Accelerating tourism growth and the threat of overtourism are here to stay. This is our advice on how to travel better in the age of overtourism — tips and actions which will improve your travel experiences and also help to reduce pressure on the places you visit.
Overtourism. This may mark your first encounter with the term describing how rapidly increasing tourist traffic in popular travel destinations immiserates both locals and travelers, but it won’t be your last.
I hear echoes of overtourism more and more. Just last weekend a friend told us he was never returning to Prague because: “It was tourist hell!”
I was sympathetic. I also had to smile.
“Get out of Old Town as fast as you can” read the literal bottom line of our hastily penned, tongue-in-cheek Pension Dan & Audrey, Prague Edition, a private homemade guidebook we placed on our kitchen table for the dozens of friends and guests who visited us in Prague during the years we lived there.
It contained our secrets to enjoying Prague, including simple turns and passages to avoid the hordes and companion touristic schlock-show that plagued the city even then.
That was our response to overtourism. That was also more than 15 years ago.
It was a recognition — valid now as it was then — that Prague could be a delightful destination to experience as a traveler. There's good reason why it’s so popular. It's beautiful, fairy-tale like, historic, and romantic.
But because a growing portion of the rest of the world feels the same way, visiting could also be disappointing, or even miserable.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. You just need to know how to avoid the schlock and discover your own experiential gems. Back then, we discovered how to do this by identifying some universal patterns we then exploited with a few local tweaks. Leveraging these patterns enables a richer experience off the well-worn tourist paths as well as a more pleasant one on them.
So, is the solution to overtourism that we all stop traveling? Are we asking you to skip your next vacation?
Nope. Travel is not going away. So let's have a conversation based on that reality.
First, the overwhelming benefits of travel remain: breaking down fears and stereotypes, connecting with new people and cultures, the joy of discovery and exploration, personal growth, pushing your boundaries, and just having fun.
The economic impact of tourism to communities is also massive. As the biggest industry in the world at an estimated 10% of global GDP, the tourism industry enables economies, businesses and communities to develop and grow. Depriving this often fragile ecosystem of tourism income could be devastating.
It's why we often say: tourism is the people’s business.
You can, however, make choices that align your selfish interest of maximizing your travel experience while optimizing your impact to overtouristed destinations that are feeling the heat.
What is Overtourism?
If you wish to navigate a world of overtourism, it's important to know the landscape and how we got here.
Popular destinations have existed since the dawn of travel. For good reason, too. Even without the internet, word got out about engaging historical sites and museums, captivating cities, and mesmerizing nature and landscapes.
The difference now – and what is sounding the alarm bells — is the sheer volume and acceleration of tourists hitting the road. And it's only expected to grow. In 2017 there were 1.3 billion international travelers crossing borders. That number is expected to rise to 1.8 billion by 2030 (source: WTTC).
In five years, I'm sure we'll find we're on pace to beat those estimates.
Prague is only one example with its 42% increase in visitor growth between 2007 and 2017 (source: WTTC). Other poster children for overtourism include popular European destinations such as Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, and even Iceland.
Beach and island destinations are feeling it, too. Some beaches in Bali have declared a garbage emergency. Thailand and The Philippines have chosen to temporarily close some popular beaches and entire islands to travelers earlier this year. The idea: to have the time and space to clean up, improve infrastructure, and allow the environment a chance to recover from a large number of visitors and the corresponding damage they inflict.
This is only the beginning.
Even the mountains aren’t safe. Mount Everest and its base camp are, quite literally, full of crap. Campsites are piled up with human waste and trash that has no chance to decompose at that elevation. Besides being dangerous for the environment, I can't imagine this particular dimension delights trekkers who just spent all that money for the trip of a lifetime.
This is the result of popularity, unabated and unmanaged.
What are the Causes of Overtourism?
Why are destinations being visited to death? Obvious causes include the democratization of travel, accessibility due to low cost airlines and online booking engines, social media-driven FOMO (fear of missing out), competitive acquisitive pressure to fetch the same Instagram shot, and growing modes of group and mass tourism like cruises.
