The problem of overcrowding in a small number of popular destinations is actually not new. As long ago as 1998 experts were sounding the alarm about Venice, suggesting it could support no more than 25,000 tourists a day. The peak season high last year was closer to 70,000.
This series of posts looks at some solutions to overcrowding, recently dubbed ‘overtourism’ by some people. There’s no quick fix and to solve it, we need to use combinations of all of them. In this first post, we’ll focus on tourists themselves. That’s us. We are all travellers and all potentially contribute to the problem.
Recent media stories have focussed on the negative impact on locals. But the problem also affects tourists, degrading their experience. A recent survey revealed that 1 in 10 of all trips is negatively impacted by overcrowding.
So as travellers we need to find a solution — it’s our problem as well. What behaviours can we change to alleviate the problem?
Take fewer, more in depth breaks
The low cost airline sector has exploded in recent decades. The ability for a Londoner to travel more cheaply by plane to Nice than by train to Newcastle has upended attitudes to travel. We think nothing of jumping on a plane for a weekend break now. In the 20 years from 1996 to 2016 overseas trips by UK residents rose a staggering 68%. Breaks have tended to be shorter as available holiday time hasn’t kept pace with our appetite for travel. Trip durations of three and four days are now more popular than the traditional two week break.
An obvious way we can reduce our impact upon the places we visit is to take fewer short trips. Stay longer in one location and really get to know it, rather than opting for more short term, shallow experiences. We might find our experiences will be more meaningful and memorable in the process.
Seek out lesser visited places
The headline statistic from a recent WTTC report: 70% of visitors are concentrated in 20% of the countries. Overcrowding is currently restricted to a fairly small number of super popular places. Why does everyone go to them? This is a particularly interesting question when travellers increasingly say they want authenticity. Getting off the beaten track, making real connections with locals and having meaningful life experiences are what motivate many of us to travel. We might have expected the internet to encourage travel to a wider range of destinations in this quest. What we see is the reverse. There’s a tendency for particular experiences to trend and for people to follow the crowd, creating surges in interest that can be difficult to manage. Online reviews and Instagram posts tend to be concentrated on a handful of popular sights and the algorithms that drive them exacerbate this aggressively. A recent study showed that for Stockholm, the top five attractions account for 42% of TripAdvisor reviews. Social media is concentrating our attention on a small number of places. Perhaps we need to take a few risks, research more carefully and find the experiences we’re after in places that fewer people visit.
Be more considerate in the destinations we’re visiting
Many of the destinations struggling with too many tourists cite rowdy or thoughtless behaviour as a big issue. Dublin banned stag parties from its Temple Bar area, Venice has issued guidelines to tourists about appropriate behaviour. Attitudes to dress vary around the world: what’s fine on a French beach is often totally against norms in more conservative cultures. We need to be more considerate travellers if we want locals to give us a warm welcome. Before going abroad it’s a good idea to make sure we understand local customs. And who is benefiting from our spend whilst we are there? If local people benefit directly from tourism, they’re far less likely to view it negatively. Can you help mitigate the problem of rising rents for neighbourhood stores by buying your picnic lunch from one?
Think about when you visit
Overcrowding isn’t a problem year-round. Even exceptionally popular European destinations are much quieter outside the peak summer season. Mallorca, Barcelona, Venice, Paris, Dubrovnik: they are all far quieter in winter. Whilst on the busiest day of 2017 there were nearly 10,000 visitors in Dubrovnik, during the whole of December there were only 26,000. So, if you do visit Machu Picchu, consider going in November or April. It might well be a little more wet or misty, but there are far fewer tourists. Later in this series we consider ways that destinations can manage overcrowding. One is providing better information for visitors to schedule their visit for quieter times. Currently the information available is sparse and difficult to interpret.
The next post in this series looks at measures destinations can take to combat the problem of overtourism.