The Backlash from Overtourism

Even before COVID-19, the travel industry did have its own issues. There’s a fine balance between the value that tourism adds to a destination and the potential risks to local life. On the one hand, more visitors means more investment and income for locals. But on the other hand, “overtourism” can lead to resentment as tourists seem to take over previously quiet locations. 

The Venetian problem

Venice is the perfect example. Christopher de Bellaigue, a journalist and author writing for The Guardian spoke to Jane da Mosto, director of We Are Here Venice, an NGO which tries to reduce the impact tourism has on Venice. While acknowledging the importance of tourism, they also acknowledge the grip it has over Venice and the Venetian way of life. According to the article, tourism has “provided much of the economic rationale for the preservation of the city’s architecture” – something that’s beneficial for both locals and tourists.

But it’s also handed over a lot of power to investors in hotels, restaurants and boats, many of whom are outsiders. Venice is just a business opportunity. Between 1950 and 2019, the following happened: 

  • Venice’s population dropped from about 180,000 to nearer 50,000
  • The number of annual visitors rose from 1 million to 30 million

Jan van der Borg, a tourism specialist who teaches at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, told The Guardian this number of visitors exceeds the number of people Venice can accommodate without permanently damaging its infrastructure and way of life, by at least 10 million. 

Van der Borg suggests that these tourists might be the wrong kind. Around 70% are day-trippers, visiting the same congested spots around Venice from their tour buses or cruise ships. He explains that these “excursionists” don’t tend to contribute to the maintenance of Venice in the same way other tourists who potentially stay in a hotel, eat at the restaurants owned by locals or spend time in lesser-known attractions. Van der Borg believes these people have more opportunity to “contribute to the city’s wellbeing through taxes, tips and human interaction.”

What can we do about it?

The problem of overtourism in popular destinations such as Venice is clear. So how can we achieve more balance in order to protect the future of tourism? The solution is two-fold:

  • The responsibility of tourists. We can’t all flock to the same destinations without an understanding of our impact. Are there lesser-known places you could visit? How could you have a positive impact when you travel? It’s down to us to think about these things.
  • The balance of income from tourism and impact on the local community. During the coronavirus crisis, some locations have had to re-think where the income typically from tourists would come from. In Venice, for example, they had to make up the shortfall by relying on business from the locals. 

Tourism has a place in almost every economy. But it shouldn’t be allowed to take over to the extent that it distorts local development or community. De Bellaigue gives the examples of water supply being diverted to a golf course while locals don’t have enough; roads being paved as far as the theme park, but not the school; and farmers selling land to hotel chains, only to be priced out of buying the crops themselves.

There are more sustainable ways to promote tourism. And if that’s the outcome of overtourism, then it is a step forward. As we begin to start thinking of travelling again after COVID-19, we all need to be as responsible as we can in this new age.