On Overtourism, for Locals and Travellers

Posted on Thursday, October 25, 2018

Overtourism is becoming a huge problem and a major topic in the travel industry. It came to my attention that recently, Venice created restrictions for tourists, and of course there’s the influx of protests against tourists in popular destinations like Barcelona (which really goes all out – they hate tourists). Why? Because the rising popularity of cities means rising costs of living, which may not always be viable for locals. Additionally, a global culture means that local culture may be perceived as under attack, and a lot of tourists are unfortunately not eco-friendly or aware of certain cultural aspects of local life.

There’s no easy answer as to a solution, but there are a tonne of things to think about when it comes to the clash between locals and vacationers. We’ve existed as a species for tens of thousands of years but have changed drastically in recent decades to be a global culture more than a local one, so this situation is so unique. I’ve thought long and hard about it and have decided to publish my two cents on the topic. I’d love if you got the chance to read, and I’d also love your opinions as well – as a tourist or even a local.

For Locals

I completely get where you’re coming from. I’m from Washington, DC – one of the most gentrified cities in the U.S. Let me tell you about it. When I was growing up, DC was a less popular city due to its crime. It was a quaint-ish city with a lot to do and a lot of local restaurants, and there were old buildings everywhere and the people were really friendly. I lived in the ‘burbs due to the crime and we’d go into the city all the time and I considered it my home, as a lot of people in the ‘burbs did.

Then the economy crashed, and a lot of jobs left were in the District of Columbia. A lot of people started moving into the city from other places, which meant a lot of buildings being torn down and being built up. The landscape of the city is completely changed. Prices rose to the point that we couldn’t afford a house in the city any longer, if we wanted that option. Moreover, prices rose to the point that people already living there had to leave the city and find new houses. It’s so bad that an average studio rents for $1500/month and jobs with bachelor’s degrees can often make $10-12/hour or somewhere in the $30-50k salary range. That doesn’t add up, but a lot of people coming to the city have a money supply at home, so they make ends meet OK. It truly has been catering to the rich.

The people aren’t really friendly anymore. The natives who live here are always mad about the gentrification, which often runs parallel with race and economic status. The expats are excited about the changes in the city, but I feel like if they wanted it to be like home in New York or Boston, why don’t they just stay in New York or Boston? It wasn’t tourists but expats, and for years it made me furious that my beloved home was undergoing such drastic changes. Does this sound like what you’re going through? I totally understand where you’re coming from.

But here’s the thing: it’s not worth being so angry about it. I’ve spent hours and a good bit of sass about the DC gentrification crisis and in the end, it has done nothing to stop gentrification and has only wasted hours of my time, energy and emotions. It is so similar to how people feel about increased tourism in their hometowns. In the end, it really is a sad reality of capitalism and the money-power game. However, by projecting such negative emotions, I am only making myself a victim. In combat against thousands of wealthy people, I will always lose. It may not be the easiest pill to swallow, but if you succumb to such negativity, you’re making yourself a victim, too.

Also, let’s get read. The people who would heed your “tourists go home” advice would be the ones most sympathetic to what you have to say. They will leave. The ones who do not care about what you have to say will stay. When caring tourists leave and the selfish ones stay, did you really win your cause?

However, you can do something about it. Not graffiti (which ruins architecture anyway…?), not telling tourists to die, nothing violent. You can talk to your government officials about what they can do to help combat the effects of overtourism. Some ideas include:

  • Asking them to improve housing situations. This could include limits on how many apartments a single person can own (to reduce AirBNB apartment monopolists); restricting housing to long-term or permanent residents only; putting restrictions on rent increases; and more.
  • Limiting the number of flights/trains/buses/cruise ships coming into the city at a time.
  • Putting the money from tourism into creating new jobs that would help boost the economy for the locals.
  • Preventing more souvenir shops, hotels, or anything specifically geared towards tourists. This seems silly but part of what made me upset about Eze (France) is that so much of the town had succumbed to tourism that it had lost a lot of its identity. This was because the locals decided to turn every building into a souvenir shop, and the town’s castle into a hotel. Putting money towards local businesses would be a much better way for the government to spend its gain.

Let your government officials know how you feel and also what you think will help. Don’t take it out on the tourists. It’s not their fault they’re not from your city or your country, and chances are that you like to venture outside your hometown, too.

You can also tell tourists and expats how you feel when they’re being rude in your culture. They’re in your domain now. If someone does something – let’s say they litter or only get one item from a menu when they’re in a sit-down restaurant – tell them. Say, “Could you please throw your trash in the bin?” or, “This is a restaurant. You need to order more than just a side dish, or you can go to a cafe.” Tourists are often unaware of cultural differences, and now you’re letting them know. If they’re rude, they can leave. But not all tourists are made the same.

The important thing is to learn to breathe, let things go, and be happy. You’re not going to win the overtourism battle but you can find peace in it.

For Travellers

There’s a lot you can do to help overtourism that doesn’t involve staying away from the hot tourist destinations you want to see. But first, I’m going to ask a very controversial question: should you be travelling?

