As an avid traveler, you’ve probably read about it - overtourism, the phenomenon of tourists overwhelming local populations, is a growing problem putting the squeeze on many cities and locations around the world.
Florence has banned eating in the streets. Amsterdam is ceasing to promote itself as a tourist destination. Maya Bay in Thailand won’t be open to visitors again till 2021. And by 2030, some experts predict there may be no local residents left at all in Venice, essentially driven out by hordes of tourists.
Even commercial tours to the Statue of Liberty in New York have been banned!
Why is this happening, and why now?
It’s a confluence of several cultural, economic and social shifts. In a nutshell, more people are travelling more than ever. Low-cost airlines continue to grow and expand, making far-flung destinations available to more people. People across the world have more disposable income, and younger generations value experiences more than things.
And lastly, the “i” word: Instagram. How many people gazing at gorgeous, exotic destinations popped up in your feed today? Envious much?
Sandra and I are certainly no strangers to this trend! We’re a part of the equation. Guilty as charged. But we want to expand the discussion to make the situation better. Travelling is an experience that should be available to everyone, but the time for more thoughtful, sustainable travel is NOW.
What can you do to combat overtourism…. as a tourist? Are you supposed to just sit at home and NOT book flights (the horror!... well, if you can, take the train, it’s better for the environment!).
We’ve compiled a few tips for you below.
1) Just be a decent human being.
Believe it or not, Thailand / Italy / Peru / insert-location-here wasn’t originally built for you or your family’s sole amusement! Always remember you are a guest, and that your destination is first and foremost other people’s home turf. Be aware and respectful of people around you. Don’t stop traffic, foot or otherwise, to get the perfect photo. Don’t publicly demonstrate how much of “Sweet Caroline” you and your friends can remember after five pitchers of margaritas. Don’t miss the trash can when you chuck away your gelato cup, or better yet, bring reusable food containers. And most of all, be kind and friendly to locals. It’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
2. Cool it with the selfie stick!
Remember, you travel to see new places, not the end of a metal pole! I swear some tourists I encounter have probably seen less than 50% of their destination outside of their phone screen! I truly believe the battle to get the perfect selfie RIGHT in front of Monument X is creating a whole bunch of unnecessary anxiety and tension in already teeming, crowded spaces.
Let’s all take a breath, my fellow travelers. This is NOT what travel is about. Stop worrying about Instagram. Not having that photo with your face in front of the Brandenburg Gate doesn’t mean you were never there. The more you obsess over your camera, the less you actually see. Challenge yourself to put the metal pole away now and then and remember to take in more of your destination with your own eyes. You might just become a more relaxed human on your trip, and so will the people around you. And maybe that will make us all more respectful tourists.
3. Support small, local businesses
Sure, you could go have brunch at the place pumping out nntz nntz nntz across a chaotic sea of tables on the terrace. And yes, maybe Yelp says they serve a Bloody Mary with an entire deep-fried-Cornish-hen-wrapped-in-prosciutto garnish that you just HAVE to HAVE if you’re in City X (clearly I’m referencing the U.S.), but listen to me…. you can do better than that, I promise. You just have to work a little harder.
Do your research before you go. Compare your sources - look at MANY travel guides, websites and blogs. And then just wander the streets. Talk to locals. Find the hidden gems, the mom-and-pop businesses that may be less flashy or less trendy but have real heart and soul. When you support small, local businesses, you get out of the crowded, messy areas and you support the lifeblood and the spark of the communities you visit. And your reward is a truly unique experience of the local culture.
4. Take a stroll through the quieter neighborhoods.
If your trip itinerary consists ONLY of main tourist sites, you’re cheating yourself and contributing to the overcrowding issue. First, try and hit those sites at off-times, ideally in off-seasons. A quiet Piazza San Marco in Venice? Try just after sunrise in the winter months. A calmer Blue Lagoon in Malta? Take a late afternoon boat at the end of May and relax by those vivid blue waters into the evening.
After you check those places off your list, go for a wander. Stay in accommodations a little outside of the city center. You’d be surprised at what you find, and how it enriches your experience of a new place. Most important, it helps take the pressure off the main crowded tourist sites. But always remember our mantra: be a decent human being and remember that you might be a tourist in a place where there aren’t many.
One of our recent discoveries in Paris: staying in the 20th arrondissement, we accidentally wandered into the Campagne à Paris, a quiet slice of the French countryside within city limits. We met a friendly local resident on the street who told us all about the history of the area, and walked away gobsmacked yet again with the diversity and variety of this beautiful city.
5. Spread out. The world is a pretty big place.
And we’re just tiny little specks within it. I recently downloaded a new phone app and input every place I’d ever been. Twenty-five countries later, many of them common European destinations, I discovered I’ve only touched 12.8% of the globe! It’s a great reminder that there’s plenty of room to spread out!
Discovering roads less traveled is no longer just a novelty, but a crucial rescue for the Amsterdams and Barcelonas of the world. When you spread your footfall and your business to regions that could use it more than Tokyo or New York, you’re pumping new cash into economies that might need it, and lightening the load for places cursed by the cruise ship. Let’s be clear - this strategy comes with its own complexities, with pros and potential cons that we can’t adequately address in this small space (perhaps another post). But if you travel as a respectful tourist no matter where you go, you’ll be a good ambassador for tourism and reap all the benefits of seeing this big, wide and incredibly diverse world.
What other tips and ideas do you have to combat overtourism? Have you discovered any exciting alternatives to well-known places? Tell us in the comments section below!