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Overtourism: how destinations are coping with visitor peaks - Part 1

Is post-covid tourism so different from what we knew before? The answer to this question must be qualified, because although sustainable tourism has been in the spotlight in recent years, and is increasingly popular, over-tourism has not disappeared. Many territories have witnessed significant peaks in visitor numbers over the last two months. Destinations have therefore decided to set up various initiatives to better distribute tourist flows in space and time. The aim is to find solutions to the occasional peaks in visitor numbers and not to halt the activity which makes a major contribution to many areas throughout the world.

Destinations victims of their own success

One of the best known examples is Venice, but other international tourist destinations are also experiencing far too many visitors. Dubrovnik, which has been in the tourist spotlight since the broadcast of the Game of Thrones series, is subject to overcrowding every summer, especially in the narrow streets of its city centre. Croatia received around 18.66 million tourists in 2018, of which 10.08% were concentrated in Dubrovnik. Over the course of a year, this represents an average of 3,500 visitors per day, yet the city has only 43,000 inhabitants. This means that there is an average of one inhabitant for every 29 tourists, making the daily life of the locals difficult to bear during the high season.

Amsterdam is another example of overtourism, with more than 8 million overnight stays and nearly 20 million visitors per year for only 820,000 inhabitants. An imbalance that impacts the quality of life of the locals day after day. A phenomenon that in 2019 caused the Dutch tourist board to postpone a promotional campaign that should have helped attract new visitors. In addition, the country's new ambition is to focus on qualitative tourism, rather than quantitative. The Greek capital Athens is also suffering from overcrowding with more than 16,000 visitors per day. Moreover, the visitors' route always leads them to the same place: the Acropolis. 

This is a problem that does not spare France, like Paris, Mont-Saint-Michel or Marseille. Indeed, the city of Marseille is full of idyllic spots that are overrun by tourists on sunny days. In particular, the Calanques National Park is experiencing overcrowding, which affects the safety of users and its biodiversity. In the summer and during the long weekends, boat rentals multiply, much to the despair of Nicolas Chardin, deputy director of the Park. Some of these boats are rented illegally, despite the strict regulations that restrict boat rental to a few dozen professional renters and limit rentals between individuals to five times a year. Some very touristy coves, such as En Vau, are already forbidden to anchor in order to reduce the number of visitors.

Other more unexpected destinations are also subject to mass tourism, such as Iceland. Indeed, the small island of 340,000 inhabitants has grown from 500,000 tourists in 2009 to more than 2.3 million visitors in 2019. An explosion in visitor numbers that exceeds the current capacity of the infrastructure, especially in Reykjavik, the entry point for international tourists.

The Balearic Islands are experiencing the opposite problem of the Land of Ice and Fire. The island destination has long based its economic model on mass tourism. Indeed, almost 36% of the GDP of this Spanish autonomous community comes directly from tourism. The destination welcomed 16 million tourists in 2018, for a population of about 1.15 million inhabitants. The destination's authorities now want a sustainable change in the way tourists are welcomed. Miquel Mir, the Minister for the Environment, laments "a massification never seen in the Balearic Islands" during the summer of 2022, saying that the number of visitors "has exceeded the limits in a quite remarkable way". It is now essential to remedy this overcrowding, he said. The Balearic Islands now want to become the world's leading 'circular' tourist destination.

Social networks have their share of responsibility

The importance of social networks in this phenomenon of tourist over-visiting is no longer in doubt. In particular Instagram and TikTok, which put forward visual content with the aim of making their followers dream. The ultimate goal of more and more tourists, especially the younger generation, is to have the perfect photo to post on their account to get the most likes. Some spots are thus very popular, so-called "instagrammable" places, leading to over-visiting which, in the long term, can have relatively significant consequences on the ecosystem. 

Another risk of social networks is that they can lead to overnight attention for sites that were previously locally renowned. This is what happened to the famous calanques in Marseille, a place previously known only to locals, which after a few publications on social networks became a real tourist attraction. However, these confidential sites, which have become "selfie spots", often do not have the infrastructure to accommodate such a large number of visitors. In the Sugiton cove, for example, trampling has led to the erosion of the scrubland and the exposure of the roots of large pine trees.

