Overtourism – it’s a buzz word in travel at the moment. Just about every travel publication has published articles about cities suffering from an influx of tourists, what measures are being taken to address overtourism, and suggestions of alternative destinations with similar ingredients but fewer tourists.
Overtourism isn’t new, it’s just taken some destinations time to stop seeing the dollar/euro signs ringing up on tills and start seeing the negative effects of what has often been partly their own doing – e.g. not regulating cruise ship numbers, or campaigns which have attracted the wrong sort of tourists. The first time I remember being shocked by the impact of the ‘wrong sort of tourist’ was in Barcelona during a blog trip to Catalonia in 2012.
Behaving badly in Barcelona
The transformation from the previous time I’d visited Barcelona was extreme. Las Ramblas late night was a stag and hen disaster zone. Waiting in line at an ATM I realised the swaying guy in front wasn’t withdrawing money, he was pissing against the wall. The group of bloggers I was with were mostly Spanish, American, and Canadian. The pissed up folk on Las Ramblas were mainly British. It was an embarrassment.
But, and this is a key point, the only place we’d experienced overtourism of this ilk was on Las Ramblas. We were taken to many other city centre locations where the visitor/local balance wasn’t weighted quite so much in the favour of drunken extranjeros.
Something we spotted shortly after moving to Tenerife was the herd habits of many tourists. A significant amount of people follow the same routes when meandering through towns and cities. In Puerto de la Cruz, the seafront promenade between the old town and the new could be jam-packed whilst one street back was crowd-free. Lots of great little tascas and interesting sights remained unseen by the majority of visitors because they were literally off the beaten trail. It was a piece of information which completely changed how we visited popular tourist destinations.
Drowning in Dubrovnik
I regularly read how Game of Thrones has been responsible for overtourism in the old town of Dubrovnik. I’m sure it has brought more visitors, but Dubrovnik had a serious overtourism problem long before GOT raised its tourism profile even higher. We had an exclusive sneak preview of a GOT tour just after the first series to feature Dubrovnik as Kings Landing was screened. GOT hadn’t become so huge at that point, we hadn’t even watched it and bluffed our way around as our tour guide, who’d been an extra in the series, pointed out key locations from the show.
The entrance to the old town, Pile Gate, was a manic war zone of tourists shipped in from cruise ships. It was a nightmare; moving through being almost impossible. A single organism which suffocated the beautiful, limestone-paved Stradun. However, dink up a narrow side alley and it felt like escaping a straight-jacket.
Huge tour groups are the scourge of many a city; touristic cream cheese disrupting the smooth flow through main arteries. However, they don’t clog up minor ones in the same way, which makes them easy to avoid. Once we know tour group routes we’re on the way to avoiding the worst impacts of overtourism.
A tour group antidote in Venice
Cities suffer from overtourism because they’re so popular. And they’re popular because they’re fabulous places to visit. Venice is a classic example. There is no alternative to Venice. It is stunningly unique and the most romantic city we’ve visited. We only got round to doing so in June last year as the ‘too busy’ tag had put us off for years. But it wasn’t that much different from every popular city we’ve visited. The main attractions were mobbed, and the routes between cruise ship and attractions were clogged. However, there is nowhere which isn’t beautiful in Venice and, again, just by veering off the main drag we strolled many delightful and quiet streets lining gorgeous canals. After dark, once the day-trippers had departed, the city wasn’t busy at all. We stayed in Venice twice, the first time was just off Piazza San Marco. The second was in Dorsoduro where the streets were equally charming… and totally devoid of tour groups.
It was similar with Florence. Where Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria were claustrophobic with people, Oltrarno on the south side of the river delivered the Merchant Ivory vision of Florence we’d hoped for.
Lisbon suffers from overtourism of a different kind. I don’t tend to notice big tour groups in Lisbon as much as in the likes of Venice or Dubrovnik, they’re absorbed more by the city. But Lisbon’s popularity has exploded over the last few years among independent travellers. Airbnb and similar have capitalised on demand for a more ‘local’ experience, subsequently the personalities of some neighbourhoods have changed. There are pros and cons. Some areas which were seriously dilapidated have been invigorated. Others, which oozed local charm by the bucket-load, have had some of their character erased. Like every other popular city, visitors head to the same spots and tread the same routes. We’d never eat along Rua Augusta as it’s a tourist trap, yet its restaurants are packed daily even though there are far better places in the surrounding side streets. There are neighbourhoods where few tourists wander, between Chiado and Belém for example. As it’s another of those European cities where everywhere you meander is interesting, there are still plenty of crowd-free places to explore.
There’s no disputing these, and other cities like them, have a battle on their hands to balance the needs of the local population with that of a transient one. They are cities of joy, which is why so many want to enjoy them. Straying from the well trodden path helps reduce pressure on over-filled pavements, and spreads the love (i.e. money) as well as visitors around more.
That’s what I tell myself anyway, to ease a conscience which is guilty at wanting to visit already oversubscribed destinations.