The world was traversed by 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals last year, a number that is only expected to rise as global economic improvement smacks into low airfare, cheap accommodations, a growing fleet of cruise ships and a connected culture that demands photos of it all.
Destinations and attractions that historically have tried to come up with ways to lure visitors are now trying to do the opposite. Bruges, Belgium, is limiting the number of cruise ships that can visit and reducing some of its tourism ad campaigns. The Taj Mahal has increased prices and set time limits on how long people can stay, and Maya Beach in Thailand, made famous by the movie “The Beach,” closed altogether.
“Some of our most beloved monuments and ports and especially port cities … are realizing that, based on the experiences of Venice, they have to be very organized to manage this,” says Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “In the meantime, their citizens are deeply concerned.”
So what should travelers do? Stay home? That’s unlikely. But if you are heading to some of the world’s most popular destinations, there are some things you can do to avoid adding to the burden.
Rethink your bucket list
“Our bucket list is often the bucket list of millions of other people around the world that now have access and can travel to all these places,” says Seleni Matus, executive director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University. “That’s creating a hyper demand for all these popular places.”
Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, recommends doing some investigation before deciding where to go. But that might not always be simple; there’s no one place that tracks which cities are suffering from overtourism.
She said historic cities, beaches, parks and world monuments are among sites that can often be at risk. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as well as the World Monuments Fund both publish lists of at-risk sites, though tourism isn’t the only issue they cover.
The World Travel & Tourism Council this month released a review of cities’ readiness for tourism growth, which could serve as another guide.
Don’t go with the flow
Even if you are set on visiting an iconic site, consider going at an off-peak time. Of course, a trip in the middle of winter could be complicated, especially for families. But experts say that whenever possible, zagging when everyone else zigs has perks — for you and the city.
“You’ll get to see the destination when you’re not standing with a million other people,” says Michael Edwards, managing director at tour company Intrepid Travel. “The impact on that destination is a lot less profound. You have an economic and cultural impact because you’re extending the season for the locals."
Inspired by a Mediterranean cruise they took, Mandy and Hans Schrama-van Stokkom created Avoid Crowds to show when popular destinations across Europe will be most packed.
They built a web crawler for cruise ship data, local national holidays and school vacations and combed through event calendars. Using all that data, as well as information about the size of cities and how many tourists any certain one can accommodate, the couple assigns scores to cities depending on the date a user enters.
“It doesn’t make sense to go back to a world where everybody is isolated in their own corner,” says Mandy Schrama-van Stokkom, regarding the instinct to discourage people from travel. “The only thing you can do, in our opinion, is to evenly spread out tourists over time and over the world.”
Venture beyond the Top 10 list
It’s natural to want to see famous sites, and there’s only one Eiffel Tower. But visitors should be open to venturing beyond the obvious, and some destinations are finding creative ways to encourage that.
“If travelers focus a little bit more on deliberately experiencing their trip, maybe not being too rushed, not being too stressed by taking too many pictures or visiting the top five or 10 sites ... then it’s good for both the visitors and the destination,” says Helena Hartlauer, a spokesperson for the tourist board.
If travelers aren’t going solo, experts say they should stick to small groups rather than giant tours that might overwhelm every place they visit.
“The infrastructure required to support that experience is a lot less than traveling in a big group,” says Edwards, of Intrepid. His company specializes in small-group travel. He said visitors get more out of their trip in a smaller group because they can have more intimate interactions, spend more time in a site and get into local restaurants and shops more easily.
“Those cruise ships coming into Venice — that is purely driven by economic outcomes,” he says. “I’m sure it’s pretty amazing to float into Venice, but not when you’re getting off cruise ships with 500 other people.”
Seek out local guides
Residents know the ebbs and flows of a place and can show visitors around when the destination is least busy. In port cities, they can plan around the cruise ships’ schedules.
Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO of Responsible Travel — which he calls an “activist travel company,” says local guides can also help travelers prepare for the cultural norms of a city or site and communicate with other locals if language is a barrier. Finally, guides from the community can tell visitors which places will welcome out-of-towners — and which won’t.
“They’ll help you avoid the crowds, but they’ll also help minimize any disruption you might inadvertently cause on the destination,” says Francis.
Investigate your lodging options
You may think you are getting a more authentic experience or putting money directly into locals’ pockets by staying in a home rental, but that’s not always true.
Honey, of the Center for Responsible Travel, said travelers should check to see what the regulations are around Airbnb and similar sites in the community they visit. Some cities have set strict rules around home-sharing services to protect local residents from getting priced out.
“When we see residents complaining there’s nowhere for them to live anymore, I feel more comfortable staying in a hotel than in an Airbnb, because the number of hotel beds are typically more regulated than Airbnb,” Francis says.
But Matus, of the International Institute of Tourism Studies, says the default move should not be to avoid home-sharing. It varies from city to city.
“I do think that Airbnbs play an important role in some communities in helping to sustain places,” she says. “I think of Cuba as a perfect example [and] what that has done to develop the entrepreneurial spirit and develop microenterprises there.”
Lock down your activities in advance
To help reduce overtourism, some experts said, visitors should take advantage of timed reservations for every site that offers them, from churches to museums to parks. That way, heavily trafficked attractions can better manage crowds.
“Having to make advanced reservations is not really an obstacle to being able to go where they want, but actually a guarantee that when they get there, they can have a good experience,” Honey says. “I think that’s going to be, increasingly, the new normal.”
The Avoid Crowds site links to “skip the line” tours at several destinations, including the Louvre, the Colosseum and Prague Castle.
“Buy your ticket online, they give you a time slot, and you can pass the entire line [when you] show your phone and just enter,” says Schrama-van Stokkom. “We think it’s a solution that could help reduce the side effects of overtourism.”
Be the early bird
Couldn’t grab a ticket in advance? Show up early to see the site, Schrama-van Stokkom says.
“We say start your day early, get most of the things in before it gets too warm, before it gets too crowded,” she says. “Apart from some occasional influencers that are trying to get the best picture, you will barely see any lines for landmarks.”
Even though a cruise ship might pull into a port at 6 or 7 a.m., it still takes time for authorities to clear the ship and allow passengers to make their way to land. If someone staying in a destination gets on the road first thing in the morning, “you’re just two steps in front of them,” Schrama-van Stokkom says.