In 2019, 1.4 billion tourists traveled internationally, more than ever before. The tourism industry and travel media began to refer to this phenomenon as “overtourism.”

“Overtourism is tourism that has moved beyond the limits of acceptable change in a destination due to quantity of visitors, resulting in degradation of the environment and infrastructure, diminished travel experience, wear and tear on built heritage, and/or negative impacts on residents.” 

Center for Responsible Travel (CREST)

While tourists have flocked to popular destinations for decades, the recent emergence of this term demonstrates just how pressing this issue has become. In 2017 and 2018, Barcelona and Venice became the poster cities for overtourism when residents took to the streets, protesting cruise ships, Airbnb, and the unrelenting wave of city day-trippers.

This phenomenon spread globally, impacting national parks and protected areas, beaches and coastal communities, World Heritage Sites, and fragile historic cities.

But in 2020, the number of global international arrivals suffered a staggering drop to under 400 million. Although destinations around the world have fallen victim to overtourism, in the era of pandemics, political instability, and the powerful influence of social media, these destinations are just as prone to severe under-tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light that the problem is not just “too many tourists,” but how to manage tourism in a way that maximizes its benefits to people, the planet, and destinations sustainably.

The twin threats of overtourism and under-tourism have caused destination management solutions to emerge. Governments, tourism businesses, destination management organizations, non-profits, and others have put good tools to work to solve this issue. The solutions deal with transport, ticketing, creative use of technology, dispersal and diversification, strengthening responsible tourism, and visitor education.

Ultimately, destinations must proactively manage tourism. Sustainable tourism comes as a result of strategic planning with holistic stakeholder involvement, good management, and active monitoring of tourism’s impacts.  

Why It Matters

Group of tourists crowded in front of the Mona Lisa painting

Consider a place you love. Maybe it is the rural town you grew up in or the beach you visit with your family. Maybe it is the first national park you ever visited or a historic site that keeps your city thriving. Each of these places is likely dependent upon tourism, because of the conservation value it provides, the cultural heritage it protects, or the economic benefits it provides. 

We need to look at tourism, one of the world’s largest industries, with the same rigor as other sectors that both help and harm our well-loved places. We must transform the way the world travels for these places – their landscapes, their historic sites, their wildlife, their cultures – to survive.

What CREST is Doing About It

tourists dressed in white crowded on Great Wall of China

In 2018, we partnered with George Washington University’s International Institute for Tourism Studies to host an international event in Washington, DC on the topic of overtourism solutions. Tourism professionals representing a wide range of destinations (including World Heritage sites, coastal and beach communities, national and regional destinations, national parks and protected areas, and historic cities) discussed the challenges they faced in their destinations and the creative solutions that have been tried and tested.

This event provided a platform for tourism practitioners to share their knowledge and reflect on what has worked and what has not. The conference resulted in a book of case studies titled Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future (Island Press, to be released May 2021), co-edited by Martha Honey and Kelsey Frenkiel.

Mass cruise tourism is a key driver of overtourism in many destinations, causing damage to coastlines, overwhelming community and natural resources, and creating a massive influx of tourists when ships dock. Under the current model, the economic benefit to the destination is limited, especially compared to more lucrative forms of tourism like stayover tourism.

We have a long history of advocacy around better cruise tourism policies and practices, which we have implemented through our research, field projects, and resources.

large crowd of tourists standing in front of ancient red building

Too often, destinations use metrics that do not actually indicate long-term tourism viability. Sometimes, they even hinder it. Governments and other destination managers around the world typically frame their goals around visitor arrivals. However, this type of “quantity over quality” tracking can accelerate overtourism and ignores the usage of key performance indicators that really matter.

In our research and field studies, we utilize the metrics that actually indicate the sustainability of tourism and the destination, like economic impact, employment, resident sentiment, and ecosystem health, among others.