The Problem of Overtourism
This year, I am going to Amsterdam for New Year’s Eve. It is ironic then, that Amsterdam is specifically campaigning against British tourists coming to the city. An advertisement campaign introduced over the summer adopted the slogan ‘Stay Away’ to deter overly adventurous Brits. While I admittedly am probably not the kind of tourist they are trying to ward off – instead picture young men in penis suits who start drinking at 10:00 am and are throwing up in the gutter by noon – the campaign is still somewhat surprising. Normally tourism– an engine of local economic growth – is seen as unequivocally beneficial. Why would cities want to discourage it?
I can think of two main reasons. The first is that tourists, especially some types of tourists, can be disrespectful during their visit. Think of the stag-doers making a ruckus in Amsterdam, the man who recently carved his and his girlfriend’s name ‘Ivan + Hayley 23’ into the Roman Colosseum’s two millennia old wall, or a Russian influencer who was deported from Bali after posing naked in front of a sacred 700 year old banyan tree. To a certain extent, this is just something any city with a large tourist population has to deal with. Living in London and going to school next to Westminster Abbey, I had my fair share of encounters with obnoxious visitors. Even so, it still makes sense, as Amsterdam is doing, to try to filter out the most egregious offenders. Some tourists, even if they ‘help’ the local economy, are not worth having.
Yet, beyond drunkards and delinquents, I believe that there is a more serious harm that accompanies overtourism – excessively high numbers of tourists. Having too many visitors can hollow out and displace the character of a city – the very thing that people come to see. Consider Venice, for instance. The seat of the Venetian Republic and the world’s first real financial center now has at least one tourist bed for every residential bed in the city – 49,000 for each. In reality, there may be far more tourists at a given time, as people often share beds, stay with friends and family, or visit for the day. As more tourists have moved in, rents have spiraled out of control. This has in turn meant that many people can no longer afford to live in the city, particularly young people, who are seen in ever fewer numbers. The upshot of this is that Venice has increasingly become a simulacrum of a city – an urban museum plus theme park that is at risk of losing its identity entirely.
Venice is not the only place that has had to grapple with this problem. Barcelona has seen the number of tourists staying in its hotels jump from 1.7M in 1990 to 9.5M in 2019 – a number that doesn’t include Airbnbs or other non-traditional forms of accommodation, threatening to drive the city down the same path. In Santorini, a Greek island, many teachers can’t afford rent, as housing is increasingly used for high-paying visitors. Overtourism threatens to drive up prices, crowd out residents, and hollow out the most beautiful and historic destinations in the world. While the economic benefits of tourism are of course useful up to a point, is it really worth eviscerating the world’s landmarks to achieve these goods?
Past a threshold, I think the answer is probably no. This leads to the following question: what should destinations grappling with overtourism do to protect their cultural identity? This really is two questions: how should tourist destinations prevent overcrowding, and how should they make sure that they bring the most respectful visitors.
The most obvious way to do so is to increase the cost of entering by, for example, charging a fee to enter the city for foreign visitors, or limiting the supply of hotels and rentals through regulation. If I were to ask my introductory microeconomics professor, he would probably say this is the best solution – it filters out the ‘bad’ tourists who come, spend little on the local economy, and then leave – while still allowing the ‘good’ tourists who will spend more on the local economy. This would theoretically allow affected cities to ‘have their cake and eat it’, reducing the number of tourists while still, at least to a reasonable extent, maintaining the integrity of the local tourist economy.
However, there is something pretty troubling about this solution. I mentioned at the start of this article that I am traveling to Amsterdam this Winter – I probably wouldn’t be able to do this without low-cost accommodation at youth hostels. If I came from a less well off background, I would likely never be able to. It seems wrong to suggest that the wonders of the world – the pyramids of Giza, Colosseum of Rome, the Louvre Museum of Paris – should be restricted only to the rich. Furthermore, when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tourists, I wonder whether rich people are actually better. One of my friends from college went backpacking through South America last summer. He didn’t have much – only a backpack and a little bit of money. Most days, he didn’t plan his accommodation, and he surely wasn’t able to afford luxury hotels. However, what he did do is meaningfully engage with the people, community, and culture everywhere he went. I wonder whether a financier from New York is really a better visitor. Maybe we should still use price as a barrier, but this does not come without its problems.
If price isn’t an ideal barrier to entry, the question thus becomes how else cities can limit the influx of tourists. Is there any solution at all? There are some small things they can surely do. The first is to prohibit cruise ships docking. Cruise ships generally bring large numbers of people to their destinations for a few hours, without meaningfully contributing to the economy. Visitors don’t spend on housing in the city and often don’t even spend on local food, which is frequently included with their transportation. All the while, cruise ships billow pollution over the cities where they are docked. Venice banned cruise ships from its lagoon in 2021. Many other cities have followed suit.
A further solution to solve overtourism would be to specifically campaign against the worst types of tourists who visit for a ‘moral’ holiday, as Amsterdam is doing. In addition to direct advertisement, cities can limit the ability to drink during the day, smoke in public, or buy recreational drugs such as cannabis. Some of these changes can be imposed specifically on tourists. It is now harder to buy recreational weed in Amsterdam than in New York. This is probably beneficial for its residents.
However, neither of these strategies really addresses the root cause of overtourism. Venice has both ‘solutions’, and is still the textbook example of oversaturation. Perhaps there is one further strategy. Cities can try to disperse tourists out of city centers, to ensure that no specific area is overrun. In cities limited by their geographic footprint, such as Venice, local governments could try to disperse tourists into other nearby cities. This strategy has been attempted by our old friend Amsterdam, which has tried to spread tourists out of the city center. Realizing that many British tourists will only visit somewhere named Amsterdam, authorities renamed Zandvoort ‘Amsterdam beach’ and the castle in the nearby town of Muiden the English name “Amsterdam Castle Muiderslot”. It remains to be seen how effective this type of strategy will be. At the end of the day, many tourists just want to see Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower, and will inevitably gravitate towards them. Spreading out tourists could just clog up transport links and expand the problem to the periphery of cities as well as the center.
It is probably better to try these strategies than not to at all. After all, there is no easy solution to the problem of overtourism. People want to visit the great sights of the world, and who are we to tell them not to? Even so, it would be a shame if a lot of the other great cities of the world went the way of Venice. During the pandemic, many tourist centers got a temporary reprieve from constant visitors. As global tourism rebounds, we will see how cities across the globe respond to the end of their moment of peace.