Understanding Overtourism

Imagine this scene: You’ve flown across the ocean to your dream destination, Germany, ready to see all the famous sites. You’ve seen the Instagram pictures and are determined to recreate your own impressive photos. First stop – the Neuschwanstein Castle. After navigating a few trains, a jam-packed bus, and a lot of crowds, you arrive at the bridge with the famous viewpoint. You’re disappointed to find you can barely even see cross the bridge to enjoy the views through the throngs of people. Your photos are filled with other tourists. The castle is beautiful, sure, but the whole ordeal is stressful and not at all like the Instagram photos made it seem. Sound familiar? In a nutshell, that’s overtourism.  

In the past few years, the word “overtourism” has found itself in the spotlight. But what exactly is overtourism and why should we be worried about it? Simply, overtourism is what happens when a destination receives more tourism than it can handle. Whether it’s a specific site or an entire country, every place has a limit of tourists it can support. Unfortunately, many places are finding their limits ignored, and their annual visitors far in excess of the numbers they can reasonably handle.

An obvious consequence of overtourism is the worsening of experience for those who come to visit. After all, everyone wants to be able to enjoy the sites they’ve traveled to see with a little peace and quiet. But there are more serious consequences too. Loss of culture amongst locals and deterioration of the environment are also major concerns. And ultimately, these issues also mean that you’ll have a less enjoyable time should you decide to visit regions affected by overtourism.

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The photo I’d share on Instagram.

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The reality of the experience – these were the crowds on the bridge where I took the serene photo from above.

Issue 1 – Loss of Culture

Most of us travel to new places to enjoy the culture of the locals who live there. What we aren’t often aware of is that sometimes our visits mean locals are leaving. What’s going on here? Let’s take another look at Venice. It has long been a popular travel destination. And with huge numbers of tourists, there is a huge incentive for rental properties to house all these visitors. Sometimes the rentals are AirBNB’s used entirely for visitors, which locals couldn’t afford unless they had regular guests paying more per day than long-term renters would. Other times, hotels and resorts spring up to accommodate visitors. Short-term visitors can afford to pay more than long-term renters on a per-day basis, so the property prices are driven up. These price hikes affect the locals too though, and many locals find themselves unable to afford the cost of living in their home towns. The locals leave, taking with them the culture that made Venice appealing in the first place, leaving behind tourists in their place.

Sometimes these changes are more innocuous. In Prague, there are stands on nearly every street selling Tredelnik, a pastry cooked over a charcoal grill and dipped in sugar or filled with toppings. You’d assume it’s a traditional Czech food. In reality, it’s a treat brought from outside the country and marketed to tourists because it’s an appealing treat that’s super inexpensive to make. Not exactly the traditional Czech cuisine you might be looking for when you visit, though yummy nevertheless. This is obviously a far less serious issue than pushing locals out of their hometowns, but it’s still worth considering.

Tourism can be a blessing to many places whose locals do rely on the income from tourists either to survive or supplement their income. There must be a balance though, and in cities like Venice, Barcelona, or Bali, the scale is often tipped toward the tourist side at the expense of locals. In fact, some cities have even protested tourists in the past year because the throngs of people in their hometowns and rising prices make living there miserable.

Issue 2 – Environmental Degradation

Overtourism can result in environmental degradation of our beloved tourist sites, which is the opposite of what we want to happen. Many locations, whether hiking trails, cities, or monuments are just not equipped for the masses that flock to a place when it hits the mainstream tourist trail. Sometimes it’s logistics. Amsterdam, among other European cities, has narrow streets that are easily overrun when millions of tourists come through in taxis, ubers, and whatever other transport they require each year. Traffic jams ensue, which is annoying for tourists, but can be an absolute nightmare for the locals who have to get to work every day. Even Prague’s wide Charles Bridge which is only for pedestrians was a challenge to cross with my large backpack.

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Crowds on the Charles Bridge in Prague.

In other instances, a city might not have the infrastructure to handle the pollution that accompanies the influx of tourists. These numbers don’t have to be in the millions or even thousands to cause an issue. In small villages or rural areas, any sort of waste, pollution, or trash contributed by tourists can be too much. Considering many areas are struggling to deal with the waste produced by the locals, it’s easy to imagine how a blown-up tourist destination can tip the scale causing huge issues.

In the natural environment, visitors who often don’t know or choose not to respect the wildlife lead to animals being scared away. Alternatively, areas like Thailand where thousands of people visit the islands each month have the opposite problem. Animals, like the island monkeys, become accustomed to being fed by tourists and develop an unnatural dependence on them for survival. Both kinds of changes can be difficult to undo and can cause untold damage to the natural environment. This also impacts the locals and the tourism industry of that country more broadly, as often times wildlife is the draw pulling tourists to a location. When the animals disappear, the tourists might leave with them. And when the animals get used to humans and pester them for food, they can also pester the locals.

