Credit: Joel Barwick

Overtourism: what is it and how can we avoid it?

By Colette Lappin

Too much travel and too many tourists at once are detrimental to the environment—overtourism is something every traveller should avoid.

Overtourism: a large increase of tourists to an area as a result of ‘temporary and seasonal tourism peaks’ leading to negative consequences for the area and local residents. But why is this never spoken about in the media? Environmental discussion usually surrounds reducing our carbon emissions by making greener choices—but travelling is rarely mentioned. Overtourism has a huge impact on the planet, and is not simply about travel. The environmental degradation of tourist hotspots which do not have the capacity to cope with a sudden influx of people also falls under the overtourism umbrella. This is in addition to social and economic problems caused by too many tourists and visitors arriving at one time. Many tourist cities are forced to change to meet the needs and demands of tourists which is driving up the cost of living for residents

Environmental issues, however, are still the main concern for many. There are multiple examples of popular holiday destinations which have suffered environmental degradation as a result of overtourism. The arrival of cruise ships in historic sites causes serious problems in tourist hotspots. In 2021, cruise ships were banned from docking on the lagoon in Venice due to the pollution they cause and damage to waterways. This was prompted by a UNESCO recommendation that Venice should be placed on the Heritage Danger List. Venice is also set to introduce a €5 entry fee which acts as a ‘tourist tax’—designed to deter lots of day-trippers from arriving and causing overcrowding. 

Cruise ships are a particular problem when it comes to overtoursim. Emissions from the cruise ships themselves cause sea and air pollution. The constant flow of ships and dropping of anchors affects light distribution which can disrupt the process of photosynthesis for algae and seaweed. Cruise ships also account for 16% of black carbon pollution of all large vessels including oil tankers. This is despite only accounting for 1% of the global fleet. Black carbon—also known as ‘soot’—absorbs sunlight because of its black colour, further heating the climate.This type of carbon accounted for 6.85% of global warming in 2018. In response to these concerns, some cruise liners, including Hurtigruten and Ponant, are seeking to phase out carbon and sulphur-emitting heavy fuel oil in favour of cleaner fuels.

The sheer number of tourists on cruise ships is showing no signs of lessening and demand for cruises is at an all-time high. Worldwide cruise passengers increased from 20.4 million in 2022 to 31.5 million in 2023; and this is predicted to continue growing. In the UK, cruising is a popular type of travel, with British and Irish passengers being the second largest number of cruise passengers in Europe in 2022. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, tourism-related carbon emissions are expected to increase by 25% compared to 2016 levels, indicating that people worldwide will not significantly amend their travelling habits anytime soon.

Ultimately, overtourism is a multi-layered and growing issue which can cause a host of problems. While it may not be fashionable to discuss altering or completely changing our travelling habits, there ought to be more serious conversations about the sustainability of international travel. The visible improvement in different ecosystems during the COVID-19 lockdowns clearly illustrated the negative impact of too much tourist traffic. In Venice, there was a marked improvement in the water quality of canals; the water was much clearer because the sediment was not disrupted by the usual water traffic

But countering overtourism is about more than deterrence—alone, it does not encourage us to think about the environmental impact of constant flows of tourists at peak times. Of course, it is important to continue to travel to different places around the world. This allows us to experience different cultures while also contributing to local economies; but we should aim to strike a balance. Avoiding peak travel times and popular holiday destinations are good ways of limiting overtourism. We are often encouraged to check how eco-friendly our shopping habits and modes of transport are in our daily lives, so we should also focus on responsible tourism.


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