Many tourism actors deplore the influence that social networks can have on the frequentation of certain sites. Some destinations are experiencing the downside of influencer marketing. Travel influencers often make trendy spots visible through a post, which unwittingly encourages many people to follow in their footsteps and take similar photos. Although they cannot be accused of being the cause of mass tourism, they are nevertheless part of this phenomenon which is very detrimental to the sector. In particular, travel influencers are said to have a considerable impact on small, hidden corners of the world that are unknown to the general public. However, the problem with overtourism is not the influencers themselves, but rather their followers who want to reproduce their photos and then post them on their accounts. A phenomenon known as "mass mimicry".

A competition to see who can post the best photo on social networks has also been pinned down by artists such as Natacha de Mahieu with her series "Theatre of Authenticity". The young Belgian photographer uses the timelapse technique - over a period of a few minutes to an hour and a half, she repeats and then superimposes photos taken at the same location in order to materialise the flow of visitors on a single composition. The result is both stunning and terrifying because it allows us to become aware of this phenomenon in given locations throughout the day. It is thus visible to perceive the impact that these abundant frequentations can have on ecosystems that are sometimes already fragile.

Regulate tourist flows by all means

Due to the phenomenon of over-visiting, several French nature sites have decided to impose compulsory reservation slots for tourists. For example, the Calanques National Park in Marseille limits the number of visitors to the Sugiton and Pierres Tombées creeks to 400 per day, two sites that have been weakened by soil erosion due to the passage of several thousand visitors per day in summer. In Corsica, three emblematic tourist sites, namely the Lavezzi islands, the Aiguilles de Bavella and the Restonica valley, have also adopted quotas since the beginning of July. A measure already in place in other international destinations such as Machu Pichu with a quota of 6,000 tourists per day. 

There is an awareness among local elected officials and tourism actors at all levels: we must not wait for things to get out of hand. The idea is to take action early enough to avoid a total ban on the sites. 

Julien Buot, Director of the association Agir pour un tourisme responsable

The Syndicat mixte Canigó Grand Site is the winner of the Horizons Trophies in the category "Responsible management of tourist flows" for its management of motorised flows on the north side of the Canigó massif. The result of several years' work, their strategy has led to a significant reduction in the number of cars. The destination has thus moved from excursion tourism, with people coming for the day, to hiking tourism, with people now coming for two or three days. Visitors are now spread out over several trails, so the flows are better diluted. In particular, they have the possibility of going up on foot, by bike, on horseback or on a donkey. This has allowed local actors to develop their tourism activities.

Spain, which has many natural sites that are very popular with tourists, has long had initiatives in place to preserve them. In Galicia, for example, Las Catedrales beach requires free online booking, and on the Biscayan coast, access to the islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has been reopened to the public with a limit of almost 1,500 people per day. In the Canary Islands, with some 15 million tourists per year, the Teide National Park has a quota of 200 visitors per day on the last section of the path leading to the summit of El Teide. In Andalusia, the Doñana National Park has restricted access to the interior for years, with a maximum of 886 people per day. In Cuenca, there are plans to limit visits to the natural monument Chorreras del Cabriel, a biosphere reserve site, to 400. There are many more examples throughout the country's different communities.

Other French destinations have decided to take advantage of the technology, such as Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur. Indeed, the region has teamed up with the Waze application to offer users the chance to return to the most popular sites at late hours. This initiative has also been adopted at Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is expected to receive more than 600,000 visits by 2021. Waze indicates whether the site is saturated and suggests other notable tourist sites in the vicinity as alternatives. In Brittany, an alert threshold system is being tested by the Vedettes de Bréhat. This system tells tourists, a few days before booking, which days are likely to be the most crowded, and whether it is worth postponing their visit.

The Balearic Islands are taking a completely different approach by prohibiting any increase in the number of hotel rooms or tourist accommodation for a period of four years. The aim is to "focus on the quality" of the tourist offer rather than its quantity, according to the president of the Balearic Islands region, Francina Armengol, defending a measure that is "forward-looking". Although this measure is not popular in the destination, Francina Armengol defends it by explaining that it is necessary to think "not only of the visitors but also of the inhabitants, the workers and the territory".

All these initiatives help to reduce the impact that such a concentration of visitors can have on the daily life of the locals, and to protect the surrounding fauna and flora, which are often the first victims of overtourism. If measures are not taken in time, the ecosystem can suffer seriously. This was the case at the iconic Koh Phi Phi Leh beach, the setting for the film The Beach with Leonardo de Caprio, in Thailand. The entire ecosystem of this place was in danger due to the constant coming and going of tourists all day long, forcing the government to close it to the public for many years to allow nature to regenerate. Although the beach is now accessible again, many conditions have been put in place. A quota of visitors per day has been set, as well as a limit on boats and other vessels within the bay.

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