Over · tourism — a new word to be added to the dictionary

Celine Kwan
Feb 27, 2019 · 11 min read
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Locals in Venice and Barcelona protesting against an overwhelming number of tourist visitors.

Picture tourism in your mind.

Let me guess. Are you thinking of blue and white houses in Santorini? Stunning museums and architecture in Europe? Is it a beach in Phuket? Or is it Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida?

Now picture the crowd and environment.

You get the point. The next time you plan on proposing a new vacation bucket list (e.g. March break), remember to think twice, plan ahead, and do thorough research before making a decision. Be a responsible tourist, spread awareness, and be considerate.

Fun fact: overtourism is such a new word that you will not be able to search it up on Merriam Webster, Oxford or Cambridge Dictionary — but keep in mind that overtourism is simply a new name for an issue that has, in fact, been around for decades.

Instagram Posts vs RealityWhat does overtourism look like?

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We will show you the reality soon enough.

“Overtourism describes destinations where hosts or hurests, 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.” - Retrieved from Responsible Tourism Partnership.org

The key words here are (i) Visitors (ii) Quality of life of locals (iii) Quality of experience provided.

Overtourism is a hugely complex issue that involves the interaction within the community and around the world. It is an intricate web of cause and consequence, but generally speaking, it works like this:

Excessive growth of visitors -> overcrowding in areas -> residents suffer the consequences of temporary and seasonal tourism peaks -> enforcing permanents changes to their lifestyles, access to amenities, and general well-being.

What are the causes of excessive growth of visitors?

Among other causes that might be straightforward to most, such as cheap flights, more paid holidays, increase in amount of disposable income, internet bookings, and advertising (all associated with convenience and money), there are other more subtle and complex causes of overtourism:

Lack of government understanding about the negative impacts of tourism

Tourism. Marketing. Expansion. These words are interconnected and are undoubtedly at the heart of the tourism industry. However, the expansion fails to acknowledges that there are limits — whether they are related to social, environmental, or economic impacts. Due to the intricate web of cause and consequence that are caused by tourism industries and the public worldwide, local government and planning authorities have so far been powerless to deal with the overwhelming influence of the global tourism supply chain, leading to “tourist-phobia” — defined as a mixture of repudiation, mistrust, and contempt for tourists.

Poor planning/lack of central planning

Amongst the attendees of the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit 2017 in Bangkok, more than 50 percent of the respondents of a poll indicated that the tourism sector is not doing very well in addressing the issues of mass tourism, nor are they actively trying to tackles the impacts of the problem.

“Unfortunately, tourism that has done so much for the economies of so many countries over the last 50 years has had the least attention paid in terms of policy formation, strategy, planning and allocative arrangements,” Edmund Bartlett, the minister of tourism for Jamaica, stated while speaking at the summit.

Structuring tourism as its own ministry within the government can bring progress when it comes to tackling the problem at hand seriously.

Growth of the middle class globally

The sharp expansion with the size of the middle class means more customers and a broader distribution of global income.

Here are some statistics:

  • The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development projects that the world population will grow to over 8.2 billion by 2030;
  • East Asia’s middle-classes are set to number over 3 billion by 2030, with China and India being home to roughly two-thirds of the global middle-class;
  • Asian-Pacific (APAC) countries will have seen a growth in their middle-classes by over 500% in the 20 years up to 2030, compared with 2% growth in Europe and a decline of nearly 5% in America.

The number of tourist arrivals has increased from 680 million in 2000 to almost 1 billion in 2010, which is over 50% in a decade. The phenomenon is the most prevalent in Asian countries, particularly China and India, with travel by Asians doubling.

No wonder there are more people travelling around the world.

Collusion

Though not discussed often, there certainly is collusion between airlines, cruise ships and governments. How else will there be artificially cheap flights and cruises?

Talking about the government, the Government of Canada strives to compete to be a top 10 international destination by 2025. But guess what? We will have to beat Barcelona, Spain, Dubai, Phuket, Grand Canyon, Patagonia, Yellowstone, etc. — places where impacts of overtourism are clearly shown whenever you go on Google, combine the name of the destination and ‘overtourism’, then hit ‘enter’. Additionally, the “Canada’s Tourism Vision” also includes increasing international overnight visitors by 30% and doubling the number of Chinese tourists by 2021. To avoid further negative impacts and ramifications of mass tourism, the government certainly has to carefully and strategically devise plans with the tourism industry before further implementing any schemes or proposals.

