Thai authorities closed Maya Bay to tourists in May to help it recover from mass tourism. (Getty: Lillian Suwanrumpha)
If you’ve sweltered in long queues with hordes of other tourists or scrambled for a patch of sand at a busy beach, then you’ve had a taste of ‘overtourism’.
Closer to home, places like Bali, Byron Bay and parts of Tasmania have also been feeling pressure from skyrocketing visitors.
“The problem we’ve got is that we’re all congregating on the same places at the same time of the year,” says Justin Francis, CEO of the UK-based Responsible Travel.
Mr Francis says part of the problem is that the “ethos of travel” is changing: in the social media era, it’s now more about “where you want to be seen”.
“We all want those iconic pictures in the same iconic places,” he says.
“Getting the photo and getting it on Instagram or Facebook is becoming the purpose of the trip — it’s the reason for going,” he says.
Travellers have also been drawn to places from their favourite films or TV shows, in a trend known as “set jetting”.
Set jetters have been partly blamed for the closure of Thailand’s Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh Island, made famous by the movie The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Authorities shut the destination earlier this year to give its sea life a chance to recover from mass tourism over nearly two decades.
A rising cost
It’s not just the environment that’s under threat.
Overtourism in Venice and Barcelona has made locals feel “forced out” of their own city, Mr Francis says.
In June, Venetians took to the streets to protest against excessive tourism and big cruises.
(Getty: Stefano Mazzola)
He says rental prices are increasing, residents can’t move freely through the cities because of crowds, and local markets are changing to cater for swarms of tourists.
“In Venice recently, we heard stories of Venetian grandmothers swatting tourists aside with their handbags to buy their fruits from the markets or to board the water taxis.
“The residents feel they are losing their cities, they feel it’s a betrayal of their heritage.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Amsterdam is moving to ban short-term rentals like AirBnB, and Dubrovnik in Croatia has capped the number of cruise ship passengers who can enter the city at any one time.
Mr Francis says some tourists are also getting “fed up”.
“All they are seeing is the backpack of the tourist from back home in front of them in the long queue to get in.
“So there is really a sense [that] nobody is winning.”
With overtourism reaching tipping point in places, several cities have introduced a tax on tourists.
“There [are] now 24 different cities in Europe [and] several in the UK, who are taxing tourists,” Mr Francis says.
“Their philosophy is… ‘what we are asking is you make a small contribution towards improving the destination for us residents, but also for you as tourists’.”
Dubrovnik, popular with Game of Thrones fans and tourists, has placed restrictions on tourists. (Unsplash: Jonathan Chng, CC-0)
In response to growing pressure on infrastructure and the community, the New South Wales town of Byron Bay has recently introduced a voluntary tax on tourists.
“Byron has been a community that’s been open to visitors for a long time,” Mayor Simon Richardson says.
“But obviously the numbers have just sky-rocketed and we are now looking at 2 million visitors coming to a town of 10,000.”
Tourism operators will voluntarily put a 1 per cent tax on bills, with the money flowing on to projects in the area.
“If we can get a couple of dollars from each visitor who comes here, to put back into boardwalks and playgrounds, changerooms etc, well then those locals and visitors see the benefit of sharing time in Byron and … the community becomes more accepting,” Mr Richardson says.
Mr Francis says tour operators can also help ease pressure on destinations by providing advance ticketing and cheaper prices during off-peak times.
“[Who] that will attract is not necessarily the more expensive tourists, but the tourists who really want to go, rather than the person who just turns up on the day and wants to get in,” he says.
The road less travelled
Ultimately, Mr Francis says, travellers need to return to researching destinations, rather than taking “an easy route to the top 10”.
“I think we go back to the idea of spending time with locals, asking their advice and their opinions on places to go, or even hiring a local guide,” he says.
“A local guide really gives you the inside track but can also help you avoid any unintended consequences.”
Mr Francis says it’s “sad” that we live in a time when there is more distrust of strangers.
“I think tourism, perhaps more than even the United Nations, is something which brings people from different cultures and backgrounds together, hopefully to share a mutually beneficial experience,” he says.
“I would see the right type of tourism at the forefront of building trust and respect between people from different backgrounds and religions and races.”