Mass tourism has tipped into overtourism — a word the travel industry has coined to describe too many people in too few places — and backlash in popular destinations is building. In Amsterdam, the mayor has blocked any new souvenir stores or fast-food outlets in the central city. In Barcelona — now the third most popular destination in Europe after London and Paris — there is a ban on new vacation homes. In Venice, protesters blocked a cruise ship from entering the lagoon to dock. Even the pilgrimage Way of St. James has become so overrun that local residents accost hikers with very un-Christian remarks.
Germans have long been the world’s most prolific travelers, and some 10 million went abroad for vacation last fall. The Chinese are on course to outnumber Germans in traveling abroad. Overall, the number of tourists traveling internationally has risen from 674 million in 2000 to 1.2 billion last year and is projected to increase to 1.8 billion by 2026, according to a study from the World Travel and Tourism Council. But as flight prices come down and prosperity rises around the world, making tourism more accessible to more people, the number of beloved destinations mostly remains the same.
The rapid growth of the global middle class is a clear driver in overtourism. Recent data from the Brookings Institution suggests the global middle class, estimated at 3.2 billion in 2016, may be considerably larger than previously believed, perhaps now at 3.7 billion, with 160 million more people to join that cohort every year for the next five years. Nearly all (88 percent) of the next billion people in the middle class will be from China, India and elsewhere in Asia. With middle-class money comes a taste for travel.
“A major portion want to visit the most beautiful and significant places in Europe, which are already overloaded,” says Karl Born, a former manager for tourism operator TUI who teaches tourism economics. Terrorism and turmoil in many perennial tourist destinations such as Turkey and Indonesia have narrowed the choices for travelers in the past year.
The backlash from overtourism threatens to limit growth along the entire food chain — from hotels and restaurants to airplane manufacturers — as the crowds in popular destinations not only make life miserable for residents but spoil the tourism experience itself. “More customers have rated their trip worse this year than before,” said Georg Hesse, head of the rating and booking portal Holidaycheck. Complaints included overloaded staff and crowds at attractions. Travelers who are unhappy aren’t willing to pony up the same high prices, and the impact could reach as far as Airbus and other plane manufacturers. “When more and more destinations can’t or won’t take in additional travelers, then airlines will purchase fewer new planes,” said air travel expert Heinrich Grossbongardt.
The travel industry blames sharing economy websites such as Airbnb and Homeaway, which enable owners to rent out spare rooms or vacation homes in competition with hotels. In Mallorca and the Canary Islands, there are practically as many vacationers staying in private residences as in the islands’ abundant hotels. Among other complaints, the industry faults these private rentals for not collecting local tourism taxes.
Barcelona, for instance, was overrun with 8 million overnight guests and 10 million day travelers in 2016, putting the city in a virtual state of emergency. The number of cruise ship passengers to arrive in the Catalonian capital was 600,000 in 2000, according to MedCruise; in 2016 it was 2.7 million. Mayor Ana Colau describes her city center as “the Barcelona leisure park full of McDonald’s and souvenir shops, but without any true identity.” The city has countered with a ban on hotels and vacation facilities and stiff fines for Airbnb and Homeaway apartments that aren’t registered. Residents have mounted demonstrations to demand action.
But McKinsey consultant Alex Dichter said travel operators like TUI and Thomas Cook are also at fault. “Lack of planning is the most important reason why overtourism is now becoming a problem,” he said. These agencies could use their direct connection to customers to steer them to less crowded destinations, says Holidaycheck’s Mr. Hesse. They could suggest going to Greece instead of Spain, for instance, or to enjoy the canals in Colmar, France, instead of Venice.
Amsterdam officials have made inventive efforts to lure visitors away from the canals and Anne Frank House in the central city to nearby sights. One idea has been to rename places difficult for foreigners to pronounce — Noordwijkerhout on the North Sea coast has been recast as Amsterdam Beach.
In Berlin, many voted in favor of keeping Tegel Airport open in a recent referendum because “in their opinion, the noise of the planes keeps tourists, high earners and hipsters from moving in,” said Berlin media consultant Felix Zimmermann. In the Netherlands, there are worries that the backlash against tourists will boost the fortunes of the anti-immigrant PVV party headed by Geert Wilders in the next round of local elections.
Hotels are raising prices and some municipalities are raising tourist taxes to curb the influx, but the home-sharing alternatives undermine that effort. Would restricting budget airlines stem the tide by making access more expensive? Could travel agents do a better job of convincing visitors to come in off-peak seasons? While tourism agencies are excellent at promoting their regions to outsiders, what if they had more responsibility for the management of all those travelers? There’s no easy answer for the question of how to deal with the crush of people in a planet growing ever smaller.
Rüdiger Kiani-Kress covers the travel industry for WirtschaftsWoche. Darrell Delamaide, an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC, adapted this article into English. To contact the author: email@example.com.