Overtourism: Not Just A Quantity Issue
Have you ever caught a glimpse of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre museum in Paris?
Those mesmerising eyes follow you across the room, drawing you in with an alluring, inviting energy.
Even if you’ve never been there, just one look at the picture online and you will be mesmerised.
Now imagine trying to visit the Mona Lisa with elbows all over the place, people pushing, and dragging, where you have to stretch every sinew of your body just to barely catch a glimpse of this beautiful work of European culture.
Welcome to the world of overtourism.
Not many people realise that overtourism is actually quite a new concept.
Originally coined by Skift CEO Rafat Ali in 2016, it is defined as the dynamic forces powering tourism which often inflict unavoidable negative consequences on the economic, environmental, and socio-cultural fabric of a destination.
In plain English, overtourism can make living in a city a bit of a nightmare.
Have you ever heard of Paris syndrome? This is a psychological condition experienced almost exclusively by Japanese tourists who are disappointed when the city of lights does not live up to their romantic expectations.
Overtourism can bring about similar feelings, except it is not just tourists who feel frustrated, but locals too.
Overtourism is something which has far-reaching, longer-lasting consequences which if not managed correctly can really damage the social fabric of a city almost beyond repair.
So what is it and what can we do about it?
Overtourism: How We See It
Before we talk about overtourism in more depth, let’s first try and understand what it is, beyond technical definitions.
Dee and I see overtourism as partly a quantity issue and partly a quality issue.
Quantity as in too many tourists.
Quality as in the type of tourists but also their cultural behaviours.
Coming back to the quantity issue, quite simply there are too many tourists visiting many destinations.
What about the quality side of the equation?
Let’s take the type of tourists.
Some cities have too many stag and hen parties (bachelor & bachelorette parties for our US readers) visiting which more often than not cause too much disruption for the relatively low average spend they bring.
Put it this way; stag and hen parties don’t exactly stay in 5 star places, but often cause 5 star disruption.
Just pay a visit to your local police office at 5am on a Sunday morning.
Cultural Behaviours: The Missing Part Of The Equation?
But what is often forgotten is the importance of cultural behaviours which are a crucial part of the quality side of overtourism.
Think of how locals in London get frustrated when getting off the tube to find tourists trying to barge their way onto the train before they have had time to get off.
People in the UK are very orderly and are big fans of queues, so prefer to stand aside in an orderly manner to allow people to get off the train in a polite and structured way.
So when a tourist decides to just jump onto the train before they have gotten off, this can naturally cause a fair degree of frustration to the locals.
Dee experienced this first hand in Australia.
She was in a remote aboriginal village and decided to take some photos of the landmarks and the locals.
A few minutes later, as she was sitting in a local village restaurant, a Aboriginal local stormed into the restaurant with a visibly angry facial expression, and shouted at her, incensed that she took photos of them and their land.
Little did Dee know that for local aboriginal Australians, taking photos of them or any of their sacred Aboriginal sites is a serious taboo.
So Dee hurriedly deleted all photos and profusely apologised. She had not intended to disrespect the locals.
But disrespect them she did.
Simply by taking an innocent photo.
Think of the friction it created between Dee and the local Aborigines when she took that photo without their permission.
It all comes down to cultural behaviours. What is “normal” for Dee in her culture was anything but “normal” in the culture she visited. Now imagine if Dee had been aware of this before travelling.
These are exactly the kind of cultural do’s and don’ts we share with you in our CultureMee app. Simply put, she would not have put her foot in it. She would have had a more enjoyable travel experience and would have avoided pissing off the locals by understanding what to do and more importantly, what not to do when travelling to other cultures.
That is part of the inspiration behind CultureMee.
Overtourism: The Quantity Challenge
Coming back to the “why” of overtourism, an obvious explanation is that there are simply too many tourists coming to certain destinations.
The UNWTO indicated that global tourists are already over 1.2 billion and are forecasted to go to 1.8 billion by 2030, so the quantity side of the equation is only going to become more important to address.
So how have cities dealt with this up to now?
Simply put, most cities have tried to address the overtourism challenges by focusing primarily on the quantity side by for example reducing their tourism marketing budgets or by increasing airport taxes.
Another strategy has been to focus on dispersing tourists away from tourist hotspots, by trying to encourage other areas that are less well known or less visited.
These solutions have in many cases helped, but still only solve part of the problem.
