While everyone has heard horror stories of overcrowded destinations, hostile locals, and lining up for hours for a glimpse of a tourist attraction, travel advisors are still faced with requests to visit the world’s most popular places. They have a dilemma: Do they make the booking or risk losing the business by recommending alternatives?
Overtourism, the result of having too many visitors show up to a place at the same time, is becoming such a problem for popular destinations that both the United Nations and the European Union have recently issued guidelines to reduce tourist overcrowding.
Cheaper international airfares, the growth of the cruise market, and the emergence of cheap accommodation options such as Airbnb are fueling the overtourism phenomenon. Europe, in particular but not exclusively, is feeling the effects, with cities such as Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Venice struggling to cope with the huge influx of visitors.
The situation is likely to get much worse, with the number of international travelers predicted to grow to more than 1.8 billion by 2030, an increase of more than three per cent a year since 2010, according to Clare Jenkinson, senior destinations and sustainability manager for the Association of British Travel Agents.
“If not managed properly, large numbers of tourists can put a strain on a destination’s infrastructure, its community and its environment,” she said. “Travel companies are increasingly aware of the impact tourism has on a community.”
Travel Advisors React
Not surprisingly, overtourism is fast becoming a bigger issue for travel advisors and their clients.
“Crowds are a fact of life and sometimes cannot be dodged, so we need to accept this as part and parcel (of the travel experience),” said Mark Chaskiel, chief executive of FBI Travel, a boutique agency in Melbourne, Australia.
Along with the situation in Venice and Barcelona, FBI Travel is increasingly hearing about overcrowding in Bali, long a popular destination for Australian tourists. It’s also becoming a problem for such far-flung destinations as Africa, Galapagos, and Iceland as well as for expedition cruises, Chaskiel noted.
Travel advisors have a key role in managing their clients’ expectations, even at times telling them not to go to certain places, he added. Other times, it’s a matter of suggesting alternatives, especially trips with different value propositions that could be activity-related or associated with nature, food or culture.
Dan Ilves, senior vice president of leisure at Los Angeles-based TravelStore, also believes overtourism should be addressed during travel planning.
“We can easily fall into a trap of just doing what the client wants, without being proactive with them — and I keep this in the forefront so they can take it into account in their planning,” he said.
Advisors at TravelStore recommend traveling in shoulder season, going to “less touristy areas,” or “balancing an itinerary for those who must get to jammed sites with others that aren’t jammed, and avoiding peak times.”
However, Ilves also noted that it’s important not to confuse congestion at certain tourist sites with overcrowded destinations.
“For example, the Vatican is always packed, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is jammed, Venice is packed in season, and Iceland suffers from a lack of hotels and too many tourists crowding the island (in season), and Japan can be crazy busy,” he said. “However, travelers will still go to Rome and Barcelona and still want to go to Iceland and Japan.”
Overtourism is a central issue for Responsible Travel, a UK-based online agency committed to “raising awareness of controversial and important issues.” On its website, the agency places blame for overtourism squarely on the travel industry, and its focus on growth “with little or no concern for the impacts.”
Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, told Skift that overtourism is a problem that stretches beyond crowded European capital cities.
“Even very tiny and less well-known places are susceptible to overtourism if tourism is not designed and operated responsibly,” he said. “A small community with limited parking and just one good restaurant can be overrun by even one coach. Taking 10 properties out of the housing stock purely for Airbnb can have an impact on availability of affordable housing for residents.”
To combat the threat, he said Responsible Travel does not include large-scale cruises on its website because “it is too high impact with too little economic benefit. We also sell no mass tourism, for the same reason.”
The latest European Union study recommends that destination management organizations and local governments soften the negative effects of overtourism by spreading out visitation, improving the capacity of infrastructure, accommodation and facilities, and targeting inappropriate visitor behavior.
Jenkinson at the Association of British Travel Agents has a similar view.
“Government departments, travel companies, NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) and the local community need to work together on a shared strategy to managing a destination, whether that’s encouraging visiting at off-peak times, promoting longer stays, distributing tourism beyond just the most popular sites,” she said.
Responsible Travel’s Francis advocates “finding unfamiliar ways to see familiar places” by sourcing knowledge from local experts. He also recommends encouraging off-season travel, which can result in a better experience for travelers.
“In Southern Europe, winter and autumn light can be magical and more bearable than the summer heat, as global warming pushes up average temperatures,” he said.
Ilves at TravelStore observes that the travel industry is already taking some steps to mitigate overtourism.
“Even tour operators like Globus and Trafalgar have been creating new itineraries that visit more off-the-beaten-path locations, so that their energies aren’t all focused on the popular destinations,” he said.
“Cruise lines are offering different types of shore excursion experiences, and more of them, so the crowds of people are dispersed, rather than hordes all going and doing the same thing.”
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Photo credit: Travel agencies have been giving their customers suggestions on where to go to avoid overtourism. Bloomberg