More than 125,000 people visited Venice on Easter Sunday this year, presenting a small city with a big problem. Having long since shrugged off any notion of a tourist season, the Queen of the Adriatic is routinely submerged by tourists, water or both. But there are peaks within peaks, and the Easter influx worried city authorities. So, before the May Day weekend rush, they deployed a radical new weapon in the fight against overcrowding; at two key bridges leading to the city’s historic heart, metal turnstiles appeared overnight.
The barriers would be shut if crowds reached dangerous levels, and only residents carrying a Venezia Unica transport pass would be permitted entry. But the radical experiment was controversial, stoking an increasingly fraught debate taking place in Venice and elsewhere.
Each year, millions more of us are travelling, and a new word for the problem this new age of mobility creates — overtourism — reflects a heightened level of anxiety in tourism hotspots.
“I’ve been trying to get people to think about the impact of tourism for nearly 20 years without getting very far,” says Justin Francis, CEO and co-founder of British travel company Responsible Travel. “But now it’s on everyone’s lips because, after 50 years of staggering growth, the locals are taking to the streets. We’re seeing a global tourism backlash, and I think it’s a defining moment in the history of the industry.”
In Venice, that backlash has focused on the cruise ships that disgorge day-trippers into a city of narrow bridges and canals. It’s targeted successive mayors with euro signs in their eyes, and landlords who’ve driven rents skywards by putting homes on Airbnb. On Easter Sunday, opposition turned on the turnstiles. Despite being put in place to help ease overcrowding (they weren’t needed, as it turned out), their mere presence served to exacerbate a feeling among residents that Venice had become a floating theme park. One activist group tried to tear them down; a protestor carried a sign with Mickey Mouse ears bearing the slogan: ‘This is not Veniceland’.
“The gates are an experiment but they also work as a publicity stunt for our mayor,” says Giovanni Di Giorgio, a member of Generazione 90, a campaign group set up in 2016. Giovanni, who’s 24 and has always lived in Venice with his parents, says that the “drastic measures” were only a sop to residents’ concerns, and not a meaningful solution to a problem that’s about more than crowds on St Mark’s Square.
“I’ve seen the ships since I was born — they used to dock right next to my house — and it seemed too much to me even as a small child,” he adds. “You can’t morally prosecute people for being tourists but I think the first sign of overtourism isn’t the crowds but when a community shrinks and closes in on itself.”
Venetians have become an endangered species; their population dwindling from a peak of 164,000 in the early 1930s to little over 50,000 today. The annual tourist population has risen to more than 30 million, meanwhile, or to a daily average of more than 80,000.
Globally, startling statistics lie behind the plight of residents in destinations as small as the Isle of Skye and as big as cities such as Barcelona. Last year, international tourist arrivals grew by 7% to 1.3 billion. The UN forecasts this figure will rise as the world’s population grows — and while emerging economies continue to become travelling ones. In China, the number of overseas trips made by residents rocketed from 10.5 million in 2000 to 145 million last year. The UN predicts this will rise to more than 400 million by 2030, a quarter of the current global total.
Moreover, whole generations of the newly mobile, in China and beyond, tend to seek out the same destinations. “I think what governs the industry right now is the TripAdvisor top 10, the listicle and Instagram,” Justin Francis says. While for many of us, heaving crowds are a deterrent, that aversion evidently doesn’t apply to everyone else. “I last went to Prague in 1988 and decided I wasn’t going back because there were already too many visitors,” says Harold Goodwin, emeritus professor and director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University. “But most of us just get used to places getting more and more crowded.”
The results can be direct and physical. Millions of feet per year do the kind of damage to attractions such as Machu Picchu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia that it takes the elements centuries to inflict. But after decades of assumptions about the positive economic and employment benefits of tourism, the balance is tipping in many places — and the effects are often more complex.
Skift, a US-based travel media company, published a report on overtourism in 2016. In its foreword, Skift’s CEO Rafat Ali said that overtourism ‘represents a potential hazard to popular destinations worldwide, as the dynamic forces that power tourism often inflict unavoidable negative consequences if not managed well’. He added: ‘In some countries, this can lead to a decline in tourism, as a sustainable framework is never put into place for coping with the economic, environmental, and sociocultural effects of tourism. The impact on local residents cannot be understated either.’
Venice’s economy has come to depend on tourism, making the situation here harder to manage as visitor numbers have grown. But the long-term effects of that short-term approach are being felt by people like Di Giorgio. As well as the depressing results of the population flight from Venice, life for those who remain has become harder. Historic houses have slowly been converted into hotels. And the rising popularity of holiday letting companies such as Airbnb has created a new class of landlord who buy up properties purely to service the new market, contributing little to the city in taxes. The result is that residents have been priced out of their city. “All my friends leave or live with their parents because there is no other option,” Di Giorgio says.
