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Overtourism explained: What is it and why is it so bad?

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Overtourism is a term that is being used increasingly by scholars, industry practitioners and the general public. What what do we actually mean by the term ‘overtourism’?

In this post I will discuss the concept of overtourism. I will explain what overtourism is, how it can be defined and what the impacts of overtourism might be. Interested to learn more? Read on….

What is overtourism?

Put simply, overtourism is the result of growing tourist numbers in a given area. It refers simply to the notion that there are too many visitors in a particular area.

How many is too many, isn’t always easy to determine, but there are some telltale signs that a destination is suffering at the hands of overtourism. Overtourism signs include pressures placed on local resources and facilities due to growth in numbers, changes in culture and loss of authenticity, deterioration of quality of life for the host community and feelings of irritation and annoyance due to the presence of tourists.

Destinations that have suffered at the hands of overtourism include Maya Bay in Thailand,  Barcelona , Maccu Picchu and Mount Everest. In some cases efforts have been made to reverse or mitigate damages caused from tourism by restricting tourist numbers, raising taxes or closing attractions all together.

Overtourism definitions

Overtourism is a concept that has gained traction only in the past couple of years. It started off with a movement on Twitter in 2012 when the hashtag #overtourism became popular. The term was then officially coined in 2016 by Skift, who later trademarked the word ‘overtourism’. Despite this being a new term, however, it is far from being a new problem and researchers have rushed in head-first in attempt to further conceptualise and define the notion of overtourism.

The World Tourism Organisation define 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 visitor experiences in a negative way’.

The Responsible Tourism Partnership refers to overtourism as ‘destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. It is the opposite of Responsible Tourism which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently’.

According to Harold Goodwin, an academic in the field of sustainable tourism, overtourism occurs when ‘… destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably’.

Whilst there are several definitions of overtourism, all stakeholders seem to be in agreement that it refers to the issue of too many visitors in a given time in a given place, which impacts negatively on the tourist experience, the host community and environment.

The growth of overtourism

Overtourism has come about as a result of significant growth in the tourism industry worldwide. As shown in the graph below, tourist numbers have increased exponentially in recent years and the trend is set to continue, with an anticipated 1.8billion international tourists worldwide by 2030.

United Nations- growth in tourist numbers

Overtourism is not just about numbers though. It is about there being too many tourists for tourism to be sustainable. There may be just a handful of tourists, but if this is too many for the host destinations to comfortably accommodate then there is a risk of overtourism.

It is difficult to accurately say whether a destination is suffering at the hands of overtourism or not, because the term is somewhat subjective. Whilst some examples, such as Borocay in the Philippines or Machu Pichu, may be clear cut, others are less obvious.

In attempt to quantify the issue of overtourism, the people over at Responsible Travel have created a an overtourism map. The map is compiled from research into online mentions of overtourism around the world. Destinations mentioned are marked on the map. Whilst this does help to demonstrate the extent of the problem, it is likely that there are many other examples, especially those in small places go under reported. 

Causes of overtourism

There is no one set cause of overtourism, rather it has come about as a result of a combination of factors.

Cheap flights with budget airlines to destinations has resulted in herds of tourists arriving that previously may not have ventured there.

The growth of the Airbnb has seen thousands of beds suddenly becoming available in destinations around the world, without being subject to any kind of planning, permits or, in some instances, taxes.

Increases in disposable income, population growth and an increased desire by society to travel further and more often have all played a role. Then there is also the media to take into consideration, along with promotion material and activities as evidenced, for example, through ‘Insta tourism‘.

Overtourism documentary

Crowded Out is a well articulated documentary explaining the concept of overtourism. While the documentary is not particularly liked by some tourist destinations and DMOs, it provides a useful background into the topic. I recommend that you take a look.

Negative impacts of overtourism

Overtourism is a term that has negative connotations. Associated with a range of environmental, economic and social impacts of tourism, overtourism is almost always seen as a bad thing.

Below is a list of typical issues associated with overtourism, most of which are discussed at length elsewhere on this website.

  • Locals resent tourists
  • Litter
  • Environmental degradation
  • Increased pressure on finite resources
  • Overuse of public facilities and infrastructure
  • Devastating impacts on local flora and fauna
  • Gentrification
  • Lack of economic control.benefit in the local community
  • Changes to society
  • Globalisation
  • Reduction in authenticity
  • Tourist needs prioritised over local needs
  • Increases in crime
  • Rises in the cost of living in the area

Solutions for overtourism

With careful tourism planning and management, we can limit the negative effects of overtourism or prevent overtourism from occurring all together.

