Are we loving the world's best destinations to death? That's the big question we're raising this week.
Unless you're a social media misanthrope, your Insta, Facebook or TikTok feed this northern hemisphere summer past would probably have been flooded with evocative photos of destinations such as Positano (or "Pozzie" as Australian travellers have inevitably nicknamed it) or the legendary sunsets of Santorini.
What the social media images of some of Europe's most-loved destinations don't show, however, are the impatient throngs lining up behind the photographer waiting to capture that same totemic shot. "Meme tourism" is a growing phenomenon, says a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with many influencers focusing on "brand building" rather than broadening their horizons. In turn, their curated feeds and carefully cropped shots inspire others to travel to those same places.
It's not just social media fuelling overtourism, of course. The explosion in the number of low-cost airlines and the growth of the short-let holiday rental industry has seen tourist journeys more than double between 2000 and 2019 - from 674 million to 1.4 billion, with predictions that by 2030 the international flow of tourists will hit 1.8 billion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). Add a post-COVID-19 return-to-travel frenzy and overtourism is at saturation point at some destinations.
The summer of love
For Europe, the world's most visited tourism destination, it's been a huge summer, with nights spent in tourism accommodation reaching a record 1.2 billion in the first half of 2023, an increase of almost 13 per cent compared to last year. Owner of the exclusive Il San Pietro Hotel and vice-president of the Confindustria Salerno, the chamber of commerce for the Amalfi coast region, Vito Cinque, says tourist numbers were as much as 30 per cent up on pre-COVID levels and the UNESCO protected region is suffering for it.
"We have roads built by the Bourbons in the 18th century [and] for mules and donkeys, [but they] now have coaches and buses bringing in thousands of people daily," he says. "Then we have the tourists who think it would be romantic to hire a Cinquecento and drive the Amalfi Coast. They get into problems and cause major traffic issues."
It's not only the road traffic at this spectacular clifftop town, where a sensor system has been set up to monitor the volume of vehicles, but as many as 15,000 people also arrive daily by sea, Cinque says.
"Ten or 15 years ago we had six ferries, now there are 45." The result is a town of 3400 with inadequate infrastructure and essential services, and a lack of parking for the number of visitors. "It's like having a dining table for 10 but inviting 30 people," Cinque says.
While tourism brings in money, according to Cinque the average visit of a day tripper lasts one hour and 10 minutes - just enough time to get that perfect shot. "They often use our terrace as a location, disturbing our guests," Cinque says of the hordes who flock to his hotel for their money shots.
"Often, they will bring bags of clothes with changes and do photo shoots. Maybe they just buy a bottle of water. When I tell them 'you have five minutes', they sometimes threaten me with bad reviews, so I tell them I don't care and I'll throw their bag over the cliff if they don't leave."
Cinque has now introduced a booking system and a minimum spend of 50 euros to deter sightseers and influencers.
The Croatian city of Dubrovnik is another destination where tourists outnumber locals, here 36 to 1. "The domicile populations in the town centres are converting their homes into B&Bs and permanently moving out, so the towns are losing their souls," says Ante Batarelo, a tour guide born in Australia of Croatian parents, who returned here in the 1990s. "Croatia has been an EU member country since 2013 and as a result over 40 per cent of property sold is bought by foreigners and prices are soaring, making it even more difficult for younger Croats to stay in urban areas."
Santorini local, artist Dimitris Kolioussis lives outside Oia, the Santorini hilltop village of cave houses, famous for its sunset views of the caldera. He once lived in a house overlooking the sea but, like many other locals, cannot afford the rent, when tourists are happy to pay 500 euros per night for the view. It's changing the face of the once quiet village, he says.
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"We counted the number of locals still in the village and it is only a few. Money has been a trap, life is much worse and we have lost the beauty and simplicity of life here," he says. "Cruise ships come and they bring 10 to 20,000 people and it paralyses everything. We cannot support the traffic or deal with the rubbish. And people come, rush around taking photos for an hour or two and leave. They are here without being here, only seeing life through the camera. It is very sad."
The quality of life of locals is being negatively impacted by the mass flow of tourists, and visitors can often feel cheated, too, when a bucket-list place fails to live up to the hype, because overtourism has increased prices, decreased availability, diluted authenticity and made navigating the destination a nightmare.
"I feel like we lie to them," Kolioussis says. "We write a lot and show beautiful photos and they come and pay a lot for this beauty. And then they find that they can't even walk outside until after sunset because of the crowds."
While some countries grapple with a solution to balancing needed tourist income and the impacts of overtourism, other destinations are already implementing strategies.
In Greece this summer, the government introduced a new timed ticketing system for the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Acropolis, and a visitor cap of 20,000 per day.
In Barcelona (pictured above), the most visited city in the second-most visited country, cruise ships were banned from docking near the city centre in October this year and are instead being redirected to a southern port from where passengers will have to be shuttled to the historic centre. The city port will be transformed in to a park. The number of ships allowed to dock at any one point has also been reduced from 10 to seven. Venice also banned big ships from anchoring in the lagoon in 2021, and looks set to finally apply the much-discussed day visitors' tax of 5 euros per person from spring 2024.
In an effort to curb numbers and give locals some respite from often bad behaviour by tourists, the Netherlands ran a digital "discouragement campaign" targeting the large groups of men aged 18 to 35 who come to "party" in Amsterdam. They are also introducing Europe's highest tourist tax next year, a move that will see accommodation cost increases of 12.5 per cent.
A different place, a different time
One option, often as part of a multi-pronged approach, is dispersion - encouraging tourists to explore beyond hotspots and often across different seasons in order to both ease overcrowding and spread the benefits of the tourist dollar.
In Amsterdam, tourists are being encouraged to visit lesser-known but equally attractive Netherlands towns. The Japan National Tourism Organisation is focusing on sustainable tourism, increasing spending rather than numbers while also encouraging inbound travellers to visit regional areas.
Indonesia is targeting and promoting five specific destinations to lure tourists away from a beleaguered Bali, while part of Tourism Authority of Thailand's 2024 policy is to disperse tourism from high season to all year and persuade visitors to think beyond places such as Pattaya or Phuket.
While stakeholders work on solutions, from regulations, promotions and education to creating new tourist infrastructure, we as travellers can start with the most basic step: forging our own path, rather than playing follow the leader. Explore has some enticing ideas here.