What Is Overtourism and Why Is It Such a Big Problem?

Travel destinations are becoming too popular for their own good.

Barceloneta beach in Barcelona
Barceloneta beach in Barcelona, Spain. ferrantraite / Getty Images

Overtourism happens when the number of tourists or the management of the tourism industry in a destination or attraction becomes unsustainable. When there are too many visitors, the quality of life for the local community can diminish, the surrounding natural environment can be negatively affected, and the quality of the tourists' experience can decline.

According to the World Tourism Organization, there were 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals worldwide in 2019, a 4% increase from the previous year. International tourist arrivals have continued to outpace the global economy, and the number of destinations earning $1 billion or more from international tourism has doubled since 1998. Tourism is growing, and some places just can’t seem to keep up.

Overtourism Definition

Boats and tourists flock to Maya Bay in Thailand
Boats and tourists flock to Maya Bay in Thailand. Hannares / Getty Images

Although the term itself didn’t appear until around 2017 (a writer at media company Skift is often credited for first coining it in the summer of 2016), the problem of overtourism is hardly a new one. The "irritation index," known as Irridex, has examined the change between resident attitudes towards tourists throughout different stages of tourism development since 1975. According to the Galapagos Conservation Trust, tourist satisfaction rankings have been steadily decreasing since 1990 due to overcrowding; the official guidelines for visitor numbers set in 1968 when the Galapagos Island National Park first opened had risen 10-fold by 2015.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization has defined overtourism as "the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitors experiences in a negative way." Environmental consequences are a symptom of overtourism, and the recent boost in awareness surrounding the buzzword is simply because there are more destinations around the world experiencing it.

As for what exactly is to blame for overtourism, there are numerous factors at play. Cheaper flights are making travel more accessible, cruise ships are dropping thousands of tourists off to spend several hours at a destination without spending money locally, social media is inspiring users to get that perfect selfie at travel hotspots ... the list goes on and on.

Studies even show that television and movies can impact a place’s desirability. Episodes of Game of Thrones filmed in the historical Croatian town of Dubrovnik corresponded to 5,000 additional tourism overnights per month (59,000 per year) after they aired. Most of these tourists stayed under three days, packing the Old Town walls with day tours that increased pollution and put new strains on the 13th-century infrastructure.

Like so many others, the travel industry has focused too much on growth and not enough on environmental impacts. Rising awareness of overtourism consequences has inspired local and national governments to protect their commodities through sustainable tourism practices and ensure that tourism behavior isn’t damaging—or even better, can be beneficial—to the local environment.

The Consequences of Overtourism

A cruise ship entering Venice, Italy
A cruise ship entering Venice, Italy. Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Needless to say, the environmental consequences of overtourism can be catastrophic. Accumulation of trash, air pollution, noise, and light pollution can disrupt natural habitats or breeding patterns (baby sea turtles, for example, can become disorientated by artificial lighting when they hatch). Both natural and local resources, like water, will degrade as destinations or attractions struggle to accommodate numbers they simply weren’t built to handle. And even as these spots begin increasing tourism development to keep up, they may turn to unsustainable land practices or deforestation to create more accommodations and other tourism infrastructure.

Sustainable tourism management is important since the number of visitors a destination is designed to handle is unique to each one. Short-term rentals may work for certain places, but they could raise rent prices for others and push out local residents to make more room for visitors. In Barcelona, 2017 saw 40% of tourist apartments rented out illegally, making it harder for the locals to find affordable accommodations—only one of the many reasons why the city’s residents organized protests against unregulated tourism over the following years.

It’s the same thing with the environment. Large crowds of tourists in natural destinations may drive wildlife to places outside of their natural habitats, disrupting the delicate ecosystem. In some cases, crowds can negatively influence fragile environments or create more opportunities for human-wildlife conflicts

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of positive aspects to tourism, however. When tourism is sustainably managed, it can be an incredible tool for protecting the environment. Admission dollars to natural areas or animal sanctuaries often go directly towards conservation and environmental education. Tourism can also strengthen local economies and help support small, family-run businesses at the same time. It’s finding that delicate balance between using tourism to fuel the economy while keeping the surrounding environment protected that often presents the greatest challenge.

What Can We Do?

  • Plan your trip during the off season or shoulder season.
  • Dispose of your waste properly (don’t litter) and bring along your reusables.
  • Show respect for local customs and attractions.
  • Explore areas outside of the most popular spots.
  • Prioritize family-owned and local businesses.
  • Educate yourself on sustainable travel practices.

Can Overtourism Be Reversed?

A cruise ship approaches the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica
A cruise ship approaches the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica. Andrew Peacock / Getty Images

In most places, overtourism is not a hopeless case. Destinations all over the world have already demonstrated ways to overcome the obstacles presented by overcrowding and unsustainable tourism management.

East Africa, for example, has turned gorilla trekking into an exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime experience by issuing limits on daily permits, all while maintaining conservation efforts inside native forests and steady employment for local guides. In Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty restricts the size of cruise ships that land there as well as the number of people they can bring ashore at one time; it also requires a minimum guide-to-tourist ratio while tourists are off the boat.

