Tourism has a numbers problem.
The world’s population explosion has finally arrived. It has manifested itself not in global waves of famine as was feared half a century ago, but in waves of Airbuses, tour buses, and minibuses. Tourists by the millions.
This population explosion overwhelms St Mark’s Square in Venice. It pushes through the streets of Barcelona, angering residents. It forms hours-long queues in China for the cable cars up Mount Huangshan and fills all the lanes in the World Heritage Village of Hongcun (above). It paves the beaches of the Mediterranean in simmering northern European flesh. In the Louvre it blocks your view of the Mona Lisa with forests of smartphones held high in selfie mode. It pushes through the ruins of Tulum in Mexico with busloads of Spaniards, Americans, Chinese. It even creates traffic jams on the climbing routes up Mount Everest.
It has spawned a new word: Overtourism. Too many tourists.
Overtourism has been manifesting itself for over two decades in popular countries like Spain, Italy, and France. But somehow the population pressure hit the red zone this year. Says one colleague, “It’s the topic du jour. The phrase is on the lips of every travel expert, every pseudo-expert, and every travel industry opportunist.”
Residents have raised a chorus of protest: “Too many tourists!”
No surprise. From Barcelona to Venice, from Reykjavik to Santorini, residents have raised a chorus of protest: “TOO MANY TOURISTS!” Plenty of visitors chime in: Not what we came for. How can a visitor experience the delights of a foreign city if the streets are packed with thousands—yes, thousands—of cruise-ship passengers and lined with global franchises to cater to them? Serious travelers increasingly dismiss such places—“too touristy.”
Pressed beyond tolerable limits, some destinations are fighting back. Dubrovnik is instituting severe caps on cruise passengers, as is Santorini. Italy’s Cinque Terre is ready to impose quotas on people hiking between the five picturesque villages. The Seychelles wants to limit hotel sizes to protect their reputation as an Indian Ocean paradise.
Yet Some Insist: More Is Better
Despite all this backlash, development bankers, government planners, and tourism ministers—many of them political appointees with little knowledge of sustainable tourism principles—still continue to press for yet more tourists. And boast about it.
Just see what I discovered as I was getting ready for this year’s international conference of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). It convened a few weeks ago in the cool air of one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet: Chile’s northern Patagonia region of Aysén. Even here, overtourism was the hot-button topic.
GSTC’s purpose is to work with governments and companies to help protect both the planet and the delights of travel—a delicate balancing act. In addition to countering such threats as climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and overdevelopment, GSTC now confronts the predictable but long-disregarded threat posed by tourism itself.
I moderated the panel addressing overtourism. To prepare for it, I went online and did a search. It took only 30 minutes to find these statements, all published in the previous week:
- “Jamaica is on target to hit its record goal of 4.2 million visitors for 2017.”
- “For 2017, Bali’s foreign arrivals target is an ambitious 6 million.”
- Peru hopes to “double tourism arrivals to 7 million by 2021.”
- Vietnam “has set the target of attracting 13 million-15 million foreign visitors…year-on-year growth of 30-50 percent.”
- Sharjah, U.A.E.: “Draw 10 million visitors a year by 2021.”
- Maldives: “Tourist arrivals have crossed the one million milestone, on course to reach an ambitious target of 1.5 million.”
And those announcements were issued in just one week!
Quantity, not Quality
For government officials it’s easy to set goals by using the convenient turnstile of a passport check to count international arrivals. It’s more trouble and expense to collect more significant data: How long did visitors stay? What did they do? How much did they spend, on what, and who got the money? How did their presence affect local society, culture, and environment? Or the question rarely asked: How many is too many?
Simply striving for more arrivals leads to tourism quantity over quality. That doesn’t seem to bother national leaders who favor a simplistic “more is better” approach to economics, especially if guided by the World Economic Forum’s very informative but flawed Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, which among other oddities measures a country’s cultural wealth by number of stadium seats, as noted in a previous post.
Officials and businesses seeking only to boost tourist quantity can undermine the stewards who try to protect destination quality. An official at western Ireland’s popular Cliffs of Moher, for instance, told me that the number of coach tours was getting out of hand, raising fears that the clifftops would gain a reputation as an overcrowded tourist trap. So geopark management wants to raise the fees for buses, but the County Clare government has so far refused. It might hurt their tourist arrivals target.
Could overcrowding be a problem even down here near empty Patagonia? Yes, it could. On my panel, Hernan Mladinic, Executive Director of the Fundación Pumalín, described traffic jams and competition for camping sites in Patagonia’s great national parks. In only three years, camping demand has more than doubled in Chile’s new Pumalín Park. This problem can at least be solved, as there’s room for more campsites.
