Addressing the Issue of Overtourism: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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In the picturesque lakeside village of Hallstatt, Austria, something extraordinary happened. The locals staged a protest, wielding placards that pleaded with visitors to “think of the children.” It may sound like an unusual scene, but it underscores a growing global issue – overtourism. Hallstatt, with only 800 residents, opens its doors to a staggering 10,000 visitors daily, resulting in a mind-boggling population increase of over 1,000%. This isn’t an isolated incident; many places around the world are grappling with the challenges posed by an influx of tourists.

The term ‘overtourism’ is relatively new, coined a little over a decade ago to describe the overwhelming numbers of visitors taking a toll on cities, landmarks, and natural landscapes. As global tourist numbers return to pre-pandemic levels, the debate over what constitutes ‘too many’ visitors rages on. While destinations reliant on tourism income remain welcoming, some major cities and sites are taking drastic measures to control tourist numbers, including bans, fines, taxes, time-slot systems, and even campaigns discouraging visitors.

What Is Overtourism?

At its core, overtourism is simply too many people in one place at the same time. There’s no exact number that defines this threshold; instead, a combination of economic, social, and environmental factors determines when and how the numbers become problematic.

The consequences of overtourism extend far and wide. For example, popular snorkeling and diving spots like the Great Barrier Reef and Maya Bay in Thailand, made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie “The Beach,” suffer from coral degradation due to the constant influx of tourists. Transport-related carbon emissions from tourism are expected to grow by 25% from 2016 levels by 2030, contributing to climate change. This means tourism’s share of all man-made emissions will increase from 5% to 5.3%, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

On a local level, residents are being evicted from their homes to make way for holiday rentals, leading to skyrocketing house prices and eroding the sense of community. Long lines, crowded beaches, excessive noise, and damage to historical sites also mar the positives of tourism.

Conversely, ‘undertourism’ refers to less-frequented destinations, a concept that gained traction in the aftermath of the pandemic. These places often miss out on the economic, social, and environmental benefits of tourism, leaving them underdeveloped and underappreciated.

What’s the Main Problem with Overtourism?

Overcrowding is the primary issue, impacting both residents and tourists. Long queues, the need for advance bookings, increased costs for essentials like food and accommodation, and the loss of the solitude that many travelers seek can mar the tourist experience. The absence of clear regulations has led many places to take matters into their own hands to establish crowd control measures, often without cohesive strategies.

Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, points to social media as a significant driver of overtourism. It concentrates tourists in hotspots, exacerbating the problem, while global tourist numbers continue to rise. The result is growing discontent among locals.

French startup Murmuration, which monitors the environmental impact of tourism using satellite data, reveals that 80% of travelers visit just 10% of the world’s tourism destinations, leading to overcrowding in a few select spots. The UNWTO predicts that by 2030, worldwide tourist numbers will reach 1.8 billion, causing even more strain on already popular destinations and further provoking local opposition.

Who’s Been Protesting?

Around 100 of Hallstatt’s 800 residents protested in August, calling for a cap on daily visitors and curfews on tour coach arrivals. Venice residents have long fought against large cruise ships, leading to bans on ships over 25,000 tonnes in the main Giudecca Canal. In France, a flow management system was introduced to ease congestion around popular sites. In Orkney, Scotland, residents voiced their concerns about the number of cruise ships, leading to proposed restrictions.

What Steps Are Being Taken?

Cities are increasingly turning to city taxes to manage tourism. Barcelona raised its nightly levy in 2023, while Venice plans to charge day-trippers a €5 fee from 2024. Amsterdam banned cruise ships and launched a campaign discouraging rowdy behavior. Rome restricted sitting at popular sites like the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. In Kenya’s Maasai Mara, on-the-spot fines for off-roading have been introduced, along with plans to double nightly park fees in peak season.

What Are the Forecasts for Global Tourism?

After a severe blow during the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism is on the rebound. International tourist arrivals dropped by 72% in 2020, but traveler numbers have surged, with double the 2022 figures in the first three months of 2023. The World Travel Tourism Council predicts that the tourism sector will reach £7.5 trillion this year, almost 95% of pre-pandemic levels.

However, it’s expected that more people will show interest in sustainable travel. A 2022 survey found that 64% of respondents would avoid busy tourist sites to reduce congestion.

Are There Any Solutions?

Better tourism management involves promoting off-season travel, limiting numbers where possible, and introducing greater industry regulation. Encouraging sustainable travel practices and finding solutions to minimize conflicts between residents and tourists can also help. Promoting lesser-known, less-visited destinations can redirect travelers and ease pressure on overcrowded places.

In the words of Harold Goodwin, an emeritus professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, it’s crucial to analyze the root causes of crowds and consult with local communities to develop clear strategies. While overtourism remains a seasonal issue for some destinations, tourism overall can still be a force for good, bringing numerous benefits beyond economic growth.

As the world continues to grapple with the challenges of overtourism, finding sustainable solutions becomes increasingly important to preserve the beauty and integrity of our cherished destinations.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about overtourism

What is overtourism?

Overtourism refers to a situation where there are too many visitors in a particular destination at the same time, leading to a range of negative economic, social, and environmental impacts.

Why is overtourism a problem?

Overtourism can lead to overcrowding, long queues, increased costs for tourists, and damage to the environment and local communities. It can also erode the quality of life for residents in popular tourist destinations.

How is overtourism being addressed?

Destinations are implementing various measures to manage overtourism, including city taxes, visitor caps, bans on certain types of tourism, and campaigns discouraging rowdy behavior. Additionally, promoting off-season travel and less-visited destinations is being explored as a solution.

Are there forecasts for the future of global tourism?

Despite setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, global tourism is rebounding, and it is expected to reach nearly 95% of pre-pandemic levels. However, there is also a growing interest in sustainable travel practices to reduce congestion at popular tourist sites.

What can travelers do to help combat overtourism?

Travelers can contribute to the solution by choosing less crowded times to visit popular destinations, respecting local cultures and environments, and considering off-the-beaten-path destinations. Supporting sustainable tourism practices and being mindful of the impact of their travel choices can also make a difference.

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