The antidote to overtourism is far from the madding crowd
'Overtourism' is certainly a catchphrase that grabbed headlines in 2018 but Bart van Poll, co-founder of Spotted by Locals, believes something can and should be done about it
In 2018, the word overtourism entered the mainstream after US-based media company Skift coined the following definiton: ‘Overtourism is the phenomenon of a popular destination or sight becoming overrun with tourists in an unsustainable way’. Since then a lot has been said about it, but what is the industry doing about it?
I think overtourism is not just a buzzword, but a serious issue and a genuine threat to living standards and cultural heritage but also for the future of the travel industry, and I think we can and should do something about it.
But let’s first have a look at the data.
A doubling of tourist arrivals
In 2000 about 650 million people traveled internationally. Tourist arrivals have more than doubled since 2008, according to UNTWO. Many new first time international jetsetters travel to cities (according to Roland Berger the number of overnight stays in cities has increased more than double the rate of growth in people visiting the respective countries in general).
This wouldn’t be a problem if the rising number of tourists increase in tourist flow was being evenly distributed across the world and across many cities. The reality, of course, is completely different.
A well worn trail
The rise in total tourist numbers is not the problem. People in almost all countries in the world would be very happy to see more tourists. The problem is that too many tourists are converging in the same cities and go to the same places in these cities.
Venice tourist traffic jam (image by Shutterstock)
Take Venice, a city with a population of around 50,000, where 30 million people converge each year pushing the city even closer to sinking point. More people visit the city every day than there are people living there.
Many other cities in Europe also have yearly numbers of visitors that exceed their populations. In 2017, Iceland received 6.5 times more international visitors than there are people in the country. For Andorra, the factor is a whopping 39x.
This is increasingly leading to problems, especially in European cities.
Thumbs down to city ‘theme parks’
Last year, a visitor to my hometown, Amsterdam, asked my wife what time the ‘park closes’; she was under the impression that the canal district is some kind of theme park.
While the comment may seem ignorant, some cities are, in fact, already being ‘shut’ to tourists. If Venice gets too crowded, the police close pedestrian gates to the city centre, limiting access to locals who possess a special pass. The authorities in Dubrovnik have decided to cap the number of tourists allowed in the historic centre, after Unesco warned that it’s world heritage status was at risk. Milan and Vatican city have banned selfie sticks.
In Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona and Berlin many apartments have been taken off the ‘normal’ rental market, and are now used for more lucrative short-term rentals to tourists. Despite restrictions placed on short-term rentals in these cities, many locals can no longer afford to rent an apartment in the city, or feel alienated in an apartment building full of Airbnb guests.
The cracks are starting to show: the Spanish steps in Rome had to be fully restored in 2015, after being restored just 20 years ago.
Barcelona graffiti (by Enrique Calvo/Reuters)
In Barcelona, main street Las Ramblas has become so clogged with tourists that many locals take a long detour to avoid it. Locals took to the streets to protest this year and anti tourist graffiti is very much in fashion.
Street art in Athens Greece
Time for action
Tourists will keep coming to historic cities, and they will keep coming in ever greater numbers. Local authorities will need to find ways to cope with this. Some innovative cities are already working on this: Amsterdam is encouraging tourists to visit different neighborhoods, Iceland is promoting travel in less busy seasons and Edinburgh is raising taxes for tourists staying in the historic centre.
The travel industry also has role to play! At Spotted by Locals we are looking to make a difference by encouraging visitors to popular, overrun cities to visit less discovered neighbourhoods. We believe others should too. Even better, we are looking to encourage travelers to visit different destinations altogether. Why not visit Prishtina, the capital city of Kosovo instead of Athens, or Bremen in northwest Germany, instead of Hamburg?
As mentioned, Iceland receives 6.5 times more international visitors than there are people in the country. At the bottom of the European ranking (full list here) we find countries like Tajikistan (0.02), Moldova (0.04) and Romania (0.14). If countries could kill, these countries would kill for more tourists.
Cities want the travel industry’s help. Spotted by Locals recently launched a city guide to the capital of Armenia - Yerevan. On a visit to meet our bloggers, Hripsime Grigoryan President of Armenia Tourism stressed how happy they are that we are putting Armenia on the map. When we launched a Tirana (Albania) city guide, the mayor tweeted the news and one of our Spotters was invited to talk about the launch on national television.
Putting tourist dollars into the pockets of local entrepreneurs...feels like a much worthier exercise than filling those of big travel conglomerates...
Great PR, but PR isn’t everything. In the current climate of political and economic uncertainty and upheaval, putting tourist dollars into the pockets of local entrepreneurs in countries that really benefit feels like a much worthier exercise than filling those of big travel conglomerates that exist just to reap the benefits of overtourism.
All the research points to the fact that, increasingly, a truly local experience is what travellers are looking for. And increasingly, in cities worst affected by tourism, they are facing cold indifference and even open hostility. By daring to be unconventional and supporting the ‘underdog’, travellers to destinations off the tourist map are far more likely to experience true hospitality and honest gratitude.
Is making a difference in cities that need more tourists a pipe dream? Clearly education is needed, both of the industry and travellers. But I’d love to hear your views on this and other ways we can address the issue of overtourism.
Bart van Poll is the co-founder of Spotted by Locals which has been publishing online city guides and 100% offline apps with tips by locals in 71 cities since 2008