Tourists (and locals) at the Trevi Fountain in Rome
If there is one concept that has caught the fascination in the public debate on tourism over the last few years, it is ‘overtourism’. The issue that it describes – an excessive negative impact of visitors on a destination – was already discussed as early as the 1970s, but it seemed to had gone under the radar. Particularly after the global economic crisis, tourism was viewed as a relatively clean industry that should be allowed to grow and flourish.
Little wonder then, that, when I recently spoke to a tourism entrepreneur in Amsterdam, he wondered what the industry had done wrong. Had it not been very successful in bringing tourists to stimulate the city economy? So why was it now the city’s bogeyman? What happened?
Over the last few years increasing numbers of residents grew frustrated with tourism, particularly in European cities. Overtourism and its Spanish sister ‘Turismphobia’ were perfect conductors for these feelings of frustration. They are provocative, media friendly and ambiguous enough to mean a variety of things to different people. But what do they actually mean?
Overtourism implies that destinations are suffering from too much tourism. This can, however, easily be confused with too many tourists. However, overtourism can be particularly observed in locations where tourism grows rapidly or in places where visitors and residents compete for space.
This helps explain why there is relatively little discussion on overtourism near the City of London or the Eiffel Tower, for example; both these areas have long been on the tourist map and are relatively sparsely populated. In contrast, it is an issue in more residential neighbourhoods like Neuköln and Kreuzberg, which have more been ‘discovered’ recently. It also provides sheds light on the impact of AirBnB – residents simply cannot escape tourism anymore in their daily life. As such, unless managed carefully, management strategies aimed at spreading tourists over the city or in time may not be quite as useful as one might think.
Overtourism implies that destinations are suffering from too much tourism. This can, however, easily be confused with too many tourists.
Another difficulty with overtourism is that the term appears to describe a set negative state. Is there such a thing as better or worse overtourism? I found this out myself when I once mentioned during a presentation that other cities might suffer more from overtourism than the one I was presenting in. A man came up to me afterwards and told me the long-standing social structure of his football team was disturbed as two members of his football team were making good money from AirBnB, while his children could not get a house in the city. He did not care if it was worse elsewhere, it was bad enough as it was.
To come to solutions therefore, it may be better to go beyond overtourism and turn to more robust concepts like ‘visitor pressure’ or ‘levels of acceptable change’. While these may lack the instant appeal of overtourism, they are more useful in that they also can be used to identify potential future issues and acknowledge that overtourism is depends on perceptions in a local context rather than being related to tourism numbers alone.
Indeed, the biggest problem with overtourism may be that it frames problems as being tourism-only.
Indeed, the biggest problem with overtourism may be that it frames problems as being tourism-only. Such a simplistic perspective may work well to gain attention in media, but it makes it very difficult to come to meaningful long-term solutions. For example, in most cities the number of residents and commuters is increasing, further clogging up the already congested streets, while the rise of AirBnB can be related to real-estate speculation. To deal with issues like this, it is no longer sufficient to merely judge tourism on it contribution to a destination’s economy. Instead, to cope with overtourism cooperation between stakeholders from within and outside of tourism is needed, with an emphasis on ensuring a long-term high quality-of-life for residents and visitors.
To learn more about overtourism, its causes and potential solutions, Ko Koens and colleagues have written the academic paper: “Is Overtourism Overused? Understanding the Impact of Tourism in a City Context”, which can be downloaded for free using the following link.