What is overtourism?

Last Updated: March 21, 2019

The booming travel industry

Tourism worldwide is surging like a high-rising tide: governments and stakeholders are continuously coming up with ideas to attract more and more tourists, from investments into infrastructure and sightseeing spots, to countless clever marketing schemes. Over the past decade, 1 in 5 of all jobs created across the world were in Travel & Tourism, and in 2017, the sector’s GDP growth of 4.6% outpaced the global economy for the seventh consecutive year, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s annual report on the economic impact of Travel & Tourism. It created over 300 million jobs and was shown to account for 10.4% of the total global GDP! The total contribution was estimated to be more than 8.3 trillion US dollars and expected to rise to about 12.45 trillion in 2028. [1]

The number of global tourists over the past 70 years increased more than 40 times and if we adjust for the population growth that has almost tripled since the 50s (right before the commercial jet age started), we get a net increase of 13 times more. Visitor exports and foreign spending reached new records, every tourist generates around 1,000 US dollars on average per trip. So, for many countries, this sector is a major driving force for local economy, business and infrastructure development.[2] But how long this dynamic wave of economic development and prosperity can be sustained?

It is no surprise that tourism has rapidly grown in the past few decades, reaching new soaring heights. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), by 2017, international destinations were drawing over 1.3 billion visitors annually and this figure is expected to rise to a staggering 1.8 billion in less than 14 years! In that same year, the top five destinations, in order of popularity, were France, Spain, the United States, China and Italy. [3]

An unintended consequence: Overtourism

Masses of visitors each year surge into popular cities like Rome, Venice and Amsterdam. As a result, local communities feel overwhelmed and countries are struggling to accommodate for the demand. [5]

A wave of anti-tourism protests and campaigners in Barcelona attacked and slashed the tyres of an open-top bus tour [4], and images of displeased and angry locals, paint-spraying the walls of buildings in Spain with furious slogans like “Tourists Go Home” and “Tourism=Occupation Force” have been circulating the internet.

In more recent developments in Japan —which saw an outstanding 28.7 million tourist last year [6]— tourist spots made the counter-intuitive decision to ban tourists. A growing number of sites, ranging from temples to restaurants, have started to intentionally ban non-Japanese visitors, attributing the decision partially to behavioural and cultural differences.

This has not been the first time Japan has faced an issue with tourists, last year the residents and business owners in Kyoto have combined forces to form the “Scenery Preservation” Committee, which is tasked with combatting issues brought on by the tourism industry. [8]

A spokesperson from the Japan National Tourist Office (JNTO) said in a statement to the Independent:

Whilst Japan’s promotion as a tourist destination is incredibly important, JNTO is aware of cases of ‘overtourism’ in which local residents of some tourist hotspots have been affected by a surge in the number of visitors from overseas. Japan understands the frustrations of both travellers and residents and remains committed to measures that work towards creating an environment for sustainable tourism in key areas.[7]

The origin of the word

That expression used by the JNTO spokesperson, “Overtourism”, came from Skift—an online travel news and research provider— which in 2016 coined the term to describe this troubling global phenomenon. Indeed, travel and tourism’s growth has shown no sign of slowing down. With the exponential growth of global population, and the drop in poverty levels as the average income increases, we are seeing a noticeable rise of the middle-class. This middle-class population is expected to rise further up to almost 5 billion by 2030, where most of the growth is expected to be in Asia, rendering travel accessible to everyone and no longer only a luxury of the well-situated Western countries. [9] Other reasons, of course, from things like technological changes, e.g. GPS, cheap online booking, Airbnb, social media, to low travel costs, cheap regional carriers, subsidized airline fuel and open border crossings, have revolutionized travel.

As the world moves towards two billion travellers worldwide in the next few years, are countries and their infrastructure ready for the deluge? Are the people and their cultures resilient enough? [5]

Looking at examples

For the first time Skift publicly presented their series of “deep dives into destinations” that investigate the worldwide changes happening due to democratization of global travel. They dived in to explore all the problems and solutions surrounding the problem. Iceland was of particular interest to them, because the country’s recovery of its 2008 financial crisis was mainly facilitated by the turning in this growth engine, aka. tourism. From 20 years and onwards the tourist growth in Iceland imitated a hockey curve—with inbound tourists more than 5 times the number of the resident population! [10]

This new complex construct of ‘Overtourism’ finally put a framework on the global tourism boom and looked at the potential hazards and negative consequences popular destinations around the world are subjected to.

The claim is that overtourism is harming the landscape, damaging beaches, putting infrastructure under enormous strain, and pricing residents out of the property market. It is a hugely complex issue that is often oversimplified. [11] (The Conversation)

These places become overrun by tourists can lead to negative social, economic and environmental impacts. Like pollution, congestion, traffic jams, vandalism, destruction of the place’s amenity and degradation of landscapes. Studies looking at data gathered from Eurostat’s GIS, examined the tourist-ratio and the imbalance between them and the local population and looked at their relationship with the increasing anti-tourist sentiment and ‘tourist-phobia’ in certain tourist honeypot regions in Europe. 69,776 bed-nights per 1,000 inhabitants were recorded in the South Aegean Islands, 48,578 bed nights per 1,000 inhabitants in Adriatic Croatia and 44,219 bed nights in the Canary Islands of Spain. Such regions depend on large tourism conglomerates to contribute to their declining economies. [12]

Other coastal European cities like Venice and Dubrovnik whose national population doesn’t go over 55,000 residents, witness more than 20 million tourists a year. According to The Guardian, last year 2,000 Venetians marched through the streets in protest to rising rents and the pollution caused by huge cruise ships. [13] Often thousands of passengers are unloaded from cruise ships at a time, putting a lot of pressure on these hotspots and pose as an enormous burden. "In 2016, 529 ships called there [Dubrovnik], bringing 799,916 passengers, up from 475 in 2015 and 463 in 2014." [4]

Response to overtourism

UNWTO is calling local authorities and travel industry stakeholders to find ways for reform and manage the growth in a more sustainable manner. However, government officials are not sure what to do, considering that some places like vacation islands owe the majority of their national GPD to the travel industry.

Each time we travel, use local transport at a destination or buy products from a local market, we are contributing to a long value chain that creates jobs, provides livelihoods, empowers local communities, and ultimately brings in new opportunities for a better future. [...] “there can be no real tourism development if it damages the values and cultures of host communities, or the socioeconomic benefits generated by tourism do not trickle down to the community level. [14] (Taleb Rifai, UNWTO)

There is still a lot to discover, from all the possible aspects concerning this complex and multifaceted phenomenon, cultural, societal, developmental and economic. This fast-growing rampant industry often times causes disruption to cities and people living in it, and most importantly it poses tangible threats to natural and national treasures around the world.

Read more about the impacts of overtourism on individuals, destinations and environments, in the second part of this article.


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  11. [11] Overtourism: a growing global problem [Internet]. The Conversation. 2018. Available from: https://theconversation.com/overtourism-a-growing-global-problem-100029
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  14. [14] World Tourism Day 2014: Celebrating tourism and community development | Communications [Internet]. Media.unwto.org. 2014. Available from: http://media.unwto.org/press-release/2014-06-23/world-tourism-day-2014-celebrating-tourism-and-community-development