Overtourism is a term that has entered our vocabulary in recent years. As travel becomes more accessible and affordable to many, more people than ever before are travelling to places they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to visit. There are many factors behind the recent increase in mass tourism; many of them are a direct result of how travel has changed over the last decade.
For decades tourism was a coveted source of revenue. Destinations competed to attract tourists and the money they infused into the local economy. Today, tourism is still a revenue-generating sector. However, we have seen an increase in right-out hostility toward tourists and the effects on local economies that come with an influx of visitors.
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What is overtourism?
So, what exactly is overtourism, and why is this creating such a buzz? As the name suggests, tourism has grown to such extremes that certain locations, and the residents that live there, are fed up. While there are many positive impacts of tourism, too much of a good thing can be harmful, and we see the other side of the coin.
You don’t have to look far for examples of the damage mass tourism inflicts. Stories about reckless and ignorant people who have done some serious damage are becoming more frequent. We are constantly hearing of damage to priceless artifacts, natural landscapes and/or wilderness. Thoughtless visitors, more interested in taking a pic for the Gram have become the bane of destinations around the world. They also devalue the experience for other visitors. Overtaking locations for personal photoshoots and holding up lines for personal gain have become a very common occurrence.
The rise of mass tourism over the last decade
Travel has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. While you might not think that anything revolutionary occurred, several things have affected how we travel. All these elements ultimately contributed to overtourism. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look.
Flying became cheaper
The rise of budget airlines enabled people to travel more frequently and cheaply. Short, weekend trips gained in popularity, especially in Europe. It became effortless to explore popular destinations at an affordable cost. What might have been a long-planned vacation has transformed into few short-haul trips over the year. This means more people taking advantage of deals and going places more frequently.
Rise of unlimited vacations
Most countries in Europe have a very generous vacation allowance. That’s not the case in North America. However, over the last 10 years, more companies, especially those in tech, have created unlimited vacation policies to attract younger workers. While many people in Canada and the US still don’t take advantage of all of their paid holidays, many are taking advantage of the unlimited vacation perk. This not only encouraged people to travel more, but it also shifted how we think about travel and time off.
Iceland Air pioneered this idea to encourage people to visit Iceland and inject cash into the local economy. After the country’s economy crashed in 2008, tourist dollars became very attractive. Passengers flying from North America to Europe through Reykjavik could now enjoy a free stopover. Two destinations, one fee. Other destinations followed this example, allowing visitors an opportunity to explore additional destinations. The Iceland experiment worked so well, and the country experienced a massive influx of tourists, more than it can handle.
The arrival of the sharing economy totally revolutionized the way we travel. Services like Uber, Airbnb and countless others made tourism cheaper. Tourists saw more options for accommodations that were often cheaper than traditional hotels. Car services like Uber made it easy to explore places with limited public transportation and avoid being scammed by cab drivers. It all seemed like a perfect system until it wasn’t.
Instagram launched in 2010. Since then, it has changed the way we look at destinations and travel. Today, with one billion users, Instagram is influencing where people go and how we experience travel. Many cleverly and expertly edited photos have transformed beautiful places into magnets for Insta-stars, all flogging there to replicate what they saw someone else do. The quest for Instagramable photos has caused environmental damage and even deaths. Our obsession with Instagram has reduced places to acting as backgrounds to our Instagram lives.
Negative impacts of overtourism
The increase in mass tourism has created issues for everyone. Tourism is a cash cow and creates a nice boost to the economy. It brings many benefits to communities that can lead to improving the lives of locals. Improvements to infrastructure, connectivity and new amenities often come as a result of tourism attractions. What happens when the line gets crossed and tourism becomes a problem?
Impact on the locals
The biggest impact of mass tourism is on the locals. Think about it. Suddenly, there is an influx of strangers invading your home. Destroying it with carelessness and disregard for the people that live there. Once they leave, you are left to deal with the garbage as well as the destruction of property and/or nature.
Many property owners, enticed by quick money, choose to rent out their properties as short-term rentals to visitors rather than renting them to locals. That reduces the number of rental spaces, leaving the locals to compete for spaces. Prices go up, causing many locals to become priced out of their homes. Neighbourhoods flood with short-term visitors who have no connection and often no respect for where they are staying.
Cities get flooded with an influx of tourists who use up local resources, add more waste and put a strain on local resources. How many of them care more about getting a better selfie and not learning more about the history and culture of the place they’re in? Your home is now overcrowded, polluted and expensive. It’s not hard to understand the annoyance.
