Only three ways to combat overtourism? There are more, but let’s keep things simple
First, what is overtourism? (Photo courtesy of Lisa Cronin)
Overtourism is a term that has come into regular use in the English language relatively recently. Only a few years ago the standard response to increasing numbers of tourists would have been a welcome with open arms: “Spend your money here, tell your friends, come back soon….”
Now, though, the response in many destinations is more likely to be: “Go elsewhere, or go back home!”
Let’s take a look at the figures:
International trips went up by up 6% in the first half of this year (2018), according to the UN World Tourism organisation. Bigger jets, low cost airlines, and bigger ships, as well as the ease of booking and doing research online, increased options thanks to social media, budget accommodation like AirBnb and local transport options like Uber – all of these have turned travel into another commodity to be exploited.
For decades, we’ve thought we were doing places a favour by visiting. So, it can come as a shock to find that we’re no longer welcome, and we may even experience hostility.
How does overtourism affect travel experience?
Let’s take Venice. My first experience of Venice way back in 1967 was of awe, thrill, and romance, as we strolled along the canals, admiring the fabulous architecture, listening to the gondolieri singing. In 2007, however, it was more about surviving the hordes. It was almost impossible to walk, and felt like being swept along by a slow moving giant steam-roller. I learned a new life skill called elbowing. No time to look up at buildings: it was head down, push forward and keep going. Local children can’t play in the streets, the air is thick with pollution, and residents can’t even use the canals until after midday. The fish market may well close, as there’s no room for customers!
The impact of cruise ships on overtourism
In addition, giant cruise ships spill around 44,000 trippers into the city every single day. Tourists outnumber residents by 140 to one, thirty million of them annually. These day trippers are a drain on local resources: they leave garbage, and don’t spend much, as they have their meals onboard ship. No wonder the city’s residents are leaving what they now call ‘Venezialand’: many can’t afford to live there any more. It’s a similar story in Paris. Even here in Spain, Cartagena’s laid-back ambience changes to near frenetic when huge ships dock.
Venice was not the only place where I experienced this. Queuing has long been ‘par for the course’ when visiting, for example, Lenin’s tomb, the Sistene Chapel, or the Forbidden City. But these days the phenomenon has altered. More and more and more visitors, more – often unlicensed – street vendors, have led to an increase in aggression and pick-pocketing. Desperate people see visitors as a source of income, often their only means of survival. And some authorities are adding so-called ‘authentic’ experiences to attract even more guests.
Note: my elbowing technique improved dramatically during the Inti Raimi festival in Cuzco, Peru, where tiny, wizened old ladies propelled me forward against my will to three different locations. Peruvian ladies 3, me nil. (To be fair, this only happens once a year, in June, so not quite in the same category of the other places I’ve mentioned).
‘Endangered Cities’ : Lisbon, Venice, Dubrovnik, Barcelona, Bruges, Amsterdam, Paris, Reykjavik
Many of us travellers want to ‘live like a local’, and have an authentic, immersive experience when abroad. But nowadays, that possibility is vanishing – behind crowds, tour buses, rowdy bars, and souvenir shops. Benidorm, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, was originally a tiny fishing village. Now, it’s a mixture of top class cabaret acts and ‘kiss me quick’ hats, vulgar, pot-bellied comedians, and cheaper than chips meals.
Many tourists don’t pay attention to rules such as ‘no flash photography’; their ‘brand’ or profile being more important to them than the experience, or the preservation of the site itself. I’ve seen tourists snapping people at prayer in temples, feeding their babies, at accident sites, or carrying their sick old relatives, putting their self-interest above others’ needs for privacy. And the unprecedented increase in selfie stick users blocking walkways – or even roads – is enough to enrage even the mildest mannered commuter.
Overtourism in my home town
In my Spanish village, residents have mixed feelings about British and certain other northern hemisphere tourists. Some welcome them, and enjoy the income they bring, whist others abhor the excessive drunkenness and related behaviour that spoils the village experience for other nationalities. And oh, how crowded our beach is these days!! They ban dogs, yet people leave far more rubbish than any animal.
