Queues of mountaineers waiting to ascend the summit of Mount Everest (Photo: AP)
AT A LITERATURE FESTIVAL in Spain a few weeks ago, I was on a travel writing panel. The conversation rapidly dissolved into a heated debate about overtourism.
In the years immediately preceding the Covid pandemic, urgent headlines from around the world had warned how Venice was sinking, Kyoto choking and Barcelona drowning in garbage. Locals in global tourist hotspots were being squeezed out of their own cities, with real estate prices pushed to untenable highs. Selfie-taking hordes were fanning out locust-like across the most spectacular manmade and natural wonders of the world, leaving behind trampled-over, litter-strewn husks.
There were photographs of queues of mountaineers waiting to ascend the summit of Mount Everest, reminiscent of Taylor Swift fans trying to cadge a ticket to a concert. In May 2019, the Louvre Museum in Paris was closed after the workers’ union claimed that overcrowding had made the space dangerous.
My own first experience with how joyless actually ticking off items on your travel bucket list can be was decades ago, in the mid-1990s. My first visit to Rome had entailed spending an entire morning in the sweltering July heat queuing up at the Vatican City, all for a total of five minutes inside the Sistine Chapel. Groups of us, packed into the intimacy of a can of sardines, were pushed into the hall, where the crowding made it a feat to physically be able to crane one’s neck up towards The Creation of Adam, before being pushed out again. To have enjoyed the experience, one would have had to be a masochist.
In the almost three decades since that trip, global tourism has grown like a beanstalk that belongs to a fellow called Jack. Cheaper air travel means that the number of international visits has more than doubled since 2000. Rising incomes across the world, but particularly in demographically exuberant nations like China and India, are further fertiliser to the travel beanstalk. The number of overseas trips made by Chinese citizens, for example, rose from 10.5 million in 2000 to about 155 million in 2019. International tourist arrivals around the world have exploded from a little less than 70 million in 1960, to 1.4 billion today.
When we add social media to this masala of cheaper air travel and a rising middle class, the recipe for today’s overtourism is complete. On Instagram, everyone is in a febrile state of fear of missing out (FOMO) as they swipe through a smorgasbord of photographs of friends having “fun” in jaw-dropping locations. That this “fun” usually consists of the one photo in which platoons of competing photo-takers are baying for their turn at the margins of the frame is as much a testament as any to the fact that today’s tourism industry is a victim of its own success. The more tourists there are, the more they end up destroying the very assets—monuments, beaches, national parks—upon which tourism depends.
The pandemic might have given the world a brief window to reset, and replan the management of travel in ways that could moderate its negative impact. But it is now clear that this was a wasted opportunity. After two years of enforced stillness, the world is on the move again, and with a vengeance.
To take one example, Spain received the most international visitors for the month of May on record this year. It hosted 8.2 million tourists from abroad in that single month, more than in the previous May record set in 2019. And the Iberian Peninsula is hardly the exception. Countries from Austria to Morocco have announced similar record-breaking numbers of tourists for 2023, so far.
AND YET, WHEN at the literature festival I heard one of my co-panellists talk of busloads of Chinese tourists crawling all over cities “like ants”, it got my goat (excuse the abundance of animal metaphors). The cold fact is that there are racist and classist undertones to much of the handwringing about overtourism, as well as to many of the more common solutions proposed to address the problem.
For centuries, travel for leisure was the privilege of wealthy nobles or other people of means, who used it as a way of signalling their social standing and power. The kind of mass tourism that took off in the 1960s was the result of the growing democratisation of wealth and leisure in the West. Its 21st-century sibling of global mass tourism is in turn a manifestation of this trend in other parts of the world, including China and India, as they have begun climbing out of their marginalised and poor pasts. This is despite the citizens of the global South continuing to suffer enormous structural disadvantages in international travel, given the caste system that governs passports.
Selfie-taking hordes were fanning out locust-like across the most spectacular manmade and natural wonders of the world, leaving behind trampled-over, litter-strewn husks. There were photographs of queues of mountaineers waiting to ascend the summit of Mount Everest, reminiscent of Taylor Swift fans trying to cadge a ticket to a concert
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One way of looking at overtourism, therefore, is to see it as a celebration of growing global prosperity and egalitarianism.
Moreover, some of the scorn directed at mass tourism by the pundits of high culture is barely disguised snobbery. Nouveau travellers lack the cultural capital that imbues the “right kind of tourist” with knowledge of implicit norms. They get over-excited on planes and don’t quite know when to stand up or step aside. They might snag an extra fruit from a hotel breakfast buffet and stuff it in their handbag to eat later because economic scarcity is usually a newer memory for them. They may lack the confidence to travel solo and therefore choose the kind of package tours that provide them with some of the comforts of “home”, even as they dip a toe in what can feel frighteningly foreign. The ability to be cosmopolitan is a privilege rather than a virtue.
NONE OF THIS is to deny that overtourism is a real problem. What is important is to ensure that equity is at the centre of the solutions devised to address it. So, for example, merely charging tourists more by levying taxes, or insisting on minimum daily spends, only rewards the wealthy while punishing the less materially endowed. In Japan, there are restaurants that refuse to take bookings from foreign tourists, unless made by the concierges of approved hotels. Large Chinese tour groups have been banned from some spas and hotels. In cities like Berlin, there has been a crackdown on Airbnb, and others like Milan have outlawed selfie sticks.
Far better than these is to devise ways to make off-season travel more attractive. And to lessen the huge burden on Top 10 list-sights by incentivising tourists to explore destinations that are off the beaten path.
Indonesia recently announced a plan to place some of its cultural heritage on Web3, a new iteration of the internet that includes blockchain technologies. A dozen of the archipelago’s leading master craftsmen have created a collection of NFTs, one-of-a-kind digital assets that are sold through Web3. This is one way in which locals who were previously fully reliant on tourism can begin to plan revenue streams that are not dependent on footfalls alone.
The business of solving overtourism in an inclusive way is urgent. Travel is not an indulgence; it is an education. And collectively, we need to ensure that everyone has the chance to enjoy, be astonished by, and learn from this world, but without destroying it in the doing.
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open