From Overtourism to Undertourism: The World Just Can't Get It Right

The absence of visitors has been a blow to many once-popular spots.

empty St Mark's Square
La Piazza di San Marco sits empty in Venice in April 2020.

Pietro D'Aprano / Getty Images

It seems like just yesterday that everyone was worrying about overtourism. I wrote numerous passionate posts on this site about how industrial-style tourism was destroying historic places like Venice and Barcelona and making them unlivable for locals, and how we needed to rethink the way we move around the world.

Coronavirus took care of that, forcing us to stay home and promptly destroying an industry that may have been operating in an unsustainable fashion, but did provide an income and stability to countless workers around the world. Now, astonishingly, the greatest threat is undertourism, and it threatens to erode economies and conservation efforts in many developing countries. An article in Lonely Planet describes the widespread effects of undertourism.

People

Because it is such an "informal market," as one climbing guide in La Paz, Bolivia, explained, it's only now that "you see how many people are really affected by it. People here work each day to survive for the next day." And the pandemic means there are fewer opportunities than ever for those odd day-jobs to fill in the gaps left by steady employment, which translates to less money, less food, and hungrier families.

Animals

Some wildlife has thrived during the pandemic, thanks to the absence of humans, but wildlife sanctuaries, zoos, and safaris have suffered tremendously. These often are located in developing countries where there is minimal government assistance to run the programs. They rely on donations from tourists to operate, and when those dry up, there's no money to buy food for animals.

Poaching has worsened in recent months. More rhino poaching incidents than usual have taken place in South Africa since March, likely linked to the reduced presence of both guards and tourists (and possibly increased desperation on the part of poachers). The New York Times reported, "Conservationists said the recent incidents in Botswana and South Africa were unusual because they occurred in tourism hot spots that, until now, were considered relatively safe havens for wildlife."

Arts

As the world has modernized, many traditional handicrafts have fallen by the wayside because they're no longer required or practical for everyday life. Tourism has come to the rescue in many cases, creating demand for items that would otherwise be seen as archaic and perhaps lost from cultural memory. But with the sudden absence of a tourist market, some artisans are worried about the viability of their craft. Lonely Planet gives the example of Vietnam's dó paper-making industry.

"There’s not much of a local market for dó paper, whose labor-intensive production makes it relatively pricey. [Artisan] Hongky Le estimates that fewer than 100 people still know how to make the traditional paper; they’re getting older. With no tourist income, the artisans have largely turned to farming, highlighting just how fragile the chain of knowledge can be." 

What Is The Solution? 

Tourism will rebound eventually. The instinctive human urge to explore the planet has not died, just suppressed temporarily. But the question remains as to how many tourism-related businesses will be able to stay afloat between now and then. Without a doubt, many city officials do not want to return to the way things were before the pandemic, when the streets and ports were so clogged with gawking tourists and cruise ships that residents could hardly move around. 

Somehow, there needs to be a balance between attracting tourists to resolve the issues described above and avoiding the overtourism that plagued so many places, making them unpleasant. Some tourism officials and departments, particularly in Europe, view this pause as a unique opportunity to rethink tourism business models to make them better for everyone, but it's a real challenge to know how that would look.

For starters, many cities will be wanting to expand their offerings beyond the few main sights that tourists know about and where they tend to congregate. From the New York Times: "According to Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s deputy mayor, cities that have grown dependent on tourism are paying the price for having a monocultural economy and now the challenge is to diversify." Diversification will likely occur within the tourism sector that includes campaigns to inform visitors of interesting, lesser-visited neighborhoods, nature preserves, and historic sites.

I suspect that the safari companies, wildlife sanctuaries, and climbing or hiking excursions will rebound fastest because they feature outdoor entertainment, which is what people want these days. The idea of being cooped up in a bus or jammed into a tour group in a hot, crowded city is less appealing than ever. The open-air handicraft markets that have seen business shrivel will probably come back, too, because of their outdoor locations, while vendors in enclosed shopping centers will see fewer visitors.

It will be interesting to see how the post-pandemic tourism industry takes shape, but at least we have a clear sense of what we don't want it to be, and a sense of how many people rely on it to survive. Those who travel can do so knowing it has a real, tangible benefit for countless workers and their families, particularly if they hire a travel company that prioritizes keeping money local. Tourism can, and should, be a force for good.