Exploring an exciting new place and discovering a new culture is a fantastic experience – that’s why many of us revolve our lives around travelling. However, the negative effects of tourist traffic can no longer be ignored. Over-tourism occurs when too many tourists travel to one location, overwhelming it and turning what was supposed to be a positive experience into a negative one. What may have once been seen as an unequivocally beneficial boost, the mass move of tourists to Europe’s most popular destinations has become an unfeasible, unsustainable dilemma.
A serious problem affecting cities in a huge way, over-tourism shows no signs of slowing down as more and more people are branching out and travelling the world. Rising affluence means travel has become a more normalised and shared experience and cities like London, Barcelona and Amsterdam are struggling to keep up.
Technological developments have indirectly contributed to the over-tourism issue too. Innovations in the way we travel, including cheaper flights and the popularisation of cruise ships, have made travel more accessible to all, while apps like Uber and Airbnb have lowered the cost of it. Some say that the benefits of cheap home-sharing options like Airbnb are outweighed by the subsequent rising costs of residential rent in suburban and inner-city areas. Name-checked as a cause of over-tourism, lawmakers across Europe are pushing to eradicate the company’s influence on the travel industry.
Authorities in Amsterdam wish to cut the number of nights travellers can use Airbnb by 50%, since figures showed that the app accounted for 12% of all overnight bookings in 2017.Overcrowding seems like the most obvious effect of over-tourism, however there are many branching problems that it causes including litter, noise and price increases. This article will explore what happens when a city can’t handle a massive influx of tourists, what strategies can be put into place to cope with this issue and what the future looks like for Europe’s most beloved cities that are affected by over-tourism.
Is there such thing as too many tourists?
Over-tourism is a problem that many people have observed first-hand; the impact of it has many, far-reaching consequences. The base level repercussions of the issue are the abundance of souvenir shops, tour guide companies and generic street artists that pack out and take the character away from city centres. However, the overly long queues, crowding and litter are some of the more obvious, larger problems, and ones that affect tourists as well as locals.
Overcrowding creates a degraded tourist experience, in addition to the anger of residents that struggle to navigate their own city as a result. Local residents are increasingly beginning to feel alienated, and in Venice tourists are actually displacing locals: ‘in just 30 years, the city’s population was cut in half, to 55,000’. Loud noise and the changing character of small neighbourhoods is a worrying symptom of city centres having to expand to accommodate tourists.
Economic leakage is also proving an important and vital issue with locals, as the economic benefits from tourism are not always directed back into residences. Public transport issues including tourists overloading buses and trains, leaving no room for residents, and tourist prices for everyday items are the results of a government’s inability to dedicate resources to support larger tourism numbers.
Europe’s Most Visited Cities – How Are They Coping?
Amsterdam, London and Barcelona are some of the most visited cities by tourists in Europe, and they are all facing their own difficulties when it comes to the sheer number of visitors.
In Barcelona, the word ‘parquetematización’ has been coined and can be seen in graffiti form on walls in tourist hotspots. The term arose as a public protest against over-tourism, and means ‘the act of becoming like a theme park’, with long queues, souvenirs and overpriced food and drink explaining this dubbing of the city.
Barcelona has the Mediterranean’s largest port, making it a hotbed for huge cruise ships; multiple ships dock every day pouring thousands of visitors into the city. In 2016 alone the city greeted over 34 million visitors, and with each year the quality of life for residents is spoiled more and more. This can be seen in the backlash the Catalan residents have provided, with riots and marches against tourists making regular headlines. A strain has also been placed on Barcelona’s infrastructure, in some cases leading property owners to evict locals in favour of renting to tourists.
London may not be in the same boat as Amsterdam or Barcelona, but it is still feeling the effects of too many tourists. As the world’s third most visited city, the residents of London are hard pushed to find a cheap place in the city to eat or grab a coffee, due predominantly to day trippers who are willing to spend more because they’re on holiday.
One of the more subtle consequences of over-tourism is occurring in Amsterdam. Many Amsterdam locals believe the city’s cultural integrity is arguably being threatened. Firstly, Amsterdam prides itself on its cleanliness, so littering and excessive pollution goes against the fibre of the city’s being. Secondly, the outpouring of stag nights has expanded and highlighted the Red Light District that many natives wish to push down. The city is now often characterised overseas as a party destination, with drugs and alcohol flowing freely; a label the council and residents reject wholeheartedly. Though these problems now seem ingrained in these cities, measures are being drafted and proposed to combat them.
How over-tourism can be overcome: a New York Case study
New York is one of the world’s most visited cities, and the second most visited place in the United States after Orlando, with more than 369,000 jobs created from tourism every year. Tourist numbers have been breaking records since 2009, and in 2018, a record-high 65.2 million visitors descended on the city, according to stats from NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism arm.
The raw volume of travellers, and the fact that many of them are now staying in Airbnb properties, has acted as a catalyst to the pre-existing problem of high rent. The growing numbers of visitors led locals to fearfully wonder whether the city would fall victim to its own success, like the many European cities, but Christopher Heywood, senior VP of Global Communications at NYC & Company, assures residents that over-tourism is being “seriously” taken care of.
Due to the prompt recognition of the city’s popularity, New York has managed to implement inventive strategies to combat over-tourism. The WTTC report ‘Coping With Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations’ states that overcrowding is easier to prevent than recover from, and New York has done exactly that.
At WTM London, Heywood detailed his company’s ‘five boroughs strategy’, in which various advertising techniques are deployed to hopefully draw tourists away from the hotspots of Manhattan to other locations such as Queens and Staten Island. Marketing plays the main role in these strategies, that’s why visiting in the quieter months, which is a less busy and expensive option, is heavily promoted, alleviating the concentration of peak season visitors.
Also, at the end of 2017, the ‘True York City’ campaign begun. The campaign is ongoing and consists of an international marketing push, in print and digital, to make potential visitors aware of the less well known parts of the city. ‘Living like a local’ is a major selling point of the campaign and the push on social media using the hashtag #trueyorkcity shows travellers a local’s perspective of New York, including hidden gems and off the beaten path destinations – a theme of authenticity which is becoming ever more popular in the world of travelling.
Another major strategy that has yielded results is the ‘tourism ready’ programme that helps local businesses in less tourist-heavy areas by holding marketing classes on how to better promote themselves to travellers. One of the major differences between the affected European cities and New York, however, is size. New York is significantly bigger than Barcelona or Amsterdam, and therefore has a higher capacity for visitors. While it may seem obvious for European countries to copy New York’s strategies, the reality is a lot more complicated.
What does the future look like for Europe’s most loved cities?
The real, everyday impact of over-tourism can be seen in the reactions of local residents. From Barcelona’s iconic La Rambla, now brimming with tourists and souvenir shops, to Amsterdam’s dangerously busy street canals, Europe’s most popular cities have been plagued with a flood of visitors, and the residents have started fighting back.
Graffiti has sprung up around the city featuring sentiments like ‘Tourist: Your Luxury Trip, My Daily Misery’, seen in Park Güell. Masked members of the youth organisation Arran recently ambushed an open-top sightseeing bus, daubing slogans on the windows and even slashing its tyres, terrifying travellers. There have been many instances of hotel windows being broken, rentable bicycles being destroyed and mass demonstration marches, in what looks to be an exponential rise of anger. However, the future may not be as doomed as we think, as cities have started to put promising measures in place to pre-empt the inundation of summer tourists.
Amsterdam is keen to retain its status as an open and tolerant city; however, the measures taken are creative rather than restrictive. In 2017, tourism chief Geerte Udo and the I Amsterdam team started developing inventive solutions to the huge numbers descending on the capital’s most popular sites, such as the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. Cleverly using the data collected from thousands of Amsterdam City Cards, they were able to analyse and track the movements of tourists on a daily basis, plotting the most popular routes and as a result, promoting alternative routes and attractions.
Another effort involved erecting live feeds displaying queue times at the most popular destinations, diverting large groups to areas with lower footfall. Notably the town of Zandvoort, which is 18 miles from the city centre, has been renamed ‘Amsterdam Beach’ in an attempt to cash in on name recognition, while rerouting people out of the centre. But some residents see this rebranding of Zandvoort as just another downside of tourism, an unauthentic move that is akin to “calling Canterbury ‘London Cathedral’, Liverpool ‘London Harbour’, or Oxford ‘London Hogwarts.’”
New York is leading the pack in taking preventative measures against over-tourism. In addition, the prevalent fears of technological advancement’s growing role in over-tourism may be baseless, as Airbnb’s vice president for public affairs Chris Lehane explains in an interview, “our guests stay longer than a typical hotel guest, and they’re spreading the economic gains across a whole community in a way that doesn’t happen with hotels.” So, rather than taking money away from the local area, revenue generated from Airbnb benefits the local residents’ and businesses. Arguing that Airbnb is in fact a positive force in the industry, he points out how the distribution of lodgings across the city thins out crowds in the tourist hot spots, and that staying in a local home offers a more authentic experience than a hotel.
The desire for a more authentic travel experience is growing in the industry, as a recent Peak and Skift report explains: “the most significant, systemic trend in worldwide tourism today is the demand for ‘experiential travel’, typically meant to convey the idea of more immersive, local, authentic, adventurous and/or active travel.”This can also be seen as a positive force, as travellers wishing to have this experience are theoretically more likely to seek accommodation and attractions away from the destinations already overrun with tourists.
We still have a long way to go in terms of sustainable travel, with the onus being on a wide range of people, from the travellers themselves to local councillors and tourist boards. It’s hard to say whether preventative measures are wholly positive or negative, but at the very least the world is waking up to the dangers of over-tourism.
 ‘Overtourism’ Worries Europe. How Much Did Technology Help Us Get There? (www.newyorktimes.com, August, 2018)
 The Death of Venice: Corrupt Officials, Mass Tourism and Soaring Property Prices Have Stifled the City (www.independent.co.uk, May 2015)
 Overtourism in Barcelona – Are the Battlelines Drawn (www.thelocal.es, July, 2018)
 My Amsterdam is Being Created By Mass Tourism (www.theguardian.com, August, 2018)
 ‘Overtourism’ Worries Europe. How Much Did Technology Help Us Get There? (www.newyorktimes.com, August, 2018)
 The Rise of Experiential Travel Report, Peak and Skift (www.skift.com, 2014)