“Tourist: Your luxury trip, my daily misery”

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Graffiti in a popular tourist attraction — Park Guell — in Barcelona, Spain.

Imagine coming across this graffiti while taking photos at the beach, hearing protests against tourists while shopping at the local market, or even seeing boats with people holding banners telling you to “go home” while you are approaching an island on a cruise ship.

Particularly, overtourism protests are spreading throughout Europe, and the reasons are clear:

Venice

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  • “In Venice, some days there are nearly twice as many tourists as residents,” said Alex Dichter, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company, who is currently conducting research on tourism’s impact on destinations, at a global tourism summit. Venetians also complained about giant cruise ships, leftover garbage strewn all over the place, and rising rent prices in the city.

Italy

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  • Italians complained about rude tourists — those that dive from bridges to lagoons, as if they are in an adventure park; some shower in public fountains, walk half-naked in churches, and much more. One of Italy’s most popular destinations — the Cinque Terre coastal villages — launched an online petition — titled “Save the Cinque Terre from Mass Tourism” — calling for the number of visitors to the World Heritage area to be managed better, especially those arriving by cruise.

Spain

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  • In July 2018, protester attacked tourist buses in Valencia, Palma de Mallorca, and Barcelona, all of which are countries in Spain. Barcelona is particularly prone to mass tourism as it has the Mediterranean’s largest port, which makes it a prime spot for huge cruise ships. When comparing the numbers in the past to those of now, cruise passengers proliferated from only 115,000 in 1990 to a staggering 2.7 million in 2016. The problem does not stop there — with just a few hours in the city, the tourists will flock to just a few concentrated tourist hotspots like La Rambla, the Sagrada Familia, and La Boqueria market, creating massive congestion and discomfort for the locals and possibly the tourists too.

These are just some examples. Other parts of the world are also affected:

Thailand

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  • Phuket, Thailand is supposed to be a paradise island, but it is now polluted by plastic and tourists. Maya Bay, also in Thailand, was closed to tourists from June through September in 2018 as it has been heavily damaged over the years, especially the marine environment and coral reefs.

UNESCO heritage sites

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Impacts of overtoursim at Machu Picchu.
  • There are over 1,000 of these sites in the world, including places like Machu Picchu and Venice, and UNESCO is putting much effort into protecting its universal value. The problem is, these sites lack the infrastructure to support the number of tourists who visit in a given day or season, especially considering that they were build a long time ago. Environmental degradation, damage to monuments or works of art, disruption of ecosystems, and displacement of local people are all potential negative consequences as a result of too many visitors.

Mount Everest

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As advertised.
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Hmm… Is this false marketing?

The supposed-to-be-pristine landscape of Mount Everest generates 12,000 lbs of waste each season at its base camp, and within the pile, there are pop cans, whiskey bottles, tons and tons of plastics, food containers, and many more. The garbage is then dumped into the landfills, burnt, and releases toxic poisons into the air, also contaminating groundwater supplies at the same time.

“But don’t tourists benefit the local economy?”

Since its inception, tourism has been considered a benign activity. It is no surprise, as most view it as an opportunity to relax, and is a generally desired experience in pursuit of recreation and pleasure through using the services and commercial provision of the place one is visiting.

Sure, tourism not only benefits the economy, but also improves cultural diversity. The industry is extremely labor intensive, and many of the businesses that operate within it are only small businesses and micro operators, making it an easy industry to accommodate employment, e.g. workers taking on the role of tour guides, working for coach services, restaurants, gifts shops, etc, and is directly related to increased spending in the local community. It also attracts investment and drives infrastructure development. Opportunity and money are the big words here, but what about the social aspect of it? Overtourism has certainly triggered an uproar throughout Europe, and other hotspots are also imposing strict laws to reduce the number of tourists flocking to their hometown.

