Tourism can be a great thing for cities, towns, villages, and destinations. But… is there such a thing as too many tourists? Yes! And let’s discuss overtourism, its consequences, and what we can do about it today!
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- Overtourism (noun): The situation when a tourist destination experiences an excessive and unsustainable number of visitors.
- Overtourism can have negative consequences for the environment and local communities.
- Infrastructure (noun): The basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society, such as transportation systems and utilities.
- Large numbers of visitors can strain a destination’s infrastructure.
- Off-peak (adjective): Not at the busiest or most popular time.
- Traveling in the off-peak season can help reduce overcrowding.
- Promotion (noun): The action of encouraging or supporting the growth or popularity of something.
- Influencers can play a role in the promotion of tourist destinations.
- Tourist trap (noun): A place that attracts tourists and charges high prices or offers low-quality goods or services.
- It’s better to eat at local restaurants than fall into a tourist trap.
- Respectful (adjective): Showing respect or polite behaviour towards others.
- Travelers should be respectful of local cultures and traditions.
- Friction (noun): Conflict or tension between individuals or groups.
- Overtourism can create friction between tourists and local residents.
Mt Fuji in Japan
In February 2022, I took a road trip with a few friends of mine from graduate school in Tokyo. We drove to Fuji Kawaguchiko, the town right next to Japan’s iconic Mt Fuji. We booked an AirBnB with a spectacular view of scenery and enjoyed days of hiking and taking in the amazing sites.
Fortunately for us, there were very few tourists at this time. Most of the AirBnBs in the area were empty and the place we stayed gave us a discount (I looked today and right now the price is almost 4 times higher than when we booked 2 years ago).
There were a few reasons for the lack of tourists.
We travelled on a weekday in February. This is not the most popular time to visit Fuji (the mountain can only be climbed in the summer).
Our trip was also during the Covid-19 pandemic. Japan was closed to international tourism, and while domestic tourism was allowed many Japanese people were being cautious.
This is why we chose to rent an entire house near Mt Fuji rather than travelling to a big city – we wanted to stay away from Covid and stay safe.
Even so, it was eerily quiet. Mt Fuji is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in the world, but during the pandemic it was almost deserted.
Local restaurants, stores, and hotels were struggling to survive without the support of visitors and travellers.
Last summer, tourism to Fuji did recover somewhat but Japan remained closed to international travel.
This year, things are very different.
Fuji is not struggling with a lack of tourism, but with too many tourists!
There are more accidents and illnesses due to inexperienced climbers. The mountain is covered in trash and litter left behind by the large number of climbers. And it takes up to twice as long to climb to the top as it used to!
In Japanese culture and religion, Mt Fuji is not just a mountain. It is sacred. And while tourism is a welcome source of revenue, it is becoming increasingly damaging to the holy mountain!
Fuji is not unique. Places around the world are struggling with overtourism – too many tourists. Let’s take a deeper look at overtourism, its consequences, its causes, and how places around the world are trying to deal with overtourism!
What is Overtourism?
Overtourism refers to the situation when a tourist destination experiences an excessive and unsustainable number of visitors, leading to negative consequences for the environment, local communities, and the overall tourism experience.
In other words, it is when there are more visitors to a place than it can safely hold and effectively deal with.
Overtourism presents unique challenges. On the one hand, destinations are often reliant on tourism. They need the income from travellers and the local economy may be based around the travel industry – restaurants, hotels, souvenir shops, tour guides, and more.
On the other hand, too many tourists can be a major problem. It can lead to environmental issues, social problems, and harm the local economy.
I think this idea is best demonstrated through examples, so here are a few to help illustrate the concept:
- Venice, Italy: Venice is a classic example of overtourism. The city, known for its picturesque canals and historic architecture, has been overwhelmed by tourists. The sheer volume of visitors has led to overcrowding, increased rent prices that drive out locals, and damage to the fragile ecosystem caused by cruise ships and water pollution.
- Machu Picchu, Peru: The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu has faced issues related to overtourism. The UNESCO World Heritage site has seen a surge in visitors, which has raised concerns about the preservation of its archaeological treasures and the impact of foot traffic on the fragile ruins.