Local governments and tourist organizations, of course, are largely responsible for maintaining sustainability in the tourism industry, but certain approaches to mitigate the negative effects of overtourism can come down to the individual traveler as well. One of the best ways to become a responsible tourist is by looking outside of the mainstream travel destinations. Consider outer cities or less-visited attractions, or head towards more rural spots to avoid crowds altogether while experiencing a glimpse of a destination’s daily culture outside of the popular areas. There are countless places that want and need more tourists just waiting to be explored.

However, if you just have to visit that bucket-list destination known for its large crowds, consider visiting during its off season or shoulder season instead of peak travel season. Residents who rely on tourism as a source of income need support during the off season more than any other time of year, plus it will save you money as a traveler since accommodations and flights tend to be cheaper. Even better, off season travel puts less pressure on the environment.

Overtourism in Machu Picchu, Peru

The Machu Picchu

John van Hasselt - Corbis / Getty Images

The tourist industry surrounding the famed archaeological city of Machu Picchu in Peru has been largely responsible for the country’s economic growth since the early 1990s. The number of tourists who travel to the 15th-century citadel has quadrupled since the year 2000; in 2017, 1.4 million people visited, an average of 3,900 per day. The site, which sits on a series of steep slopes prone to heavy rains and landslides anyway, is being further eroded by the thousands of visitors who walk the ancient steps each day.

The sharp rise in visitors, combined with a lack of management strategies, prompted UNESCO to recommend that the Peruvian state redraft its overall vision for the site with conservation in mind rather than primarily tourism growth. UNESCO threatened to put Machu Picchu on the “List of World Heritage in Danger” in 2016 if the property didn’t clean up its act.

Beginning in 2019, a new set of tourist restrictions was put into place at Machu Picchu, including limitations on visitors, admission times, and lengths of stay. Tourists are now limited to two daily time slots to relieve pressure on the site and are required to hire a local guide on their first visit.

Overtourism in Maya Bay, Thailand

Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series 2013 - Thailand
Crowd during a cliff diving competition at Maya Bay, Thailand. Handout / Getty Images

First made famous by the movie "The Beach," the stunning turquoise waters of Thailand’s Maya Bay have been attracting visitors ever since the film’s release over 20 years ago. Seemingly overnight, the small bay went from a quiet hidden beach on the island of Phi Phi Leh to one of the country’s most popular destinations, bringing hoards of beach-goers along.

According to BBC reports, Maya Bay went from seeing 170 tourists a day in 2008 to 3,500 in 2017, resulting in the death of a majority of its coral reefs. By June 2018, the environmental depredations from litter, boat pollution, and sunscreen had gotten so bad that the government decided to close the beach completely for four months to allow the bay to heal. After the initial four months were through, the government went on to extend the closure indefinitely.

The extreme measure has brought a few positive signs for the environment there. About a year after the initial closure, park officials shared footage of dozens of native black-tipped reef sharks re-entering the bay. A team of biologists and local residents are also working on an ongoing project to plant 3,000 corals in the bay to increase the number of fish and improve the ecosystem.

Overtourism on Mount Everest

A roped team of climbers on Mount Everest
A roped team of climbers on Mount Everest. Westend61 / Getty Images

While we tend to think of Mount Everest as a remote and unattainable adventure, the destination has actually been suffering from overcrowding for years. Images of hikers standing in line as they try to reach the summit from the Nepalese side aren’t uncommon, and in a high-altitude environment completely dependent on oxygen, long waits can get deadly fast.

Those crowds also accumulate a lot of waste. Between April and May 2019, nearly 23,000 pounds of garbage was collected from Mount Everest, a Guinness Book of World Records in terms of trash. The trash was spread out almost equally between the main basecamp, nearby settlements, high-altitude camps, and the most dangerous portion of the summit route.

One of the most challenging problems lies in the economic value of Mount Everest, which is Nepal’s most lucrative attraction. In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Nepal received an estimated $643 million from tourism, accounting for 3.5% of its entire GDP.

Overtourism in Venice, Italy

St. Marco, Venice, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Veneto, Italy, Europe
St. Marco, Venice, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Neil Emmerson / robertharding / Getty Images

Venice has become the poster child for overtourism in the media, and for good reason. Over the years, the government has been forced to set limits on the number and size of cruise ships that spill visitors into the city, as well as a proposed tourist entrance tax.

The tourism industry hasn’t just resulted in an increased cost of living, but in a decreased quality of life for Venice residents. The local population in Venice has declined by two-thirds over the last 50 years, its cruise ship industry accommodating several hundred ship departures and 1 million passengers each year. According to Bloomberg, there were a total of 5 million visitors in 2017 compared to the resident population of just 60,000.

In late 2019, when the city experienced a series of floods from record-breaking high tides, some Venetians argued that cruise ships were to blame. The wakes from massive ships were literally eroding the city, while widening the canals to accommodate larger ships throughout the years had damaged coastal habitats for wildlife as well as the physical foundations of the city.

Most of these tourists stick to the city’s most famous landmarks, concentrating large numbers of crowds into small spaces that were not designed to hold them. Its historic buildings and watery ecosystem, already fragile, are certainly feeling the pressure, while the influx of temporary visitors continues to inhibit locals from living their lives. As one of the most active cruise ports in the whole of Southern Europe, Venice is on track to become a city with virtually no full-time residents.

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