During a trip to the Czech Republic this summer, Bret Love desperately wanted to escape the crowds at Prague Castle but couldn’t. He was stuck in a Vltava River of humanity.
“There were thousands and thousands and thousands of people jostling for space,” said the co-founder of Green Global Travel. “You start to feel like cattle being herded.”
No matter what you call it — overtourism, overbooked or a foreign invasion — it’s the same squeeze: A handful of destinations around the world are under siege by too many tourists. The stampede is having a deleterious effect on the culture, environment and spirit of these places. Locals are getting pushed out. Foundations are crumbling. Tourists are complaining about other tourists.
“You try to keep these cities livable for the residents,” said Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, “but overtourism is killing these neighborhoods and the reasons we go there.”
Former Washington Post reporter Elizabeth Becker examined the consequences of rampant tourism in her expose, “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.” The book’s 2013 release coincided with a tourism milestone: For the first time, travelers had logged a billion international trips in one year.
The issue is not the industry itself but the hordes of people who descend on one place during the same time period (often summer). Destinations that are ill-equipped for the masses can’t keep up with the demand, and everyone suffers for it. Becker equates the situation to a dinner party host who plans for 12 guests and 12,000 hungry diners show up.
Travelers can help ease the pressure by tweaking their trips. For instance, visit offseason, book tickets to major attractions in advance and venture beyond the historical core. Becker also recommends longer holidays of two weeks over short getaways of two to five days.
“You are planning your trip in a way that will be the least damaging,” she said. “Your footprint is going to be less.”
To further help beleaguered destinations, we singled out 10 spots buckling under the weight of too many feet and provided alternatives that are similar in all but one category: They could use more — not fewer — tourists.
As if sinking weren’t enough, the Italian city of canals and masquerade balls is drowning in tourists. More than 30 million people visit annually, swamping the local population of 50,000 and causing rifts between the two camps. Several years ago, UNESCO warned Venetian officials that the city could end up on its endangered list of heritage sites if they did not curb their enthusiasm for tourists — an estimated 60,000 a day during peak season. Officials responded with a raft of initiatives, such as relocating the cruise ship port to the mainland and banning new hotels in the historical city center. Venice also unveiled an awareness campaign last year called #EnjoyRespectVenezia, which encourages responsible behavior (e.g., do not picnic on church steps) and provides a daily meter of crowds (all red from June through mid-September). The city is also promoting Detourism, a movement that urges visitors to avoid beaten-to-a-pulp routes and to behave like a local.
Overbooked: Machu Picchu
The 15th-century Incan site has survived the Spanish conquest, a scandal involving a Yale explorer and flooding, but its downfall could be tourists. In 2013, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, aired its concerns about the degradation of Peru’s top attraction. Among its myriad offenses: “Impacts of tourism/visitor/recreation.” In response, the government and UNESCO capped the number of daily visitors at 2,500. However, last year, 1.4 million people toured the ruins, a clear breach of the directive. To control the chaos, the government announced new restrictions last July, such as requiring accredited guides to accompany all visitors (no more independent wandering) and funneling hikers onto three established routes. Also gone: staying all day. You can buy a ticket for the morning or afternoon slot, but once your time is up, your visit is over.
The capital of Catalonia is the most-visited city in Spain, drawing 32 million people, more than 30 times its population. In one municipal survey, residents blasted tourism as the second-worst urban ill after unemployment. Anti-tourist graffiti has started popping up, and locals have protested the loss of their home to foreign invaders. After the terrorist attack last August, the city experienced a slight dip in tourism, but it wasn’t enough to decongest La Rambla, the nearly mile-long pedestrian boulevard, or the buildings designed by famed Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. In addition to land travelers, nearly 3 million passengers arrive by cruise ship annually, a surge officials hope to stem by relocating the port outside the city center by 2025. The current mayor, Ada Colau, won the election on her proposals to control unchecked tourism. Measures include fining Airbnb.com for renting unlicensed properties, raising the parking rate for coach buses idling at popular tourist spots and slowing the proliferation of hotel rooms, including banning new properties in the city’s congested hub.
Go ahead and wag a finger at Icelandair. The budget airline popularized the practice of adding a free stopover in Iceland en route to continental Europe. More recently, Wow Air, which started service in 2011, extended the perk to its passengers. The number of international air travelers has skyrocketed; visits between 2016 and 2017 grew 25 percent, to 2.2 million. Americans are the largest contingent, outnumbering the Icelandic population of 350,000. Most tourists congregate in Reykjavik and the southwest region, clogging the capital and the Golden Circle, the driving loop fizzing with geothermal features. The deluge has caused a shortage of hotel rooms. Airbnb has helped fill the vacuum, but the shift to short-term rentals has stressed the limited supply of units and caused rents to spike. To mitigate the housing crunch, the government has placed restrictions on Airbnb property owners. Closer to the airport, the Blue Lagoon, which attracts nearly a million guests each year, can often feel like a bumper car track with colliding bodies instead of automobiles.
