On our honeymoon in 2015, after a week of traveling through the quieter parts of Croatia, my husband and I spent our last few days in the stunning medieval town of Dubrovnik on Croatia’s southern Dalmatian Coast. While planning the trip, I was drawn to the pictures of the terracotta roof tops and the ancient stone covering every square inch of the ground and the walkways and the walls of the historic part of the city. All right next to a shining blue Adriatic sea. Every glossy Instagram picture I saw of the place got me giddy. What I was not prepared for was overtourism and the thousands and thousands of people—not local residents, mind you—crammed inside those walls during the day trying to take pictures of every square inch.
I got a hint of these crowds from a friend’s recommendations ahead of our trip.
“If you’re going to walk the walls of the city,” she told me about the popular tourist activity, “make sure to do it as soon as they open or after 4pm to avoid the cruise crowds.” I hadn’t even thought about that at first, but true enough, around mid-morning, streams of groups—many being led by a guide with a numbered flag waving high in the air—flooded into the small area completely surrounded by a mere one-and-a-half miles of wall.
On our way into the pedestrian-only Old Town Dubrovnik—dragging our suitcases over the bumpy cobblestones while dodging hoards of humans—we chatted up our rental host noting the unreal amount of people. She didn’t live in the old town area and she confirmed that most residents live outside the main historic area.
A 2017 report said that a mere 1,557 residents (making up 568 households) of the city’s entire population (around 43,000) lived within the historic city center. This was down from 5,000 in 1991. This leaves the majority of properties in Dubrovnik short-term rentals for tourists. It may as well be Disneyland with much of the original charm—at least according to locals and former Old Town residents—being stripped away by the mere presence of these large crowds.
Dubrovnik has endured a lot in its centuries-long history (including devastating shelling in 1991 during their war for independence from the Yogoslav People’s Army), but it seems that overtourism is the modern-day threat to the city.
Dubrovnik is not alone. Many amazing places around the world are being loved to death through overtourism. Among them are Venice, Barcelona, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and even many U.S. National Parks.
While Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the tourism industry writ large, one tiny silver lining is that over-touristed places are getting a much-needed breather. This pause we all have to take offers the opportunity to rethink how we might travel moving forward. Not only does it give us an opportunity to think about how we show up in places with an anti-racism lens (check out our tips to travel with an anti-racist lens here), but also how we can be sustainably-minded and going in with intentions to avoid doing harm to the beautiful places around the world by participating in the overtourism.
Here are some tips to travel differently as we start to imagine being out in the world again. Each destination is different, so use these tips to help you with your research to find the best ways to have a lower impact on the amazing places around the world.
1) Find an alternative, less traveled destination
It’s true that so many places are one-of-a-kind, but sometimes we get drawn to certain places because of what we see in social media and the media. There are so many places to go that are less crowded, less frenetic, and perhaps, just as incredible (and dare I say, even more so because you can experience them with fewer crowds).
To use Dubrovnik as an example, other cities in Croatia such as Zadar and Zagreb, have a similar link to the history Dubrovnik has, but they’re less crowded by tourists and you can experience a bit more of day-to-day life of locals while you’re at it. These articles from Conde Nast Traveler and Remote Lands provide some alternatives sites and temples beyond Cambodia’s popular Angkor Wat. Spectacular alternatives abound in order to get away from countries that are inundated with overtourism.
2) Visit during the off-season or shoulder-season
Even popular destinations see a sharp decrease in tourism during the off-season or shoulder-season. For families with school-age kids, this can be tricky to travel during the school year, but it’s worth considering to lower your impact. This is particularly relevant for U.S. National Parks which are popular family destinations. I have friends from Montana who swear by Yellowstone National Park visits during the winter and spring because you get to experience way more of the majesty of nature without people. And some places that are popular in the summer (e.g. Italy) might also have more comfortable weather during off-peak seasons .
3) Take extended trips to your destination
As I saw in Dubrovnik, overcrowding and overtourism from cruise traffic was a big part of the problem. While a decrease in cruise traffic generally is out of your control, you can at least stay a bit longer at a location to experience the destination at a slower pace. Additionally, some places that experience heavy traffic from day-trips (such as with Santorini in this CN Traveler article) don’t experience the economic benefits of overnight stays.
Of course, this may not make a difference in some very popular destinations such as Dubrovnik where locals have essentially been kicked out of the Old Town residencies, but it can be a boost to the economy in some places like Santorini. It’s also a much nicer, less stressful way to travel when you have several days to really experience a place, no matter where you go.
4) Make sure that where you stay benefits the local economy and doesn’t harm local real estate markets
While online short-term rental websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo have made short-term rentals very easy, they have also wreaked havoc on local housing markets. Many locals have been pushed out of rental markets almost entirely in some areas (Dubrovnik for example) by housing that’s overpriced or unavailable because they’re used for short-term rentals.
While you don’t always have to forego Airbnb completely or for every trip, do your research about the destination, the impact of such rentals, and if it seems renting through those sites might do more harm, opt to stay with local, licensed hotels or hostels.
We hope that once travel resumes when it’s safe to do so, local economies will come back anew. But maybe this pause can help us reflect on how all of our decisions about travel—especially to places that are getting loved to death by tourists—can impact communities everywhere.
Did you enjoy this article on overtourism? You may also like a few of our other conscious travel articles on the Bébé Voyage blog: