With two years of slow international travel under my belt, I’ve been thinking about the topic of overtourism quite a bit lately.
I have also considered my role in overtourism as a slow perpetual traveler, a travel writer, and a photographer.
It’s the travel writer’s dilemma, right? If you write about a place, are you participating in its demise because people will come? Similarly, as a photographer, if you only share carefully composed photographs to demonstrate the beauty of a place while excluding the less desirable attributes, are you contributing to a problem?
These thoughts, in part, have come as a result of witnessing the negative impacts of tourism during my travels. One example includes the rapid development and possible ecological changes in the small coastal town of Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Then, there was my surprise at how foreigners outnumbered the local people in the tiny town of Pai, Thailand. More recently, I witnessed the negative impacts of overdevelopment and plastic waste on the islands of Thailand. It is one thing to read about the impacts of tourism, but it really hits home when you witness them firsthand.
As a result of these thoughts, I took a deep dive into researching the topic of overtourism. I took on this effort mostly as a means to educate myself and work out my own feelings on how I may or may not contribute.
This article is not meant as a guide to tell the reader what they should or should not do. However, I hope it can be viewed as an opportunity for the reader to reflect on how their travel impacts the places they visit and how overtourism affects their travel experience.
Before I get into the role of content creation and photography in overtourism, I think it is vital to present some background on the issue.
What is Overtourism?
Dictionary.com defines overtourism as: “a situation in which too many tourists travel to a popular destination, causing the place to suffer negative environmental, economic, and sociocultural impacts.”
Skift, a travel news source for executives, claims to have coined the term in 2016 with an article on Iceland Tourism. Perhaps just another name for the problem of mass tourism or what others have referred to as overcrowding, “overtourism” seems to have become quite the buzzword in the media and academia sometime around 2017.
Even more recently, the term “Extractive Tourism” has been suggested, which focuses more on the exploitative nature of the tourism industry on local cultures.
There are a number of organizations attempting to address the growing issue of overtourism through education and the development of solutions. They all offer their own definitions of overtourism.
For example, The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) defines overtourism as follows:
“Overtourism is 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.”
Responsible Travel, a self-described activist travel company, uses examples to define overtourism:
“In short, overtourism occurs when there are too many visitors to a particular destination. “Too many” is a subjective term, of course, but it is defined in each destination by local residents, hosts, business owners, and tourists. When rent prices push out local tenants to make way for holiday rentals, that is overtourism. When narrow roads become jammed with tourist vehicles, that is overtourism. When wildlife is scared away, when tourists cannot view landmarks because of the crowds, when fragile environments become degraded – these are all signs of overtourism.”
In addition, The Responsible Tourism Partnership, an organization that works to support the development of responsible tourism businesses and initiatives, offers this definition:
“Overtourism describes destinations where hosts or guests, 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.”
In summary, the general themes of overtourism include:
- Overtourism is too many visitors in a particular place at a particular time.
- Overtourism is tourism that has moved beyond the limits of acceptable change in a place.
- Overtourism can adversely affect the quality of life of the local residents, culture, wildlife, and the environment, as well as the experience of the tourists themselves.
- What constitutes too many tourists is unique to each place.
What is the Impact of Overtourism?
Although much of the media coverage focuses on European destinations as overtourism hotspots, research suggests it is a global problem. A 2018 study published by the Committee on Transport and Tourism of the European Parliament identified 105 places in a state of overtourism across the world.
In addition, Responsible Travel, an activist travel company that promotes and offers “responsible travel” packages, claims that 98 places in 63 countries are affected by overtourism. They have created a world map that includes links to articles on the topic of overtourism in each place. You can access their interactive map for more examples regarding the impact of overtourism in many destinations.
Generally speaking, the impact of overtourism can be broken down into three categories: the impact on the local residents, the impact on the environment, as well as the impact on the tourist experience.
For example, overtourism can adversely affect the local residents of a place by causing dislocation as they are priced out of their homes and confront housing shortages, decreasing quality of life due to overcrowding and traffic, increasing pressure on local resources and infrastructure, creating water shortages, as well as diluting the local culture. In some cases, the depopulation of local residents can also occur as they flee the impact of overtourism.
In addition, overtourism can adversely affect the environment of a place through rampant overdevelopment, erosion or changes in the landscape, degradation of coastlines and coral reefs, impacts on wildlife, and contributing to waste disposal difficulties.
Finally, overtourism can adversely affect tourists. No one, including tourists, enjoys overcrowded spaces, traffic, or people holding up the queues at a tourist hotspot as they reposition themselves multiple times for selfies.
