Overtourism: Can This Problem Be Solved?

Public Domain. MaxPIxel – Tourists fight to snap a picture of the 'Mona Lisa' at the Louvre in Paris.

Yes, but first we need to develop a collective conscience when it comes to travel.

'Overtourism' has become a hot topic in the past year. Residents of Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, and Florence have spoken out against the hordes of tourists clogging their streets, behaving offensively, and driving up rent and food costs. Officials in Thailand have closed beaches and temples because they're tired of foreigners.

Despite this, the travel industry keeps growing. There were an estimated 1.3 billion international arrivals in 2017 and that will only increase as more people view travel as a right, rather than a luxury.

How are we supposed to cope with this? In search of a response, CBC radio host Michael Enright interviewed three experts – Stephen Burgen, a staff writer at The Guardian and resident of Barcelona for almost 20 years; Elizabeth Becker, author of "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism"; and Sandra Carvao of the UN World Tourism Organization. Their conversation is worth a listen for anyone who has ever visited a foreign place.

Most intriguing was their debate over what the actual problem is. Carvao argued that the issue is not overtourism so much as it is a lack of management. There are too many people in specific areas, visiting the same landmarks. "If you step one street away, that street might be empty." She'd like to see cities creating new attractions to draw tourists into under-appreciated neighborhoods.

Burgen disagreed. He'd much rather have tourists stay in the three areas where they tend to congregate in Barcelona – the Old City with La Rambla, the area where Gaudí's buildings can be seen, and the beach. "We'd rather they all went to the same place and left the rest of us alone to live relatively normal lives." La Rambla is a "no-go zone" for locals between April and November, he said. "We'll just abandon it. But we don't want the whole city being filled."

crowds in la rambla

dconvertini – Crowds in La Rambla, Barcelona/CC BY 2.0

When the invasion of non-touristy neighborhoods has occurred – thanks to Airbnb, which is free from the zoning restrictions that hotels face – it has been disastrous. Landlords can charge tourists five times what they would a local resident, so it's harder to find a place to live. Traditional businesses are replaced by those serving tourists, i.e. tapas bars and bicycle rentals. The banks give more loans to people whose businesses relate to tourism.

The question of economics came up, and whether or not tourism boosts a local economy. Interestingly, the conclusion was no (with the exception of Bordeaux, whose tourism industry was reconfigured to keep money in the city). Most jobs are low-paying and seasonal, and the money made is not proportionate to the number of tourists being hosted. The surge in cruise ships has increased the number of "fly-by" tourists – people who do not eat, sleep, or spend money in a city, but simply use its infrastructure for a few hours before returning to their (highly polluting) ship.

cruise ship in venice

MaxPixel – Cruise ship in Venice/Public Domain

I was struck by Burgen's description of tourists' experiences in Barcelona as "entirely synthetic" and I imagine this applies to most other destinations as well. People are "eating food that isn't from here, being served by people who are from other countries, but you're not actually experiencing Spanish or Catalan culture if you stick to the main tourist areas."

Is there a solution?

Burgen suggested pricing people out, which makes a lot of sense. Lloyd has written about this before, in "Why cheap mass air travel must be stopped." His perspective was environmental (which wasn't brought up in the interview but is extremely important), and Burgen's is social, but that just adds more weight to the argument:

"If everyone wants to come here, why are we making it so cheap? Apple hasn't done that with the iPhone. We [in Barcelona] have prioritized quantity over quality... 25 times the population visits every year."
floating market in thailand

Holiday Point – Photographer wrote, "The first and only time i will go to the floating markets near Bangkok. Not only was the place a giant tourist trap, the stalls were overpriced and they allowed way too many boats into the canal."/CC BY 2.0

Becker urged people to think really carefully about why they're going places and cites old guidebooks that "didn't tell you where to eat or what to do." Instead, they taught you the language and the history, and then you'd spend a month getting to know a place, with no intention of returning. This resonates with the slow travel approach I've advocated on TreeHugger.

I think cost has everything to do with it. As long as cheap flights, Airbnb, and all-inclusive resorts and cruises make it easy to travel, the issue will continue to fester. It's not that different from fast fashion and factory-farmed meat sold at dirt-cheap prices. Just because these things exist, however, does not mean that we should mindlessly consume them.

The odd thing, though, is that, while our consciences may bother us when shopping for fashion and meat, they have not yet caught up with travel. The ethics of industrial-style tourism are not being challenged in any meaningful way, despite the fact that local residents and climate change scientists are screaming at us to stop.

Take a listen to the whole thing over at CBC: The Sunday Edition.