Photo by Hannah Kennedy

June 1, 2021

Overtourism: A lesson from the pandemic

How the global stop to tourism can serve as a much-needed wakeup call

By: Emma Siegel

Throughout 2019, Athens saw 5.7 million tourists pour into the city. One such tourist was Hannah Kennedy, a student studying media at the University of Guelph-Humber. That year, Kennedy spent three months from May to July living and working in Athens as a social media manager and data administrator for the start-up company Travelmyth.

Because she was in Athens during peak tourism season, Kennedy witnessed the swarms of tourists taking over the city. “The stores were always full of people, the markets were crammed,” she said. “You could barely move around.”

Greece is no stranger to tourists. People flood to Athens for a tour of the historic Acropolis while other visitors island-hop to Santorini for the perfect Instagram photos. The large masses of people are not only frustrating for locals and tourists alike, but they also contribute to the larger, global problem of overtourism.

When the bucket list destination leads to destruction

Overtourism occurs when there are too many tourists in a particular place. The term became popular through a Twitter hashtag in 2012 and has only gained traction over the past nine years. From photos of cruise ship crowds flooding into Venice, leaving people crammed elbow to elbow and backpack to backpack, to Maya Bay in Thailand closing indefinitely because of the environmental destruction left behind from tourists, overtourism has ravaged popular destinations around the globe.

While it can be difficult to tell exactly when tourism becomes overtourism, there are some unmistakable signs that signify the problem. Clogged streets and crammed stores that make it difficult for tourists and locals to function, economies that rely on tourist dollars and drive out local businesses in favour of gift shops and multinational hotel chains, ecological damage ranging from mass amounts of litter to cruise ship pollution, and an overall lessened travel experience all point to overtourism as the cause.

In Kennedy’s experience, the most obvious sign of overtourism in Greece — and specifically Athens — was the overflowing population of tourists in the city. She reflected on a day in July, where the temperatures were swelteringly hot, when she visited the Acropolis and was surprised to see that hundreds of people had still shown up to snap photos and pose for selfies.  

“Everywhere you looked, you could see a tourist taking photos, selfies,” she said. “You couldn’t escape the tourists. It’s hard to find a spot, not just the Acropolis but in Athens, without tourists.”

Kennedy also explained that sunsets in Greece were something of a daily event where everyone would converge in the best spots to take photos. When she went to Oia, a coastal town in Santorini, tourists would flock to a ruined castle that faced west, giving the best view of the sunset. “You have to arrive at least an hour and a half before the sun sets in order to get a nice view without people in your way,” she said.

While the overflowing masses of people were the most noticeable problem when Kennedy was in Athens and visiting some of the neighbouring islands, it was not the only casualty of overtourism. Pollution is another issue that popular travel destinations face.

“Athens is a very dirty city,” she said. “There’s garbage pretty much everywhere.”

Kennedy went on to say that the state of the city didn’t appear to be the fault of the locals, but was instead due to the large tourist population. The Greek Tourism Confederation reported that in 2018, there was two kilos of trash and waste per every tourist. And according to the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, Greece’s air quality has been deemed moderately unsafe; the organization cites one of the contributing factors to be the tourism industry.

COVID-19 and the ‘artificial’ reset

Though overtourism negatively affects a place, the travel and tourism sectors are accountable for one in every 10 jobs globally and many economies rely on tourist dollars, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. So, the answer to solving overtourism cannot be to simply stop travelling, but there are steps that travellers can take to help mitigate their harmful impact. 

Non-profit organization Ethical Traveler outlines 13 tips for travellers to better understand how to leave a positive impact while exploring a new place. Though Ethical Traveler focuses mainly on the developing world, these tips are helpful no matter the location.

Jeff Greenwald, a travel novelistand the executive director of Ethical Traveler, said that in the simplest sense, an ethical traveller is a mindful traveller. “It’s a traveller who focuses on the positive impact they can have when they go to a place,” he said. “They’re open, they’re informed, they’re willing to immerse themselves in other countries on a local level, on an indigenous level.”

When COVID-19 hit, tourism came to a standstill. As the first lockdown loomed all around the world, locals living in popular tourist locations shared photos of the crystal clear Venice canals and the Himalayan peaks being seen from Northern India as the smog cleared for the first time in 30 years. It became increasingly clear that as tourism came to a screeching halt, environmentally, a lot of places seemed to be doing better.

Greenwald, who is also co-founder of Ethical Traveler, explained that the worldwide hit taken by the decline in tourism is a lesson to be learned. “What it teaches us is that tourism and travel are extraordinarily important, and we have to keep them going in a way that is sustainable.”

Many people have called the COVID-19 pandemic the much-needed reset to the tourism industry. Greenwaldisn’t so sure that’s the case. “I think it’s an artificial chance to reset, in a sense,” he said. “The resetting has been needed all along.”

One such change, or reset, Greenwald suggested is high quality, low impact tourism. “You let fewer people in, you charge them more, and this is how you prevent, basically, overtourism,” Greenwald explained. “While I love this idea in principle, I also think that it just caters to the privileged and I think it’s very important that everyone from every economic group gets to travel.”

While there is no perfect solution to preventing overtourism, and no easy overnight fixes, the pandemic has acted as a wakeup call for change.

“It’s a really great time, when things burn down, to rebuild them,” Greenwald said. “And to rebuild them better.”

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