Travel has never been more accessible and our thirst to see the world is limitless. An estimated billion people travel internationally every year. In 2019, it nearly reached 1.5 billion.
While tourism brings many socio-economic benefits, some popular destinations are falling victim to overtourism where any positive impact is overshadowed by the sheer number of visitors.
So, what is overtourism? What are the causes of overtourism and how do we prevent it? Where is overtourism happening?
This guide breaks down what it means, why it’s damaging and the steps you can take to avoid contributing to overtourism as a responsible traveller.
What is overtourism?
In essence, overtourism is tourism that is not sustainably managed.
Responsible Tourism Partnership defines the term as “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.”
The concept of overtourism can be fairly subjective. It could look like several million visitors in a city or 30 extra people in a rural area. But it’s more than just local residents grumbling about too many people.
Uncontrolled growth, poorly managed tourism and increasing tourist numbers aren’t just a nuisance. They can make a place uninhabitable for local citizens, destroy fragile landmarks, pollute the environment and even ruin the visitor’s own experience.
In destinations affected by overtourism, no one wins.
What are the causes of overtourism?
In recent years, the tourism industry has been in a period of growth (minus 2020-2021, of course!).
Travel has become more accessible than ever thanks to the rise in cheap flights, more hotels, easier ways to get around, faster transport options and more disposable income.
The increased accessibility of travel has been beneficial in many ways. However, it’s one of the main causes of overtourism. Most destinations just don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle huge numbers of visitors – particularly if they were built hundreds of years ago.
Europe’s historic towns and cities with their narrow, winding streets were not designed to accommodate vast crowds. And the more narrow the streets, the higher the concentration of crowding.
Take a look at Venice, for example. The ancient city planners didn’t think about the city’s 20 million annual visitors over 500 years later when they put in those narrow calli (pedestrian alleys). They certainly never considered that large cruises would be docking in the harbour and eroding their fragile lagoon.
The lack of foresight by ancient town planners isn’t the issue though. The effects of overtourism are felt when tourist destinations focus on growth without thinking about the actual capacity of their infrastructure.
Social media is another driving force behind overtourism. Locations deemed Instagrammable or TikTok-worthy attract thousands of visitors eager to capture that bucket-list experience that’s portrayed online.
Even if we’re not knowingly following in the footsteps of influencers, these viral destinations are more visible to us than other places. They’re more top of mind when it comes to booking a holiday.
And with visibility comes familiarity. Let’s not forget that travelling is expensive and comes with a lot of risk. Travellers want to get a good return on investment for their holiday when they part with their hard-earned cash.
Places recommended by friends or destinations we’ve seen on social media are attractive because we have a better idea of what to expect than somewhere completely unknown.
What is the impact of mass tourism?
The increased popularity of mass tourism in a destination causes the local economy to focus on the tourists they attract rather than the people who live there. Again, it’s growth over capacity.
From an economic perspective, rising prices can also push local people out of their communities. One example of this is the property market.
Landlords can get more money by turning their property into a holiday home rather than having long-term tenants. Not only does it drive a housing crisis, but holiday-focused areas become ghost towns out of season.
This is an ongoing issue in Cornwall, England. In 2022, holiday lets outnumbered homes to rent by 100 to 1. Meanwhile, an estimated 23,000 people were on the social housing waitlist.
A concentrated tourism footprint also inhibits local inhabitants from going about their day.
They’re forced to put up with loud noise, traffic, pollution and disrespectful behaviour. Their private property may even become a target for social media if it fits the look.
On top of that, numerous flights a day pollute the skies and cruise ships bring in an influx of day trippers who don’t contribute to the local economy as much as those who stay for longer.
Crowds also damage fragile landmarks and take away the place’s authenticity. They scare away wildlife, destroy ecosystems and have negative impacts on local communities as well as the climate as a whole.
Without the right regulations in place, local areas can become prone to excess pollution, the quality of life for local residents is impacted and rare plants and wildlife are destroyed.
Overtourism isn’t enjoyable for the tourists or the residents. It’s a situation where nobody wins.