Overtourism: The Quality Challenge
This is where the quality side of overtourism comes in.
By this we mean the types of tourists who visit and/or their cultural behaviours.
Let’s start with the types of tourists who visit. Here, it is about targeting for example tourists or tourists who spend very little. A typical example is stag and hen parties who very often:
- Stay in low budget accommodation.
- Tend to spend mainly on fast food and pubs.
- Yet cause a disproportionate amount of the disruption to other tourists and local residents.
One way of tackling this has been to increase city taxes which makes it more expensive for budget conscious tourists to visit. Another strategy has been to focus on the higher quality tourist segments who tend to spend more.
The Quality Side Of Overtourism: Cultural Behaviours Key
However, it is not only about the type of tourists, it is just as much about the cultural awareness of the tourists who visit.
If people have a better understanding of the cultural do’s and don’ts, then they will cause less friction with the locals during their visit.
We spoke earlier for example about how you should never take photos of Aborigines in Australia or how in London locals get very frustrated when tourists barge their way onto the tube before people have had a chance to get off.
These are simple but powerful examples when it comes to behaviours.
Behaviours: Prisoners of Smartphones
Unfortunately, it is not possible to prevent poor behaviour all the time, and some behaviours can be more embedded and therefore more difficult to change.
One in particular is the challenge around smartphones.
Take any major event these days, and instead of being mindfully present to take in the experience, many people have their smartphones out recording it for themselves or for social media.
Similarly, when it comes to tourism, many people are prisoners of their smartphones, like you see here in Venice:
Venice: Where We Got Engaged
This is a great example of a wonderful, historic European city experiencing overtourism, and it can be heartbreaking to see some of the tourists being stuck in their smartphones.
Who knows, maybe they were reading up on their Italian history, but this is a missed opportunity for our generation to absorb the beauty of what the local culture has to offer.
For Dee and I, Venice is more than just a historical European city. It is where we got engaged back in 2014, barely 4 months after we started going out.
I will never forget nervously trying to pull out her engagement ring to go down on one knee.
I was trying to find a quiet bridge away from the crowds. It was late at night, so I was confident of finding a quiet spot along one of the outer bridges facing the sea.
Just as I pulled out the ring, I reached the top of a bridge, and was about to bend the knee. However, at the corner of my eye I saw a group of Japanese tourists coming our way, so I decided to postpone until the next bridge.
This happened for 4 bridges in a row!
Even back in 2014 overtourism was causing heartbreak to an Irishman trying to propose to his fiance-to-be. But there is a serious point to this.
Venice is seen by many as a living symbol of the challenges of overtourism. And what is fascinating is that they have tried to deal with this through the quantity side (e.g. Introducing a tourist tax) as well as the quality side (e.g. Introducing campaigns to change people’s behaviours).
But they have clearly not yet solved the problem, as seen by the pressures faced by local fish markets or the protests by locals who feel their beloved city is turning into a theme park. Even the cruise ship industry comes into the firing line.
If you are a glass half full person (which I am), then another way of looking at it is if the ills of overtourism can be solved in Venice, then they can be solved anywhere.
But they need to be solved, otherwise historic destinations like Venice will be lost forever.
Amsterdam: A City Close To Our Heart
Focusing on the upside, Dee and I are convinced that this unexplored question of cultural behaviours offers enormous potential.
Which is why CultureMee taking part in the Booking Cares Labs represents a fantastic opportunity for us to explore together with Booking.com and Amsterdam city how changing the cultural behaviours of tourists and improving cultural awareness of locals can improve the cultural sustainability of the city.
So how could we do this in Amsterdam?
🚲 🚲 🚲 🚲 🚶 🚲 🚲 🚲 🚲
Well think of how many tourists often walk along the cycle lanes in Amsterdam.
This just drives the locals absolutely crazy, as cycling is an extremely important part of the social fabric of Amsterdammers. It’s a vital part of their daily life, and people walking along the cycle lanes can cause quite a bit of friction between the locals and tourists.
Just try it next time you’re in Amsterdam and you’ll quickly be bombarded with bike bells and passionate local people demanding you to get off the bike lane.
But it also works the other way around, in that local Dutch people could benefit from being more aware of certain aspects of their own culture which can cause friction with tourists.
