This blog post is probably going to work some people into a lather. It might ruffle a few feathers. I can see it. There a few topics in travel these days that are more controversial or touch more hot buttons – such as the rapidly expanding number of budget flights, the role of Airbnb, the rise of Asia – than overtourism. There’s a lot of friction generated at the point where hordes of visitors meet entrenched, fed-up locals. It’s built into the model.
This post will also probably not be very satisfying for people looking for solutions (maybe that’s fodder for a future post?). My purpose here wasn’t to offer up answers or sketch out the contours of that better travel future but simply, as a starting point, to set out what I think are some hard and fast realities:
Overtourism Isn’t Going Away Any Time Soon
The factors behind what feels like a sudden push of visitors to some of the world’s most beautiful places are still poorly understood but appear to be a mix of the following: rising incomes (particularly in countries with enormous numbers of potential travelers like China and India); proliferation of budget flights (making long-distance travel available to more and more people); growing popularity of cruises (which drop hundreds if not thousands of visitors on sea- and river-side towns each day in season); Airbnb (which raises the potential number of overnight stays far above the number of hotel beds in a given destination); and Instagram and other social media (which create a kind of herd-driven, bucket-list demand for travel). There are no doubt lots of other factors I’m overlooking here.
I can’t see any of these factors abating any time soon. If anything, the trends are only going to assert themselves more aggressively in the future. Consider, for a moment, just one factor: the rapid growth of disposable incomes in Asia, particularly China. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new potential travelers are tossed into the mix each year.
To glimpse the effect this can have on a destination, one need only spend a few hours walking through the uncomfortably crowded streets of the tiny, but beautiful Czech town of Český Krumlov (three hours drive south of Prague). Just a few years ago, it was rare to see even one Asian tourist here (or anywhere else in the Czech Republic, for that matter). These days, it’s nearly impossible to push through the masses of the daily-arriving Asian tour buses as you make your way the few hundred meters from the central square to the historic castle. Don’t get me wrong. This is not to place unfair blame on Asian visitors (they have as much right to travel as anyone else), but merely to illustrate the scope of the problem in one small, relatively obscure tourist town.
Overtourism is a little like global warming. We’re beyond the waiting stage. It’s already here and getting worse. The question, now, is how best to cope.
We’re All ‘Tourists’ on Planet Earth
This rapid, inexorable influx of visitors is almost always accompanied by an equally strong reaction on the part of local residents: “Why are THEY coming here?” “Why are THEY taking over our square, our café, our pub?” “Why don’t THEY just stay home?” The “they,” of course, are tourists.
It’s a natural reaction for people who were born in a place or live there or somehow it consider it to be “theirs.” This notion, though, tends to leave out one obvious, inconvenient truth: at one point or another we’re all tourists. As we travel on our own holidays, city breaks and business trips, we all find ourselves occasionally standing in someone else’s square or sitting in someone else’s pub. We all clog up someone else’s road, and we all, ultimately, depend on the goodwill of a local host to make our trip a success.
I’ve been on both sides of the divide and it’s not pleasant. Living in a city like Prague, it can be exasperating at times to avoid the masses milling around Old Town Square or blocking Charles Bridge. Last fall, though, while serving as a tour guide for a National Geographic Danube cruise, I felt it keenly from the other side too. As I led groups of 20 or so people through picturesque towns like Regensburg, Germany, or Salzburg, Austria, I could sense the heat coming off the hard stares of cruise-weary, local residents. Their eyes seemed to say simply: “go home.”
Some of those Regensburgers and Salzburgers will, no doubt, plan a getaway weekend in Prague someday, and will find themselves on the wrong side of a jaded Czech waiter, who’ll likely roll his or her eyes at the first tentative sound of an “Ein bier, bitte!” You see, it’s a vicious cycle.
If there’s any way out of this overtourism morass, surely it must begin with the realization that we are all "overtouristers" together, and linked to each other through an unspoken "traveler’s version" of the Golden Rule. I'd summarize it like this: “Treat every clueless visitor to your country with the same amount of kindness you’d expect if you ever got into a jam in their country.” For visitors, it’s even easier: “Behave like you would back home.”
Banning Something Almost Always Backfires
I instinctively dislike the idea of “banning” anything (excluding, of course, things like crimes or harming defenseless animals, etc). I’m not sure if it was Mark Twain who came up with this (probably apocryphal) quote: “There’s no greater pleasure than banning another man’s vice.” Banning certainly hits all of the pleasure buttons, but usually fails in the end.
