulder season helps support local communities with income when they need it most, plus, you’ll get to enjoy fewer crowds and cheaper prices at the same time.

Expand Your Accommodation Search

Look outside the city center or large multinational chains and instead opt for a small family-run hotel in a nearby neighborhood or even another city close by. This will take some of the strain off of the busier areas and give you an opportunity to go off the beaten path. If you have a couple of hours to kill on a layover or day trip, take some time to explore areas outside of the main sites and choose to get lunch or souvenirs at a locally owned establishment.

Notice Your Environmental Impact

Treat a new place like you would your own home. Tourist heavy spots already struggle with limited resources, so take shorter showers and turn the air conditioner off when you leave. Don’t assume that just because you’re at a popular attraction like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls that someone will be there to pick up your litter; these places are still natural areas with full-time wildlife who rely on a clean environment to stay healthy and thrive.

Bring your reusable bags, utensils, straws, and water bottles along on your travels as well, so as not to contribute to single-use plastic pollution. 

Respect the Local Laws and Customs

Research laws and customs of your destination ahead of time so you don’t offend or insult residents or locals who might already be guarded about tourists. This especially pertains to laws that are put in place specifically to combat overtourism. The idea isn't limited to laws and customs, either, since it is equally important to respect the local residents themselves while you’re a guest in their home country or city. Really enjoying that laid-back road trip along the coast? Your leisurely driving speed may be holding up a local on their daily commute to work. Be aware of your actions. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list trip for you, but it is still somebody’s (or some animal’s) home, and we promise they will appreciate your respect.

Illustration: TripSavvy / Alison Czinkota