Do we need to find more sustainable ways to travel?
Tourists are overrunning the world's cities and ancient sites, and locals have reached their limit. Is there a growing need for sustainable travel?
As we turned into a narrow alleyway, unwittingly carried along by another pack of cruise ship tourists, scrawled graffiti caught my eye. “Too Many Tourists” was spray painted 3 feet high on a garage door. Sucked into the throng in Venice’s old town, I couldn’t help but agree.
We passed similar sentiments in Barcelona, though this time “Tourist Go Home” was more than just a casual suggestion. The locals have had enough.
Like a spilled glass of Merlot on a white tablecloth, tourism has spread into every corner of the planet—from historic cities, dense rainforests, and picturesque villages where time has stood still for centuries, to the pristine vastness of Antarctica. The incessant growth of tourist travel is now seemingly taking its toll on wealthy, developed communities as well as previously impoverished rural outposts. We have exploited them all and, in the process, added a new word to our lexicon—overtourism. Simply put, “overtourism” is too many tourists in the same space at the same time leading to infrastructure overload (think blocked streets, overflowing public transport and in extreme cases, shortage of water or sanitation), environmental degradation, and generally negatively impacting the local community.
"Like a spilled glass of Merlot on a white tablecloth, tourism has spread into every corner of the planet"
Venice, one of Europe’s most historical, romantic, and unique cities, is in danger of drowning—not in one of its famed canals but under the sheer weight of people. Since 1980, there have been more tourists than residents in Venice and the ratio is climbing exponentially. Today, around 30 million people visit the city each year—that’s 600 visitors to every resident. As tourists arrive, so do businesses to support them. Small, local stores are being replaced by souvenir shops and fast-food joints; accommodations are converted to Airbnbs driving the cost of living here forever upwards. As locals flee the city, the vacuum is filled with yet more tourist investment and before you know it, the charm and culture of old Venice that lured us here in the first place, has been transformed and lost. It’s no wonder that The World Heritage Committee has drafted a resolution to add “Venice and its Lagoon” to its World Heritage in Danger list.
Venice is not alone. Croatian favourite Dubrovnik, brimming with history and cultural excellence, is suffering the same fate. There were 5,000 residents in 1991 but in 2017 only 1,157 people were living in the Old Town as it became overrun with tourists and businesses pandering to them. Dubrovnik is a convenient stop for cruise ships trawling the waters of the Adriatic and its popularity has grown further following the success of Game of Thrones, much of which was filmed there.
The list goes on. In 2022, the Greek island of Santorini (population 15,500) saw 686 cruise ships arrive and dump over 860,000 tourists onto this island’s tiny streets. Today, tourists jostle for space to capture that iconic sunset over a whitewashed ekklisia shot.
In Barcelona (population 1.6 million), residents have long protested as 32 million tourists invade the city annually. Since Barcelona is the largest port in the Mediterranean, it’s no wonder thousands of cruise ship tourists hit La Rambla and Sagrada Familia every day.
It’s not just wealthy European cities that are impacted either. Machu Picchu, home of Peru’s iconic Incan citadel is visited by around 1.5 million visitors each year and, although over crowding makes it tough to really appreciate the significance and majesty of the ruins, it’s the ecological damage to the site by millions of size nines tramping on narrow footpaths that is the major concern.
Cruise lines enable overtourism by ejecting thousands of tourists onto the streets of the most popular sightseeing spots. The sudden tsunami of visitors can easily overwhelm narrow streets, museums, taxis and local eateries, especially if more than one ship docks at the same time. Ever larger ships simply exacerbate the problem.
"Cruise lines enable overtourism by ejecting thousands of tourists onto the streets of the most popular sightseeing spots"
Accommodation rental platforms like Airbnb, Homestay and VRBO continually lure visitors to “become a local” by renting directly in the heart of many, already over-crowded, cities.
Social media, particularly Instagram, combined with the explosion of travel bloggers has catapulted many iconic locations and experiences onto people’s travel bucket lists fuelling overcrowding issues.
Consequences of burgeoning tourism
Visitors on shore expeditions from cruise ships stay only a few hours in each location bringing increased traffic, noise and pollution but spending little, if any, money in the local economy.
