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Blog Post / Vegan Travel

The Double-Edged Sword of Overtourism

Updated June 11, 2021

Picture this: 42 million people in 84 square miles. That is the forecasted number of visitors to Amsterdam in 2030 and it doesn’t include the 800,000 people who live in the city; trying to part the sea of tourists. Over the years, airfare and the cost of travel have become more affordable, enticing more people to explore places like Vatican City in Rome or cram around the Mona Lisa at The Louvre in Paris.

There is no denying the benefits and people’s livelihoods are connected to tourism. In Amsterdam, more than 60,000 jobs are connected to the industry, with tourists spending $7 billion a year. Even though tourism generates massive dollars, creates wealth, and provides an opportunity for growth, the sword has another side.

Amsterdam Canal

For years, the 50,000 Venetians who call Venice home have struggled with increased pollution, overcrowding, noise, and higher property values and costs. In other cities, as more property owners use their rooms as rentals on sites like Airbnb, locals have found it difficult to find an affordable place to live, forcing them out of the city.

Cities aren’t alone facing these issues.

Covid-19 has spurred an increased interest in exploring the beauty of the nation’s National Parks. The U.S. National Parks saw unprecedented crowds in 2020 – some 30% more – 300% more over 2019. These public lands have become “#instagramfamous” and have led to countless tourists, cell phones in hand, traveling to specific sites, looking to take the perfect selfie with the ultimate background provided by mother nature. The increase in visitors has produced a huge amount of trash, disrupted wildlife, and overwhelmed the fragile ecosystems of these treasured sites.

Mt. Rainier, National Park, Washington State

Covid-19 has given the world the opportunity to reset to protect these beautiful sites and the people who live there. For many residents, the lack of tourists has been a welcome change. Children ride their bikes without running into crowds and residents can breathe a temporary sigh of relief that the city is theirs again to enjoy.

This newfound peace has caused many cities to re-evaluate what they have done to combat overtourism and prepare for the future. In the past, cities imposed hefty fines for things like eating or sitting in undesignated places or charging a tourist tax. Others, like Amsterdam, tried polite options like the “we live here” campaign, to remind tourists that vomiting on their doorstep wasn’t appreciated.

But is that enough to change the dire trajectories of these places?

Most places would say no and instead have used this time to put in place plans to curb future endangerment. In Venice, the city is using a new tourist tracking system, The Venice Smart Control Room, to observe tourist behavior and traffic. The system will be able to tell officials the number of people in an area, where they are from, the type of traveler they are (day tripper vs. overnight visitor) as well as traffic in the canals and public transportation usage. The city plans to use this data to manage overtourism. In the future, visitors could see increased fees and timed entry on high traffic days. Entry restrictions are also in the works in our Nation’s National Parks. Places like Yosemite National Park are requiring visitors to pre-book a visit. Others are considering implementing timed entry to control crowds. This would also provide some relief to the park’s overwhelmed resources. Amsterdam is taking a little different approach and the city’s Mayor, Femke Halsema, hopes to refocus the city’s efforts on “valuable visitors.” A government survey found that 57% of tourists between the ages of 18 – 35 said visiting Amsterdam to visit coffee shops was “very important.” It is Halsema’s hope to discourage this type of visitor by banning the sale of marijuana in the shops.

So, what does the future hold for some of the world’s most beautiful places? To be honest, I’m not sure. The Covid-19 pandemic gave some destinations a chance to breathe while increasing the strain on other destinations.

Although what cities put in place is out of our hands, there are things we can all do to curb overtourism and travel a little more sustainably.

When you’re booking accommodations consider using a site like bookdifferent.com. They take the “greenwashing” out of the eco-friendly claims businesses make and ensure sustainability claims are being met and backed up with data. They will also tell you which accommodation is the “greenest” and calculate your carbon footprint. The site has a diversity of accommodations by size and price point. Staying at a small B & B can also be a great option. Many small accommodations utilize sustainable practices like using local produce and hiring locals.

Before you hit the road, consider switching up how you pack. Packing lighter helps reduce your overall emissions. Instead of grabbing single-use, travel-size toiletries, use refillable bottles that can be used for years and years to come. Cut out as much plastic as you can, try switching traditional shampoo for a shampoo bar, body wash for a bar of soap, and toothpaste for tooth tablets. If you’re traveling somewhere warm, grab mineral sunscreen that contains oxybenzone – the fish and coral reefs will thank you!

Here are a few more ways to travel more sustainably:

  • Travel at off-peak times, it is important to avoid popular destinations at their busiest. Off-peak can also mean you will save a little money.
  • When you’re deciding how to get from point A to point B, decide if you could take a train, carpool, or other mass transportation instead of a plane. Planes use a large amount of fuel and emit a significant amount of harmful emissions.
  • Avoid shopping in stores that are only for tourists or are big chains. Find shops that are local to support their economy.
  • Treat the environment kindly. Throw out your trash, use reusable water bottles.
  • Explore areas outside the city center and tourist hotspots.
  • Book tours with local companies or hire a local guide to show you around.
  • If you’re traveling to a National Park, take your trash with you, stay on approved trails and follow proper waste burying practices.

There is little doubt that overtourism has created a conundrum for authorities in destinations across the globe. An increase in tourism means an increase in capital and money flowing into the community, but overuse of resources. It can mean more work for locals, but fewer places for people to live as the cost of living increases. Covid-19 came along to not only show us what a world without travel looks like but also the opportunity to reset and plan for a more sustainable travel future. We all have a role to play in this change, it’s important to remember, when we travel, what we do, and where we spend our money has the power to influence change.

Photo credit: Stephanie Bergeron, National Park & Ilnur Kalimullin, Spanish Steps, Rome

About Author

Rebecca is the creator of Veggies Abroad, which was born from her love of travel, and the question she gets asked after every trip, "What in the world did you eat?" Her blog is a one-stop vegan travel planning spot with mouthwatering lineups of vegan food, action-packed travel guides, practical travel tips, and much more! Follow her adventures on Instagram or Facebook @veggiesabroad