There’s a travel term you’re going to be hearing a lot of in the coming year: “overtourism.” I know this because I’ve been hearing it a lot at tourism conferences over the past year and the intensity is increasing. The term is coming up more and more in the news, especially in Europe.
In short, some destinations just have way too many tourists. The crowds are changing the whole identity of places and crowding out the locals, creating a theme park kind of atmosphere where there are no locals left anymore—or so few of them that you really have to hunt for one to talk to in the masses of visitors.
Meanwhile, for each one of those overtouristed destinations, there are 100 places that could really use your tourism dollars, pounds, or euros. They will welcome you with open arms and be glad you came. The money you spend there—even if it’s a backpacker budget—will directly help the local community in a way that charity donations never will.
Here are a few of the most prominent places to avoid that keep coming up in the news over and over. There’s a link at the end for more examples with some in-depth explanation from travel bloggers who know the region really well. Then see the last sectino for what you can do in response.
Overtourism – Destinations That Are Beyond Capacity
Venice is the poster child for reaching an unsustainable level of visitors. The small city with less than 55,000 residents receives somewhere between 20 million and 30 million visitors per year, depending on whose numbers you look at. To understand just how massive that number is, the entire country of Canada gets about 18 million visitors per year and Japan gets 24 million. The Venetians who haven’t given up and left already are fed up. They would rather you stay away.
Go somewhere else in Italy. There’s no shortage of choices. But maybe not Milan: the city council has introduced a ban on selfie sticks, food trucks, and glass bottles to fight “the tourism problem.”
This island gets millions of visitors a year, to the point where some say it accounts for a full 10% of all visits to Greece. The mayor said last year that the island has “reached a saturation point” as the demands on water, sanitation, and local roads are beyond what the island can meet. The local government started limiting cruise ship passengers to 8,000 per day, down from the 18,000 that would flow out of the massive floating hotels before during high season. The crowds have created so much demand for workers that there are huge housing camps on another island and more locals are commuting by ferry than living here because most housing is priced for visitors now, not locals.
As with Italy, you’ve got plenty of other options. There are loads of Greek islands that could really use your post-crisis visitor spending. Go to one of those instead.
Amsterdam and Barcelona
I’m putting these both in here together because they’re the two cities where residents actually took to the streets last year to protest the continued growth in visitor numbers. They’re lovely places, sure, but they’re getting less lovely every year as the tourists crowd out the locals and the sidewalks are packed with people wielding selfie sticks. In 1990 the number of residents and tourists in Barcelona was close to par. These days the tourists outnumber the locals by an exponential factor and many are just cruise ship passengers on a day trip. Overnight visitors are an issue too though and the mayor has taken drastic steps such as fighting AirBnB rentals and slowing down the issuance of new hotel opening permits. Meanwhile, the residents are making it clear they are with him.
In Amsterdam, “a city of almost 850,000 inhabitants, had 17 million visitors in 2016, up from 12 million five years earlier,” says this article. Locals complain that they’re being priced out of the most attractive parts of the city and business owners lament that they don’t recognize their birthplace anymore. So fly into these places if you’d like, but take a train to somewhere less crowded.
I saw this one first-hand last year when I went on a biking tour around the Balkans that started and finished in Dubrovnik. Some 5,000 cruise ship passengers a day enter the old city each day during high season and the place feels like a Disney park when this happens. When I went back at sunrise, I finally got some photos without massive crowds. When we biked through other parts of Croatia, however, we had the places almost to ourselves. We may see a cap of two ships per day on the way for Dubrovnik before the summer.
I recently wrote about how this is still a great stopover destination, but could you please branch out a little bit? The city of Reykjavik only has about 123,000 residents, so the capital is easily swamped when they get millions of visitors. It’s not like there’s all that much to see and do there anyway, so go get into the countryside, preferably beyond the top-5 attractions the day-trippers are hitting.
U.S. National Parks
In the USA, most complaints about overtourism relate to traffic issues and Airbnb rentals pricing locals out of the market by removing inventory. (This is coming up a lot in small coastal cities such as Newport, Charleston, and Key West, as well as nearly every ski town.) The clearest examples of unsustainable crowds though are in the most popular U.S. national parks, such as Yellowstone, Zion, and the Smokey Mountains.
If you must go in high season, perhaps because you have kids in school, then at least branch out beyond the main drag where all the lazy RV drivers are congregating. As a Wyoming tourism rep once told me, “You only have to go a couple miles down a trail to have Yellowstone almost to yourself, in the height of summer.” Otherwise, go early or late in the season when the crowds have thinned out. And hey, get the annual park pass because at some point the park service is going to hike individual admission prices. The park service is way underfunded plus this should at least level off the visitor numbers.