So the overtourism situation is far from hopeless. An art-history buff we know spent a week last summer visiting crowd-plagued Florence. She avoided the tourist routes, hit the museums at slack times, stayed in a charming neighborhood across the river, and had a great time. Fine, but overtourism is a bullet one should not have to dodge. Its negative impacts on Florence and many Florentines are undeniable.
Population + Technology + Money = Boom!
The tourism explosion is due not just to more people, but more people with money. A significant portion of the Earth’s population has grown more affluent—think India, China, Brazil, among many others—and travel technology from jumbo jets to the sharing economy has grown cheaper, bigger, and faster.
The overtourism situation is far from hopeless.
That means that if there were, say, five people admiring a painting at a given time back in 1960, there are 200 trying to see it today. Unpleasant, and ultimately unsustainable. Last year saw more than 1.2 billion international arrivals. By 2050, according to David Scowsill, former head of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), some 3 billion people will be affluent enough to make such trips.
Overtourism Has Come to My Beloved Iceland.
Since my first visit in the 1970s, I’ve loved Iceland for its wide views, its unique culture, its geological wonders, and, well, its freedom from crowds. The saddest compliment I ever received was from a long-time friend in Reykjavik, where tourists now seem to rule the downtown throughout summer. “Everything that you said would happen,” she told me, “has happened.” She was wrong actually; while I had warned of the changes that high-volume tourism could bring to Iceland, I never imaged just how much volume. According to a Skift report, almost half a million tourists visited Iceland in 2010, far exceeding the national population of 330,000. That was then. Now quintuple it: Some 2.5 million tourists are expected to have visited this year.
Her husband, a former captain with Icelandair, tried to talk his old employer into providing passage for me to visit and speak about the value of improving the quality of tourism rather than boosting the quantity. He didn’t get far. The response was along the lines of “Are you crazy? You want us to bring a guy here to argue for fewer tourists?” Airlines like to add more planes and fill more seats.
Thus the tourism industry is both victim and vector of overtourism. Even as some hotels and tour operators seek ways to avoid crowding, other elements of the industry that benefit from high volume—cruise ships, airlines, taxi services—continue to encourage tourism quantity over quality. That dissuades the true travelers, who don’t clog the streets for a couple of hours just to take some selfies, buy a T-shirt made in some other country, and then go back to the ship for dinner.
Solutions, or stop-gaps?
The good news, if long overdue, is that tourism media now brim with opinions on how to deal with overtourism.
- Tourism consultant Xavier Font and journalist Elizabeth Becker have articles on the problem in the Guardian.
- Former Nat Geo Traveler editor Norie Quintos has recommendations on crowd-dodging for adventure-travel tour operators.
- Tourism news service Skift has offered its own 5 solutions.
- Responsible Travel’s Justin Francis argues that megacruise ships and budget airlines exacerbate the problem, supported by governments that refuse to impose carbon taxes.
- Our own Destination Stewardship Center has several blog posts on the topic, including one by Salli Felton of the Travel Foundation.
- The Independent reports on Amsterdam’s plan for using technology to spread out the crowds.
- WTTC promises to issue a report about overtourism later this year. Commentator Anna Pollock has posted her doubts in a Linkedin essay that urges optimizing tourism, not maximizing it.
Pollock is on to something. Most of those overtourism recommendations merely mitigate the problem. The population explosion has already happened. The term “overtourism” may lose its cachet from overuse, but the problem is here for generations. It cannot be solved until world leaders face a simple geometric reality:
It is impossible to pack infinitely growing
numbers of tourists into finite spaces.
So what to do? A world of more than 7 billion people requires rethinking tourism, namely:
- Change the prevailing paradigm: More tourism is not necessarily better. Better tourism is better.
- Governments and industry should therefore abolish the practice of setting tourism goals based only on arrivals.
- Instead, incentivize longer stays and discourage hit-and-run, selfie-stick tourism.
- To help do that, destination stakeholders should form stewardship councils that help government and industry plan according to limits of acceptable change.
Who’s a stakeholder? You are.
If you are a thoughtful traveler, voice your opinion and vote with your wallet. Spend your money on destinations that take care of themselves, and on businesses that help them do it.
If you are a resident, team up with your neighbors and civic groups to take charge of how tourism is managed there. If you don’t, someone else will. With their own interests in mind, not yours.
That’s how overtourism gets started.
After three decades as a National Geographic senior editor and writer, Jonathan Tourtellot continues to work as a travel journalist and consultant in destination stewardship and sustainable tourism. He founded and ran National Geographic’s former Center for Sustainable Destinations and directs its successor, the Destination Stewardship Center. You can reach him at email@example.com. For more on overtourism, watch his February 2018 webinar, conducted in cooperation with the George Washington University and Travel Massive.