Take service levels, where there is a distinct lack of emphasis on service training in some low-to-mid tier establishments. Many cultures really emphasise good service no matter what type of bar or restaurant you are, so experiencing very poor service can really cause a lot of frustration for certain cultures.
Any why does this all matter?
Because Amsterdam is a city that is very close to our heart.
I met Dee in Amsterdam.
Our daughter Rosa was born there.
CultureMee was born there.
And the profits we made from selling our apartment in Amsterdam was partly as a result of the shortage of residential property caused by a huge growth in the demand for home sharing properties (like Airbnb).
Residential Property: Short-term Pain Point
The challenge with home sharing is that on the one hand it takes supply away from residential housing and on the other hand it is taking demand away from hotels.
And hotels cannot suddenly downsize within a few years; once you have a 50 room hotel, you cannot overnight simply downsize to 25 rooms. It is a multi-year process which can be complex, costly and time-consuming.
The other challenge here is the speed of change where home-sharing is a phenomenon which happened almost over-night. With many people under pressure looking to offset the costs of mortgages, home-sharing has been crucial for many homeowners in mitigating the rising costs elsewhere, so the adoption of home-sharing has been extremely quick.
So while longer-term, the supply of property will recalibrate to having fewer hotels and more home-sharing properties, in the short-term, you have an oversupply of hotels which you can do nothing about and an undersupply of residential properties (to buy or to rent).
Which as a result drives the price of residential properties up.
In a very practical sense, this meant that in the year we sold our apartment in Amsterdam, average house prices had increased by over 20%!
To wrap this point up, in order to drive sustainable tourism, it is vital that this market recalibration in residential housing supply is carefully managed, otherwise it will just add more fuel to the fire for local people passionately protesting to keep their city theirs.
Barcelona: The Epicentre Of Overtourism
Talking about protests, imagine visiting a city to arrive to signs around the city demanding that tourists go home.
This is what tourists experienced in 2017, even to the point of masked protesters attacking and slashing the tyres of a bus full of tourists.
The team at Responsible Travel have put together a wonderfully crafted documentary called “Crowded Out: The Story of Overtourism”. This beautifully illustrates some of the challenges around overtourism in Barcelona.
This video is a great example of when overtourism goes wrong, with Barcelona, in many ways, seen as the epicentre of overtourism.
Carrick-on-Shannon: Stag and Hen Capital Of Ireland
Here in Ireland, overtourism has left its impact here too.
Take Carrick-on-Shannon in Co. Leitrim, otherwise known as the stag and hen capital of Ireland.
I should know as I spent many brilliant nights out there before we moved to Leitrim from Asia earlier this year.
Some locals have been complaining vigorously about the poor behaviour of many stag and hen parties which has even lead to what some claimed was the closure of a number of local shops. Some locals, especially elderly people, said they were too afraid to go out at night, especially at weekends.
Regardless of how you see this, it is just another example of how overtourism is something which deserves attention, and may often be closer to home than you might think.
Conclusion: No Black And White Answer
At the end of the day, dealing with overtourism is an urgent issue which should get our full attention.
If ignored, at worst it can lead to dramatic protests or significantly erode the social fabric of a city.
In short, overtourism can lead a city to lose its identity.
Lose what makes it special.
And it is not a problem that is going away anytime soon. With global tourists set to go from 1.2 billion to 1.8 billion by 2030, it is a challenge that is only going to become more urgent and more pressing.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. We have the capacity within us to proactively deal with the challenges of overtourism, be they challenges around quantity or quality. We can take measurable steps to help solve this issue.
Our cultural identity and the cultural sustainability of our cities depends on it.
In any case, wish us luck in Amsterdam, where we will be joining some of the leading overtourism innovators in the world to help do our bit to help address overtourism.
Thank you for reading.
Here are some other resources and tools on overtourism which you might find useful:
The Genesis of Overtourism: Why We Came Up With the Term and What’s Happened Since
Documentary: Barcelona and the Trials of 21st Century Overtourism
The Guardian view on overtourism: an unhealthy appetite for travel
‘Overtourism’ Is Driving Europeans Crazy
End of the bucket list: Why tourist boards are trying to change the way you travel
Overtourism Becomes a Burden for Thailand as It Breaks Visitor Records
London Uses Mobile Gaming App to Help Tackle Overtourism
Lisbon’s Overtourism Lesson: Living Like a Local Is Not Enough
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