Not all of Bali is overcrowded, but the beaches and Ubud certainly are. Roads are choked with traffic, the water aquifiers are getting depleted, and there’s a serious garbage problem throughout the island. Unrestrained development has made the once-pristine island an ugly place in many spots and those who come looking for paradise often find what looks more like a backpacker ghetto. Indonesia has dozens of other great islands you could visit, but if you insist on coming here, get off the beaten path and look for sustainable operations that care about the future.
There are still pristine, unspoiled islands in Thailand, but the ones you’ve probably heard of are not on that list. The worst example is probably Ko Phi Phi, which went from hidden paradise to overdeveloped trash pit in the space of two decades. I still love Thailand, but when a country has a visitor growth chart that looks like the one pictured here for Thailand, the byproducts of that rapid growth are going to be ugly—especially in a country with lax building codes and regulations.
Other Spots in Trouble
This post could run through another 30 locations that are experiencing troubles way beyond simple growing pains. The easier the place is to get to from a cruise ship, the more danger it is in from overtourism as our populations get fatter and older. Plus we love the lure of the great scenery in coastal places like Ha Long Bay, El Nido (Philippines), Easter Island, or Rio. The problems can happen inland too though, from Marrakech to Uluru to Agra to Machu Picchu.
Someone else already did the work on detailing the problems at these and others: see this mass tourism destruction article from Green Global Travel.
Who Wants and Needs You to Come?
This post has been all about overcrowded places to avoid, so in this expanding tourism world, which destinations are ready to enthusiastically welcome us?
There are two summary answers to that: the places in crisis and the places few people bother to visit.
Places in Crisis
You only need to watch or read the news to see which destinations people are now avoiding because of a crisis, whether that’s political or natural or economic. In essence, you need to be a contrarian traveler who zigs when everyone else zags. Because really, that’s when the places need your tourism dollars the most.
Some mistakenly look at this as opportunism since prices are lower and business owners have to do more to lure you in. Ask any one of those business owners whether they think it’s exploitation though—as I have—and you’ll get an emphatic “NO!” They are thankful for every visitor who walks through their door because it helps them hold onto their business, feed their family, and make payroll next week.
What are some examples of this? Right now it would be Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands that got hit by hurricanes in 2017. Houston, the Florida Keys, Naples, and Marco Island also got hit hard—though you could argue they at least had insurance to cover losses. Mexico City tourism dropped through the floor after the last earthquake, even though very few buildings were affected. Much of California wine country got scorched this past year and visitation dropped off a cliff, even though most of the wineries (and their tasting rooms) are still open. In the case of this and Key West, it’s a rare chance to visit an overcrowded destination when it’s not crowded at all.
When an economic or currency crisis hits, the locals are hurting. If you book a vacation and are spending freely, the Greeks, Portuguese, Mexicans, or Indonesians are very happy to see you–especially if you visit an area that’s not already jammed with tourists. There are also safety worries—usually overblown—that bring down visitor numbers. It’s perpetually a good time to visit Egypt it seems, and crime worries artificially dampen visitor numbers to places like Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, and most of Africa. Do independent research on what it’s really like on the ground and you’ll find some great bargains in places with few other travelers.
Less Popular Destinations
Half the places I go, most of my relatives have never heard of. “Where’s that?” is the most common question. Last year I visited Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, Albania, Chihuahua, Pokhara, and Huntsville, so most of the time nobody’s ears perked up until I said “Ireland.” Of course Ireland was packed with tourists and the others were mostly not. (Except Dubrovnik—see above.)
So first you can look at countries as a whole. France gets some 83 million visitors a year. There are at least a dozen European countries that get less than 1/10 that amount—and cost half as much for hotels, food, and transportation. Insider tip: these are also some of the cheapest places to live.
Within a country though, even in France, you can find attractive quiet towns with great food and wine where you can count the number of other foreigners on one hand. Instead of being resented for driving up costs, you’re welcomed for adding to the economy, and for appreciating them enough to visit. In a place like Mexico, the beach resort areas have prices that don’t feel much different than home. Head to the colonial cities inland, however, and you’ll marvel at what a bargain the place is. If you visit some off-the-beaten-path town like Cuetzalan or Real de Catorce, you certainly won’t be fighting hordes of people to snap a good photo. You might even find a real ghost town…
In many countries, once you get past the one or two big magnets, it’s a whole different world in terms of prices and crowds. Leave Prague, don’t spend your whole vacation in Buenos Aires, go beyond Petra and Machu Picchu. You’ll spend a lot less and the locals will be a lot happier to see you.