Overbooked: Mount Everest
The world’s tallest mountain, which straddles Nepal and Tibet, suffers from some of the same ills as urban centers: trash and traffic. To reach the summit, trekkers sometimes have to wait in lines as long as those for Disney World’s Space Mountain. Litter, including empty oxygen tanks, clutters the trail, and a stream of waste is threatening to rise up. Base camps can resemble a beach on Independence Day, the brightly colored tents blanketing the snowpacked ground. The crowds are endangering the environment as well as themselves: In 2014 and 2015, deadly avalanches took the lives of 16 Sherpas and 19 climbers, respectively. And yet the trekkers still come, including novices with little experience in high altitude adventures. Last year, the government issued a record number of climbing permits, nearly 375 permission slips for 43 international expedition teams. That figure does not include the porters and guides, who more than double the number.
Overbooked: Camino de Santiago
One of the world’s most popular pilgrimage routes, which dates to the Middle Ages, seems like an unlikely candidate for overtourism. The Way of Saint James comprises a spider’s web of routes that take weeks to complete by foot, bike or horseback. However, more than half of the pilgrims — religious and secular — follow the French Way, a 500-mile journey that starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees and ends at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Galicia, Spain, where the saint is allegedly buried. According to the Pilgrims’ Welcome Office in Santiago de Compostela, more than 300,000 people completed the pilgrimage last year, a 10 percent increase from the last Holy Year in 2010. In August, the busiest month, the office registered 60,412 finishers, twice as many people as a decade ago. The crowds translate to lodging shortages in the small villages, inflated prices and compadres boisterous enough to disrupt the peace of a saint.
“Game of Thrones” has been a boon for HBO and fantasy fiction fans but a burden for the Croatian city. The Pearl of the Adriatic had already been squirming beneath the crush of cruisers when the sword-wielding tourists showed up, searching for the real-life Westeros. The onslaught has even troubled UNESCO, which had designated the Old City a World Heritage site in 1979. The organization recommended limiting the number of visitors to 8,000 people a day; the newly elected mayor, Mato Frankovic, countered with a lower figure of 4,000. He has also promised to tackle the cruise-ship jam. During the high season, three to four ships often sail into port daily. As a remedy, the mayor proposed curbing the number of cruises during peak times and staggering arrivals. The plan could alleviate pressure on such key attractions as the Stradun, a pedestrian promenade, and the medieval walls, which bore the weight of more than 10,000 people on one day in August 2016. The city has also considered creating an app that will provide crowd updates and suggest alternatives with more wiggle room.
Tourists outnumber residents by double-digit millions, so it’s no wonder the high of tourism has worn off. To reclaim the Dutch capital, officials are mulling or have executed several laws, such as doubling the tax on hotel rooms and banning short-term Airbnb rentals and souvenir shops in the historical center. They are also considering relocating the cruise-ship berth and passenger terminal away from the middle of the action, a move that will affect cruisers on more than 2,000 ocean liners and riverboats. In the red-light district, law enforcement officers have started ticketing bad behavior such as public drinking and littering. A new color-coded system will monitor crowds; a red signal could result in street closures, for example. To lure visitors out of the choked center, the tourism organization responsible for the City Card expanded benefits to include day trips outside the city, such as to Haarlem, Zaanse Schans and Keukenhof, where you can tiptoe through the tulip fields.
In Euromonitor International’s 2017 list of the top 100 cities, four Italian metro centers made the cut. Rome took 12th place; Milan, Venice and Florence were many leaps behind. The marketing research firm expects visitation numbers to surpass 10 million by 2020, but you doesn’t have to wait for the future to see the toll tourism has taken on the Eternal City. In 2015, the Spanish Steps closed for a year to reverse damage caused by too many touchy people. The renovation, which cost $1.7 million, removed stains, repaired broken pacing stones and re-leveled the steps. The lines to enter the city’s Roman ruins and museums are notorious. The Colosseum’s website, for once, states that the arena can accommodate up to 3,000 people at one time but warns, “This could lead to delays in access to the site, even for pre-booked visitors.” More than 2,000 fountains add a cool splash to the cityscape. To keep the water features clear of snacks and limbs, a new rule will fine anyone caught eating or drinking on the edges of 40 fountains or taking a dip in its waters.
Overbooked: Cinque Terre
The daisy chain of five medieval villages along the Italian Riviera is wilting. Hordes of people arriving by train, cruise ship and motor coach are cramming into towns with limited space (the sea foils any expansion plans) and modest amenities. The 2.4 million annual visitors are stultifying Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, which cumulatively support about 4,000 residents. The rugged hiking trails that connect the dots are heaving under the foot traffic. Several of the routes are temporarily closed, such as the main section of Riomaggiore to Manarola, and Manarola to Corniglia. The National Park of Cinque Terre occasionally issues warnings such as this one from April: “Because of the high number of visitors, access to the Monterosso-Vernazza (SVA) trail may be temporarily interrupted to avoid congestion. It is however advisable not to undertake the trail between noon and 3 p.m.” There has been some chatter about limiting the number of hikers on routes that charge a fee and updating the park’s app to include Cinque Terre pedestrian traffic reports.
Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg. Design by Jose Soto