It’s October! And you know what that means…
And you know what really scares me?
Poor segue aside, overtourism genuinely scares me. To me, travel done right is an almost perfect industry. People visit destinations because of their beauty and charm. The most popular travel pics on Instagram aren’t photos of polluted or overcrowded destinations, they are of pristine water, clean mountains, colorful cities. The more polluted the destinations are the less people want to visit them.
And that’s why tourism is incredibly important.
Tourism makes it in the destination’s best interest to preserve and protect. Well-preserved areas mean more tourists. More tourists mean more money. But sometimes areas get to be too popular. And no matter how destinations try to accommodate more and more tourists, there is a physical limit to how many people can fit in an area.
Cities can fill to their maximum capacity just from the local population. But when tourists arrive, cities can be pushed to their limits. Overtourism has gotten so bad in some places that locals have protested!
It is our responsibility as sustainable travelers to make sure we don’t contribute to overtourism or damaging ecosystems. Here are a few ways we can help combat overtourism.
#1 Travel During the Low Season
Every destination has a low season, even Disney World! Low seasons are the less popular times to travel, so not only are there fewer tourists, travel is generally less expensive (ka-ching!). Traveling during the low season is not only important to help destinations earn money year-round, but also ease the burden of waste management.
Let me paint you a slightly yucky picture.
Say, for example, a city’s sewage system was designed to support half a million people—the population of the city. If it’s a tourist destination that also typically receives half a million visitors each year, but they all visit the same week, the sewage system won’t be able to handle the sewage overload. Gross for you the tourist, but hazardous for the locals who rely on that now-ravaged sewage system.
However, if tourists visit at evenly distributed times throughout the year, the sewer system has less of an influx to deal with and will almost certainly be able to handle the sewage.
So not only is it better for you the traveler (less expensive travel), it’s also better for the destination and locals.
#2 Avoid Airbnb
It sounds like a bizarre solution to overtourism, but it certainly helps. Cities that are popular tourist destinations have designed specific infrastructure to support tourists. Hotels, for example, are used for one purpose and one purpose only: housing out-of-towners. Hotels organically control the influx of tourists. Once hotels are at capacity no more tourists can stay in the city.
But then came Airbnb.
Airbnb has drastically shifted the number of tourists in a given city. Tourists are starting to take over city centers causing foot traffic (and vehicle traffic!) congestion. Not only is Airbnb contributing to the influx of unsustainable tourism, it’s also displacing locals. It is estimated that in a city like Amsterdam, in the most popular neighborhoods one in six homeowners rent out to Airbnb, instead of providing housing for a local.
Overtourism refers to more than too many tourists in one area. It also refers to displacing locals. Yes, it’s a really nice idea to live like a local wherever you travel, but keep in mind if Airbnb continues to push locals out of the cities because housing is becoming scarcer and more expensive, you won’t be living like a local anymore—you’ll just be a gentrifying tourist.
#3 Be Patient
Travel, like anything else, has its trends. This year Italy, Iceland, and Ireland were all top trending destinations. And in Italy, Venice experienced a surge of tourism.
Venice is probably one of the most unique cities in the world, hence its popularity. But for a city like Venice, overtourism is a death sentence. Venice is sinking due not only to the design of the city, but because of rising water levels due to climate change. It has issues with water quality and waste management. The last thing it needs is an increase in greenhouse gases and waste.
But Venice won’t be one of the top travel destinations forever. Not only can you (and should you) wait to visit Venice during the off season, you should wait until its popularity wanes. Be patient and visit other less popular cities in the meantime. Visit Giethoorn—it is a small town just like Venice (though I would argue: cuter!). There are no cars or roads, only water. Or visit another destination on your bucket list. If Venice really is sinking, you don’t want to contribute to its destruction anyway.
Destinations are always people’s homes first and your vacation second. Don’t forget that.
Overtourism is a serious problem in our time that is only going to get worse if we don't change our travel habits. Travel is becoming cheaper and easier, not just for Americans, but also for populations gaining new middle classes like China. If we don’t do our part to keep overtourism in check, travel will end up destroying the world, not helping it.
Now get out there and go! (But don’t contribute to overtourism.)