Ever since I saw a Rick Steves video showing the crowds at the Palace of Versailles, I’ve begun thinking about the fact that some of the world’s most wonderful places are a lot less wonderful now that they are packed with tourists. But given that I am one of those travellers, and therefore part of the problem, what’s the solution to overtourism?
There was a time, not that long ago, when travel was for the wealthy, and the remote and exotic corners of the earth were both costly and difficult to visit. Fortunately for many of us, times have changed, and travel has become much more affordable for even the average person, and modern transportation has given us access to even the furthest places on the globe.Bangkok, Thailand has the most visitors at 15.98 million.
How Many People Are Travelling and Where?
There are millions and millions of us moving around the world every year, as evidenced by a recent article in the Business Insider showcasing the 20 Most Popular Cities for Tourists. If you’re curious just which city takes the prize as the most popular to visit, you might be surprised to learn that it is Bangkok, Thailand, with over 15.98 million visitors in 2013. Here are some of the other most popular cities suffering from overtourism, with some pretty staggering figures of their own:
- Rome, Italy: 6.7 million
- Milan, Italy: 6.83 million
- Barcelona, Spain: 8.41 million
- Istanbul, Turkey: 10.37 million
- New York, USA: 11.52 million
- Singapore: 11.75 million
- Paris, France: 13.92 million
- London, England: 15.96 million
That’s a helluva lotta people moving around the globe, descending on any one city, even if it is over the course of the year and with those millions of people come BILLIONS in dollars being spent.
But all this wealth of tourism comes at what cost?
Twenty plus years ago, I lived and worked in Rome for two years, (having fallen under its spell while on vacation myself), and I distinctly remember the love/hate relationship even I had with tourism at that time. On one hand, visitors brought in money and prosperity for the entire city, but there was a certain resentment that I couldn’t help but feel when every piazza and every trattoria was jammed to the rafters, making it almost impossible to enjoy the city that was my new home. I began to wonder if maybe this was the real reason that most Romani decamped in August, not just because it was their long-standing tradition to escape the city’s summer heat by heading to the ocean or the country.
To be honest, the sheer number of tourists in Rome in the summer can make you want to escape as well. After all, how much fun is it to explore the city when you can’t even approach the Trevi Fountain because of the crowds, or when the lineup for the Vatican museums stretches endlessly block after block, guaranteeing hours of wait time? Are you even getting to enjoy what you travelled so far to see?
Timing is certainly a critical point to consider. In fact, a recent experience in Venice demonstrated just how different a city can be, depending on when you visit. We had planned our visit for mid-October, definitely not the height of the season, but still warm enough to make for pleasant temperatures. Arriving in the evening around 9pm, winding our way through the maze of streets to find our hotel, we were enchanted by a Venice that felt deserted: markets were closed up for the night; bars had the odd group of locals chatting quietly in doorways; and even Piazza San Marco’s famous musicians were packing up their instruments, leaving the beautiful square for us to enjoy in silence under the moonlight. Wandering back to our hotel, we really felt like we had had an intimate introduction to the city known as “La Serenissima”.
But come the next morning, we woke to a different city. Anything BUT serene, Venice’s canals were hopping with rush hour traffic, garbage boats making their daily rounds, construction workers offloading lumber from barges, and markets and piazzas packed with shoppers. The sleepy town from the night before had been transformed into a bustling mecca of travellers and locals alike. And while it was quite a change from the night before, we were thankful it was October, because we could only imagine how crazy this would be at the height of tourist season, when day-trippers and cruise passengers as much as triple the population of this small city!
Following this experience, one thing that has really begun to creep into my thinking and my planning, is looking at travelling seriously off-season as an option. Especially if I have something specific I’d like to see or do at a particular destination (that isn’t season-dependent). My hope is that I will get to experience a little more of the local flavour, and a little less of the tourist show, and as a bonus, it might even be a little cheaper as well.
Clearly, there’s no simple solution to overtourism and solving the crowds, delays and other associated problems created when millions of travellers all visit the same city. But one suggestion might be time-shifting your visit. And sure, it may mean that dining al fresco is off the table in February, but if you can’t even get into the restaurant in July anyways, are you really missing out?
TIP: Travelling off-season can save you considerably, on airfares in particular. But you’ll want to make sure that the attractions you want to visit at your destination will be open when you are there, or that their hours (which may be different during low season) correspond to your travel plans.