Overtourism: is that a word? Sadly, it’s a word you’re likely to hear more and more as time goes on. Quite simply, it means too many tourists. But what it really means is that visiting your favourite parts of the world is likely to get harder – and more expensive – in the next few years. Here’s why.
You could say that we live in the golden age of travel. Despite the annoyances involved with flying these days, it’s still possible to get to almost any part of the globe in 24 hours: all you need is a passport and a little cash. And speaking of cash, the new wave of cut-rate airlines has made it affordable for almost anyone to get to the world’s most popular tourist destinations.
That’s the problem. So many people are travelling now, by plane, train — and increasingly, cruise ship — that these high-profile tourist spots have become overcrowded, in some cases crazily. And according to the travel industry website Skift, the pressure is becoming so intense that famous tourist destinations are hatching plans to make it harder for you to get in.
Take Barcelona: once a minor player in the travel world, it became a tourist magnet after the 1992 Olympics. Back then, Barcelona received 100,000 cruise passengers each year; today it gets 2.7 million. Add in all the land and air travellers, plus day-trippers, and it’s enough to swamp a city of 1.7 million. Talk about a promotion that worked too well
Today, tourists crowd Barcelona’s roads and beaches. The influx of outsiders has driven up property rents, forcing residents to move out of the city centre. And predictably, there’s been a backlash: locals have held anti-tourist demonstrations, vandalized rental bikes and even attacked a tourist bus. Demonstrations and violence have cropped up in other European countries, as well.
If Venice is sinking into the sea, it could be partly from the weight of all the tourists it hosts. One official calls it “not a living city anymore”. UNESCO has threatened to revoke Dubrovnik’s World Heritage Site status unless it restricts its tourist intake. Overtourism is also a major issue in Amsterdam, where the tourist throngs make it hard to get around the inner city’s narrow streets; even during my visit in May, I found it crowded with travellers.
The situation isn’t going to get better; in fact, it will only get worse. Today there are 200 million Chinese travellers discovering the world’s tourist sites. In five years, say Chinese officials, there may be 700 million. If you thought you had trouble getting a good look at Nôtre Dame Cathedral now, just wait.
So, what will the overtouristed cities and countries do? According to Skift, they’ll start devising strategies to limit the number of people who get to the most popular tourist sites. In fact, they’ve started already. Cities like London are thinking of ways to keep tourists from choking their downtown areas, where the big tourist attractions are.
One strategy is to encourage repeat visitors to discover other parts of the city, or get out of town and see the rest of the country. Another is to get them to visit in the spring and fall “shoulder” seasons, instead of in the high-traffic summer months.
But there are other ways to fight overtourism: for example, pricing the city out of the average visitor’s budgets by increasing the number of expensive hotels and resorts. This has happened naturally in places like central London and Manhattan, where finding a lower-priced hotel is already a struggle. But other places are considering making it part of their business plan.
Destinations can also limit the places people can stay and play. Barcelona recently moved to block any new tourist lodging in the centre of town. And Copenhagen has forbidden any new bars or restaurants from opening; it also forbids foreigners from buying seaside properties.
Tellingly, Barcelona’s decree applies both to hotels and to Airbnb hosts. They have played a part in creating the overtourism problem, by offering affordable digs in expensive cities so budget travellers can visit. Amsterdam has also moved against Airbnb hosts, imposing a tourist tax and limiting rentals to 60 days a year.
The final option, Skift sugggests, is to actually restrict entry. Last year, when I went to the ecologically sensitive Galapagos Islands, I first had to get a government permit; only a limited number of people get in each year. Expect to see that become more common in the years to come, as travellers take a bigger and bigger toll on these places.
We could also see cities and towns simply make it harder for visitors to get there. For example, they could limit the number of tenders that cruise ships could launch to bring passengers on shore: the Greek island of Santorini now has a limit of 8,000 cruise visitors a day. Or, they could deny budget airlines landing rights at the airport.
In any case, the odds are that today’s free and easy access to the world’s great tourist sites won’t last forever. For a lot of these places, tourism has become too much of a good thing. And I wouldn’t argue with the steps they’re taking. We travel to see other places, with their distinct cultures and timeless art and architecture. But if we end up transforming them into tourist parks, are we seeing what we came for or are we destroying it?
If you want to see the wonders of the world with the least amount of hassle, the time to go is now. Who knows what things will be like in five years? And while you’re there, I trust you’ll treat these places with respect, not like the tourist who took a bath in the public fountain in Venice. No use giving them any more reason to keep us out.