Issue 3 – Less Enjoyable Time

Let’s face it. Most of us travel because we want to have a good time! But when the prices are ever-rising, you can’t get a good look at the famous sites for the crowds and the locals are understandably growing more resentful of tourists in the first place, it’s time to reconsider. The trip you’ll actually experience may not be the trip you imagined. Overtourism is an undeniable issue that lots of popular attractions are facing, but the good news is there are plenty of solutions and alternatives.

Solutions for Avoiding Overtourism

Alternate Destinations

First and foremost, pay attention to the cities that are begging for less tourists and look for similar sites that are less popular. Barcelona might have had it at the moment with visitors, but there are plenty of smaller Spanish towns just outside that would be happy to have more tourists. Prague might be a little swamped, but there are lots of countries in Eastern Europe with equally beautiful sites, cheaper prices, and far fewer tourists.

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This field of sunflowers was a complete surprise when I visited a teeny village in southern Czech Republic, but I had it all to myself!

Visit in off-season

This is a pretty basic idea. There are fewer tourists in  the low season, which sometimes equates to cheaper prices and certainly equates to fewer crowds. It might even mean the locals are a little more excited to have you there. Sometimes high season isn’t even the best time to visit logistically. Europe is flooded during the summer, but with little air conditioning and lots of crowds, it can be a sweltering and sweaty experience. Give it a few months and you’re more likely to enjoy yourself when the tourism-tide dies down.

Stay off Instagram when trip planning

Sure, Instagram can be a great source of inspiration. Still, it’s important to recognize that most of the best photos are photo shopped to some degree or another. Tourists are edited out, captions erase the overcrowding and expensive costs, and you go away thinking someone’s had an experience that is altogether unlike the reality. Once a place is famous on Instagram, the masses know about it and will try and visit! You’re not the only one who saw the photo and thought it looked beautiful. Avoid letting Instagram become your compass when you’re planning your itinerary and keep an eye out for locations that are less famous to snap some more unique insta-shots.

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This photo doesn’t capture the many people around me trying to get the same shot.

Frequent local B&B’s and restaurants

When possible, avoid the chains like Hilton or Starbucks. Instead, look for local Bed and Breakfasts or mom and pop shops where your money is going back to the locals. You’re more likely to experience the authentic culture that way too.

Look for tours led by locals

Similarly to restaurants and accommodation, many cities offer tours led by locals who know the area best. In Berlin, for example, there’s a tour group where homeless men and women take tourists through the streets for the best secrets of street art, cafes, and more. You can give back to someone who will really benefit while getting a super unique experience off the typical tourist track.

Don’t skip on entrance fees

It can be tempting to avoid paying poorly enforced fees you encounter abroad, like entrance fees to museums or bathrooms, or transit fees on the subway. Just remember that these fees are typically small and ensure that the attraction or facility is able to continue operating for other tourists. If you can’t or don’t want to pay the fee, don’t use the service.

Book eco-friendly trips

Another great way to decrease over tourism is to book your travel through eco-tours or with eco-groups. It can be really challenging to plan a trip’s logistics yourself, but there are lots of groups out there who’ve done all the work for you. On an eco-tour, your guides can help you have a carefree time without contributing to the harmful practices in the tourism industry. It requires a bit of research into the tour group, because they’re not all the same, but this can also give you access to other places that are really difficult to see on your own.

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Eco Companion Trips

With so many tour companies in operation, it can be challenging to sort through them all. One company that is emerging with a host of incredible trips is Eco Companion. They’ve partnered with organizations around the world who are conscious of sustainable practices, including and beyond overtourism. This means you are sure to have a meaningful trip that you can embark on guilt-free, with the work cut out and all the fun included.

Looking for an incredible trekking experience in India? Eco Companion has you covered with a 15-day journey from Dehli, through the villages and towns along the Himalayas, ending in towns near the Ganges, including Rishikesh. Partnering with a local organization, the tour incorporates policies of ‘Leave No Trace’ to make sure the trails are in as good or better shape than they were before your visit.

Hoping to get a diving certification? It’s possible through Eco Companion’s trip to the Azores. Interested in Orangutans? You can shadow a keeper at an Orangutan and Wildlife Rescue Center and Community Project.

You can even sail into Antarctica on an Eco Companion trip! Leaving Ushuaia, you’ll cross into South Georgia with the chance to see seals, penguins, whales, and the breath-taking Arctic icebergs we’re all dying to see. Chimu Adventures leads this tour partnering with local accommodations and tour guides, using carbon offsets to help with the impact of the physical travel, and trying to minimize their paper and waste in-office, among other eco-friendly efforts.

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Ending Overtourism

The issue of overtourism is a new one in the tourism industry, but one that’s bound to grow in severity as our population rises and more people find themselves able to travel. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed or discouraged! Pick one or two of these tips and try to implement it in your next adventure. Remember that you’ll ultimately have a better time if you’re not fighting hordes of other tourists for the same views. There’s a great wide world out there to explore. Though the most famous sites are famous for a reason, don’t limit yourself to the same old spots people have already discovered and miss all the untapped gems waiting to be explored.

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