Overtourism is a buzzword that describes the negative effects of having too many tourists in one place at the same time. If you visit cities like Paris, Rome or Venice you are likely to experience the effects of overtourism. In these cities it can feel like tourism has taken over everything. You cannot find a normal store to buy groceries. 90% of the other people are other tourists. The infrastructure is not made for these kind of tourism flows and there are inevitable environmental issues creeping up.
What is overtourism?
The World Tourism Organization(UNWTO) nicely describes the term: Overtourism occurs in ‘destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. It is the opposite of Responsible Tourism which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently’. Another and probably better term, is ‘overcrowded destinations’.
Overtourism is not solely caused by an increased number of tourists. With urbananization and increased tourism going hand in hand, the problem is not solely a tourism industry issue. In fact, the majority of residents in cities most affected by overtourism believe there should be no limitations to the growth of visitors. Local governments are more than often not able to mitigate the effects and, in some scenarios, even turn a blind eye to the problem. Meanwhile, “tourism can only be sustainable if developed and managed considering both visitors and local communities”, says UNTWO Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili.
That means that we, as visitors, can make the cities that we visit a little more sustainable. We can be responsible tourists. There are simple things that we can do to help, and these are likely to enhance our own experience. A true win-win situation. So, what is it that we can do? How can we have an effect on how overcrowded a destination can become.
Think about your impact and behavior
Cultural differences, different laws and an unknown history make it difficult for tourists to understand how to behave when we visit a new country. In Asia for example, it is not easy to understand what rules to follow when we visit a holy site. Sometimes you are not supposed to wear shoes and sometimes shoes are mandatory. You are not supposed to take a photo with your back facing Buddha, but you are fine to show Buddha your side. All in all, cultural differences are confusing but it’s also something that makes traveling so exciting.
In Europe the cultural differences are not so big, but they can still be confusing. In some countries you are allowed to drink in the streets, but in others you can get arrested for doing something completely normal in your home country. Also, it might be totally normal to show affection in public in your home country but while on vacation it is frowned upon. Sometimes you can freely fly your drone but in other areas you might go to jail for doing exactly the same thing. It is simply not easy to understand how we are expected to behave. So, the only thing we can do is to be considerate and do some research.
While Venice is doing a great job in informing tourists how they should behave, most cities just assume you know how to behave. This can lead to lots of confusion, misunderstandings and rudeness. But knowing how to behave elsewhere, unfortunately, that isn’t so easy.
You will have to research local customs and local laws. The easiest thing to do is to buy a travel guide. Travel guides like Lonely Planet often give you do’s and don’ts. You can also go online and Google what to do and what not to do. Meanwhile, local governments can step up their game and actively inform visitors on how they are supposed to behave rather than just shout or fine people that are clueless. Having said that, there are some basic behaviors that are the same across borders. There are some very easy rules to follow when you travel to minimize your impact:
Help each other
If you see others struggle or unknowingly ‘break an invisible rule’, you can help them. In a friendly way, you can tell them how the locals might perceive their behavior and what they can do to change that. For example, in Venice you are not allowed to eat on steps in the streets. If you see that you can help them by pointing at a place where you can eat. Keep in mind that not all rules are clear to everyone.
The easiest, but most likely the most important thing to do, is to keep the place you are visiting clean. Don’t litter. It’s easy: if you have trash, use a bin. It’s not normal to litter back home, it isn’t normal on vacation.
Don’t disturb others
Playing music out load, shouting to your friends in the middle of the streets or other anti-social behavior that isn’t normal back home, isn’t normal when you are on vacation.
Don’t block the streets
Don’t block the streets. If you are part of an excursion or you are traveling with a group, make sure you are not interrupting daily life in the city. Make way for locals on their daily routine.
Less overtourism by looking beyond main attractions
One of the main strategies used by cities to mitigate the effects of overtourism, is to promote the dispersal of visitors within a city and beyond. This is a promising approach now research has shown that tourists are happy to oblige. They are even willing to pay more to avoid crowds. So how do cities do this? Municipalities are often hosting events away from the city center. They are also developing alternative attractions and introduce city wide or regional travel cards for tourists. All this is done with the goal to geographically spread tourists.
When we are honest, we are often visiting a city to see the main sights. Going to Paris, without visiting the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, is not a realistic option for most travelers. However, combining your visit of the Eiffel Tower, with visiting lesser known attractions is a good idea.
Around the main touristic sites, you will not encounter ‘true locals’ or experience what it is to live in a city. It will give you the opportunity to have a more realistic impression of the city. If you help the city spread tourists across the city, the impact on the main tourist attractions will soften. It is an easy way to minimize your impact on the city while you get a better experience. A true win-win.
In the future, we will see cities promote alternative hotspots more and more. As tourists we can help. We can visit these alternatives and promote them by posting nice photos on our social accounts. Think about it. If we post fair photos on social, we will probably show our friends overcrowded pictures form the main attractions and more realistic and nicer photos from the alternatives that we visited. If you make a post about a crowded place, we can help. Add the hashtag #avoidcrowds and we will help you spread the news.
An easy win for us tourists to contribute to fighting overtourism is to think about where we sleep. We can book our accommodation away from the crowds. In Barcelona, you don’t have to stay on Las Ramblas. Try a hotel just outside the city center with easy access to public transport. You will save money and minimize your impact on the livability of the city. A win-win again.
Don’t travel in peak season
Time based dispersal of visitors is an often-used strategy used by local governments. In general, municipalities promote experiences during off-peak months. Meanwhile, cities are also trying to actively discourage people from coming when it’s already busy. The first part is a positive approach while the second part can have negative side effects as well. The measure itself might cause a deteriorated experienced.
A positive way to promote this dispersal is by promoting the off season. Cities do this by hosting major events like festivals or Marathons when most tourists are not in town. Municipalities simply hope that tourists will change their plans and don’t come in summer but try alternatives like spring or autumn.
A more negative measure is to actively limit access to main attractions in peak season or to close parts of the city. In 2018, Venice took an infamous decision to install gatesto limit the number of visitors. This is a more intrusive but effective way to deal with overtourism. Meanwhile, cities are introducing timeslots for popular attractions. Although it’s a less radical approach it can negatively affect tourists’ plan to see their favorite sights.
Not traveling in peak season is not an option for everyone. Unfortunately, many parents cannot freely choose when to go on vacation. They are limited to school vacations and unable to visit tourist hotspots outside peak season. All other travelers do have a choice. They can and should rethink their travel schedules. If we avoid peak season, we are already minimizing our impact on overtourism.
In short, what can we do to avoid overtourism?
Overtourism might be the latest tourism buzzword but the struggle is real. The world population is growing, and more people will visit popular tourist attractions. Although we cannot stop the rise of tourism, we as tourists can already decrease the impact we have on these destinations. The easiest thing we can do is to simply be aware of the impact that we have and behave accordingly. Try to familiarise yourself with local habits by researching how you are expected to behave. This will keep you out of trouble but will also minimize your impact.
The other thing we can do is to help with the dispersal of tourism both over time and geographically. Don’t only book your stay outside peak season, think about the location of your hotel and explore new things. Last but not least, actively promote alternatives. Make photos of the main hotspots that are crowded with the crowds in the picture. Show your friends the real experience and promote the alternative!