Where is overtourism happening?
When places become popular, the rise in tourism can be devastating. For example, Maya Bay in Thailand was a secluded hideaway made famous by the film The Beach.
After the film’s success, it averaged around 4,000 visitors per day and this small area was not prepared for the influx of tourists, resulting in the destruction of coral reefs and rare sea life.
Maya Bay closed for over two years (2020-2022) to try and undo the damage caused by overtourism. It reopened in January 2022 with new regulations in place.
This is just one example, but sadly, many places around the world are becoming victims of overtourism. Here’s a quick snapshot of some overtourism destinations:
- Amsterdam – the Dutch city has been trying to shake off its reputation as stag do central. It’s fed up with tourists behaving badly and pricing locals out of homes.
- Venice – Of the 20 million annual visitors, only half spend the night there. The rest are day trippers which don’t benefit the local economy.
- Machu Picchu – The sheer number of people visiting the ancient Inca monument is putting it at risk of degradation. Numbers are now limited to reduce overtourism.
- Barcelona – 32 million visitors flock to this Spanish capital each year and the residents have had enough.
- Hallstatt – residents of this picture-postcard Austrian town have started protesting against mass tourism. Up to 10,000 tourists flock there every day.
- Everest Base Camp – the hike has become so popular that there are queues to the top, rubbish left behind and sherpas risking their lives.
- Rome – Arguably one of the most Instagrammable landmarks in Rome is Trevi Fountain. The small square is packed with people taking photos from dawn til dusk.
- Dubrovnik – Game of Thrones has put this Croatian city on the map. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate 1.5 million annual visitors.
- Santorini – Tourists climb on top of buildings to photograph the island’s sunsets.
- Hawaii – In a bid to stop overtourism, Hawaiian residents are begging tourists not to come. Tourists outnumber Hawaiians five to one.
How can destinations prevent overtourism?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to managing overtourism. There are many complex factors at play.
The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has put together a report on overtourism solutions in urban areas with a suggested series of strategies and policy recommendations.
Some other solutions to overtourism in both urban and rural areas could be:
- Managing visitor flows in popular locations to limit crowding.
- Closing places off for parts of the year to give them time to recover.
- Raising tourism taxes to ensure landmarks are preserved.
- Responsible marketing campaigns from tourist boards.
- Promoting itineraries that incorporate lesser-known destinations.
- Promoting the benefits of visiting out of season.
- Working with tour operators that use local guides and respect the environment.
How to avoid overtourism as travellers
As tourists, we can modify our own behaviours to inspire change.
While governments and local authorities need to make changes at a higher level to really alter the travel industry and the impact it has on the environment, consumers still play an important role.
These are just a few of the ways that you can help prevent contributing to overtourism:
Avoid peak seasons
Do yourself, your wallet and the destination a favour by avoiding peak seasons when you plan a trip. They’re crowded, have much more demand and prices are sky-high.
Instead, opt for shoulder seasons as there are fewer crowds but attractions are open and the weather is reasonably decent.
Of course, avoiding peak seasons isn’t always possible particularly if you’re a teacher or family wanting to get away. In that case, you could do the next two tips below.
Avoid peak times
If avoiding peak season isn’t possible, try tweaking your itinerary so you’re not going to popular attractions during the middle of the day. Aim for first thing in the morning and get them mostly to yourself.
I did this to see Petra in Jordan and Trevi Fountain in Rome. They were so much quieter early in the morning, so my experience was a lot more enjoyable. Plus, the temperatures weren’t as hot!
Get off the tourist trail
Break away from the herd and visit destinations that aren’t as popular.
Places that need tourism will welcome you with open arms. This could be anything from rural communities, overlooked countries and areas that are rebuilding after natural disasters and need the economy to get back on track.
Getting off the beaten path does require a little more research and pushing yourself to find somewhere new. It’s not easy. Book trips with small group tour companies and travel agencies so you don’t have to worry too much about your itinerary.