A lot of other travel bloggers like to spread the idea that everyone can and should travel, but I have to disagree. I’ve seen too many people on their phones for the duration of their trips; people who are rude to locals and others; people who have no appreciation of where they are. If you’re reading this, it’s probably not you. But if you or anyone you know does any of the following, maybe travel should be reconsidered.

  • Wants to travel to get good photographs, especially for social media.
  • Doesn’t care about meeting locals.
  • Doesn’t want to try new food.
  • Refuses to conform to another culture’s standards.
  • Is not interested in what makes a city’s or country’s identity, past and present.

Which is actually a lot of people. You don’t have to be fluent in the local language or know the entire history of a specific place, but it’s astonishing how many people travel who have no – and I mean, no – interest in where they are. It’s time to have the discussion that even though eco-friendly travel is possible, it’s a waste of resources so you can get an Insta pic. Even though travel is increasingly common, it might not be your thing if you don’t like stepping out of your comfort zone and making adjustments to yourself. If you’re expecting the same experience that you have at home but with ancient pagodas or medieval cathedrals, then maybe it’s time to think twice about your trips.

It sounds harsh, but it’s really not. It’s time to have that discussion about responsible travel, and part of that is saying that maybe travel isn’t for certain people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Art isn’t for certain people. Video games aren’t for certain people. Hiking isn’t for certain people. So why does travelling have to be for everybody?

So what if you don’t check any of the aforementioned boxes off? What if you know you need to travel to get the experiences you want? There are other ways you can help.

You probably already try to conform to other cultures, but if you don’t, here’s a little lesson: if you’re American, you know it’s really rude not to tip. Not only does the server not get paid but might end up having to foot the customers’ bill on top of that. Incredibly rude. So when someone at a restaurant doesn’t tip, it’s really irksome. When you go to another culture and mess up what they have in place, you give them the same feeling. It’s not really about messing up the social construct, but confusing and possibly upsetting someone else. Listen to the locals. If you read the above section, I tell locals to breathe and be happy. However, it’s the traveller’s responsibility to make it less of a struggle for them.

You can also talk to other travellers and natives about the effects something may have on a culture. Does volunteering for a day help or harm? Are you upsetting locals with watching ceremonies such as a Luau or riding an elephant? Nowadays, it’s as simple as a Google search or asking on a Facebook group such as “Nomadic Network” or “Travel Addicts.” A big part of it is learning from your mistakes, and it’s a huge life lesson as well. It takes strength to admit your faults and change them, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re willing to own up to your actions.

From a political standpoint, you can also check that your AirBNB host is actually a person who is on vacation rather than someone who’s bought a bunch of apartments and rents them out. When people do that, they are taking away apartments from locals who may want to live there. Not cool. The safest bet is staying in a hotel/hostel or even Couchsurfing. You can also go to local shops or restaurants if you want to help the local economy, rather than international chains.

And please, wherever you are, don’t litter and be as green as possible. That shouldn’t be a problem anywhere.

So what can everyone do?

Everyone can be more open-minded and aware of others, whether at home or on vacation. Locals shouldn’t feel like their city is under attack, and tourists shouldn’t feel like they’re being invasive of their own world. However it is the responsibility of both parties to address the actual changes that need to be made in order for both groups to come together in peace. It’s about learning to respect others and to work together to devise compromises and understandings that will decrease the amount of stress that surrounds tourism in so many areas nowadays.

I hope you enjoyed and learned from this article, and I’d love to hear your feedback – even oppositions – in the comments section below. Happy travels, everyone!

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3 Comments on "On Overtourism, for Locals and Travellers"

Riana Ang-Canning
18th May 2020

Great post & thanks for sharing it with me on Twitter. I totally agree with your points and do feel that over-tourism is something that has to be worked at on many levels. I do think the onus is more on travellers, as they can do things with direct impacts without having to wait for governments who are more economically motivated to act, but agree that there’s work to be done on all sides.

19th May 2020

Definitely! Unfortunately there’s no easy solution to overtourism, other than to be a good person. I like to think that the presence of more conscious travellers will make travel better over time.

Clazz – An Orcadian Abroad
11th January 2022

Great post! I agree with a lot of it, and I like your point about not victimising yourself just because a local area has changed. It’s hard in places that have become truly unaffordable – Edinburgh certainly suffers from the Airbnb effect, and one of the neighbourhoods went from a drug-addled area to one of the coolest neighbourhoods in town. That took investment, and to me it’s mostly a positive thing. But, yes, it’s driven the demand up a lot, which has driven the prices up even more. But would I rather it was still full of junkies and seen as a place to avoid? Absolutely not!

It sometimes feels like there’s a fine line in travel blogging between shining a light onto places, and causing an oversaturation in the tourism market. Instagram has a lot to answer for – look at all these small towns near sunflower fields, terrorised by wannabe models every time the season comes back around. That’s the sort of influence I wouldn’t want to have on a place. I’m not really sure what the answer is for getting the balance right, sadly.

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