Overtourism: It’s Not Sustainable Part I

Crowd blocks the view of Rembrandt's famed Nightwatch in Amsterdam's Reijksmuseum. (Photo Roberta Faul-Zeitler CC 3.0)

Crowd blocks the view of Rembrandt’s famed Nightwatch in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. (Photo Roberta Faul-Zeitler CC 3.0)

The world’s modern and ancient cities, tropical islands, coveted beaches, mountain retreats, national parks and famed museums – are all tourism magnetsBut fair warning to travelers and sustainability advocates – on every continent, in every season of the year, we have arrived at the age of overtourism. 

Our two-part article looks at the facts –who’s traveling, where they’re going, colossal revenues, how it’s affecting neighborhoods, cities, real estate, infrastructure, consumption, public health, and quality of life.  In Part II,  we’ll look at what you, and others, can do to reduce the  impact of travel and tourism on the planet and create a lighter environmental footprint. 

Overtourism is ubiquitous – it is everywhere

Try making your way across the Charles Bridge in Prague! It's a madhouse of activity, day and night. (Photo by Roberta Faul-Zeitler, CC:3.0)

Try making your way across the Charles Bridge in Prague! It’s a madhouse of activity, day and night. (Photo Roberta Faul-Zeitler, CC 3.0)

Cleanup crew at Prague Castle

Cleanup crew at Prague Castle

We learned firsthand in October during an off-season visit to Prague, in the Czech Republic – the famed Charles Bridge is jammed night and day. The Old Town is a mob scene waiting for the hourly performance of the storied mechanical clock, while tourists stand nearby eating slices of pizza. Crews are on cleanup patrol.   Local walking tour groups – a major income source for the city – crowd every sidewalk and alley.

Removing the popular "I am Amsterdam." Too many selfies, too invasive

Recently the Dutch removed the popular “I am Amsterdam” sign. Too many selfies, too much congestion.

The Dutch, so successful at marketing their most popular attractions, have now  reversed course – reducing the number of Airbnb nights, no more guided tours of Amsterdam’s Red Light District and limits on foreigners smoking marijuana – to stem the tide (an estimated 42 million tourists annually will hit the Netherlands by 2030). For the Dutch it’s a livability issue for a nation with only 17 million residents!

Barcelona's Guell Park. Photo courtesy of Cheapo Travel.

Barcelona’s beloved Guell Park with 9 million visitors is now “a tourist place” with timed tickets that cost 9 Euros..  Photo courtesy of Cheapo Travel.

Thousands of Airbnb conversions are transforming Barcelona’s homes and apartments in older, stable neighborhoods near the beloved Rambla, into often-raucous quarters for partying by out-of-country-visitors  (New Yorker article)

Symphony of the Seas Courtesy wikipedia

Symphony of the Seas Courtesy wikipedia

Ports and coastal cities (from Macau to Venice) are overwhelmed by towering cruise ships.  The Symphony of the Seas—the world’s largest passenger ship–is the height of a 23-story office tower and over three football fields in length ; it carries over 5,500 passengers.  Try to imagine the raw materials, water use, food consumption and human waste of operating a full passenger load!

Climate change and catastrophic events don’t seem to stanch the flow.  Tourists were injured and killed in December 2019 on White Island, a popular tourist destination 30 miles off the New Zealand Coast, by a volcanic eruption, despite warnings of increased volcanic activity just weeks before. See the video

Tourists in St. Mark’s Square in flooded Venice November 2019. Photo courtesy of Marco Panzetti (all rights reserved)

Photographer Marco Panzetti captured severe flooding in November 2019 in Venice: While high water damaged hotels and destroyed businesses, tourists waded through to survey the scene—despite smelly water that included raw sewage. He said in a Slate interview“Tourists are enjoying the high tide, and the floods, very much. It’s picturesque….Visually, it’s beautiful. For tourists, it’s another attraction. Tourists don’t realize what a disaster it can be for local people. “

Giant tortoise on Galapagos. Photo courtesy Calex Hearn

Giant tortoise on Galapagos. Photo courtesy Calex Hearn

Half a world away, rare and endangered species on the Galapagos Islands have to contend with over 240,000 visitors a year–one of the primary threats to the national park and adjacent islands that generate millions of tourism dollars annually for Ecuador.

It’s not sustainable!

The double-edged sword 

Mona Lisa selfies. Courtesy Washington Examiner.

Mona Lisa selfies. Courtesy Washington Examiner.

It’s hard to wrap your head around just how big travel and tourism has become:

[I]nternationally there were just 25 million tourist arrivals [worldwide]  in 1950. 68 years later this number has increased to 1.4 billion international arrivals per year …a 56-fold increase.”

It’s a global economic engine that many countries depend on to underpin their GDP (gross domestic product):

  • Tourism constitutes 7% of all exports worldwide,  bigger than automotive and food. (May 2019 from UN World Trade Organization) 
  • The sector now directly accounts for 3.2% of the global economy –indirectly for 10.4% of the economy– as well as 9.9% of all jobs. (The Telegraph/UK)
  • 1.4 billion international tourist arrivals in 2018; $1.7 trillion (yes, that’s a “t”) in international tourism exports; 57% of arrivals by airplane! (UN World Tourism Organization stats)
Standing in line at Paris's famed Printemps to get access to one of the luxury boutiques.

Standing in line at Paris’s famed Printemps Department Store to get access into one of the luxury boutiques.

Dependence on tourism for GDP

Numerous island nations and smaller countries depend on tourism as a major source of GDP (gross domestic product). Imperiled by climate change, rising seas, and severe weather events may leave them with an uncertain economic future. The top 10  (World Travel & Tourism Council)

Rehendi Suite in the Maldives Courtesy of wikipedia

Rehendi Suite in the Maldives Courtesy of wikipedia

  • Macau (43.9% of GDP)
  • Maldives (41.9%) (endangered by rising seas)
  • British Virgin Islands (30.3%) (severely damaged by a 2017 hurricane)
  • Aruba (28.6)
  • Seychelles (21.3 %) (endangered by rising seas)
  • Anguilla( 21%)
  • Bahamas 19.7% (site of mass destruction in Hurricane Dorian 2019)
  • Vanuatu (18.6)
  • Former Netherlands Antilles(17%)
  • Antigua and Barbados (15.5%)
Top of the Reichstag Dome, Berlin 2019 (Roberta Faul-Zeitler, CC 3.0)

Top of the Norman Foster-designed Reichstag Dome, Berlin 2019 (Roberta Faul-Zeitler, CC 3.0)

Europe, the world’s largest tourism region, reported solid growth (+4%) in early 2019,  led by destinations in Southern and Mediterranean Europe and Central and Eastern Europe (both +5%), according to the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer from the World Tourism Organization.

Smaller European countries  also depend on tourism:

  • Malta (14.2% of GDP),
  • Montenegro (11%),
  • Croatia (10.9%)
  • Georgia (9.3%)
Kumbh Mela 1. Haridwar, India, 2011 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery Toronto Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery New York

Kumbh Mela 1. Haridwar, India, 2011 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery Toronto Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery New York

India is a burgeoning travel powerhouse, as well as the world’s most populous nation.  “India is on pace,” says the Center for Aviation “to be…[the world’s] third-largest aviation market by 2024 [behind US and China].  It now generates some $234 billion in tourism goods and services, but is expected to explode to $492.2 billion by 2028. (New York Times).

Other regions are also experiencing growth. The Middle East (+8%) and Asia and the Pacific (+6%) experienced the highest increase in international arrivals. Numbers in Africa were up by 4%, and in the Americas growth was recorded at 3% (UNWTO)

Who’s traveling?