Aftermath of fame
Maya Bay in Thailand captivated us all in the Leonardo di Caprio movie ‘The Beach’, and thousands went to see it for themselves. Now, it is covered in rubbish that has to be cleaned up daily, destroying once pristine conditions for the marine creatures. There is even a move to close it for a while to allow it to recuperate. How sad.
I’ll never forget the crowds of Japanese tourists who rode the Wengen Jungfraujoch train as far as the last stop at the Eiger station, got out, snapped a photo of themselves with the mountain in the background, then rushed to re-board for the return downhill ride. I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was all over in less than five minutes!!
Overtourism where you least expect it
In Africa, trucks line up as they rattle and bounce along the overland route from Nairobi to Cape Town, with drunken tourists singing and generally being rowdy at idyllic savannah campsites. (You won’t hear the lion’s roar any more for the tourists’ shouts).
I was horrified on a cruise when we docked at Labadee, Haiti, where a 3.6 metre fence kept the hungry locals from invading the beach to beg for food, whilst watching tourists jet-ski and paraglide, or sip cocktails from tall plastic beakers.
Guernsey, Channel Islands, is a fairly new cruise ship destination. Already, some locals are lamenting the decline in their local transport service. The iconic ‘Guernsey Bus’ fills up with day trippers wanting a very cheap island tour on the ‘round the island’ route, resulting in standing room only for everyone bar the lucky first thirty four. Or it can be cancelled, because there aren’t enough drivers to fill the ‘official’ round the island excursion offered by the cruise companies.
Efforts to control the influx of tourists:
Some places control the invasion by restricting numbers: when I walked the Inca Trail in 1998, I barely met anyone else on the trail! That route isn’t even open any longer, because of damage to the environment, and the new route limits trekking permits to 200 a day. You still get to see Machu Picchu, but you don’t wear away the original trail any more. And anyone visiting the Galapagos by boat will be given an allotted time to go ashore, for fear of ruining the animals’ habitat. If you go to the iconic Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, you’ll have a strict window during which to arrive and depart.
Some restrictive measures appear to be successful. Gorilla tourism, where only eight permits a day are issued at a cost of up to $750, have not put people off. Rather, marketed correctly – targeting tourists who want to feel ‘exclusive’ – they have managed to balance income with preservation. And Majorca is successfully rebranding itself as a winter destination, thereby mitigating the numbers whilst maintaining the income.
Protests about overtourism
In Australia, Kangaroo Island was due to host the 2011 Surf ‘n’ Music festival, but locals vehemently opposed the proposal to bring 5,000 visitor to Vivonne Bay, where the resident population is only 400.
In Barcelona, graffiti has begun appearing saying ‘Tourists Go Home!’
Tourism brings enormous benefits to an area, among which are, according to responsible travel.com: wealth to small communities, conservation of endangered species, and ‘restoration of crumbling cities’. Is tourism’s contribution to income and standard of living worth the damage being done to the environment?
Three ways to combat overtourism:
- Go out of season. It’s cheaper as well as less crowded
- Explore beyond the centre. Discover hidden gems for yourself and own your own trip
- Go off the beaten track: again, it’s cheaper, more personal, and you’ll be doing both yourself and the locals a big favour!
Finally, what is responsible tourism?
Responsible tourism refers to tourism that creates better places for people to live and visit. Notice the order: what comes first, our lives or our experiences? Overtourism, however, diminishes the quality of life for local residents and creates a negative experience for tourists.
I was thrilled and delighted when my tour company chose the Ningaloo Reef on a recent itinerary. I’d previously dived over the Great Barrier Reef, which is already damaged, some say beyond repair. There are plenty of fabulous alternatives to the most popular sites. Some tour operators are beginning to offer trips there.
And there are other things to do than see the standard sights. London, for example, has a mobile game app that encourages people to visit places outside of the centre and win rewards.
So, do your research, and look for similar towns, villages, lakes, beaches, lesser-known archaeological sites. Don’t settle for the obvious, try something or somewhere new.
Confession: when my ‘top travel experiences’ list grew to over 150, I began to get resigned. You know, the ‘been there, seen it, done it’ mantra. How sad. Now, I’m on the lookout for my ‘top never-heard-of-before experiences’!
Sources: Soundcloud.com on eMarketer, Hollywood Reporter, Lonely Planet James Kay, Statista.com, Responsible Travel.com, The Conversation.comFollow Us: