Introduction to Overtourism


Until the advent of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the rapid growth in international tourism over the past few decades led to the emergence of the overtourism phenomenon. The term overtourism officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018 as one of its words of the year. It is defined as:

an excessive number of visitors heading to famous locations, damaging the environment and having a detrimental impact on residents’ lives.

It is a situation where large tourist numbers start to cause tensions with the local residents and communities due to what they consider to be negative impacts on their quality of life including overcrowding, congestion, housing shortages, and changes in the retail sector. Overtourism is not necessarily about too many visitors overall, but rather too many visitors in a specific location at a certain time. This is particularly true from the local host population’s perspective in terms of their perception of overcrowdedness and a reduced quality of life. Overtourism is generally associated with the volume of visitors, visitor characteristics, time of visit, and the destination’s carrying capacity. It is rarely caused by a single issue but is instead caused by a combination of factors. These in turn cause a wide range of problems including environmental degradation, litter, congestion, and pollution.

Overtourism can occur in any type of destination, be it urban or rural in a developed or developing country. However, it tends to occur more frequently in mature urban areas rather than emerging rural destinations. Between 75 and 80 percent of all tourism takes place in cities according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (UNWTO Webinar “Agenda 2030 and SDGs in times of COVID-19: the chance to true recovery”—Tourism for SDGs 2020). Cities tend have good access by air, rail, road, and/or sea. Furthermore, they usually offer a wide range of easily accessible attractions. Overtourism occurs when the ratio between tourists and locals reaches a pinch point and the destination becomes saturated. Basically, the destination becomes too popular for its own good or a victim of its own success. The negative impacts of overtourism may in turn lead to the destination going into decline as the quality of the visitor experience deteriorates.

Overtourism Definitions

Dr. Claudio Milano describes “overtourism as a complex journey between economic gain, sociocultural preservation and responsible futures” (Milano 2017). Essentially, overtourism results from a combination of a rapid evolution in visitor numbers based on unsustainable destination management practices and policies as well as greed among individuals and organizations benefitting financially from increased visitor volumes. This in turn creates “tourism phobia” in local communities who consider that “their” urban spaces have been compromised by visitors and the related infrastructure and services, diminishing the overall quality of life and causing anxiety. The root causes of this “tourism phobia” include the lost sense of belonging, decreasing local people’s purchasing power, and unaffordable real estate, which can result in an antagonistic divide between hosts and visitors. He considers overtourism to be a direct result of the growing evolution of unsustainable mass tourism practices.

According to Richard Crasta:

Global mass tourism was and is often hailed and justified by those for whom it is a money-spinner, foreign exchange earner, an engine of livelihood, or a raison d’être: hotel owners, travel industry workers, and operators of tourist attractions, government tourism departments whose existence and expansion depends on the number of tourists arrivals, capitalists who own the resources, the prime real estate (that will shoot up in value) and sometimes the cultural artefacts and stolen art or poached animal skins and horns that are sold to tourists in return for universally acceptable hard cash they can divert to their offshore tax havens or the on-shore properties registered under the names of maids and cats. (Crasta 2019, p. 127)

The EU Tran Committee research “Overtourism: impact and possible policy responses” defines that: “overtourism describes the situation in which the impact of tourism, at certain times and in certain locations, exceeds the physical, ecological, social, economic, psychological, and/or political capacity thresholds.” (Peeters, et al. 2018, p. 15) The report goes on to describe how the travel trade considers overcrowding to be an issue that potentially constrains future growth, when in reality overtourism can pose an existential risk in more fragile cultural and natural heritage destinations. This can cause a decline in the quality of life of local residents due to increased costs of living and inflated real estate costs. Furthermore, overtourism can diminish a destination’s authenticity and result in a deterioration of its attractiveness, eventually leading to a decline in its tourism appeal. Although overtourism is most often associated with cities, smaller islands, coastal and rural destinations are often more vulnerable to the impacts of overtourism owing to their limited infrastructure. This can result in a limited capacity to cope with a large influx of visitors within a short space of time. Furthermore, destinations in peripheral areas with a small population are likely to fall victim to overtourism more quickly owing to their limited ability to service and accommodate tourists and other visitors.

Overtourism is Not a New Phenomenon

The reality is that, although, the term overtourism may be relatively recent, the phenomenon itself was recognized, at least in academic circles, as early as the mid-1980s when Jost Krippendorf’s The Holiday Makers was first published. He commented as follows:

While the mid 1970s saw a growing interest in the impact of tourism on the environment, today (1984), when travel has become a mass phenomenon unequalled in history, people are beginning to discover the human dimension and the socio-cultural problems linked with increasing leisure time and mobility. This interest should have started much earlier. Indeed, this is where it should have all begun (Krippendorf 1984, preface).

He went on to describe how:

sensitivity to the negative effects of tourist mass migration is also beginning to develop in the local population in tourist areas. There is a growing feeling of literally being overrun and squeezed out by tourists. Don’t we occasionally get the impression that local people are fed up with tourists…. (Krippendorf 1984, preface).

At the time, Krippendorf strongly encouraged destinations and policymakers to assess whether the current model and approach to tourism development and management had failed. To put The Holiday Makers into context it should be noted that there were only 318 million international tourist arrivals in 1985, which equates to around a fifth of the number recorded in 2019 by the UNWTO (UNWTO Tourism Dashboard | UNWTO 2020).

Solutions to Overtourism Key to Long-Term Sustainability

It is clearly evident that the need to take action is no longer just urgent, but crucial if the travel and tourism industry is to become sustainable and deliver long-term tangible benefits to local people at the destination level as well as a positive experience for those visiting. It is encouraging to note that overtourism and sustainable tourism have finally reached the policy–agenda stage with governments and multilateral agencies recognizing the scale of the issue. For example, the EU Tran Committee research study suggests that the most relevant indicators of overtourism are as follows (Peeters, et al. 2018):

Tourism density (bednights per km2) and intensity (bednights per resident);

The share of Airbnb capacity of the combined Airbnb and bed capacity;

The share of tourism in regional GVA; and

Proximity to airports, cruise ports, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

According to the EU Tran Committee research study, these are considered preliminary indicators that destinations can use as a guide to establish whether they are at risk of overtourism (Peeters, et al. 2018, p. 16). However, this approach falls somewhat short as it does not take into account the impact of daytrippers, which are often considered to be a major cause of overtourism.

Dodds and Butler argue that the key to solving overtourism is to reduce tourist numbers and introduce mitigating policies such as un-promotion or de-promotion (Dodds and Butler 2019). Although this is perhaps feasible for individual destinations, it does not appear to be a realistic approach in the long term. Even in the current coronavirus pandemic environment, it seems highly likely that tourism will continue to grow long term as people will continue to view travel as an opportunity to enrich their lives, to escape, and to pursue happiness. Indeed, the travel bans and quarantines imposed in order to control the coronavirus pandemic led to significant pent-up demand as evidenced by post lockdown travel booking patterns in Europe. One of the biggest changes compared with the 1980s is that the media and a growing number of tourists are increasingly concerned about overtourism and overtraveling. Hopefully, this will result in more considerate tourist behavior in the future, especially in view of the coronavirus pandemic and the associated social distancing measures that have been introduced.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) considers that:

rethinking tourism success for sustainable growth requires a number of steps to be taken in order to understand more fully the impacts that tourism has on destinations, how to better manage increased visitor numbers as well as promote more sustainable and inclusive tourism development. Addressing these and other challenges faced by the tourism industry requires an integrated, forward-looking approach to policy formulation and implementation. Governments need new analysis, data and approaches that are calibrated to the fast-changing tourism sector. Tourism policy frameworks will need to be adapted to take account of and respond to these developments (OECD Tourism Trends and Policies 2020 | en | OECD 2020, p. 26).

At the national level, coordination measures are well-developed and long-term strategies are in place in many countries to optimize tourism’s economic and social benefits, while minimizing the negative environmental impacts. The future challenge for many governments will be to ensure that any policy measures agreed upon at the national level can be consistently delivered at the regional and local levels. This will ensure that the local host communities in the regions where they are located can fully share the benefits of well-planned and managed tourism in the longer term. Tourism is of vital economic, social, and cultural importance to many countries and regions. As such governments have a key role to play in shaping tourism development in close collaboration with the local host communities and other key stakeholders.

It is important to recognize that overtourism is a complex phenomenon that can affect different types of destinations in a multitude of ways, which requires a bespoke approach in order to overcome the root causes and negative impacts. Root causes of overtourism may be due to fast expansion of the tourism sector combined with insufficient investment in tourism-related infrastructure. A rapid increase in air passenger arrivals or cruise ship calls can have significant impact on visitor flows at certain peak times in key public spaces. This may be exacerbated by technological advances such as social media coverage creating bucket list sites owing to their popularity on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and TikTok. Research by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) showed that online reviews tend to concentrate on the most famous attractions with the top five attractions in Stockholm responsible for 42 percent of Tripadvisor reviews (McKinsey & Company 2017). Furthermore, peer-to-peer platforms such as Airbnb and Tripadvisor mean that tourists are increasingly visiting predominantly residential areas in order to get an authentic “live like a local” experience. This may create a more authentic experience for the visitors, but sometimes at the cost of local residents’ privacy and in turn quality of life thereby having a negative social impact. Local residents feel intruded upon by tourists spending more time in “their” residential area.

The negative aspects of overtourism can manifest themselves in a number of different ways including environmental, economic, and sociocultural impacts. It is mainly the environmental and sociocultural impacts that have led to the increasing attention being paid to overtourism by the media, governments, local residents, and even tourists themselves in the recent past. However, the coronavirus pandemic and the absence of tourists have exposed the economic fragility of many destinations suffering from overtourism due to their overreliance on the tourism industry.

Key Takeaways

Overtourism can affect any type of destination: urban or rural, emerging or developed, but most frequently occurs in mature urban destinations.

Overtourism occurs when the ratio between visitors and locals reaches a saturation point also known as the destination’s carrying capacity.

Overtourism is a complex phenomenon leading to negative sociocultural and environmental impacts.

Overtourism is not necessarily about too many visitors overall, but rather in a specific location at a certain time.

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