- Santorini, Greece: The Greek Island of Santorini is famous for its stunning sunsets and white-washed buildings overlooking the Aegean Sea. However, the island has faced challenges due to overtourism, including traffic congestion, strain on water resources, and environmental degradation. Greece is currently trying to encourage tourists to visit other parts of the country, instead of just travelling to the overcrowded islands.
- Maya Bay, Thailand: The 2000 film The Beach turned Maya Beach in Thailand into a tourism hotspot. 5000 visitors a day came in by boat to enjoy the sand and sea… and in the process they were destroying the local environment. The beach was closed for 3 years to allow coral and species to recover, and swimming is still banned! The region is now focusing on high-end luxury travellers rather than mass tourism.
- Hallstatt, Austria: The small and picturesque village of Hallstatt has only 800 residents but can receive up to 10,000 visitors a day during the peak season. The residents of the village have been staging regular protests against the ridiculous number of visitors in recent years.
Reasons for Overtourism?
The term overtourism is relatively new. It was first used around 10 years ago to reflect the growing trend.
But why? Why is overtourism becoming an issue?
Travel is easier than ever. Budget airlines, package deals, and the availability of affordable accommodations have made travel more accessible to a wider range of people.
For example, a train ticket from London to Manchester in the UK usually costs over £100 (sometimes as much as £200), but you can fly to virtually every country in Europe for at least half the price (sometimes ten times cheaper than the train). Of course, people are going to travel internationally when it is so affordable.
Social media, combined with marketing and promotions, has allowed people to share their travel experiences and potentially make a location go viral. Now with TikTok, influencers can really make a difference in promoting the popularity of a place.
Another cause of issues in many place – including Venice – is cruise ships. Large cruise ships can bring thousands of passengers to a destination in a single day, overwhelming local infrastructure.
Some communities become heavily dependent on tourism as their main, even only, source of income, which can lead to the continuous promotion of tourism and an excessive focus on attracting visitors.
However, this year the biggest contributor to overtourism is the legacy of the pandemic. During peak Covid, tourism almost completely vanished. Some destinations, including New Zealand, Australia, and Japan were closed to all tourism for years.
Travellers were forced to delay plans until after the pandemic and given the time and space to research trips in detail.
The World Travel Tourism Council predicts that tourism will be back to pre-pandemic levels this year and continue growing into the future.
This post-pandemic tourism boom has had major consequences and led to destinations being overwhelmed with travellers.
Problems of Overtourism?
What are the consequences of overtourism? It causes problems for everyone.
For travellers, it can ruin the experience. Crowded destinations can lead to long queues, disappointing views, and increasing prices.
Imagine travelling to climb Mt Fuji to see the incredible sunrise from the summit, but only to arrive and not be able to see anything because there are hundreds of others with the same idea. Or visiting Venice but discovering that even a simple coffee and sandwich is ridiculously expensive.
This is the reality facing many people. I visited Kyoto in August 2022 – this was during Japan’s travel ban and the major attractions were peaceful, quiet, and amazing. There were no queues at all – in fact we were the only people at some of the places.
This will likely never be the case again. This year Kyoto is considering measures to control traveller numbers – temples and shrines that took me 30 seconds to enter last year now take an hour.
And for those travellers… the experience of Kyoto may be ruined because there are too many people!
For the local region, the problems are much more severe.
Excessive tourism can put immense pressure on the environment, leading to damage to natural resources, wildlife habitats, and ecosystems. This happened to the beach in Thailand with boats and swimmers damaging the underwater world.
The influx of tourists can strain a destination’s infrastructure, including transportation systems, roads, bridges, public transit, sewage and waste management, and utilities like water and electricity.
The demand for housing from tourists can drive up property prices and rental costs, making it difficult for local residents to afford to live in their own communities. Venice, for example, has seen its population drop to just 50,000 people… far less than the peak of 175,000 people. It is too expensive, and too inconvenient, to live in the city for many people.
High tourist numbers can lead to increased pollution, including litter, plastic waste, and water pollution. Cruise ships, in particular, can contribute to marine pollution.
Iconic landmarks and cultural heritage sites can suffer from physical wear and tear due to the sheer volume of visitors. For example, the erosion of historic structures or artwork caused by tourists’ touch. Moreover, there have been incidents of tourists deliberately causing damage!
