Overtourism Q and As

Film still of sign saying 'tourist invasion go home' hanging on balcony railings
Film still: 'tourist invasion go home'
What is overtourism? In short, overtourism occurs when there are too many visitors to a particular destination. ‘Too many’ is subjective, 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.

And it is the backlash from local residents that has made overtourism news. Cities such as Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik, and places once thought of as remote such as Iceland and Skye have suffered firsthand, and the protests spread. There were marches in the streets, graffiti saying “Tourist go home”, and in some cases local authorities responded by increasing fees, refusing to issue permits for more tourist-focused businesses in city centres, and even closing entire islands to visitors.

There has been decades of virtually uncontrolled growth, and it has crossed a threshold: in many destinations, tourism now demonstrably creates more problems than benefits in many destinations.

Why did you make this film? Our mission as an activist travel company is to help create a more caring tourism industry. We made the film to give a voice to local residents to talk about how they feel about tourism. For decades they've been voiceless, and their opinions have been ignored or suppressed.

Tourism has been widely regarded as a pastime or benign activity which makes tourists and local people happy. The film challenges this belief and the concept that endless growth is possible. Until now, it's been regarded as heresy in the industry and in many governments to discuss either of these things.

What do you hope to achieve with it? Through giving local residents a voice we hope to change the nature of the dialogue about tourism over the past 50 years. Our holidays take place in somebody else's home, and that's not been widely understood by tourists, governments or the industry. We've provided three sets of advice for three different groups.

  • For tourists:
    We've provided some travel tips.

  • For governments and destination managers:
    We've provided a rundown of a range of tools available to them. The solutions will be different in every destination.

  • For local residents:
    For residents who want to raise concerns about tourism and join the campaigns across the world we've created a residents' tool kit.

Are there certain sectors of the industry that are the culprits? And are they intrinsically 'bad'? The cruise industry creates large number of visitors in very short timeframes - this is a recipe for overtourism. They also spend far less money in local communities than other types of tourists because they sleep and often eat on board. So it's the maximum disruption with the least local benefit.

Criticism of Airbnb has been very widespread, mainly because it causes the reduction of housing stock for local residents, which pushes up prices and forces out locals, but also because some governments feel that they haven't been supportive in ensuring the collection of taxes. Paris is suing Airbnb, while other cities are strictly regulating it. It's worth noting that there are many other very large flat and home sharing businesses that are escaping the same attention as Airbnb.

What's worrying is if Barcelona and Paris are finding it hard to fight and regulate Airbnb what chance does a small community, perhaps in a developing country with weak local government, stand with 1,000 homes and 200 Airbnb accommodations? The effect can be just as serious there.

As a travel company aren’t you adding to the problem? We try very hard not to, but we cannot claim that there are not situations (or periods of time) where we don't. Since 2001 our business has been based around ensuring tourism creates better places to live and to visit (responsible tourism) by maximising the benefits of tourism and reducing its negative impacts.

Many of our tours visit off-the-beaten-track destinations. For every overtourism destination there are 1,000s that would welcome more responsible tourists to create jobs and livelihoods and help fund local infrastructure, conservation or address poverty.

Of course people will want to see some of the world's most special and famous places - we understand that and some feature in our tours. We'd welcome tougher government regulation on tourism everywhere in the world, but particularly in these places.

In this case we try to visit them in different ways, staying in locally owned accommodation rather than chain hotels, using local guides to provide tips on how to avoid the crowds, and also on how to reduce impacts on local lives and places.

In addition to a visit to this famous hotspot our tours often incorporate rural or lesser known places nearby that would welcome more responsible tourism. Introducing new places to diversify tourism is one of the key things that is needed to combat overtourism.

However ANY level of tourism will have an impact on local people, wildlife and cultural heritage. To eliminate it we'd need to stop visiting all together. In a very few places (strict National Reserves, some ceremonies, sacred sites, etc) tourism is off limits.

There might be many others places where this might be desirable, but there are other competing interests and issues. Local people often welcome and depend on tourism for jobs and livelihoods. National Parks, museums and cultural heritage attractions generally lack sufficient funding to survive without tourism incomes. Infrastructure that is funded by tourism supports local people as well as tourists.

The trick is to get the right numbers and types of tourists in the right places at the right times. We must all, including our business, get much better at this.

How useful is it to assign blame or how realistic is it to expect these large scale businesses to effectively be expected to downsize? Businesses won’t voluntarily downsize, but it’s governments’ responsibility to protect its citizens and heritage from multinational tourism giants hell bent on profits at any cost, and they have the power to do this.

Tourists also have the power to choose how and where they spend their money. We’ve seen some giants, like Seaworld, brought down by changing consumer opinions around what is or is not responsible tourism.

Surely it makes no difference how much 'better planning' is done - ultimately the colossal increase in the number of travellers is like a freight train - out of the control of destinations - how can we really control it? Better planning and regulation of tourism can significantly reduce its impacts. For example, until a few months ago Dubrovnik did not license or control how many cruise ships could arrive on any given day, so some days there were none and others a great many. That’s easy to fix.