Quality over Quantity

“The real problem is we define success in tourism as having more tourists.”

Rapid growth in tourism in markets overseas worldwide results in a proliferating number of tourists, and officials “realized that they were losing complete control of the industry, the benefits were not necessarily staying at home”.

As Rochelle Turner, research director at the World Travel and Tourism Council said, destinations need “a vision of what they want to be, and how that vision then can be supported through planning, through consultation with the people that live and work in those destinations”.

What can be done?

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As mentioned before, overtourism is a complex problem comprising of a web of cause and consequences, and resolving the problem requires a shared effort. Local efforts taken are only at the tip of the iceberg. Efforts have to be taken worldwide, across destinations, to solve the problem. Possible courses of actions include:

Responsible tourism

The term is defined as tourism that creates better places to live in and to visit. Seeking for ways to improve destinations for the benefit of local people, maximizing the benefits of tourism, and minimizing negative impacts are at the heart of its mission. Prioritizing the welfare of local residents above the needs of the global tourism supply chain is vital.

Sustainability accounting

As suggested by the word “accounting”, this measure strives to measure the net benefit, or otherwise, of tourism in the aspects of economic (i.e. the amount of money retained locally), social, and environmental costs and impacts, rather than simply measuring tourist numbers.

Abolishing cheap flights

By increasing the prices of flight tickets, such as by imposing environmental and aviation fuel tax, the number of tourists and amount of carbon emission will decrease.

Limits of acceptable change — raising awareness

This participatory approach works like this: local people, governments, the tourism industry, environmentalists, and so on, work together to define a number of things they would see or experience that would indicate that tourism is becoming a problem — to identify “limits for acceptable change” which show that changes will need to be made.

“De-marketing”

The term means introducing incentives for destinations focus on attracting fewer, high-spending and low impact tourists, rather than large groups. Techniques to manage down tourist numbers include refusing licenses for new hotels, introduction of new or revised taxation arrangements, reduction in access for cruise ships, etc. Managing prices is certainly another way to reduce tourist numbers, but this can also be used to target specific types of customer groups in certain tourist seasons.

Reducing demand in peak periods

Travelling off-season can save you airfare and lodging prices — according to Cheapflights.ca, a plane ticket from Canada to Spain can be as low as $760, while the same ticket costs $1137 in Spain; restaurant and subway queue time are reduced — there are always tables open, even at the best restaurants; there will be friendlier locals and you can take much “cleaner” photos without a horde of people in the background. Officials are addressing overtourism by seeking to spread tourist arrivals over wider periods of time.

Of course, individual efforts also play a significant role. So what can YOU do?

Knowledge is power

Research, research, research! Whether it is the impact of overtourism, or searching for regional alternatives near your next destination, small acts make a difference in the livelihoods in the quality of lives of locals. Take the time to travel hidden gems of the island, check out “Parts Unknown” to others (pun intended), make your instagram post a unique one!

Support the Local Community with Your Time and Money

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Plan your own agenda and timeline. This gives you much more freedom and time to explore the streets, smaller, locally owned restaurants, local artisan shops, and invest in the community directly. The reality is, large tour groups, such as package and cruise ship tours, often spend little time, and even less money in the places they’re visiting.

Local Guides and Ethical Tour Companies over Trampling Giants

Get away from the crowd and explore destinations other than the over-touristed hotspots. Support the local economy. Get a unique experience — interact with the locals, learn about their customs, listen to their stories, and taste their local foods that others are travelling too quickly to notice. Travelling with ethical tour companies contributes to a sustainable environment, heritage sites, and tourism.

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All these measures can be taken to achieve a balance between the optimal tourist experience and a commensurate local benefit by considering transport, mobility, the preservation of public spaces, the local economy and housing, and other aspects of daily life. Making local voices heard and considering appeals from city movements, officials can have a better idea of how their residents are affected by overtourism and take subsequent measures to resolve the problem. Research, planning, and a close and ongoing dialogue between city administrators, the tourism industry, civil society groups and local residents are essential to lessen the impact and reduce the occurrence of overtourism.

Key takeaway: So, what do you have to do before your next trip?

Plan before your next trip to avoid a big rip.

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