Defining Overtourism

In September of 2018, the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and George Washington University’s International Institute of Tourism Studies joined forces to organize a World Tourism Day Forum in Washington, DC. The main topic on their agenda was overtourism, which they defined as “Tourism that has moved beyond the limits of acceptable change in a destination due to quantity of visitors, resulting in degradation of the environment and infrastructure, diminished travel experience, wear and tear on built heritage, and/or negative impacts on residents.”


A Wake-Up Call for Destinations

For DMOs, the concept of overtourism in not new. For years, we have been witnessing and hearing about its effects upon international locations like Barcelona in Spain, Rome in Italy and Maya Bay in Thailand. From damaged ecosystems and increased pollution to overcrowding and infrastructure problems, the impacts are readily apparent in many of the world’s most popular areas, even spurring Taleb Rifai, former secretary general of the World Tourism Organization (WTO), to state, “This is a wake-up call. The key is to manage the growth sustainably, responsibly, and intelligently and use the power of growth to our advantage.”


The Environmental Impact

One of the most prevalent issues with overtourism is its impact on the environment. Too many visitors and not enough regulations can lead to excess pollution, ecosystem destruction and the death of rare plants and animals. For example, Maya Bay, the stunning hideaway in Thailand made famous by the movie “The Beach,” saw approximately 2.5 million visitors in 2018, and averaged roughly 4000 visitors per day to its small surroundings. The crowds and boats destroyed large parts of the coral reefs which, in turn, killed off much of the rare sea life in the area too.


Drastic Measures for Longterm Results

Understanding the detrimental effects that this was having on the ecosystem, the government shut down visitor access to the bay, and set a mandate to keep it closed off until the environment has renewed itself. Once re-opened, they will also enforce new tourism restrictions that include limiting visitor numbers to a maximum of 2000 per day and banning boats from anchoring at the site. Instead, boats will be able to dock on the opposite side of the island on floating piers.

Thon Thamrongnawasawat, marine scientist and member of Thailand’s national strategy committee on environment development, noted that prioritizing the health of a destination’s ecosystem is key to keeping tourism sustainable. “This would be a good way to start managing our tourist destinations. And we can improve on what we learn after the first year. We know that it’s important we manage our resources well. It’s not about more numbers of tourists but about sustainable tourism that benefits locals as well.” 


Spreading Tourism Around

To ensure that overtourism doesn’t destroy other habitats, many are attempting to redirect visitor interest to other destinations so the numbers aren’t as concentrated in one area. Kanokkittika Kritwutikon, the head of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Phuket office, agrees, stating: “Our policy is to try to spread tourism around [from Phuket to] secondary destinations that are less well-known.”

Similarly, places like Amsterdam are rebranding some of their tourist attractions to spread the tourist flow to lesser-known areas. In particular, they rebranded Muiderslot Castle, just outside of Amsterdam, to Amsterdam Muiderslot Castle. Their goal is to bring more visitors to the castle and its surrounding area which is close to Amsterdam, but not directly in the main city. Amsterdam’s tourism board is also promoting the castle and Muiderslot’s website to encourage tourists to visit.


Policy and Education

As we learn more about the negative effect of overtourism, we also are coming up with better solutions. These include government policy changes to protect delicate environments, campaigns that raise awareness about the negative impacts of overtourism , and international education across a broad network of key stakeholders, from the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and High Profile non-profits like the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) to DMOs and destination governing bodies.


Group Efforts for Win-Win Scenarios

The combined efforts of many could result in a win-win scenario if handled properly. Clearly, we can’t stop tourism from happening on a global scale, but we can manage how we attract, educate and direct visitors to destinations.  María Reynisdóttir of Iceland’s Department of Tourism says of the issue, ”[We need] coordination across tourism, across the fragmented industry; it’s impacted almost every aspect of society, it needs to involve all relevant stakeholders to make things work…More isn’t always better. We need to decide where we want to build up strong sites that are able to receive a large amount of visitors and which sites you want to leave more untouched.”