The overtourism challenge

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Killian Conyngham looks at the issue of overtourism, and what responsible tourists can do to avoid worsening it.

It’s a common sight (in a normal year at least); You arrive at a destination, and can just about make out what you are looking at over the sea of heads, or have to queue for an hour for the privilege of paying a hefty fee for admission. Once inside, you will likely be greeted with glass walls and barricades, designed to prevent the erosion and degradation of the sight. An effort you might notice often seems sadly in vain.

These are some of the effects of overtourism, and far from only affecting a few sights, they have escalated to the level of affecting entire countries. In 2017, Iceland had over 2 million visitors. Despite relying on tourism for 42% of their income from exports, the island nation of 340,000 people was simply overwhelmed by such massive numbers, amounting to over 6 tourists per person in the country. Many of the very sights of natural beauty visitors planned a holiday around seeing were damaged by this influx, with some even having to be shut down to give the land time to heal.

In fact, it was in a 2016 report by travel website Skift on Iceland’s tourism boom where the term ‘Overtourism’ was first established. Defined in the report’s foreword by Skift’s CEO Rafat Ali as “a new construct to look at potential hazards to popular destinations worldwide, as the dynamic forces that power tourism often inflict unavoidable negative consequences if not managed well”, the word caught on quickly, being put forward as the word of the year by The Telegraph in 2017.

And it’s not hard to see why. With 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals in 2018 according to the World Tourism Organization, the problem of overtourism is swiftly becoming one which affects almost every country in the world. A key issue, as pointed out in the 2016 report by Skift, is that if relatively wealthy countries such as Iceland struggle to rein in waves of tourism and the potential for the damage they bring, surely the situation promises to be even more dire for countries with far less economic resources? 

Another poster child for overtourism, which also falls into this category of having fewer economic resources at its disposal, is Thailand. With 38 million visitors in 2018, as compared to a population of almost 70 million people, it may seem like Thailand’s overtourism issue is not quite as grim as Iceland’s. But this is far from the case. These 38 million people are not spread evenly throughout the year and the country, but as in many countries, they seemingly all want to go to visit the exact same places. Ironically made famous in part by the film and book “The Beach”, which centres on tourists whose attempts to find an elusive beach paradise end in disaster, Thailand’s ‘Maya Beach’ has had to be completely shut numerous times due to the decimation of its coral ecosystem and more general environmental damages. This is a pattern seen over and over again when it comes to overtourism, whereby a previously less popular destination gets skyrocketed to notoriety through a film, TV show, social media post or even just being placed on too many ‘Top 10 must-see sights’ lists.

The problems with overtourism are not just limited to the damage done to the sites either. The crowds of tourists also often have a profound impact on the economies of the places they visit. As anyone living in Dublin can attest to, companies responding to the financial incentive of tourism money will convert buildings geared to locals into gaudy hotels, overpriced bars and tacky gift shops. And entire cities can slowly shift from catering to those who live there, to focusing more on the throngs of spendthrift tourists. This can reach new extremes, as seen in places such as Venice, where the population has declined from a peak of 163,000 in the 1930s to just over 55,000 while tourism is ever on the rise, with an average of 80,000 visitors per day. Many Venetians feel they are being crowded out of their own city, with the tourists treating Venice more akin to Disneyland than a living, breathing city where thousands of people live their lives.

the tourists treating Venice more akin to Disneyland than a living, breathing city where thousands of people live their lives.

It may seem like countries have secured themselves a year of respite from overtourism in 2020 - as it hardly seems like the prefix over - and this is reasonable when the tourism industry fell to new lows in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Far from a respite, however, 2020 has been a year when one of the worst perils of overtourism has been on clear display. Because all the sacrifices described previously; the damage to sites, reduced livability, and losses of culture, were all by and large tolerated by governments globally for one reason: the fact that tourism brings money, and money brings jobs and tax revenues. So what 2020 showed more than anything, is that all these things have been traded not for something permanent, but for fickle and impermanent tourism money, in stark contrast to the often irreparable damage done. And it’s not just international pandemics these countries now have to fear for. Tourism has always been an unpredictable industry. It can balloon or collapse based on anything from where the newest hit TV show was filmed, to economic sentiment or the often vague notion of perceived safety. 

what 2020 showed more than anything, is that all these things have been traded not for something permanent, but for fickle and impermanent tourism money

The difficult question is, of course, what can be done. In a big way, the onus here is on governments, who need to be willing to turn down the quick cash from uncontrolled tourism and focus instead on building a sustainable industry in collaboration with local communities. As individuals, we can do our own piece too. In part, of course, by supporting the movements pushing for the aforementioned change, but also by considering our impact when we find ourselves in the role of a tourist.

The most important factor here is to treat the places you visit not as colossal amusement parks, but as people’s homes. As a tourist, you should act as a guest, not a demanding consumer. Try to ditch the top 10 lists, or at the very least, opt to visit number 7, keeping in mind that these lists are as transient as the wind, and that number 7 could well be number one in a few years time, or on someone’s own personal list.

Do your own research, and try to avoid the cycles of hype which can fling destinations into the spotlight and right back out again when pictures of it no longer garner massive Instagram likes. Decide when seeing something is truly important to you, and when it is perhaps just something you feel you should have ticked off your ever-expanding to-see list.

And most of all, please leave the entitlement at home. If you arrive in Thailand with the sense you have a God-given right to see the beach from that one film you saw with Leonardo DiCaprio, you are likely to disappoint not only yourself but everyone else around you as well. It’s much more likely the beach of your dreams will be shaped by your experiences there and not whether it appeared on TV anyway.