by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, April 20, 2018
The only available dictionary definition of “overtourism” can be found on Collins. It reads, “The phenomenon of a popular destination or sight becoming overrun with tourists in an unsustainable way.” I should know. I wrote it.
The word “overtourism” is so new that it hasn’t formally entered the Oxford or Collins dictionaries, so a couple of months ago I took it upon myself to enter it as a new word suggestion. If there was a form, I’d have also submitted it for the 2018 Word of the Year.
Like recent words of the year, “youthquake”, “fake news” and “post truth”, the term “overtourism” was barely used just a couple of years ago – as shown in the Google Trends graph of searches for the term.
Of course, tourism has been taking its toll on destinations for decades just as “fake news” existed before Trump, and young people impacted elections before the so-called “youthquake” in 2017. But the emergence of a term signifies the need to talk about it meaningfully, now.
Today there are thousands of articles and reports written and entire conferences focused on addressing the issue of destinations being "loved to death". This week the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) convened in Buenos Aires and overtourism was high on the agenda, though when Telegraph Travel quizzed industry leaders on the topic there was disagreement and uncertainty on what overtourism means, and how it ought to be tackled.
So what is overtourism, why are we finally talking about it now, and what – if anything – can we do to curb it?
What is overtourism?
The first attempt to define “overtourism” was in August 2016. Rafat Ali, the CEO and founder of Skift, wrote a foreword to an article about the impact of tourism in Iceland. It was entitled " Foreword: the coming perils of overtourism".
In this, Ali wrote: "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.
"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."
Harold Goodwin of Responsible Tourism elaborates on this point, saying: “It is the opposite of responsible tourism which is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently.”
Why is overtourism happening now?
On a very basic level, there are more tourists now than ever before.
The world is getting richer, with an ever-growing middle class emerging in developing countries, and many of these people are spending their disposable income on travel. The Brookings Institute recently released data suggesting that the global middle class could currently stand at around 3.7 billion, with another 160 million set to join the group annually for the next five years.
In 2017, international tourist arrivals grew by 7% up to 1.3 billion. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) forecasts that this will continue to grow in 2018, but at a more sustainable pace of 4–5%.
There are a few factors at play here. One is the Chinese market. At the beginning of the 21st century, just 10.5m overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. In 2017, the figure was 145m – an increase of 1,380 per cent. The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI) predicts that overseas trips by the country’s residents will increase to more than 400m by 2030.
Less seismic, but notable nonetheless – there is another group that is contributing to the rise in global tourism: millennials. As a group, 22 to 37 year olds are prioritising experiences over “stuff”. So rather than buying TVs, clothes and getting a mortgage, an entire generation is more interested in spending their money on holidays.
Of course, tourism is a huge player in the global economy and a boom has its positive forces. In 2017, tourism contributed just shy of $8 trillion to the global economy – that’s 10 per cent of the world's GDP. There are around 300 million workers in the tourism and travel sector, a number that the WTTC predicts could rise to 380 million in the next ten years.
But the fact is that more and more of the world's top destinations are eliciting the symptoms of chronic overtourism: any combination of overloaded infrastructure, bottlenecks at “must-see sights”, physical damage, the alienation of locals and emergence of tourist traps.
Where are the destinations affected by overtourism?
Venice is the go-to example of a destination sinking under the weight of its own popularity – on Easter Sunday this year it received 125,000 visitors. That’s the same number of tourists that visit entire countries, like Bangladesh, annually.
But Venice is not alone. Dubrovnik, Machu Picchu, Iceland, Barcelona, Thailand have all made headlines in the last few years for taking action against the negative impact that tourism has brought.
What can be done to stop overtourism?
There is no single solution to the world's overtourism problem, not least because the problems faced at each destination are completely different.
Some believe that increasing the price of travel will curb the problem. Geoffrey Kent, CEO of Abercrombie and Kent, told Telegraph Travel: "I've always said we should charge more. Tourism should be a high yield product, not a cheap product."
Whether this manifests as higher flight or cruise tickets, tourist taxes or entry fees to destinations, the idea of increasing travel costs to curb international tourism is not a straightforward fix. In doing so we would risk retreating to a world where travel is only available for the rich, not the masses.
Tourist boards have their part to play, too. A serious option could be for them to focus on alternative destinations that would benefit from a tourism boost, simultaneously relieving the strain on the blockbuster sights. An example of this is the North Coast 500, which has brought attention to a corner of the Scottish Highlands that few international tourists previously visited.
Then there are the sharing economy websites, like Airbnb and HomeAway, who have been accused of undercutting hotels while not collecting tourist taxes (where they are required). In cities such as Barcelona, the site has been blamed for the rise in rent prices, as investors move to turn entire buildings into luxury apartments for short-term lets to international visitors.
At the WTTC Global Summit the company unveiled its Office of Healthy Tourism, an operation "committed to ensuring that as tourism becomes a larger portion of economies around the world, local people and the communities they live in are the primary beneficiaries."
We should be hopeful that this move, alongside Telegraph Travel sitting down with industry leaders at the WTTC to discuss overtourism, shows that the subject is beginning to receive the atention it deserves.
Next, it's on Oxford and Collins to crown "overtourism" as the word of the year for 2018. In doing so, they will help to put pressure on operators, tourist boards, sharing economy websites and governments to finally set in motion a sustainable future for the industry, rather than plaster over the wounds of the destinations that are being loved to death.