The growing middle classes of emerged markets like China and India joining the ranks of travelers also contribute. The impact of that influence, however, has only really just begun. For example, the number of Chinese travelers is expected to grow from 136.8 million in 2016 to 400 million in 2030 (source: Der Spiegel).
Combine this with the fact that many destinations were unprepared and did not proactively manage their tourism development and growth. Roads, transportation systems, water and sewer, trash collection, and permit schemes to protect fragile sites in hindsight now seem like wise considerations.
Now, What's the Harm of Overtourism Again?
Depending on the destination, overtourism pressures can include environmental, socioeconomic and cultural degradation – all of which can serve to diminish the quality of life of locals, endanger the long-term appeal and viability of the destination, or both.
The phenomenon is painfully ironic given tourism’s golden promise of economic uplift and development. Too much of a good thing, the saying goes, removes some of shine, appeal and character that brought tourists in the first place. With current thinking, it's a high traffic race to the bottom.
From a traveler’s perspective, overtourism is felt when you take the trip of a lifetime, but realize that half a million other people had the same idea at the same time. The upshot: crowds, long lines, jaded locals, opportunists, frustration, disappointment.
From a local’s perspective: disrespect, trash, noise pollution, disorderly and often drunk visitors, a broken peace. The concern runs in general from too many tourists (think: friendly mobs of visitors) to too many tourists whose destructive, disrespectful behavior (think: vomiting stag-partiers) makes day-to-day living miserable.
Everyone who has experienced overtourism, from either perspective or both, knows how much it can suck.
That’s why in a few places, destination marketing (We need more tourists at all costs!) has yielded to destination management (How do we shape the flow of our tourists?). In between, there are moments never made public where officials ask themselves, “What the hell are we going to do with all these tourists?”
On the positive side of tourism development, Destination Karakol, the local Destination Management Organization (DMO) we advised in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan notes as its mission: “..To create a strong, vibrant tourism industry that makes Karakol a better place to live for local people.”
Now that's a place to start!
We understand that addressing overtourism requires more than changing travelers’ behaviors. Governments, tourism boards, destinations (DMOs) and the commercial travel industry must also act. But we travelers and consumers can act now, at once in our selfish interest and to the benefit of healthy destinations. Your conscious, deliberate choices as travelers about your next trip can positively impact your own enjoyment and the lives of others.
Our suggestions are based on decades of travel around the world, endless conversations with our audience, and our experience working with destinations in tourism development and with organizations across the travel industry.
1. Choose different
Although overtourism headlines make it seem as if the entire world were drowning in travelers, the phenomenon currently applies only to a limited number of the world’s destinations. In fact, a recent WTTC and McKinsey report indicated that around 70% of travelers are concentrated in 20% of the countries.
That leaves a whole lot of the world, including the estimated 80% of countries not struggling from overtourism. Within countries that do receive a lot of visitors there are still many secondary cities and regions that haven’t yet been “discovered.”
Go your own way, confidently. And enjoy it.
2. Let go of the bucket list and checklist
Increasingly, travelers are faced with a decision: Do I visit the most famous site and suffer the misery of crowds just to show my friends on social media “I was there!!”? Or, do I visit someplace a little less famous and a lot less crowded, enjoy myself a lot more in the moment, regardless of whether or not I have that iconic photo?
I suspect a great deal of people travel based on the expectations of others, and not necessarily based on their own enjoyment, nor their own enjoyment in the moment of travel. And they do so without even being aware of their behavior. Social media-fueled FOMO is partially to blame.
Upshot: there is life beyond the bucket list. Maybe even one better without it.
We get it. Some places and sights are truly iconic. And you want to see them for yourself and to share them with others. But, at what cost? Not only to your enjoyment as a traveler (trying to get through thousands of people is no fun), but also to the damage done to the actual site.
My favorite classic micro-example of this pattern and premise is Mona Lisa at The Louvre in Paris. Just as everyone climbed all over one another to get a mediocre photo of the tiny Mona Lisa, I took my time in the Renaissance master corridor leading to it. Sure, when the crowds thinned, I got my look at the Mona Lisa. I can barely recall how it made me feel. But I can still see and feel that corridor. I recall the astonishment — spine chills and all — from being surrounded by the great works I'd studied in Renaissance and Baroque Art History class years before.
