Tourism is traditionally seen as a positive for locals primarily for monetary reasons, in terms of boosting local economies, and bringing awareness to cultures across the world. So then, at what point does it become mass tourism, or ‘overtourism’, rather than just ‘tourism’?
Put simply, when the benefits of tourism are outweighed by the drawbacks, and the local population starts to suffer, the balance shifts the other way. For instance, when locals cannot even carry out mundane activities without inconvenience, or see their life standards decrease in quality, there is a clear issue: no longer reaping the benefits of the global popularity of their town, they begin to suffer precisely as a cause of this popularity.
Particularly in recent years, there has been a debate about the negative effects of mass tourism on the environment, local culture, and historic sites among others. As sensitivity about environmental awareness, structural and historic integrity, and cultural appropriation increases along with important discussions on the issue, questions have arisen about how much good tourists do (or perhaps, do not). The negative environmental impacts of tourism have long been documented, with problems such as long-term displacement of the locals, and pollution/damage to local structures. But the problem doesn’t solely end with visible physical deterioration – damage is inflicted on local communities, on many levels.
Many news pieces have shone a light on Venice as a city speaking up about overtourism, and Santorini has also gained notoriety for its own backlash to mass visitors, with activists targeting the cruelty of the infamous donkey rides, wherein donkeys, imported from France, are famously used to transport cruise-ship passengers up steep steps in the summer heat.
But what exactly do people mean by overtourism? And is it a real threat to destinations like Venice or Santorini? Overtourism is dangerous particularly because it can have negative impacts on the environment, local culture, and economy. A aforementioned, too many tourists can lead to overcrowding, pollution, and strain on natural resources, and it can also lead to the commodification of local culture and traditions, as well as exploitation of workers in the tourism industry. In addition, overtourism can cause prices to rise, making it difficult for locals to afford their own homes and businesses. Finally, it can also create safety concerns for both locals and visitors, particularly in areas that are not equipped to handle large volumes of tourists.
For example, in 2019, Venice received a record number of 5.5 million tourists*. As critics point out, the tourism industry, despite relatively recent steps forward, is not focused on sustainability, but rather, profit – this should not come as too much of a shock. In touristic hotspots like Venice, locals are affected by prices going up, including housing as well as goods and services, and a decrease in quality – take souvenir shops, for instance. Though valid for the city, it is not the increased cost of living in Venice that has captured the global headlines. Over the past few years, dramatic headlines have cried out over how to ‘save Venice from sinking’, referring to it theatrically as the ‘City under water’. Most recently, low-tides were reported to have caused the infamous Venice Gondolas ‘stuck in the mud’, in an entirely reversed scenario. As for Santorini, similarly, the beauty of it is ubiquitous and undeniable. But after a certain point, the masses of crowds visiting start to feel like a pilgrimage, and it is hard to imagine that the influx of tourists on such a scale will not have drawbacks for an area. Furthermore, commodification and exploitation come to mind especially in the case of the infamous donkey rides, an issue which was only addressed following widespread international outrage.
So what’s the cause, and is there a clear solution? Is there a realistic way to mitigate ‘overtourism’? These questions in turn lead to further probing of our systems, priorities, and what we value as societies. Growth, or authenticity/preservation? Or perhaps, there is a way to allow economic growth without destroying the systems we take for granted. Looking to the future, it would be nice to believe in the latter.
*Lee, J., 2022. In an effort to reign in profits from tourism, Venice has become a city tailored to the tourist instead of the resident, which is rather ironic.. [online] The Daily Californian. Available at: <https://www.dailycal.org/2022/02/12/love-for-a-dying-venice-the-resilience-against-overtourism/> [Accessed 29 August 2022].