On any day during the summer and autumn, in the last stretch of Fredrikinkatu towards the hill of the Rock Church in Helsinki, you will bump into a wall of tourists from China, Russia, Britain, Germany and the US. As tourists do all over the world, they block the street while taking photos and chatting to each other. They are just tourists enjoying themselves, oblivious to the hectic lives of the locals who can get irritated at the misbehaving tourists. That small spot in Helsinki can definitely feel overcrowded and even seem to be suffering from overtourism, at least to a local personal-space-loving Finn.
Since the internet travel site and think tank Skift came up with the term overtourism a few years ago, it has become a buzz word in destinations all over the world. The phenomenon itself, having an excessive number of visitors in a destination, causing negative impacts on local residents, economy, nature and culture, has been around for a long time. In our TOURIST project, which aims to increase sustainable tourism in Vietnam and Thailand, overtourism has also been a topic of interest.
Drivers of overtourism
What is driving overtourism then? Well, the usual suspects, of course. Social media, FOMO (fear-of-missing-out) and bucket lists as well as boasting about instagrammable destinations and hidden gems. Films and tv series, like Game of Thrones, are also making destinations popular. Urbanisation as a global megatrend has its influence. Most of us live in cities and city culture is familiar to us. Thus, we tend to flock to famous cities on our holidays as well. The lucrative deals of budget airlines and the living-like-locals lifestyle promoted by AirBnb are doing their part, too. Further, changes in consumption patterns, as the digital natives and nomads value experiences over things, add to the desire to travel.
Overtourism seems to cause negative impacts for three parties in particular. First, the local residents are suffering as overtourism is making their lives unbearable with rising costs for housing and food, turning their cities into museums. An anti-tourism sentiment is growing in destinations around the world. Second, overtourism is putting too much pressure on the local environment, on the infrastructure and the natural and cultural environment. Third, tourists feel that other tourists are ruining the visitor experience for them. When there are too many tourists packed to a destination at the same time, the other tourists are making it impossible to take good photos and to really enjoy the place as there are crowds everywhere.
To measure overtourism is very challenging. As stated above, it seems that locals in popular destinations are most critical to the increasing number of visitors. A traditional way to estimate impacts of tourism is using the concept of carrying capacity. United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has defined carrying capacity as “the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, socio-cultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction”. UNWTO partly forgets locals in its definition, but overtourism has brought back the idea of carrying capacity in destination management and development.
When locals emphasise overtourism and the negative impacts of tourism in destinations, we can say that the social carrying capacity has exceeded. When visitors emphasise overtourism, the psychological carrying capacity has exceeded. The positive in the overtourism discussion is that the debate about tourism impacts has changed from mainly environmental impacts to other fields that are important in destination management and planning.
Solutions for overtourism
With a fancy term such as overtourism, it may indeed be more interesting to talk about the issue and find solutions for it. The residents of popular cities like Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam are shouting “enough is enough”, but overtourism can also affect smaller destinations, like UNESCO World Heritage sites and small islands. Many of the destinations that are the victims of overtourism are formerly lesser-visited destinations that do not have the infrastructure to handle the crowds. Thus, they are rapidly losing a lot of their charm.
What can be done to overcome overtourism? Fodors has listed places that do not want visitors. Next year, they are, e.g. the following: Barcelona in Spain, Big Sur in California, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bali in Indonesia, and Hanoi’s Train Street in Vietnam. Some tourism authorities suggest visiting alternative destinations: Skip Barcelona and visit Bilbao, skip Vienna and visit Graz, skip Halong Bay and visit Ninh Binh instead! These destinations are said to offer similar experiences without the crowds. But is moving to alternative destinations really the only answer to cope with overtourism? Doesn’t it just spread tourism to pristine destinations?
Other suggested solutions for overtourism have been off-season travel, limiting tourist numbers and group sizes as well as visitor times spent at sites, setting quotas to visitors with ticketing systems, charging entry fees to national parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites, taxing day trippers (e.g. Venice), setting minimum prices for packages and preferring high-end tourism (e.g. Bhutan), limiting short-term rental apartments (e.g. Amsterdam, Barcelona), banning or limiting cruise liners from entering destinations, diversifying the tourist product, demarketing, closing destinations temporarily (as was done to Maya Bay in Thailand and the island of Boracay in the Philippines),introducing laws to prevent bad behaviour and issuing codes-of-conducts promoting respect for local places and people. With such an exhaustive list, there are many options for destinations to choose from.
The good thing is that many destinations, governments and tour operators are already tackling the issue of overtourism. It is important to include all tourism stakeholders in the discussions to find solutions to overtourism. With proper planning, it may be possible to manage the problem, to find a balance between the needs of the local community and the desires of the tourists.
In comes undertourism as a trend
However, there are many places in the world that would happily accept more tourists. Skift identified undertourism as a megatrend for 2019. For instance Oslo has run a marketing campaign based on rescuing tourists from main tourists cities such as Barcelona and Paris to visit the capital of Norway where museums and restaurants hardly ever are crowded.
Many places also in Finland would warmly welcome more tourists. Tourism in the Finnish countryside is highly seasonal and, to large extent, dependent on second home tourism and companies offering nature-based activities. One major challenge for tourism in the Finnish countryside is the continuous urbanisation. Many small and medium sized cities are facing a decreasing population. For instance, Hanko has lost 8 percent of its population in five years (HBL 2019). A decreasing population usually means reduced services by both public and private service providers. Tourism can be a savior in combatting the ills of a decreasing population. Domestic and international tourism can help services such as supermarkets, cafés and bus connections to survive. Destinations suffering from a very short tourism season could use undertourism as a benefit in their marketing, as was done in the “experience nothing” video by Padasjoki.
TOURIST project: The aim of the project is to create competence centres for the development of sustainable tourism and innovative financial management strategies to increase the positive impact of local tourism in Thailand and Vietnam.