Impact on visitors
People travel for different reasons. Whether you want to check out the local attractions, eat with the locals or immerse yourself in the local culture, overtourism can affect your ability to do that. In popular destinations be prepared to stand in long lineups to see those must-see attractions. Those restaurants, often frequented by locals, might now be hard to find as they turn into tourist traps. Catering to visitors, they often lack in quality, and originality and are way overpriced.
Other visitors often impact your experience more than the locals. It’s difficult to get lost on purpose in a destination as everyone around you rushes by with maps and cameras. Sometimes it might not even feel like a foreign place, because there are more tourists than locals around.
We experienced that ourselves quite often. While in Rome, getting a clear shot of the Trevi Fountain was a challenge. The ever-present crowds made it impossible. We opted not to go inside the Colosseum as we didn’t want to stand in a massive lineup. Same thing in Paris. Lineups everywhere. People everywhere. Loud and drunk idiots littering the streets, having little respect for the places they are trashing.
Lack of regulations and oversight
Possibilities of capitalizing on tourism often outpace the regulations and oversight. Often, locals take matters into their own hands with hopes of making money off visitors. While their entrepreneurial spirit might seem like a good idea, it often has negative results. Motivated by quick cash, many locals scam tourists, especially those who don’t understand the local language and customs. The seemingly friendly locals have duped many people.
Lack of regulation also leads to animal abuse for tourist entertainment. Unsuspecting tourists pose with drugged animals, ride on them and overlook the chains they are in. Lack of environmental responsibility damages the local ecosystem for wildlife and the people who live there. Careless disregard for safety also puts everyone at risk.
This seriously devalues destinations and undermines the visitor experience. There is no coherent system in place that ensures that revenue improves the lives of locals. Instead, it’s a self-serving system that causes more damage than good.
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Mass tourism has caused a significant impact on our climate. We are flying and cruising around the world, contributing to the pollution emitted by aircraft and boats. Tourists are damaging ancient sites with their feet, wheeling their luggage and tossing garbage. Plastic and waste are flooding the oceans, killing corals and wildlife. Icebergs are melting at an alarming rate while extreme weather wreaks chaos across the globe.
We’ve been travelling for more than a decade. Yet, this hasn’t really been an issue on many people’s minds till recently. Thanks to Greta Thunberg, a teenage girl from Sweden, we have suddenly become aware of our impact. Travel has become a serious issue.
While tourism is not the only cause of climate change, it’s definitely a contributor. Alarmingly, destinations are no longer just dealing with mass tourism; they are facing climate issues that directly impact visitors and locals. With Venice flooding at record levels, fires raging through Australia and icebergs disappearing before our eyes, we can’t just look away and hope it goes away.
Response to mass tourism
Overtourism is no longer an issue that can be brushed aside. Locals in many places like Barcelona, Venice and Amsterdam are pushing back. Protests against cruise ships, demands for stricter rules and tourist taxes are making waves.
Authorities in Italy are banning certain behaviours, like littering and jumping into canals or sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Amsterdam is prohibiting the opening of any new tourist shops. Barcelona is limiting visitors to popular attractions. Are these measures extreme? Necessary? Probably both.
To deal with overtourism, the focus is shifting toward responsible tourism. What can we all do to improve the travel experience? Despite the rise of flight shaming people for flying, air travel still is one of the most accessible modes of getting around. Responsible travel is not just about alternatives to flying. It’s about the industry-changing practices instead of pointing fingers at the users.
Responsibility as a travel blogger
As someone who loves to travel and inspire others to do the same, it was dawning on me that people like me are the ones that make travel seem so easy and carefree. Almost as if it was a right for everyone. Are we part of the problem?
I can say for certain that I have never read a blog that told people to go and be stupid while travelling. I don’t write about travel to encourage people to damage things and kill wildlife. Quite the opposite. I am a proponent of responsible travel and encourage people to learn about the destinations beyond finding where to take Instagramable pics.
As a travel blogger, I need to be conscious of how I write my stories. What message I am sending to my readers and how much I educate myself about this issue. Like anything else, education and awareness are the first steps to addressing the issues. This doesn’t have to be the elephant in the room.
There are many elements of overtourism and just as many parties that can be blamed for it. Pointing fingers is definitely not an answer, and it requires our collective efforts. As a traveller, the overload of tourists can definitely ruin the experience of a new destination. As a local, it can be a nuisance. But what happens when tourism comes to a grinding halt?
When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, most of us could not predict that travel would cease for nearly two years. Many businesses and economies have been brought to their knees as travellers disappeared. This situation has become an opportunity for many destinations to reevaluate how they promote tourism and what type of travellers they want to attract. Will this help us learn how to balance the fine line between overtourism and a healthy flow of visitors? Only the future will tell.
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