What is Overtourism?

And how you can travel more responsibly
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In early 2018, would-be visitors to the Philippine island of Boracay had a problem. Years of steadily increasing tourist arrivals, poorly managed infrastructure growth and visitation numbers far above the carrying capacity of the island had taken their toll. The result? Under the pressure, many of the island’s businesses were dumping raw sewage into the enclave’s once-pristine waters.      

Touching on the situation in a February 2018 speech, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called the heavily impacted island a “cesspool.” Duterte would eventually close the island to all visitors, and it remained closed for six months while sewage treatment facilities were built, the island was cleaned up and illegal structures were demolished. Tourism is now limited to a cap of 6,000 people on the island per day.

Although the nuanced plight of Boracay is specific to one geographic area, such dynamics have become normal in recent years at many iconic destinations across the globe, and a relatively new term has been coined to encapsulate the trend: overtourism.

Defining Overtourism

The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), a policy research organization in Washington, D.C., defines overtourism as “tourism that has moved beyond the limits of acceptable change in a destination due to quantity of visitors, resulting in degradation of the environment and infrastructure, diminished travel experience, wear and tear on built heritage, and/or negative impacts on residents. 

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, there were 1.3 billion international tourist arrivals in 2017. That’s up from 278 million in 1980. Social media, budget airlines, tour operators, apps that remove the mystery from navigating foreign lands, and notably, a rapidly growing international middle class (with the travel bug) are considered the main drivers, according to statistics.

With travel costs trending lower and international departures skyrocketing, so many visitors are converging on high-profile destinations that their collective impact has become a destructive force, degrading both the integrity of the destination as well as tourism experience. Various nations, cities and national parks around the globe are scrambling to figure out how to manage and mitigate unsustainable visitor numbers and behaviors.

CREST Managing Director Samantha Bray says that responsible travel is no longer a choice, but an imperative. “With what we know about climate change and the impacts of overtourism on destination communities around the world, governments, travel businesses, and travelers should all be doing their parts to make sure these communities remain both resilient and great places to live and visit,” she says.

Loved to Death

Far from rushing to welcome in the easy tourist dollars, these days up-and-coming destinations are getting the jitters, like the little-known Italian city of Matera. Named the UN’s European Capital of Culture for 2019, the municipality has seen a huge uptick in interest. This prompted the mayor of Matera, an ancient community in the Basilicata region, to complain to the New York Times that his town didn’t want to be “occupied by tourists” and too many visitors would deplete its ancient soul.

Some of the most glaring cases of overtourism have taken place at UNESCO World Heritage sites, like Italy’s Venice, where it’s estimated that 30 million tourists swarm the city annually, dwarfing the Venetian population of 50,000 residents on a daily basis.

And overtourism isn’t just a problem for far-off international destinations. Visits to U.S. national parks between 2008 and 2018 climbed by more than 43 million, from about 275 million park visits in 2008 to 318 million in 2018. And other public lands, such as popular national forests, are also seeing increased visitation.     

Linda Merigliano, resource manager for the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, asserts that the first effects we may see are social conflict. According to Merigliano, conflict between different types of use (think motorized versus non-motorized, mountain biking versus hiking or horse riding) and conflict based on different social values (quiet, nature-focused recreation versus high-adrenaline recreation) are one sign.

“But we also must be aware of our increased effects on wildlife,” Merigliano says, “especially during winter and spring, as well as spread of invasive plants or aquatics. In addition, increased visitorship may increase revenue, but it also increases costs, such as heightening the demand for new visitor services and different facilities, such as demand for new outfitting permits, demand for improved information products, demand for more trails or new camping opportunities.”

Backlash and Mitigation

Internationally, backlashes and protests from residents in popular destinations have been on the rise, forcing many local governments to address the issue. Barcelona’s residents, fed up with tour groups and the decline of residential housing due to Airbnb rentals, are among the most outspoken with various riots and protests. Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, took measures to curb overtourism when, in 2017, 32 million visitors came to her city of 1.6 million. In response, Colau banned new hotel construction, upped taxes on vacation rentals and increased fees for daytrippers, among other measures.

In Venice, locals are simply leaving, unable to live with the intrusion or compete with the touring masses—the city’s population has declined from about 175,000 around 1950 to the 50,000 of today.  

The impacts of a growing tourism sector can be managed by areas willing to step up and protect resources and residents, but usually it requires playing some catch-up.