Tourists who stay a few days at least contribute to the host economy. However, the increased demand for accommodation has fuelled the rise of rental platforms like Airbnb, VRBO and others. In many of Europe’s popular major cities (Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Krakow to name a few) owners abandon long term residential leases for short term tourist rentals thus reducing available affordable accommodation for locals. Consequently, locals move out and neighbourhoods become “tourist centres”, losing the character and authenticity that made them so appealing in the first place. Everyday shops get replaced by souvenir hawkers, family-owned bakeries and restaurants are up-sized to cater for tourists who often don’t have time to spend a couple of hours savouring a traditional meal.
As more and more people squeeze into finite spaces, there simply isn’t enough of anything…people squat on paths to eat fast food, rubbish bins overflow with litter, queues snake around corners as tourists wait to buy their meal-on-the-go. With tourism comes pollution too. In 2019, Barcelona (along with Palma) earned the ignominious title of most polluted port in Europe.
Locals fighting back
Many popular locations have started to implement strategies to combat the rising tide of tourism using a combination of legislation and financial instruments. Barcelona is limiting the number of licenses for tourist accommodation as well as reducing the number of cruise ships allowed to dock. The size and number of tour groups visiting the Old Town will be limited, the tourist tax is being increased and visitors will need to pay a city entry fee. Venice has recently introduced a tourist fee to discourage day-trippers (large cruise vessels are already banned from docking in the city’s port). Amsterdam has also recently decided to ban cruise ships from docking in its city port in a bid to reduce over tourism and control pollution.
"Many popular locations have started to implement strategies to combat the rising tide of tourism "
Erosion of sensitive ancient sites is also a key concern. Authorities have limited the number of visitors to Machu Picchu to 4,500 per day; visitors must now book an entry time, have an official guide, and cannot spend more than four hours at the citadel. Hiking the ancient trails here is also limited to just a few hundred tickets per day.
Travel companies are taking note. Some (like Australia’s Intrepid Travel) have been advocating “sustainable tourism” and “responsible travel” for 30 years and there is a growing awareness of the need to change behaviour if today’s favourite locations, cultures, and environments are to remain for future generations.
Tour companies are taking the lead in developing sustainable tourism by offering small group tours to less crowded places in off peak seasons, travelling by public transport and staying in places longer to better support local businesses. Zina Bencheikh, Intrepid’s Managing Director EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) notes, “This summer’s heatwave in Europe has been another stark reminder about why off-season travel is important, and why more travelers are looking to do this. Not only can it be an economic advantage, it also helps local communities by spreading the benefits of tourism. For instance, our recently launched Mount Toubkal Winter Trek has extended the trekking season in the Atlas Mountains and has resulted in local people who rely on tourism having an income year-round, instead of just in summer months and means some don’t have to leave their villages to find other employment.” Further, “we are removing domestic flights where there is a viable alternative in our tours which has resulted in our customers taking thousands of less (sic) flights”.
On a recent visit to Kas, Türkiye, our small group of a dozen visitors enjoyed lunch at the home of a local woman. It was a wonderfully authentic affair. The money she has received from our tour company has enabled her to send her two daughters to university and she is now sponsoring two more kids to go through higher education. Tourism doing good!
More tour companies (for example “Journeys With Purpose”, “Byway”, “Audley Travel” and “Amazonas Explorer” as well as “Intrepid Travel”) are seeking “B Corporation” accreditation to demonstrate their sustainable operating credentials. Certification is gained from third party auditors and brings a level of credibility to their ethical and environmental claims. It’s a good requisite for those looking to travel ethically and sustainably.
As individual travellers, we too have a role to play and it revolves around respecting our hosts, their culture and environment. Be respectful of their culture (dress appropriately in mosques), try the local cuisine and eschew fast food chains, learn a few words of the language, don’t be afraid to use local transport and spend your pounds, dollars, or euros with local merchants. It will make for a more rewarding and authentic experience.
Those very same social media travel bloggers who encouraged us to seek out “hidden gems” also have a role to play by highlighting positive actions that give back to those communities they advocate we visit.
I hear Christmas in Dubrovnik is spectacular.
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