Sources offer contradictory figures,  but it’s no surprise that China, with the world’s second largest population, and a rising middle class, was first in travel spending in 2018, with  $277.8 billion (US dollars), followed by the US ($144.2 US billion), Germany ($94.2 US billion), UK ($75.8 US billion, and France ($47.4 billion).

Prague 2019 (Roberta Faul-Zeitler, CC 3.0)

Prague 2019 (Roberta Faul-Zeitler, CC 3.0)

“Among the world’s top ten spenders, the Russian Federation (+16%), France (+10%) and Australia (+9%) reported the strongest increase in outbound expenditure in the first nine to eleven months of 2018. The United States (+7%) and the Republic of Korea (+6%) also recorded solid spending figures, all of them fueling inbound growth in their respective regions and beyond.”

National Geographic reported: “In 2019, U.S. citizens departed for 83,420,498 trips abroad (that counts multiple trips for some citizens)…. an increase of 7.6 percent over 2018.” Nat Geo cites top destinations: Mexico (32.4 million), Europe (16.6 million), and Canada (13.2 million). Asia attracted 5.4 million.

Where and how are they going ? Cruising, cities & wildlife tourism

Summer cruises through Costco

Summer cruises through Costco

If there’s a tourist-friendly port or deep-water accessible waterfront, people are going there!

Today you can book a cruise at Costco while shopping for bread and toilet tissue!

The cruise industry has had several banner years, each breaking the prior year’s record:  24.7 million ocean global cruise passengers in 2016, 25.8 million passengers in 2017. An estimated 27.2 million were projected to cruise globally in 2018; 30 million in 2019. Cruise statistics

  • Demand for cruising has increased 20.5% in the last five years.
  • The single largest population of cruisers are from the US (11 million) with another 2 million from China.
  • The cruise ship industry says that 3 of 5 travelers are going to the Caribbean (34.4%), Mediterranean (17.3%) or non-Mediterranean Europe (11.1%). Check out trends at CLIA cruise trends report 2019.
  • European locations along the 1800 miles of the Danube River (Germany to the Black Sea)  are overloaded by  the volume and size of so-called “floating hotels” – longships and ocean-going cruise ships, leading to dangerous conditions.  An EU study found that Danube traffic increased by 89% in 15 years (2002-2017).

What does this ever-increasing volume mean in terms of the natural resources to operate, maintain and service 29 million people floating in the world’s oceans, as well as protect public health and safety ?

Cities at a tipping point 

Amsterdam Canal by Aik Meeuse 2016

Amsterdam Canal by Aik Meeuse 2016

They’re at the top of everyone’s bucket list– cities that tantalize first-time travelers and travel pros. They are places that offer great landmarks, historic neighborhoods, exciting entertainment, shopping, market halls filled with exotic foods.

According to the World Tourism and Travel Council, much of the rise in tourism is concentrated in the same places. “Of the 1.4 billion international tourist trips in 2018, half a billion of those were to the 300 largest cities.”

Removing the love locks, Paris, 2015

Removing love locks that threatened the structural metalwork on this Paris bridge, 2015

“Locals” see things differently:  Massive amplification of tourism in dozens of cities means congestion, overuse of public transit, unchecked trash and waste, threats to infrastructure,  loss of quality of life in peaceful neighborhoods — the very assets that drive people from outside to come and visit.

Gridlock from selfies, bridges dripping with locked “ love” padlocks, thousands of day trippers from giant cruise ships, partying in once-quiet residential neighborhoods

Crowd near San Marco, Venice. Photo by Alessandras Bianchi, Reuters.

Crowd near San Marco, just before Carnivale in Venice. Photo by Alessandras Bianchi, Reuters.

In Spain they call it “touristification.”

In sheer numbers, New York City revels in its #1 status. Mayor Bill De Blasio reported in the New York Times that the Big Apple was on target in 2019 for 67 million tourists. The city’s marketing agency NYC & Company reports it’s the city’s  10th consecutive year of rising tourism.  It’s like the entire population of France (65 million) descending on the Big Apple in one year.

