Overtourism. This may mark your first encounter with the term, but it won’t be your last. I hear echoes of overtourism more and more. The onslaught of tourists who take over a destination to a point where the infrastructure can no longer handle it. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. You just need to know how to avoid the schlock and discover your own gems.
This is my advice on how to travel better in the age of overtourism including tips and actions which will improve your travel experiences and also help to reduce pressure on the places you visit.
My overtourism experience
My first experience with seeing a destination shift into overtourism was in Bali, Indonesia. I lived in Denpasar for about 5 months and explored several (untouched) beaches. One of them was Pandawa Beach. I was excited about visiting this beach. It’s white sand, blue water, limited warungs, and quietness was the highlight of my first visit.
One year later I returned to Pandawa Beach and the wonder turned to horror. Next to the quiet road were huge letters saying Pandawa Beach, several hotels and warungs were built, parking was no longer for free, a photogenic swing was placed on the beach, and groups of tourists cluttered the once peaceful beach. I saw litter and the beach no longer looked like an undiscovered beach.
What is Overtourism?
Overtourism has been in the news a lot as many destinations have started to push back against it. Why are destinations being visited to death? Obviously this has to do with the low airfare, cheap accommodations, online booking engines, growing modes of group and mass tourism like cruises, social media-driven FOMO and a connected culture that demands photos of it all. Overtourism pressures can include environmental, socioeconomic and cultural degradation. All of which can serve to diminish the quality of life of locals and endangered flora and fauna.
Overtourism doesn’t help anyone. No one wants to visit a crowded destination and no one wants to live somewhere that’s overrun with tourists. From a traveler’s perspective, overtourism is felt when you take the trip of a lifetime, but realize that anyone else had the same idea at the same time. The upshot: crowds, long lines, irritated locals, frustration, and disappointment. From a local’s perspective: a broken peace, trash, noise pollution, and often drunk or disrespectful visitors. Everyone who has experienced overtourism, from either perspective or both, knows how much it can suck.
Beach and island destinations are feeling overtourism. Some beaches in Bali have declared a garbage emergency (I believe Pandora Beach not yet) and Thailand has temporarily closed some popular beaches to travelers. This way the areas have time and space to clean up, improve infrastructure, and allow the environment a chance to recover from all the tourists.
Even the mountains were not safe before the corona pandemic hit. Mount Everest and its base camp were full of trash and long queues of climbers occurred at well-known points.
Due to the corona pandemic and the lack of tourism, many areas have already recovered from overtourism. Think about Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, and even Iceland.
The solution to overtourism
Is the solution to overtourism that we all stop traveling? No, this is unlikely. Travel is not going away. Especially not after this pandemic. Everyone is done sitting at home and can’t wait to discover new places again. So let’s have a conversation based on that reality.
Something else we should realise is that as an individual we are unlikely to solve overtourism. We do need help from governments, tourism boards, and the commercial travel industry. But we can act now, at once in our selfish interest and to the benefit of the world. In fact, there are some ways you can improve your travel experiences and also help to reduce pressure on the places you visit.
Travel better in the age of overtourism: 10 tips and actions
Here are 10 tips and actions of how I think that we can all travel better in the age of overtourism:
1. Choose a different destination
Our bucket list is often the bucket list of millions of other people around the world that now have access and can travel to all these places. Ask yourself if you want to visit the most famous site in the country and suffer the crowds or if you rather want to visit someplace a little less famous and less crowded, but where you can enjoy yourself a lot more in the moment. Broaden your view a bit and choose a different destination. Travel outside the city center or visit the smaller neighborhoods.
Within countries that do receive a lot of visitors there are still many secondary areas that haven’t yet been discovered. These may offer you a similar experience to the main destination, but with fewer crowds and at a lower cost. For example, visit Puglia instead of Tuscany. This area also offers many historical cities, beautiful landscapes, and fabulous food. Get out there and find those hidden gems.
2. Go at an off-peak time
Even if you are set on visiting an iconic site, consider going at an off-peak time. Consider avoiding travel to popular destinations during peak season and on holidays. When you do, the crowds are usually fewer, the prices lower, and the weather still (mostly) nice.
3. Take a tour with a social enterprise or community organization
The experiences that social enterprises or community organizations offer can enhance your enjoyment just as they contribute to the well-being of a local community. On community tours, you’ll often go beyond seeing a site and get to experience a city with a different eye.
4. Use respect
Be an informed traveler. Read up on the destination before you go. Learn its customs, religion, laws, and history. The more respectful and knowledgeable you are, the better it is for everyone involved. This also means making an effort to understand cultural norms, including appropriate dress and behavior, and respecting them. Don’t treat a destination like it’s your playpen. Locals live there after all. Also consider the ethics related to animals used in tourism. Some animals are being exploited in order to attract money. Examples are riding elephants and patting chained tigers.
5. Travel alone or in a small group
If you don’t travel solo, please stick to a small group rather than a giant tour group that may overwhelm every place they visit.
6. Don’t go with the flow
When visiting attractions, plan this in the early morning or take advantage of timed reservations. Timed reservations can help to better manage the crowds. Also try to make a detour or walk a few blocks away from the concentration of tourist bustle. When you do this, you probably will have the streets to yourself and really can get the local experience. Alternatively, rent a bicycle and do the same.
7. Don’t eat in touristy areas
If you eat where all the other tourists are, you’ll pay more for lower-quality food. Find restaurants where locals eat. Again, walk a few blocks away from the concentration of tourist bustle and find places most tourists won’t. You’ll get away from the crowds and enjoy a more authentic experience.
8. Be environmentally friendly
It’s a shame this even has to be on the list, but don’t waste a place’s resources. Just don’t leave the lights on, litter, take long showers, or involve yourself in environmentally dubious activities. The more you can preserve a destination, the longer it will last and the more the locals will want tourists like yourself there.
9. Don’t overnight in an AirBnB accommodation
In Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona and Berlin many apartments have been taken off the local rental market, and are now used for more lucrative short-term rentals to tourists. Because of this, many locals can no longer afford to rent an apartment in the city, or feel alienated in an apartment building full of Airbnb guests. If you have the choice, try to overnight in an official tourist accommodation.
10. Stay longer at your destination
Please don’t spend a day or two visiting a city. If you stay longer at your destination, you don’t have to rush from place to place and have more time to see all the sights.
We all make travel decisions that impact our experiences, the people and places we visit, and ultimately the future of all of it. I’ve listed some suggestions to limit overtourism above. I hope you will consider some of them as soon as this global pandemic is over and we can travel again. If you have any other suggestions, please leave a comment in the comment section below!