Overtourism can lead to resentment among local residents who feel that their daily lives are disrupted, and their needs neglected in favour of tourists.
And high volumes of tourists can lead to increased disrespectful behaviour, causing friction between tourists and locals.
How are Cities Dealing with Overtourism?
From 2024, Venice will charge visitors $5 a day in an attempt to protect the city from the affects of visitors. The money will be used to deal with the problems of overtourism, and maybe deter a few travellers.
Introducing special city taxes for tourists has become a very popular policy. Barcelona did so in 2012 and increased it earlier this year. The Japanese island of Miyajima will introduce one this month. And the remote country Bhutan may have the most extreme tax – $100 a night per tourist in taxes.
Another popular measure is banning cruise ships. From the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, to Amsterdam, to Venice, places across the world are restricting the number of cruise ships allowed to stop and visit. Cruise ships are one of the biggest reasons for overcrowding.
Some places have closed entirely to visitors. Maya Bay in Thailand closed for nearly four years before reopening with strict limits on the number of visitors and bans of swimming and boats.
Another famous example is the Lascaux caves in France. They contain incredible early human art and opened to the public in 1948. In 1963, scientists concluded that the caves were at risk due to the number of visitors and they closed temporarily. That temporary closure became permanent. Instead of reopening to the caves to the public, France built a replica for visitors.
Rather than closing completely, Machu Pichu in Peru introduced a ticketing system. This spread out the times when people could visit, encouraging people to go at less busy times (usually the afternoon).
The Netherlands has attempted to rebrand its reputation for tourism. For example, they are encouraging visitors to travel to more cities than just Amsterdam and the Mayor of Amsterdam has launched a campaign to discourage young British men from visiting the city.
The Indonesian Island of Bali has experienced massive increases in visitors due to social media popularity and relatively low prices. As well as trying to promote sustainable tourism, they have started to become stricter with tourists challenging the islands culture and rules. For example, they deported a 24-year-old Russian women for posing naked on a sacred mountain.
There are even more overtourism policies around the world. Bans on selfies and photographs in some places; ends to discounts on alcohol or public transport tickets; and education initiatives to encourage people to visit different locations.
Are People Travelling Wrong?
How can you be a better tourist and avoid contributing to overtourism?
Think about when and where you visit. In all the places I mentioned in this episode, overtourism happens in very specific locations. In Japan, places like Mt Fuji, Miyajima, and Kyoto are struggling under the weight of visitors, but there are hundreds of places around the country in need of more tourists.
There are smaller cities with amazing histories, villages with spectacular views, and towns with excellent food in countries all around the world. You don’t need to travel to the exact places you have seen on TikTok, Instagram, or TV shows.
Be more creative and flexible in your travel plans. Greece, Iceland, and the Netherlands have all launched campaigns to encourage people to not just head to the most popular places.
And by visiting slightly less popular locations, you will probably have a better experience. You will learn something different to other tourists and see new sights.
Of course, this isn’t realistic for everyone. If it has been your dream to visit Barcelona, or Machu Pichu, or Amsterdam, of course you should visit. But try to travel in a way that is as respectful and kind to local residents as possible.
Travel in off peak seasons when there are less visitors. Travel in small groups and make sure as much of your money is spent in local businesses. Stay in local hotels or guesthouses and eat at local restaurants rather than tourist traps.
And, of course, respect the local culture and environment! If you are going to climb a mountain… wear climbing gear and plan your journey (you would be surprised how many people climb Mt Fuji in shorts and sandals). If you are going to a religious site, be respectful. And if you are staying in a residential area, be quiet!
Preventing overtourism means being more respectful and more flexible in your travel plans!
In conclusion, overtourism is a growing global issue with serious consequences for both travellers and the destinations they visit.
This problem grown due to factors like increased accessibility, social media, and the post-pandemic tourism boom.
To combat overtourism, cities and countries are implementing various measures, such as city taxes, cruise ship restrictions, and even temporary closures of iconic sites.
As travellers, we can contribute to the solution by choosing less crowded destinations, being flexible in our travel plans, and respecting local cultures and environments.
What do you think? How can you help prevent overtourism? How can we be better tourists?
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