In trying to ameliorate the excesses of overtourism, local authorities around the world have come up all kinds of well-meaning, but doomed-to-fail prohibitions that only make the original problem worse and create new problems in the process. Overtourism – in my opinion -- won’t be solved through banning.
To curb the explosive (and sometimes destructive) growth of Airbnb rentals, for example, cities and towns have considered various limitations on property owners from renting their places to short-term visitors. That’s not to say that problems associated with Airbnb rentals don’t exist or are not serious (and that there are not some sensible fixes). Airbnbs tend to drive up local housing and rental prices, create tourist ghettos and negatively affect the quality of life for neighbors of the rental property. The troubles with bans, though, is that they rarely stop people from doing something, but rather force them into finding more-creative solutions for continuing to do what they’re already doing. The Airbnb horse is already out of the barn.
An example of how a tourist “ban” in Prague can go awry came about a year ago when the city authorities here tried to clamp down on the rapid growth of Segway and e-bike tours targeted at visitors. Overnight, it seemed, the city’s streets and sidewalks had become choked with hundreds of irritating, Segway-wielding tourists. The Segways were offensive on many levels: they posed an obvious danger to pedestrians and lent the city even more of an artificial, “Disneyland” feel than it already had.
The ban was so poorly rolled out, though, that other, more legitimate modes of personal transport, like bicycles, somehow got caught up in the prohibition. Not long after, Prague City Hall moved to close off sizable parts of the historic center (including, ironically, some specially marked cycling trails) to bicyclists. As I type this, in February 2019, the legal machinations continue, but the ban has mostly been a failure. The Segway-tour operators have found ways to subvert the limitations (there’s a big Segway outfit located directly across the street from my office), while a legal cloud still hangs over commuter cycling in the center of Prague.
I don’t have easy answers for Airbnbs, Segway tours or other excesses that might arise from overtourism. I’ve found, though, that the best method for controlling any type of “undesirable” behavior is usually first to observe what people like to do and then allow them to continue doing it – but only in more constructive ways.
Demand, Not Supply, Drives the Tourism Market
This is a more-conceptual, less-obvious point, but still an important one in describing overtourism and its side effects. What I mean is that the market, the image, the reputation for any place or destination is often controlled more by the people who visit than by the destination itself. This can be a very bitter pill for residents to swallow.
People are certainly drawn to Prague, for example, by the historic beauty of the city, and for a chance to see Prague Castle and Old Town Square. But they sometimes also come for the opportunity to swig from a bright-green bottle of absinthe, buy a “KGB” fur hat or Russian nesting doll, and indulge in a sweet trdelník (chimney cake) or two, bought hot off the spit from a local vendor. That’s all fine and good, except for the fact that these last three activities would never occur to the average Czech person or resident. They have very little, if nothing at all, to do with Prague.
And more or less the same goes for a city’s or country’s histories and heroes. Jan Hus, Franz Kafka, Václav Havel? The truth is that not every visitor (with some notable exceptions, of course) actually cares about the lives of these historic Prague characters or has the capacity to absorb much about them in the course of a short visit. In the modern tourist economy, the role of historic figures is (and -- sadly -- probably must be) mainly iconic – images around which to build some entertaining legends and sell boatloads of T-shirts.
I still remember pretty clearly a conversation I had a few years ago with a Czech tour-group leader, a relatively serious woman who was well-versed in local history and determined to give visitors the real scoop – and not “that bullshit” that everyone else tells. She was angry because she’d been leading a tour on Prague's Old Town Square and relating some factual local stories when she overheard another tour leader (“some Irish guy”) standing not too far away and spinning some made-up yarns and Prague ghost stories. And, of course, the crowd was eating it up.
I could sympathize with her anger – and for the frustrations that people feel in every city and country (not just Prague) where visitors come to dominate and define a place for the rest of the world. My advice to her was to continue doing what she was doing, but on some level to try to let it go. In the modern tourist economy, it’s the visitors – and not just the residents – who usually drive the narrative.
And that’s a good place to end this first stab at understanding overtourism. If I had to sum it up in a few words, I’d say “resistance is futile." But that’s just a starting point – and not necessarily an epitaph.