Overtourism has led to some of the most beautiful places in the world being overrun with people, buildings, pollution and rubbish. Locals get priced out of their home towns, fast food restaurants move in, hotel blocks get built with increasing speed, the natural areas filled with wildlife get concreted over. Tourism is no longer the benign money-spinner it was once considered to be, it has become increasingly hazardous for all involved.
So how do you still travel and see the world, without making the problem worse?
What is Overtourism?
Overtourism is simply when there are too many visitors for a particular place. One hundred extra visitors in a city would not have any real impact, but in a small beauty spot, it could be devastating.
When narrow streets are filled with traffic, when the locals are forced to move to the outskirts as every other home is an Airbnb, when public transport is stuffed with people, when local amenities can't cope with the volume of people and rubbish, when local wildlife is forced out to make way for new concrete buildings which go up without any thought to capacity; that is all overtourism.
Queuing for the summit of Mount Snowdon in Wales (photograph © Peri Vaughan Jones), where fights have actually broken out over queue jumping, and the crowds around the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
What are the causes of overtourism?
There are countless causes, but essentially the tourism industry has been allowed to grow unchecked, with no-one considering the negative impact until it was too late. Cheap flights, cheap accommodation, cruise ships, travel being seen as a necessity instead of a luxury, the growth of bucket list travel, the rise of the Instagram posers; all of these combine to create a perfect storm of destruction to some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
The impact of overtourism
Locals are starting to fight back against the invasion of their cities, beaches and countryside. Places such as Barcelona and Venice are introducing new measures to curb the drastic increase in visitors, such as a certain amount of permits per day, or banning cruise ships from certain places. It is not happening fast enough however, and the time will come when there are increasing amounts of stand-offs between locals and visitors. Tourists have to tackle this themselves on an individual level, and try to become part of the solution, rather than the problem.
"We take our holidays in other peoples homes"
This powerful film from the people at Responsible Travel is a fascinating and concerning documentary on the damage that overtourism is causing around the world. Just 23 minutes long, it is well worth a watch.
How to avoid contributing to overtourism
Choose your timing
Think about the timing of your visit. If you avoid peak season, then you will be putting less of a burden on your destination. The shoulder seasons, or even the off season, will show you a side to the place that only the locals usually get to see. You may well get beaches to yourself, no crowds at the most popular tourist spots, empty public transport and locals who welcome you with open arms.
Avoid the tourist traps
There is no need to go to the most popular destinations just because everyone else goes to them. Many tourist traps are completely overrated anyway, having been ruined by catering to so many people. Areas are fenced off, views are ruined by excessive signage, crowds prevent you seeing anything, or leave you queuing for eternity; everything is overpriced and generally unsatisfactory. It is far better to explore places away from the crowds, head inland to the countryside, the places where the locals live and work; find their favourite places and you will discover far more about your destination that you ever will following the masses.
Avoid packaged holidays where you are herded around en masse, such as large cruise ships, or where everyone is put in the same hotel. Cruises can be devastating for places - hordes of people descend on a town for a day, fill the streets, the public transport, the main sites, and then flock back to their ship for food and entertainment, meaning very little money is spent with the locals. Add that to their shocking environmental impact, and cruises are very bad news for everywhere they visit.
Tourist destinations which suffer the most from overtourism:
Do your research before you go. Check to see if the area you are going to has a problem with overtourism, and change your destination if you need to; no-one wants to go where they are not welcome. Once you have settled on your location, research the bus stops, the bicycle hire places, the local markets and shops; everything you will need during your stay to help you avoid the large retailers and to keep your money local.
Keep a secret
If you find somewhere amazing, a beautiful location that could easily fall victim to over crowding, think twice before plastering it all over Instagram or geotagging it. Some environments are really fragile, and are best kept as secrets.
Don't travel under the social influence. This video by New Zealand's tourist board may be light hearted, but it has a serious message behind it.
Expectation vs. Reality
The Blue Lagoon on the island of Comino near Malta is world renowned for its incredibly beautiful blue water and all of the photos you will see of it show it as a mostly empty idyllic spot. The truth however, is something else.
To get there you have to walk past several makeshift cafes in steel containers, all with generators whirring at full volume and all pumping out loud music. Vendors serve cocktails in pineapples, none of which are eaten, and wasted pineapples litter the beach. Beach umbrellas are everywhere.
The queues for food and loos are horrendous and there are people in every direction you look. It is impossible to find a peaceful place to even just sit, and the views are ruined by people posing for their endless selfies and the boats which fill the bay.
Far better to go to the next beach along, or inland, and have the place to yourself.