Could Covid-19 be the end of overtourism?

author photo
Helen Fanthorpe
6/2/2020

Before Covid-19 came around, traveller hotsports around the world – from Barcelona to Venice, Tulum to the Taj Mahal – were caving under the weight of tourism. We ask: could Covid-19 be the end of overtourism?

What is overtourism?

In 2019, a staggering 3.2 million people visited Barcelona, while 5.5 million took a trip to Venice. “Too many” tourists can cause a web of complex local problems, from congestion and pressurizing public-transport systems to driving up house prices and forcing out locals. In addition, as communities become overwhelmed, tourists can erode their unique character and culture – thereby destroying the very thing they came to see. If you’ve ever been stuck behind an obnoxious tour group of sunburnt, camera-toting tourists, you know the drill. The term “overtourism” to describe this phenomenon came into being around 2015, and destinations around the world have been trying to tackle it ever since.

Overcrowded St Mark's Square, Venice, Italy © volkova natalia/Shutterstock

Fighting back

With overtourism responsible for a raft of local issues, governments and authorities around the world have – over the last few years – toyed with various schemes to tackle the problem, from ideas to introduce tourist quotas (Venice) to stringent rules on short-term lets like Airbnb (Berlin) and limiting cruise-ship numbers (Bruges). Maya Beach in Thailand, meanwhile – familiar from the cinema smash-hit The Beach – has been forced to close completely until at least mid-2021.

In Barcelona, meanwhile, citizens took matters into their own hands, branding several of the city streets with the message “Tourists go home” in 2017. The sentiment was often tied to a desire to welcome refugees rather than travellers to their city. Protests followed, with slogans like “Barcelona is not for sale” and “We will not be driven out” – similar marches took place across Europe, from Venice to Rome, Amsterdam to Lisbon.

Covid-19

Since coronavirus, all that has changed. At the peak of the crisis, around half the global population was asked by their governments to stay at home. The whole travel industry came to a standstill: entire airline fleets were grounded and tourist attractions, bars and restaurants all bolted their doors. Though travel restrictions are starting to lift and we can contemplate future holidays once more, the face of travel – at least in the short term – will be distinctly different.

For the foreseeable future, overtourism will simply be an impossibility. With lockdown restrictions, lengthy quarantine periods and hygiene risks still preventing most international trips, the majority of tourists will holiday closer to home this summer. Social distancing will characterize any trips we do make: visitor quotas will be the new norm, joined by a range of new hygiene regulations; when Greece’s beaches reopened, for instance, they were allowed only forty people per 1000 sq metres. And with people around the world actively avoiding the crowds, it’s likely that consumers will not only start by looking at domestic travel destinations, but to road trips, cabin-in-the-woods hideaways, self-catering apartments and to spend time in the great outdoors. More than anything, travellers will seek to avoid the major tourist attractions usually mobbed by the masses. For the rest of the year then, at least, there will be no place in the world for overtourism. But what about the longer term?

Tropical Maya Bay, Phi Phi islands, Thailand © Drone Thailand/Shutterstock

Supply and demand: 2021 and beyond

With more than ten percent of the global population employed in the tourist industry – the backbone of economies around the world – we’re already seeing incentives to bring visitors back. In Italy, for example, the government has recently launched a voucher scheme to stimulate the tourist industry, whereby individuals will receive the equivalent of €150 towards hotels and other forms of accommodation. While we are likely to see a raft of incentives and price-drop deals in the shorter term – from governments and airlines to hotels and tourist attractions – it could still take air travel up to five years to return to pre-Covid levels.

While tourist industries around the world will try to reboot, the coronavirus pandemic has had a crippling impact on economies and livelihoods, too. For those who have lost their jobs or been forced to take unpaid leave, there might not be as much disposable income to contemplate holidays. Similarly, with general anxiety high, certain strata of the population may prefer to shore up their saving accounts rather than splash out on a big international trip.

Though we’re likely to see incentives and price-drops in the near future as airlines and other industry players work hard to bring customers back, this doesn’t protect against price rises in the longer term. Mammoth German carrier Lufthansa expects that hundreds of its aircraft are likely to be grounded until 2022; the possibility of reduced flight schedules over the coming years means there’s a good chance demand could actually outstrip supply – causing rising prices once more.

Trying to snap past the crowds, Taj Mahal, Agra, India © Gallery de Labux/Shutterstock

continued below

    While we’ll definitely see changing travel trends as a result of Covid-19, it’s hard to predict how long these trends will last. Cruises are likely to be out of fashion for a while, for instance, as will visiting headline capitals to take in the “big-name” sites. But there are some changes that are likely to stick.

    Coronavirus has been an important driver for innovation. During the pandemic, companies everywhere have harnessed working-from-home technologies. With new processes in place, we could see business trips take a dive as more business is conducted virtually. In a similar vein, as major attractions around the world have sought to stay in touch with travellers virtually, many world-class museum and gallery collections have migrated online. Why visit the Mona Lisa for 15 seconds jostling with the crowds when you could see her from the comfort of your sofa?

    For vulnerable groups, travel anxiety is likely to extend into the future, too. Older travellers, for example, who once may have bought a round-the-world ticket to celebrate their retirement, might think twice before making the trip. Indeed, industry players around the world have predicted young travellers – with their tip-top immune systems – will be the first to hit foreign shores again, when it’s safe to do so.

    Barceloneta Beach in Barcelona © CharlotteRaboff/Shutterstock

    Sustainable travel

    Though the global pandemic has caused pain and suffering around the globe, it would be a pity to overlook the opportunities it has also afforded. We’ve all been witnesses to the largest ever annual fall in carbon-dioxide emissions as a result of reduced air traffic. A pause button has literally been pressed on the global travel industry, giving us all the opportunity to think about how we want to travel in the future. Has Covid-19 given you wanderlust, and a new appetite for exploring the world? Do you want to travel more sustainably in the future? What sort of travel outfits do you want to be waiting for you on the other side of coronavirus? What can we do to travel more responsibly?

    Pressing the reset button is a great opportunity to travel in a more sustainable and responsible way. Whether that means buying an electric car for that bucket-list roadtrip, taking fewer but longer trips, or making sure your travels benefit the local community rather than big corporations, it all makes a difference. We’ve seen the tourist industry bounce back before: after 9/11, new measures were introduced (think: heightened airport security) that we now take for granted. No doubt we’ll see the travel industry bounce back again, and when it does, let’s do it the right way. Whether or not overtourism is confined to the archives of history, hopefully we’ll all think a little harder about the impact of our trips.

    Top image: Taj Mahal © Gallery de Labux/Shutterstock

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