What happens when too many people want to see too much of the world?
'Overtourism' is a term that caught the world's attention last summer. Protests in tourist hotspots such as Barcelona and Venice revealed that many locals harbor deep resentment toward the visitors that clog their streets, apartment buildings, marketplaces, and beaches. The protests sent shockwaves through an industry that has long been thought of as benign and even beneficial for local populations.
In response to this, a British travel company called Responsible Travel created a short film, titled "Crowded Out: An Overtourism Documentary" (available for free streaming online). Produced by Justin Francis, the film interviews locals whose lives have been negatively affected by visitors, as well as academics and authors who have studied the serious problem that tourism has become. The result is a thought-provoking, squirm-inducing film that makes anyone who's ever been anywhere feel more than a little uncomfortable for daring to venture away from home.
Prof. Harold Goodwin is one of the people interviewed by Francis. He defines over tourism as a situation in which
"either local people or the tourists feel that the place is just over visited and that it's changing its character. So, for the tourist it loses authenticity and for the local people it causes irritation and annoyance."
Indeed, the interviews with locals in Venice and Barcelona reflect this annoyance. They describe the excessive time spent waiting to cross streets, to wave down a boat, to enter a shop. Local businesses, particularly markets, which are supposedly at the heart of what's supposed to be authentic in a foreign city, are jam-packed with visitors who do nothing but take pictures. This in turn has influenced what vendors sell -- fewer fresh ingredients for cooking, more tourist-friendly food for eating on the go, like fruit cups and fruit juice.
A common complaint is the way in which tourists behave. As Mirella Rivera, a resident of Barcelona, said, "People come here to do whatever they cannot do in their home countries." She called it el turismo de borrachera, or drunken tourism. Noise from late-night partying is a common problem in certain neighborhoods, not to mention the detritus left over.
Another part of the problem is the sheer volume of people, seemingly unaffected by political upheaval; the industry is "shockproof," as one interviewee said. Tourism has grown exponentially in the past few decades. In 1950 there were 25 million tourist arrivals worldwide. By 2017 that number had grown to 1.3 billion and is estimated to reach 1.7 billion by 2030. There are a number of factors driving this staggering growth, including:
1. Cheap flights: Did you know that airlines receive massive tax breaks from governments and that their fuel is tax-exempt? It's now possible to get places for the cost of a few pizzas and beers. Budget airline Ryanair has even talked about offering free flights.
2. Travel writers: Many travel writers' trips are paid for by the very people they're supposed to be criticizing. As Elizabeth Becker, a former international economics correspondent for the New York Times, told Francis in the film, this is why there are so many 'the 10 best lists, rather than 'the 10 worst': "It's corrupt." (I'd add social media influencers to this list, whose dreamy photos incentivize others to visit places they wouldn't go otherwise, just to get that same picture. There's a swimming pool in a Moroccan hotel that has become Insta-famous because of this and how has a massive waitlist.)
3. Honeypot destinations: There are a few key desirable destinations that everyone wants to visit at some point in their lives, sometimes at a preferred time of day. Think the Eiffel Tower, Tower Bridge, the Colosseum, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, the Taj Mahal.
4. Cruise liners: These are notoriously harmful to the environment and enable fly-by tourism that adds little value to local economies, with a whole lot of congestion.
5. Holiday apartments: Short-term vacation rentals like Airbnb have changed the rental landscapes of many cities, driving up price and demand and making it easier for people to travel who may not have been able to afford hotels in the past.
The film is eye-opening, but it did feel a bit one-sided, on a mission to portray tourism as the overwhelming tsunami that it is. Perhaps that is just what we need right now, in order to push the narrative away from the "tourism as great blessing"-type branding that we've heard for years. It would have been interesting, however, to hear from locals who work in the tourist industry, as well as local officials who attempt to regulate tourism, whether it's in the form of licensing hotels, imposing entry limits, or incentivizing lesser known destinations. These initiatives do exist, but they are not commonly known.
Still, I think it's great this film was made and it should be mandatory viewing for any travellers out there. The time is ripe for this debate. Check it out here.