We also need to consider the impact of diminishing culture on the tourist. If the culture of a place becomes so diluted that it loses its identity, what is the point of visiting? If it becomes a place that is more for the tourist than it is for its local residents, isn’t it just Disneyland at that point?
Let us not forget the impact of anti-tourism on the tourist experience. Anti-tourism involves the feelings of animosity local residents direct toward tourists as a result of the negative impact on their lives. Barcelona and Venice have received a great deal of press regarding anti-tourism in recent years. However, this sentiment can be found in other European cities as well. As a tourist, there is nothing like anti-tourism protests and graffiti to make you feel welcome in the places you visit.
What are the Causes of Overtourism?
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) states that international tourism has grown from 25 million international tourists in 1950 to over 1.3 billion in 2017. Furthermore, UNWTO estimates that international tourism will continue to grow by 3.3% annually and reach 1.8 billion tourists by 2030.
So, what are the causes of this increase in international tourism over the years? How have these causes contributed to the growing problem of overtourism? A review of the literature offers the following as contributing factors:
- A growing world population. As the world’s population continues to increase so does the number of people with a desire to travel.
- Growing affluence and a rise in the middle class. In 2018, it was estimated that 50% of the world population was now considered middle class or wealthier. The middle class is expected to grow from 3.8 billion people to 5.3 billion by 2030. As wealth grows, so does access to travel and tourism.
- Advances and growth in transportation technology. Advances in aviation since the 1950s and the creation of gigantic cruise ships provide more opportunities for the growing world population to travel. It has also been suggested that the “artificially low” cost of travel due to collusion amongst airlines, cruise ships, and the government is actually the real cause of the problem. Additionally, it has been posited that cruise ships contribute to the overcrowding of some places as thousands of day-tripping tourists pack the streets while bringing very little economic benefit.
- The tourism growth mindset in government and the tourism Industry. Like any business, a tourism season is considered successful only when numbers have increased over the previous season. However, focusing on the numbers only does not take into regard the quality of the tourism experience and its impact on the destination.
- The growing popularity of informal short-term accommodations platforms, such as Airbnb and VRBO. It has been suggested that these rental platforms have caused a rise in housing prices and contributed to the displacement of locals in some cities.
- The growing influence of Social Media. As social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and tiktok grew in popularity, they created an easy way to identify and share many bucket list travel destinations across the globe. Encouraging Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) with algorithms that tap into our narcissistic tendencies as human beings, these platforms encourage the desire to convey an idealized globe-trotting lifestyle that we can then share with others. Looking to follow the crowd, social media-induced travelers flock to these “Instagrammable” locations made popular by “influencers”. The result is overcrowding of these popularized places, irresponsible risk-taking, damage to historical sites, and culturally disrespectful behavior.
Several frameworks or concepts have been offered as solutions to the problem of overtourism. The most mentioned of these concepts include Sustainable Tourism, Responsible Tourism, and Regenerative Tourism. Many competing explanations can be found to define the difference between these concepts. As such, it can get quite confusing.
From what I gather, they all move toward the same goal of sustainable tourism. However, some of the differences offered are that Sustainable Tourism applies to the tourism industry as a whole, while Responsible Tourism is a subset that focuses on what can be done by each individual actor. Regenerative Tourism takes things a step further by not just “sustaining” a place, but actually making it better through tourism. Sustainability Leaders United offers one of the better conversations I have found regarding the definition of these concepts.
Definitions aside, the first question that comes to mind when considering solutions to the problem is – Who is responsible for managing overtourism?
The Role of Government and the Travel Industry
My personal observations are that many tourists are not aware that the problem of overtourism exists. Looking for an escape from all of the trials and tribulations of life for just a little while, tourists tend to be focused on themselves and getting the most out of their hard-earned vacations. The saying “ignorance is bliss” may apply here, but how many tourists would want to travel more sustainably if they were made aware of the issue?
As a result, I feel the majority of the responsibility falls upon the government and tourist boards to educate, guide, and implement solutions. However, to manage the problem of overtourism effectively, clearly defined strategies need to be created, implemented, and enforced by local governments with the cooperation of the tourism industry and input from the local community. Fortunately, there are organizations and councils that have developed guidelines for local governments and the tourism industry to follow.