Upshot: there is life beyond the bucket list. Maybe even one better without it.
3. Outwalk the other tourists
If you want to avoid the tourist hordes, outwalk them. Our experience suggests most tourists, especially those in big groups visiting popular destinations, will not walk the extra mile if given the choice. They’ll often take the shortest path or skip a sight altogether if involves too much physical effort.
There’s your opportunity.
For example, we traveled to Lisbon last year over New Year’s Eve, a popular destination in a popular moment. Yet, all we needed to do to escape the crowds was to turn, to take a detour – often up a hill — and walk a few blocks away from the concentration of tourist bustle. When we did, we usually had the streets to ourselves, together with some neighborhood cats and locals walking their dogs.
Travelers often talk of seeking a local experience. Taking a walk and losing the crowds achieves that. It helps you stay active and fit, too.
Alternatively, rent a bicycle and do the same.
4. Visit in the shoulder season or off-season
Articles discussing overtourism often fail to mention that the pressure of tourist crowds is worst during, or entirely exclusive to, the high season. The remainder of the year is usually a different story. Consider avoiding travel to popular destinations during peak season and on holidays.
Consider Venice, an overtourism poster child. In summer, it’s pounded with tourists. However, an art journalist friend who visited it recently in November, January, even March, reports a relatively pleasant and calm off-season. Imagine Piazza San Marco mostly to yourself.
In Tallinn, Estonia, we spoke at a conference in late March. Although it remained a bit chilly at that time of year, we enjoyed being able to walk through its medieval old town and have the pick of its surprisingly excellent restaurant scene pretty much to ourselves. This is a far cry from pinballing the masses during the summer months, including the leagues of cruise passengers disgorged from ships docking for the day.
The feel-good bonus of off-season and shoulder season travel: your tourism dollars allow local businesses to smooth their income and employment throughout the year.
5. Consider visiting secondary cities and regions
We understand the draw of big cities and popular regions. However, as you consider your options and perform your vacation research, broaden your view a bit.
Consider less well-known, smaller or secondary cities and regions in or near the destination you have in mind. These may offer you a similar experience to the marquee destination, but with fewer crowds and at a lower cost.
For example, Tuscany usually steals much of the limelight in Italy — and for good reason, we admit. However, lesser known Puglia in Italy’s south also offers historical cities, beautiful coastal and agricultural landscapes, and fabulous food. And with a lot fewer people, too. And if Puglia is still too busy for you, consider nearby Basilicata or Calabria.
And if you really have your heart set on Tuscany, consider the Tuscan sub-region of Maremma that no one really knows anything about but has some incredibly beautiful hill towns like Pitigliano, Sorano and Manciano.
6. Branch out into the neighborhoods
How do I get a local experience? Our answer: Don’t behave like your average tourist.
Same goes for our adopted home, Berlin. When we spend time in our neighborhood, we find it difficult to digest the statistic that from 2006 to 2016, the city’s tourism traffic doubled from 15 to over 30 million visitors a year. When we spend time near the concentration of historical sites, we feel the popularity.
But Berlin is a whopping 345 sq. miles, and the ease of public transportation makes Berlin’s diversity of alternative neighborhoods, local experience, and living history readily accessible.
Many ask: “How do I get a local experience?” Our answer: “Don’t behave like your average tourist.”
7. Take a tour with a social enterprise or community organization
We’ve already spilled plenty of ink singing the praises of social enterprises in travel. The experiences they offer can simultaneously enhance your enjoyment as a traveler just as they contribute to the well-being of the local community. On community tours, you’ll often go beyond seeing a site, and find yourself engaging in discussions of socioeconomics, culture and daily life.
Not only will a social enterprise usually offer a unique angle on what you are seeing, but the guides working those experiences can typically provide useful, local and offbeat recommendations for the remainder of your visit. Their suggestions are ones you don't otherwise find on Top 10 lists.
