The world was traversed by 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals last year, a number that is only expected to rise as global economic improvement smacks into low airfare, cheap accommodations, a growing fleet of cruise ships and a connected culture that demands photos of it all.
Destinations and attractions that historically have tried to come up with ways to lure visitors are now trying to do the opposite.
The nation generating the most tourists is China - 143 million trips abroad in 2017, while France and Spain receive the most visits - more than 80 million a year.
The boom is down to a fast-expanding global middle class combined with a proliferation of budget airlines and online travel agents which have made travel cheap and easy.
“The perception of going on holiday has shifted from being pretty much a privilege to becoming very much a right,” said Marina Novelli, professor of tourism and international development at the University of Brighton.
She said for decades tourism authorities and ministries have only measured success in terms of increased visitor numbers.
“This model no longer works and that’s probably the most important message to get out there,” she said, warning that overcrowding and “Disneyfication” in some places could destroy the charms that draw tourists in the first place.
“If we look at numbers only, and we don’t look in more detail at the impact economic, social, environmental we risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Last year, a European Union report identified 105 destinations in some state of overtourism. And Responsible Travel, a UK-based travel company, put together an overtourism map that includes 98 destinations across 63 countries.
Justin Francis, CEO and co-founder of Responsible Travel, says the overtourism issue has only recently become a front-and-center issue as travel numbers continue to rise.
“Very few destinations even have tourism planning, let alone have figured out how to solve the problem,” he says.“I think it’s a crisis.”
Cities under siege
Bruges, Belgium: It is limiting the number of cruise ships that can visit and reducing some of its tourism ad campaigns.
The Taj Mahal, India: Has increased prices and set time limits on how long people can stay.
Maya Beach, Thailand: Made famous by the movie “The Beach,” closed altogether.
Venice, Italy: UNESCO has threatened to add Venice to its list of endangered heritage sites, partly because of problems with tourism.
Boracay, The Philippines: This top holiday island shut for a clean-up last year after the president raged it had become a “cesspool” and warned of an environmental disaster.
WHAT SHOULD TRAVELLERS DO?
Stay home? That’s unlikely. But if you are heading to some of the world’s most popular destinations, there are some things you can do to avoid adding to the burden.
1) Rethink your bucket list
Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, recommends doing some investigation before deciding where to go. But that might not always be simple; there’s no one place that tracks which cities are suffering from overtourism.
She said historic cities, beaches, parks and world monuments are among sites that can often be at risk. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as well as the World Monuments Fund both publish lists of at-risk sites, though tourism isn’t the only issue they cover.
The World Travel & Tourism Council recently released a review of cities’ readiness for tourism growth, which could serve as another guide.
2) Don’t go with the flow
Even if you are set on visiting an iconic site, consider going at an off-peak time. Experts say that whenever possible, zagging when everyone else zigs has perks - for you and the city.
“You’ll get to see the destination when you’re not standing with a million other people,” says Michael Edwards, managing director at tour company Intrepid Travel. “The impact on that destination is a lot less profound.”
3) Venture beyond the Top 10 list
It’s natural to want to see famous sites, and there’s only one Eiffel Tower. But visitors should be open to venturing beyond the obvious.
“If travellers focus a little bit more on deliberately experiencing their trip, maybe not being too rushed, not being too stressed by taking too many pictures or visiting the top five or 10 sites . . . then it’s good for both the visitors and the destination,” says Helena Hartlauer, a spokesperson for Vienna’s tourist board.
4) Think small
If travelers aren’t going solo, experts say they should stick to small groups rather than giant tours that might overwhelm every place they visit.
“The infrastructure required to support that experience is a lot less than travelling in a big group,” says Edwards, of Intrepid. He said visitors get more out of their trip in a smaller group because they can have more intimate interactions, spend more time in a site and get into local restaurants and shops more easily.
“Those cruise ships coming into Venice - that is purely driven by economic outcomes,” he says. “I’m sure it’s pretty amazing to float into Venice, but not when you’re getting off cruise ships with 500 other people.”
5) Seek out local guides
Residents know the ebbs and flows of a place and can show visitors around when the destination is least busy. In port cities, they can plan around the cruise ships’ schedules.
Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO of Responsible Travel - which he calls an “activist travel company,” says local guides can also help travellers prepare for the cultural norms of a city or site and communicate with other locals if language is a barrier. Finally, guides from the community can tell visitors which places will welcome out-of-towners - and which won’t.
6) Lock down your activities in advance
To help reduce overtourism, experts said, visitors should take advantage of timed reservations for every site that offers them, from churches to museums to parks. That way, heavily trafficked attractions can better manage crowds.
“Having to make advanced reservations is not really an obstacle to being able to go where they want, but actually a guarantee that when they get there, they can have a good experience,” says Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel. “I think that’s going to be, increasingly, the new normal.”