A comparable effect is affecting more remote destinations. For example, in June, a Channel 4 News report discovered there were 550 Airbnb listings on Skye, an island in western Scotland with fewer than 5,000 households. The reason for this is that landlords can make more money from short-term lets than they can from renting to locals. Unfortunately, this has led to a social housing shortage on the island.
The mushrooming of available beds in the sharing economy has been a boon to destinations seeking a lift in tourism numbers — building hotels is a slow, costly and risky business by comparison — but in many other places, authorities are being asked to put the brakes on the Airbnb bandwagon. In some areas with large numbers of Airbnb rentals, residents have also complained of antisocial behaviour, while in Iceland, a law was passed in June 2016 limiting the number of days a person can rent out their property on Airbnb to 90 a year; any more and they require a licence from the state. Similar restrictions now operate in Barcelona and Amsterdam.
Andrew Sheivachman, Skift’s business travel editor and the author of its overtourism report, says Airbnb has, to some extent, become an industry whipping boy. He points out that the company does not control the budget airlines or the tourism board marketing budgets that bring travellers into destinations in the first place. Airbnb, meanwhile, says it is increasingly working with destination authorities to promote a more sustainable approach.
Putting up turnstiles and restricting home rentals are just two of the solutions tried so far. Elsewhere, more extreme measures have been adopted. For example, this June, Thai authorities closed down an entire beach for four months to let it recover from overtourism. Maya Bay, on the island of Koh Phi Phi Leh, had become so overrun since Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2000 film The Beach made it famous that its ecosystem — particularly its coral reef — was on the brink. When the bay reopens, there will be a cap of 2,000 tourists a day (half the current number) and boats will be banned from dropping anchor there.
But even a temporary ban on visitors would sink an economy like Venice’s, so dependent has it become on one of the biggest threats to its future. In Amsterdam, as well as restricting home rentals, political parties in the city announced plans in May to stop cruise ships mooring in the centre. They also revealed a proposal to raise tourist tax (on accommodation) from 4% to 7%. The city has already cracked down on antisocial behaviour — for example, imposing fines for singing in the street and banning that stag trip staple the beer bike.
Other attractions have imposed higher entry fees in an attempt to deter tourists. At a national level, emerging destinations Botswana and Bhutan have gone for a high-value, low-volume approach, targeting fewer, bigger-spending tourists. “But should we feel uncomfortable that travel should just be for the rich again?” Justin Francis asks.
Authorities in Venice have rejected this approach, insisting cities must be free to visit, but it is considering a ticketing scheme for St Mark’s Square. Many destinations are also working to tackle the herd mentality of tourists, and the easy temptation among destinations to promote the biggest attractions. “Venice should say, ‘I know you want to visit St Mark’s Square, but look at all these amazing places you can see,’” Giovanni says. “You can explore the islands, which are really cool and part of the larger identity of the city.”
In Iceland, where visitor numbers have exploded in the past decade — exceeding two million last year — tourist authorities have begun a campaign to market areas beyond the crowded capital, Reykjavik.
Tourists tend to act like moths to the flame of the most famous, most Instagrammable destinations and attractions, but they have an individual responsibility to resist this impulse. “The top-10 thing is partly driven by our fear of missing out but we should be less fearful, because ignoring the obvious can often lead to the most magical experiences,” says Francis, who also suggests travelling out of season, wherever possible.
But even where tourists and the custodians of destinations are able take steps to ease the problem, it can be hard to see a solution in a rapidly expanding world, and within an industry that can express some of the worst excesses — as well as best opportunities — of the free market. Sheivachman believes only the next global economic downturn will bring meaningful restraint, just as it did in 2008. “Are the places that have taken all this money from tourism going to push hard to market to them and bring them back?” he wonders.
“It would help if short-haul aviation were more expensive but it wouldn’t take the problem away,” adds Goodwin. “You can try to control accommodation, but I’ve thought long and hard, and while there are things you can do to manage the problem, and make it marginally better, can you take overtourism away? I think you probably can’t.”
In Venice, a dwindling population of residents are waiting to find out. “We must hope something will change,” Giovanni says.
Five hotspots of overtourism
The historic Italian city, precariously built in a sinking lagoon, attracts around 30 million visitors a year but is routinely choked with tourists, while residents have been forced out by rising housing costs.
Professionally run home rentals are pushing up rents in the city. In a bid to root out unlicensed properties, an enlarged team of inspectors has been given greater access to data related to Airbnb listings.
Maya Bay, Thailand
The beach became a Thai tourist hotspot after it appeared in the 2000 film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This year, Thai authorities shut it down temporarily and announced plans to limit visitor numbers.
Tourism has been a big part of Iceland’s recovery from its 2008 financial crisis, but soaring visitor numbers have put increasing pressure on Reykjavik’s transport infrastructure and healthcare system.
Machu Picchu, Peru
The ‘lost city’ of the Incas is a global overtourism case study. As of last year, visitors have to buy tickets (for either a morning or an afternoon time slot) and can only explore the site with a licensed guide.
Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)