We've also found that street art walking tours (e.g., Bogota, Lisbon, and Berlin) are a great way to explore a city with a different eye and unusual angle, sometimes taking you to neighborhoods or streets where you wouldn't otherwise think to visit. In addition, many of the organizations leading these tours donate a portion of their proceeds to support local artists, youth training or other community activities connected with art.
8. Tread lightly and clean up after yourself
It’s a shame this even has to be on the list. And it admittedly sounds way too preachy. And the people who need to hear it most probably don't care for our ethos. But I just gotta say it.
I get it: you paid for your vacation, and your enjoyment gets first priority. But, don’t be that traveler.
Despite begs and pleas from advocates like us, travel companies and destinations, travelers insist on leaving a trail of trash in their wake – everything from rubbish tossed on the ground, to strewn single-use plastic bottles to smashed beer bottles.
And it’s not just the cities. We witnessed this blatant disregard along the Huayhuash Trek in Peru earlier this year. In the midst of remote breath-taking landscapes and natural beauty, trekkers – who made the long-distance effort to get there, and who ought to know and behave better — saw it fitting to toss their tin food cans and candy wrappers at campsites and for miles along trails.
Why visit someplace for its beauty, only to trash it?
We understand trash containers are sometimes difficult to find. But make the wee effort. Carrying your trash in your pocket or bag until you find a proper trash can isn’t that hard, is it?
9. Use respect to amplify your sense of place
Reinforce the experience of place by comprehending that people live in the places you visit.
As travelers, we are all guests. If nothing else, travel teaches us we must first be respectful of our hosts – that is, of the people who live in the places we visit. And that respect ought to encompass culture, environment, and society.
Thinking and behaving this way is not as zero-sum as it sounds. Hear me out.
When we do this, we don’t place a wet blanket over our unbridled joy. Rather, just as we are sensitive to and respect a culture and its people, we feed our sense and experience of that place. And, after all, isn't that one of the reasons why we traveled all those miles to someplace else? And what’s more crucial to a sense of place than the undisturbed lives of the people who live there?
This also means making an effort to understand cultural norms, including appropriate dress and behavior, and respecting them. Ask a local for advice if you’re unsure of the boundaries. This goes twice over for sacred spiritual sites, especially devout or religious destinations.
For example, a friend now living in Barcelona tells us of travelers traipsing through the city’s Gothic District in string bikinis. Bikinis have their place, but here? Really? And I wonder, would they do this at home? (And even if the answer is yes, what effort does a step back from your own behavior take?)
Same goes for noise pollution. Locals are not on vacation. They have to wake up each morning early to go to work, even if you insist on getting trashed and being loud and obnoxious in the street.
10. Research your apartment rental to be sure it’s legal
Although Airbnb and similar apartment rental services offer travelers a great option for renting an apartment, sometimes this comes at a cost to local people.
As tourism took off in certain cities (e.g., Barcelona, Berlin, Reykjavik, Paris, New York, etc.), apartment owners removed rental units from the local market and instead rented only to tourists, as this made more money. This practice resulted in the reduced supply of apartments available for locals. In turn, locals saw their rental prices rise, some to the rapid extent of no longer being able to afford to live there. We saw this happening in Berlin a few years ago, until the local government stepped in to regulate and tax the activity to align with the commercial hospitality industry.
The sharing economy is all the rage. Its benefits to travelers can be many. But at what cost to locals? As we make our choices (e.g., accommodation) and engage in the sharing economy, consider at what cost and on whose shoulders these new economy shifts fall.
Before you book that apartment on your next trip, do a little research to determine if it’s legal. This will also protect you in case of a raid. For example, Barcelona has set up a website to help you check whether the apartment you wish to rent is legal or not.
Overtourism, The Future
Nobody holds the crystal ball when it comes to the future of tourism and for the future of the world's most loved destinations.
But if we care, it's up to us. One traveler at a time, one choice at a time, we make travel decisions that impact our experiences, the people and places we visit, and ultimately the future of all of it.
If you don't care, grab your hard hat. Or maybe stay home.