One example is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). The GSTC establishes and manages global standards for sustainable travel and tourism, known as the GSTC Criteria. According to the GSTC:
“There are two sets: Destination Criteria for public policy-makers and destination managers, and Industry Criteria for hotels and tour operators. They are the result of a worldwide effort to develop a common language about sustainability in tourism. They are arranged in four pillars: (A) Sustainable management; (B) Socioeconomic impacts; (C) Cultural impacts; and (D) Environmental impacts. Since tourism destinations each have their own culture, environment, customs, and laws, the Criteria are designed to be adapted to local conditions and supplemented by additional criteria for the specific location and activity.”
In addition, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) published a report titled “Overtourism? Understanding and Managing Urban Tourism Growth Beyond Perceptions.” The report identifies 11 strategies that include 69 measures. It also provides 12 policies for local officials and tourism boards to consider for their area’s unique challenges.
The aforementioned news source – Skift, who claims to have coined the term, offers its own framework for managing Overtourism. The framework contains suggestions such as limiting transportation, making tourism more expensive, better collaboration among stakeholders, protecting overcrowded areas, and breaking the pattern of tourism-driven gentrification.
Indeed, some governments have taken action against overtourism with the imposition of restrictions and fees. Some examples include restrictions on cruise ships, bans on short-term rental platforms, bans on selfies, banning roller suitcases, imposing and increasing tourist fees, and restricting the number of tourists at some locations.
Unfortunately, recent research titled “Overcoming overtourism: a review of failure” suggests that many efforts to mitigate overtourism have failed. Reasons cited include the lack of a clear definition of sustainable tourism, the lack of integration of tourism policies, as well as a lack of acceptance by stakeholders due to economic reasons.
The Role of Short-Term Rental Platforms
As mentioned previously, it has been suggested that short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb have generated an unsustainable influx of tourists and contributed to a housing crisis in many places.
However, in a 2022 interview with TIME Magazine, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky claims Airbnb is working to solve the problem. Chesky suggests that, “Overtourism isn’t too many people traveling the world.” Instead, he asserts, “Overtourism is too many people going to the same place at the same time.”
As such, Chesky believes the solution is to redistribute travelers to less popular places. Airbnb believes the way to do this is through its search function and by providing avenues for exploration. Instead of simply asking “Where do You Want to Go”, new ways to search for destinations including “Categories” and “I’m Flexible” are offered. The hope is that guests will be guided to identify places other than well-known and saturated tourist hotspots.
Other Airbnb initiatives to combat overtourism include partnering with local governments and organizations to address housing crises and help rural communities benefit from tourism.
You can read more about AirBnB’s plan to encourage sustainable tourism in its 2022 whitepaper titled, “How Airbnb Supports Sustainable Travel in Europe”.
The Role of the Tourist
Despite the need for government and tourist boards to take the lead on addressing overtourism, this does not diminish the responsibility that we as travelers have to participate. Of course, travelers can start by identifying and respecting guidelines put into place by each place’s governing entities.
However, it is also helpful for travelers to perform research about their intended destinations which enables cultural sensitivity. It is essential for travelers to refrain from imposing their own cultural practices on a place and to maintain an open mind about cultural differences. Prioritize experiencing new cultures over Instagram moments. Try to engage and befriend locals, learn a few words in the local language, and be genuinely curious about their way of life. Being regularly mindful of how your actions impact the places you visit can go a long way in supporting responsible tourism while enriching your own travel experience.
Other suggestions for the tourist that have been offered from various sources include considering less popular travel destinations, visiting destination hotspots during the low season, staying longer in a place and contributing to its economy, refraining from geotagging places, and being respectful in regard to your photographic pursuits.
With all of that said, it is useful to have some formal guidelines to follow that are applicable to most places. Fortunately, several resources are available to tourists that help guide them in the responsible tourism process. One such guide is the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) Responsible Travel Tips. Another is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) guide on how to be a responsible traveler.
The guides are similar in that they are both broken down into what can be done before travel, what can be done while traveling, and what can be done post-travel. Some suggestions in the guide include: utilizing sustainable accommodations and transportation, supporting local businesses, learning a few words in the native language, respectfully connecting with local people, how to be environmentally conscious, and perpetuating responsible tourism by spreading the word.
Whew! That was a lot to unpack. I hope you are still with me. If you are, remind me to buy you a coffee or a beer the next time our paths cross. Now, with all of that background information out of the way, let’s move on to discussing my interest in this topic in the first place…
The Role of the Content Creator in Overtourism
Honestly, I never took this blog very seriously. I started this blog as a place to share my travels with friends and family. It was also meant to be a creative outlet. As an image-heavy endeavor, it has been a means to improve upon and display my photography in an artistic way with a few poetic words thrown in for good measure.