In Reykjavik, Iceland, where tourism now sees six visitors for each Icelander, over two million visitors arrive annually. That number is forecast to continue rise, and possibly lead to the same issues as in other popular cities, such as Barcelona. In response, the Icelandic government has banned new hotel construction in the capital, closed various hiking areas, and like many places, is considering how to implement visitor caps.

Similar to the closing of Boracay in the Philippines, Thailand in 2018 closed Ko Phi Phi’s Maya Bay, made famous in the Hollywood blockbuster, The Beach, due to overcrowding and damage to local coral populations.   

Learning quickly from the lessons of other countries and seeing its own damage from tourists, the small island of Palau in Micronesia won global acclaim in 2018 by requiring all inbound flights to show a film on responsible behavior and how to respect the island’s delicate natural resources and residents. In addition, visas are only issued to tourists who read and sign the Palau Pledge of understanding in their passport. And the rules are enforced with enormous monetary fines for violations, giving the pledge teeth to boot.

How to Travel More Responsibly

CREST defines responsible tourism as “tourism that maximizes the benefits to local communities, minimizes negative social or environmental impacts, and helps local people conserve fragile cultures and habitats.”

In advocating for responsible travel, Bray argues that traveling responsibly doesn't mean giving something up or being forced to have a sub-optimal travel experience.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that traveling responsibly somehow puts a damper on your trip or is difficult,” Bray says. “I would argue that the opposite is true. Traveling responsibly means engaging authentically with the local people at the places you visit, buying local, getting a real taste of culture, having the opportunity to appreciate history and heritage, and enjoying pristine environments.”

“Traveling responsibly doesn’t mean giving something up. It means appreciating the place you are visiting and acting in a way that ensures it is taken care of for the community that lives there and for future generations,” she continues.

All that said, there are some things you can do to mitigate your impact before, during and after your trip. Here are some simple, rewarding steps CREST suggests you can take to lessen your impact, and be a more respectful, thoughtful visitor:  

1. Do Your Research

Do your research before you book that Instagram-inspired vacation or backpacking trip. Fodors, for example, publishes an annual No List detailing selected destinations you should avoid, ranging from political and human rights violations, and this includes “The Places That Don’t Want You to Visit.” It highlights areas we should leave alone no matter how much we want to visit because pressure from tourism is destroying the area’s social fabric or environment.

2. Use Public Transportation

To lessen your eco-footprint, take buses, trains, subways, etc., rather than renting a car. Even better? Walk, hike or bike! If traveling relatively short distances between destinations, CREST also suggests trying not to fly. If air travel is necessary, always choose a direct flight over multiple stops.  

3. Keep an Open Mind

Cultural differences can be surprising, but when visiting a new place, remember that people in different countries and cultures often do things differently than you’re probably used to. Try to learn from these differences and let them deepen your perspective.

4. Tread Lightly

When traveling, unless you’re in an official amusement park, you are most likely in or near someone else’s home, whether that’s a coral reef, a forest full of animals, or an area inhabited by your fellow humans. No matter where you are, show that place the same respect and consideration you would your own home.

5. Be Culturally Sensitive

People where you’re traveling may have different cultural expectations for behavior than you’re used to. Whether that means dressing more conservatively at the beach, covering up before entering a sacred space or even avoiding certain body postures in public spaces, make sure to be aware of what’s considered polite in the area you’re visiting, and act accordingly.  

It can also be helpful to learn some basics of the local language before you go (Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, How are you? Do you speak English? My name is_.). Even if your pronunciation is crummy, the locals will hopefully appreciate that you are trying.

6. Carry a Reusable Water Bottle

Always, always, always carry a reusable water container and refill throughout your travels with potable water. Never buy disposable plastic water bottles. Carry water purification tablets or a water filtration device where needed.

7. Travel Greener

Choose environmentally friendly activities and places to stay. During the booking process, check to see if the accommodation offerings and guiding services you’re interested in using have earned eco-certifications and/or awards. You can also offset your flight(s) and carbon footprint by investing in wind energy or environmental credits.

8. Spend Wisely and Shop Local

When traveling, the power of the purse can make a huge difference. Where (and how) you spend your money directly impacts the communities you visit, for good or ill. That said, patronize locally owned businesses whenever you can, whether that’s a mom-and-pop restaurant, a corner-store bodega or quaint off-the-radar guesthouse. Avoid large chains.  

Additionally, when making purchases, always pay the fair price.  Avoid haggling and if there’s any suspicion the product of interest was made from protected/endangered animals, just walk away. Buy handicrafts from local artisans whenever possible.

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