The Growing Awareness of Overtourism
In the spring of 2018, the government of Nepal was faced with a heavy burden: removing 200,000 pounds of trash from Mount Everest. The influx of tourists doing the climb to the summit of the famous mountain had caused piles of waste to accumulate along the trails leading to the peak in quantities never seen before. The following spring, in 2019, lines of people clamoring on the last leg of the grueling climb stood in lines of up to 300, adding hours to the journey where every precious minute counts.
The high-altitude contributed to the deaths of several people who couldn’t take the pressure, but the real cause was overtourism. While this is a severe example of the extent to which overtourism is becoming a significant issue around the world, there are plenty of examples that do not result in deaths.
Let’s take a look at the growing awareness of overtourism around the world, how overtourism is defined, and what should be done about it.
What is overtourism?
The term has become ubiquitous since it was coined and later trademarked, in 2012, by media and research company Skift. However, the issue of overtourism has been around for several decades.
There are a number of loose definitions for overtourism floating around, but they all have the same denominators: a large influx of tourists in a specific area that, for any number of reasons, cannot handle the crowds, which makes conditions for the area’s residents unbearable.
It’s important to distinguish between many visitors and a large number of visitors who cause impossible conditions for residents. For example, New York City sees millions of visitors a year. Still, beyond the occasional annoyance of a slow-walking tourist on the sidewalk, New Yorkers are generally unperturbed - though they mostly avoid Times Square. In contrast, places like Venice, Amsterdam, and natural areas such as Machu Pichu are seeing the definition in reality.
The results are dreadful and all make it very difficult for residents, who often do not have a choice in the matter, to live their lives peacefully while making use of their civic spaces. Short-term rentals price out residents, city infrastructure and transportation are overburdened, antisocial behavior like public urination and littering increases exponentially, and access to life’s simple pleasures like a walk in a nearby park or tea at a cafe are bygones.
It’s no wonder that all of this is happening in cities that have seen dramatic increases in tourism. According to the Amsterdam Tourist Board, the city saw a doubling of visitors from 10.5 million in 2010 to 20.3 million in 2018. In Barcelona, the number quadrupled from 3 million to 30 million visitors in the same timeframe, according to the Barcelona Tourist Office.
What are places doing about overtourism?
Though clashes between residents and tourists rarely make the news beyond “tourists go home” graffiti, local and federal governments have begun to take the issue of overtourism seriously.
For example, in Amsterdam, the government has halted marketing the city as a tourism destination, attempted to reduce crowding by banning group tours of the Red Light District, and levied additional fees on accommodations. The Dutch federal government is now promoting other areas of the Netherlands to draw crowds away from Amsterdam’s narrow alleys and small neighborhoods.
In a recent report on understanding and managing overtourism, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) outlined key initiatives that locales can undertake to reduce overcrowding. These points include: promoting the dispersal of visitors to other areas of cities or limiting the time they can spend at certain places, create drop-off only and pedestrian-only zones, engage local communities on tourism initiatives, and provide more public education to visitors on the effects of overtourism.
How can travelers step up?
Seasoned tourists have become much more aware of the impact of their travels on their destinations. Though the growing global middle class and lowest-ever cost of international travel have made tourism more accessible than ever before, all travelers should take into account that they can negatively impact the places they go and also contribute to their own negative experience by participating in activities related to overtourism.
So, what concrete steps can travelers take to not be part of the problem? Take the road less traveled! Traveling off the beaten path can ensure that those with wanderlust in their hearts will discover something new, avoid the crowds, and slow down the deterioration of cultural spaces globally.
However, if a traveler cannot help but want to see the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or Machu Picchu in Peru, try to limit your time at either of those places and be mindful that, anywhere you go, you are visiting a place where people live.
Oh, and maybe stay away from Mount Everest if you can help it.