However, no matter how good the planning, every destination has its limits. The tourism industry, and even the UN World Tourism Organisation, hates that idea because the financial markets and investors want limitless growth. As David Attenborough said "the only people who think endless growth is possible on a finite planet are either mad or accountants".

We can control this but only if governments take responsibility for it. There are many ways to reduce growth and establish new destinations. The thinking behind de-marketing in tourism to reduce numbers in problem areas was first established in 1960.

There hasn’t been the political will to do it, and of course industries will fight against any form of regulation or control - and the tourism industry is very powerful with vested interests in protecting the status quo (unregulated growth with little or no responsibility).

Read more about possible overtourism solutions.

Who are you, as a travel company, to tell people not to visit places? It’s important to say that we’re not anti-travel. We’re a travel company, and we see great benefit to tourists and local people and places from responsible travel. On a personal level we too all love to travel.

But we see travel as a privilege and one that comes with responsibility. We think travel can either have very positive impacts or very bad ones, we prefer to encourage the former. We’d like to see more responsible travel, less irresponsible travel.

Over the past 17 years we’ve had extraordinary customer reviews, with an average score of 4.5/5 and very few customer complaints. Guests like the authenticity and real life experiences that come with responsible travel.

Responsible tourism is all very well in theory, but in practice if your business or this style of travel was truly adopted by the masses then wouldn't we just end up with the same problems faced by large-scale tourism right now? More and more places would become overrun. Is your vision merely an ideal? The principles of responsible tourism apply to all businesses large and small. There are good examples of sustainability practices in some large businesses in all sectors, including tourism. So yes, it’s important that approaches to more responsible tourism are adopted by the masses and we can see that happening.

However, some places in the world can accommodate very large numbers of tourists because they have the right infrastructure - Disneyland is a good example. London and New York and some beach resorts are others. It’s really helpful to accommodate lots of tourists in there.

There are other places that are more fragile – perhaps a small town, National Park, or museum – and these can accommodate fewer tourists.

In rural Europe we have a problem with communities, cultures and ways of life dying as there are no jobs for young people who are forced to move to the cities. These places would be of great interest for some tourists, but make no bucket list or top 10 in the media.

There are many other places, like large parts of Africa with high levels of poverty, that see no tourists at all but have the potential and need for them.

So, we need the right tourists in the right places managed in the right ways.

So are you really saying it's possible to disseminate visitors widely enough to still meet a consumer need/market while not exhausting resources/cultures/landscapes/local people? We’ve made little or no effort to do this to date and the potential to do this is enormous.

However, there is another issue we must discuss and that’s global warming, carbon emissions and aviation. Tourism’s contribution to CO2 emissions has been revealed to be much greater than previously thought.

There is no political will to control the growth of aviation, based on the fact that the public don't support the idea of much more expensive flights.

Given this, as Responsible Travel we see electric planes as the best chance for the future, but many will argue they will come too late. We'd like to see some of the £3bn raised from air passenger duty in the UK being used to fund R&D in electric aviation technology.

What about the issue of the locals and livelihoods? Many residents are genuinely afraid of what closures or caps will do to their incomes. When tourism gets totally out of control and places become very badly environmentally damaged then in some rare cases they are temporarily or permanently closed to tourists. This is to avoid their destruction, from which nobody – especially local people – will benefit. With greater awareness of the principles of responsible tourism this situation could have been avoided.

Our film, Crowded Out, shows how people in many destinations are against too much tourism, and feel that they have little or no control over it. The second in our series, provisionally titled 'On Our Terms' will show an African community that is very much in favour of responsible tourism and in full control of it.

A lot of what you suggest seems to imply that tourists should expect having to pay more for their holidays or flights... what about egalitarian travel? Is it right that every taxpaying household in the world effectively subsidises the aviation industry - kerosene in one of the only untaxed fuels in the world - when we don’t subsidise other industries and there are many other pressing needs (health for example)?

It seems there is no public or political will to tax aviation fuel. That’s why we are calling for existing APD tax revenues to be used to fund R&D into electric planes.

Will that be enough to reduce emissions in timer to keep us under the 2% threshold? I don’t know, probably not.

Are big travel companies and industry players doing anything to tackle these problems? Some are doing a little, but it’s hard when their shareholders demand growth in profits and all and any cost. The solutions are much more likely to come from governments regulating and managing tourism than from business in its current guise.

That said, some investors and some large businesses are changing their mindsets on this, partly due to concerns over impending regulation, local protests or just because they care about these places and people.

Are there any examples of places that cope or manage well with overtourism? Our upcoming 'On Our Terms' film will show one. Other places with a conscious tourism strategy include Botswana, while cities such as Barcelona are listening to disgruntled locals and taking measures like banning Segway tours in the city centre, putting a moratorium on new hotels and holiday apartment licenses and forcing Airbnb to withdraw 1,000s of listings of unlicensed apartments from its website.

What advice would you give travellers to avoid overtourism?
  • Where possible try visit popular places in off season
  • Hire a local guide to advise on avoiding crowds and minimising disruption
  • Read up on local customs and ways of life - open your mind to the fact that your holiday is somebody else's home
  • Read our tips for avoiding overtourism
  • Ditch the bucket list and Tripadvisor top 10's – they’ll just take you to the same places everyone else goes – and seek out less well known places