Intrepid Travel and G Adventures are experts at responsible small-group tours. Byway and Original Travel do brilliant, ethical self-guided itineraries. No large tour groups in sight.
Be a slow traveller
On the subject of spending longer in destinations, it’s easy to fall into the trap of cramming as much as you can into a single trip.
It’s understandable that you’ll want to see as much of an area as possible. After all, travel is a luxury that few of us can afford to do as much of as we’d like.
But you’ll likely spend your entire trip rushing from one landmark to another, without really seeing the destination properly.
Give yourself time to really get to know a location through slow travel and opt for fewer but longer trips each year. It gives you a chance to slow down and immerse yourself in the culture, building stronger connections with the people and finding the more unique attractions it has to offer.
And if you’re taking longer trips each year, chances are you won’t be travelling as often which lowers your carbon footprint when it comes to flights and transportation.
Support local businesses
Large organisations offering tours and excursions can take opportunities away from local people. It’s important to consider the ripple effect of the companies you work with when you’re abroad.
Researching the activities you want to take part in before you sign up will ensure you’re choosing the companies that benefit the most from your money.
Whether it’s whale watching tours in Iceland, artisan craft shops in Vietnam or cooking classes in Spain, you have the opportunity to support local businesses over large corporations who aren’t interested in protecting the environment.
Where possible, look for activities that protect their surroundings, whether it’s organic farms, cooperatives, social enterprises or ecotourism projects.
It’s a more ethical way of getting to know a location and gives you the peace of mind that you’re not doing more harm than good.
Be mindful of etiquette
This should go without saying but treat others how you would expect to be treated. Be considerate of the place you’re visiting, abide by the rules and be mindful of cultural etiquette.
Social media is notorious for encouraging likes for clout without taking into consideration cultural impact.
For example, influencers posing nude on a sacred statue in Bali or tourists scratching their names into the Colosseum in Rome. A BIG no.
Think about what you portray in your travel photos too. It’s polite to ask for permission to take photos of people but avoid showcasing them in a negative light. Always be considerate of sensitive situations and respect the rules around local culture.
With tourism and photography going hand-in-hand, why not pick up some tips on how to be a more sustainable photographer on your travels.
Wise up on animal tourism
From riding elephants to posing with tigers, animal exploitation in tourism is rife. But these businesses boom because tourists still continue to support them.
Many of these attractions continue due to ignorance. A lot of people would be horrified to learn that donkeys in Greece and Jordan suffer from spinal injuries due to lugging tourists about in the heat all day.
Or that swimming with dolphins in captivity harms them.
Or safaris in Kenya are becoming so overcrowded that animals are being run over.
Some animal attractions also prey on your good intentions with ‘animal sanctuaries’ that are anything BUT sanctuaries.
It doesn’t mean you should forgo wildlife tourism altogether.
Knowing the difference between what’s ethical and what’s not will help you be a better traveller. Read these tips on how to prevent overexploitation of animals when travelling.
Be an ethical traveller
Tourism has become a huge commodity where we buy holidays and expect a return on investment in the experience we get back. But travel shouldn’t just be about transactions.
It should be a symbiotic relationship between the traveller, destination and local communities.
You have a direct impact on people and places just like they have an impact on you which is why being an ethical traveller is so important.
Avoid voluntourism which takes away jobs from local people. Try to shop and eat locally, use local guides and avoid bringing single-use plastic in your suitcase. These are just some of the ways you can be a more conscious traveller.
Can sustainable travel reduce overtourism problems?
Yes, sustainable tourism is about preserving destinations for generations to come. Here’s how to combat overtourism by ensuring your impact is positive wherever you go:
Skip the flights
An estimated 8% of the world’s carbon emissions are caused by travel, and more specifically flying. It’s one of the biggest threats to our climate but there are ways to travel without relying on flights.
Public transport such as buses, coaches and trains are a great way to cut your emissions and still see more of the surrounding scenery as you travel through towns and villages.
Another option is to opt for van life over hotels, which not only enables you to avoid flights but also gives you a home away from home and the freedom to travel wherever you please on your own schedule.