Bangkok: Wat Phra Kaew by Ninara TSP Courtesy of wikipedia

Bangkok: Wat Phra Kaew by Ninara TSP Courtesy of wikipedia

Mastercard’s Global Destination Cities Index in 2018 (200 key cities) revealed that Bangkok remained the No. 1 destination, with more than 22 million international overnight visitors.  Paris and London were numbers 2 and 3, each with around 19 million visitors. All top 10 cities saw more international overnight visitors in 2018 than the prior year, with the exception of London, which decreased nearly 4 percent.

Dubai topped the list of cities by dollar spent, with travelers spending USD $553 on average a day. Makkah, new to the top 10 last year, remains at No. 2 for the second consecutive year, with Bangkok rounding out the top three.

Wildlife tourism – the saddest tourism of all

Orangutans in "bikinis" forced to fight each other. Courtesy of Caters News Agency

Orangutans in “bikinis” forced to fight each other. Courtesy of Caters News Agency

National Geographic June 2019

National Geographic June 2019

National Geographic calls it “selfie-driven” tourism, and the June 2019 issue shows you the public face and the private agony of wild animals that are kept caged, chained, tethered, shackled, nose-ringed, “trained” with bull hooks, declawed, teeth removed – all for the benefit of adoring tourists who happily pay for a ride, pet a tiger or take a selfie.

Hands-on wildlife encounters are unnatural – there’s no nice way to put it. But it is lucrative – and growing area of tourism

“Wildife tourism isn’t new, but social media is setting the industry ablaze, turning encounters with exotic animals into photo-driven bucket-list toppers,” so says Natasha Daly (staff writer/editor at National Geographic who produced the story with photographer Kirsten Luce. Read the full National Geographic special report

Elephant "entertainment" Courtesy of conservationcaptured.org

Elephant “entertainment” Courtesy of conservationcaptured.org

We’re not talking about photo safaris in Range Rovers in Botswana or visits to established wildlife sanctuaries and conservation centers where it’s possible to get up close while trained caregivers share stories of conservation triumphs and you’re close recovering animals.

  • Is it natural to pose next to a towering 5-ton elephant ?
  • Should we be swimming with corralled groups of dolphins who scratch each other to get to the bait food?
  • How cool is it to have a young baboon clinging to your leg while you stand munching an apple?
  • Is it a life experience to be photographed with a tiger or lion chained to a cement floor?
  • What life lesson is is a child getting at a circus where the bear with a chain through its nose is riding a tricycle?

This is tourism in places like Russia, Thailand, Amazonian Brazil, India

Most of the animals in wildlife tourism are trafficked. They are poached, captured from the wild – taken away from a herd or parent, treated harshly, to be “broken in.”

Chained young elephant in Thailand. Courtesy of World Animal Protection.

Chained young elephant in Thailand. Courtesy of World Animal Protection.

In a BBC News story, Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, Global Wildlife and veterinary adviser at World Animal Protection (WAP), said: “The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing – we want tourists to know that many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their life. Read the full story

The WAP research study of almost 3,000 elephants in captivity, found that “more than three quarters were living in ‘severely cruel’ conditions. Many were bound with chains less than three meters long and were forced to stand on concrete floors close to loud roads, crowds and music.”

Thailand uses roughly twice as many elephants in tourism, according to the WAP as all the other countries combined. Over five years, the number of tourists visiting the country doubled to more than 30 million (2016 figure). The research found that 40% of tourists of the top nationalities visiting said they had been or were planning to ride an elephant, so captive elephants in Thailand gave rides to almost 13 million people last year [2016].

Maldives solar-powered residences

Maldives solar-powered residences

We’ve shared only a sliver of the global travel and tourism pie, but it’s enough to establish that more sustainable approaches have to be designed and implemented at every level by government and the private sector. Stay with us for Part II, an in-depth look at how to make your personal travel, and large-scale tourism, more sustainable for the planet !