Adoption of the principles of sustainable tourism are fundamental in managing overtourism.

From a top-down perspective, policies should be pout in place to manage aspects such as overcrowding. This could include changes in fees or limitations in ticket sales, for example. You can read more about strategies and measures that can be put in place in this document by the United Nations.

From a grass-roots perspective, there are many things that tourists can do to help prevent overtourism. Tourists can choose to visit destinations off-peak or at quite times in the day, visit less known destinations (which I personally prefer!), and to demonstrate responsible behaviour when travelling.

Overtourism examples

To truly understand the concept of overtourism and the effects that is has on a destinations and its people, I think that you need to see some examples. Below I have outlined 6 different examples of overtourism for you.

Overtourism in Maya Bay

Maya Bay in Thailand was made famous when the book ‘The Beach‘ was published, which was then released as a movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Almost a right of passage for backpackers, this book/movie encouraged thousands of tourists to flock to the secluded bay.

Overtourism in Maya Bay caused significant environmental impacts, with had negative consequences for the local flora, fauna and marine life. In attempt to combat this, the Thai government closed the island to tourists for a period of four months.

Overtourism in Barcelona

Barcelona is home to 1.6million people, yet it welcomes a whopping 32 million tourists each year! These tourists arrives in flocks during school holidays, summer weekends and when the cruise ships arrive.

Whilst this brings significant economic value to some areas of the city, such as Las Ramblas, tourists rarely venture much further, meaning that there is little benefits to businesses operating outside of the main tourist hotspots.

Residents have demonstrated resentment towards tourists and the tourism industry on many occasions, evidenced through protests and signs placed around the city.

Overtourism at Macchu Picchu

Macchi Picchu is one of the most well documented examples of overtourism. This is because they were one of the first tourist attractions to implement restrictions on tourist numbers in attempt to manage overtourism.

Fortunately, there have been reports in the past year or so that these efforts have worked and that the crowds at Macchu Picchu have been significantly reduced- evidence that careful tourism management does work!

Overtourism in Venice

Venice experiences around 20 million tourists who visit the destination each year. On its busiest days Venice receives approximately 120,000 tourists! In comparison, the city has just 55,000 permanent residents.

Overtourism in Venice has had a significant impact on the local community, economically, environmentally and socially. Members of the host community are forced to negotiate crowds and put up with noisy wheelie suitcases and selfie sticks on a daily basis. Many tourists demonstrate disrespectful behaviour by swimming in the canals, having picnics on the famous bridges and dropping litter. There are also many boats that produce harmful emissions which are omitted into the atmosphere each day.

Overtourism in Santorini

There are worries that the picturesque island of Santorini has experienced overtourism to such an extent that it is now close to saturation point.

Over 5 million overnight tourists are recorded in Santorini each year- an island which is just 76km². Traffic jams, overcrowding and pollution have become serious issues on the island. The is also evidence of rising water and overuse of energy consumption.

The island is striving to combat the problem and have placed limits on tourist numbers. They have also built a new desalination plant which is the largest in Greece. There are fears, however, that this will not be enough, given the rate off growth in recent years.

Overtourism at Mount Everest

Overtourism at Mount Everest is not only detrimental for the environment and host community, but it is also extremely dangerous for the climbers.

Alongside issues of empty oxygen canisters being left behind, littering and erosion of pathways, there have been stories in the media recently of climbers queuing in dangerous conditions when climbing and descending the mountain. In fact, there have even been deaths recorded, where overtourism was said to be the blame.

Overtourism: Conclusion

As you can see, overtourism has caught the eye of many tourism industry stakeholders, from academics to industry workers to the tourists themselves.

There are solutions to overtourism and it can be managed and even avoided entirely if careful planning and management is implemented, and there have been some excellent responsible tourism initiatives demonstrated throughout the world. There is, however, much more that needs to be done if we are to reduce the impacts of overtourism across the world.

For more information on the concept of overtourism I suggest that you were to the texts listed below.

Overtourism reading list

  • Overtourism– This book examines the evolution of the phenomenon and explores the genesis of overtourism and the system dynamics underlining it.
  • Overtourism: Tourism Management and Solutions– Questioning the causes of this phenomenon, such as increased prosperity and mobility, technological development, issues of security and stigma for certain parts of the world and so on, this book supposes that better visitor management strategies and distribution of tourists can offset the negative impacts of ‘overtourism’.
  • The Challenge of Overtourism– Working paper outlining the concept by Harold Goodwin