As such, I tend to fill the blog with carefully composed photographs that demonstrate the beauty of a place, while excluding what I considered to be unattractive. Careful composition is a large part of the art of photography after all.
However, as small and insignificant as my little place on the internet is, I feel an increasing responsibility to accurately represent the places I visit. This is for two reasons. First, it is out of true concern for the future of the places that I visit and the world in general. The impacts of overtourism, overdevelopment, and poor waste management concern me too much to simply overlook them.
Second, as more people continue to find and read this blog, It feels a bit misleading not to provide the full picture of a place. This is especially true if they are relying on this information to make travel decisions. I am under no delusion that I am in any way an “influencer”, however, I do have the occasional reader thanking me for the inspiration I provide.
As much as I would like to believe I have little influence on the travel world, the reality is that this blog makes me a content creator. With content creation comes a certain amount of responsibility. So what can the content creator do to refrain from exacerbating the problem?
As a result of my research and observations as a traveler, I have come up with the following ideas:
- Use the platform to raise awareness about the problem of overtourism. Research it. If I experience it, write about it.
- Make an honest attempt to represent places accurately. At the very least, I can paint an accurate picture of the places I visit and not conceal the negative aspects for the sake of aesthetics. Not only is this the right thing to do, it is more useful to the reader of my content.
- Travel to and share information about less-touristed places. A common theme discussed in managing overtourism is to encourage tourism away from the over-touristed hotspots.
- Refrain from geotagging overtouristed or fragile destinations
- Be respectful and ethical with my street/travel photography. Technically, taking photos of people in public is legal in many places. However, it doesn’t mean I always should. There are many situations where asking for consent is the right thing to do. I’m not much of a selfie person. However, we should all consider how our selfie-taking endeavors may impact locals as well as fellow travelers in overcrowded spaces.
- Put the camera down and engage with locals. Although I feel the camera can often be a tool to engage more with local people, sometimes it should be left at home. Engage with locals and ask them how they feel about topics such as tourism. This can lead to more meaningful engagement with local people which, in turn, can lead to more meaningful content.
As a full-time slow traveler who typically spends 1-3 months at each place, I don’t consider myself the typical tourist. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t contribute to the problem of overtourism. Heck, the simple fact that I exist and consume makes me a part of the problem. It makes us all a part of the problem. Of course, just as ceasing to exist isn’t a practical solution, neither is ceasing to travel.
Despite the undesirable impact of travel and tourism in many places, we shouldn’t overlook that tourism is considered a substantial contributor to global economic prosperity. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), prior to the pandemic travel and tourism accounted for 1 in 5 new jobs created across the world during 2014-2019, and 10.3% of all jobs (334 million) and 10.4% of global GDP (US$ 10 trillion) in 2019.
The recent numbers have still not reached these pre-pandemic 2019 numbers, but you get the point. Considering the economic impact, it just isn’t realistic to consider substantially curtailing travel and tourism. As a result, there is a need for solutions to overtourism that enable local economies to thrive while encouraging tourism that is sustainable.
Although I believe the majority of the responsibility falls upon local governments and the tourism industry, I’ve realized that with travel writing and photography comes a certain amount of responsibility as well. At the very least, I can present a more complete and realistic picture of the places I visit. I have already started moving in this direction with my post on the Thai islands of the Andaman Sea. Furthermore, I can choose to use my platform to bring more awareness to the problem of overtourism by writing about it.
I’ve also realized that I do not always need to be artistic in my photographic pursuits. Photography can also be used as a means to document and, therefore, bring awareness to the issue of overtourism as well as other problems. In this respect, photography can be a part of the solution.
A great example of this documentary approach to photography and overtourism is the article “What Tourists Did to Paradise” by photographer Thomas Egli. His work offers a sobering view of what tourism has done to the Indonesian island of Gili Trawangan over the course of three decades. Another example is “How Tourism is Killing Barcelona – A Photo Essay” by Stephen Burgen and photographer Paola de Grenet.
Moving forward, I can offer a unique combination of both an artistic and documentary approach to the blog. If nothing else, I’ll be keeping it as real as possible.
I know this post was a bit heavy, but it was something I needed to do. If you hung out until the end, I really appreciate that. Thanks for coming along as I work out my thoughts. Of course, civil conversation on the subject is always welcome, encouraged, and appreciated. So please consider dropping some comments below.
Safe travels everyone. May our paths cross soon.