When you’re living and travelling in a van, you can spend longer in destinations which is of more benefit to the local community and the environment as a whole.’
Offset your carbon emissions
It’s possible to calculate the amount of carbon you create on a trip and then offset that amount, or more if you feel inclined, through reliable companies that offer ongoing projects to reduce carbon pollution.
For example, projects might include planting trees, building biogas digesters for farms in local villages or providing renewable energy resources.
Carbon offsetting programmes are for more than just your travel to and from a destination. They can also cover excursions and land transportation, and you can offset more than your travel to cover other aspects of your trip.
Carbon offsetting isn’t just a get-out-of-jail-free card for your carbon impact. You should still try to reduce your emissions where possible and offset anything that is unavoidable.
Pay attention to the 4 Rs
The Earth has finite resources so we need to pay close attention to how we use those resources, especially when we travel.
Paying close attention to the waste you produce and how you dispose of items when you’re on the go can make a huge difference to the footprint of your travels.
The four Rs are ‘Review, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle,’ and all of these practices can be considered when you’re on holiday to help curb pollution, one of the many negative impacts of mass tourism.
For example, perhaps you can review your purchases to find an alternative to non-recyclable materials. Bring reusable items with you to avoid single-use plastics or be mindful of the water and electricity you use when you’re abroad.
Any waste you do produce, see if it can be recycled locally and disposed of in a responsible way. You could also pick up any rubbish and plastics you encounter on the beach or in parks that can cause harm to the environment – but only if it’s safe to do so.
Eat seasonally and locally
Eating local cuisines is one of the best parts of travel, and it’s a great way of getting to know another culture and destination more intimately. However, not all culinary experiences are sustainable, and food networks are globally connected.
Aim to eat as much local and organic food as you can, to minimise the transportation involved in ingredients and to support the community you’re visiting.
Many destinations import vast quantities of the food they serve, which has a knock-on effect on local farmers and artisans.
It also increases the carbon footprint of every meal. But there are farm-to-table dining experiences and local cafes and restaurants where you can get a more authentic experience that’s also better for the planet.
Stay in eco-lodging
As the saying goes, we vote with our wallets, so invest your money into eco-lodging and sustainable resorts that are playing their part in reducing their impact on the planet.
The more demand grows for eco-conscious accommodation, the more options will be available for travellers in the future.
Some of the features to look for in an eco-friendly hotel or resort are those that have eliminated single-use plastics, use renewable energy to power their property, reduce their water usage such as through linen reuse initiatives, and give back to the local community.
They may work with local businesses for excursions and activities, offer locally sourced food or have integrated sustainability into the very fabric of the building.
Further reading on overtourism
Want to learn more about overtourism and sustainable travel? Here are some recommended books to start with:
Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future by Martha Honey
Go Lightly: How to Travel Without Hurting the Planet by Nina Karnikowski
The Sustainable Travel Handbook by Lonely Planet
Final thoughts on how to prevent overtourism
There’s so much each of us can do to minimise the impact of our travels. While overtourism is very much a challenge for destinations to overcome, responsible travellers can play their part by ensuring their impact is a positive one wherever they go.
In a nutshell, we can all help prevent overtourism by:
- Travelling off-season
- Exploring off-the-beaten-path
- Visiting alternative destinations
- Being a slow traveller
- Supporting local businesses
People will always travel and there will always be popular destinations. Sustainable tourism management ensures visitors have a net positive impact on communities, local landmarks, ecosystems and the climate.
If you’re looking for more tips on how you can help limit overtourism as a traveller, this guide to ecotourism is a good place to start.
Looking for more sustainable travel solutions? These blog posts can help
- Your Complete Guide to Sustainable Travel
- 10 Amazing Ecotourism Activities To Do Around The World
- 31 Best Responsible Tourism Destinations for Nature Lovers
- 15 Best Ethical Animal Experiences Around the World
- Sustainable Travel Packing List 101: Your Complete List for an Eco-Friendly Trip
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