After a pandemic pause, overtourism is back – with Med beaches already packed and the streets of Europe’s capitals gridlocked with bewildered tour groups following bored guides holding fluttering red flags.
But while we all know that you can’t move for selfie sticks in St Mark’s Square, the problem has now spread well beyond the likes of Venice, Dubrovnik and Barcelona. Indeed, there are plenty of more surprising corners of the world which are struggling to cope with mass tourism. In this digital age, word travels fast and it can take just a few Instagram snaps or Tik Tok videos to send the hordes to a hilltop Italian town or little Greek island cove. And the problem is only going to get worse, as the UNWTO has predicted that total tourist arrivals will number 1.8bn by 2030, up from 1.5bn in 2019. These are dizzying figures, especially when in some pint-sized locations just a few hundred extra visitors can wreak havoc.
The difficulty for discerning travellers is that it’s not always easy to work out whether your destination will be mobbed when you arrive. Here we highlight the surprising destinations battling overtourism and offer advice on how best to avoid the crowds when on holiday.
Cinque Terre, Italy
The five pastel-painted coastal villages that comprise the Italian Riviera’s Cinque Terre are an easy sell. Scenic but achievable hiking routes (or a convenient train line) link the impossibly pretty settlements which are dotted with bakeries turning out fresh focaccia slabs, little bays and old stone churches. And yet the area attracts far fewer British tourists than nearby Tuscany or even Puglia, which may falsely lead you to believe you’ve found an untrammelled gem.
Unfortunately, while there may be few Hugos there’s no shortage of Hals. The area was popularised back in the 1990s by American travel writer Rick Steves and a stream of US tourists have flocked there ever since. It got another unnecessary boost a couple of years with the release of the Disney/Pixar smash hit animation Luca, which is set in the area. And it’s extremely popular with domestic travellers, who flock there at the first sight of sun. Around 2.5 million people visit the Unesco-listed area each year, while each small village only has a couple of hundred residents.
Among the measures visitors must now contend with are one-way hiking routes at peak hours – these can descend into slowly shuffling queues around lunchtime as everyone attempts to work up an appetite before a hearty pasta lunch. Boarding a train after a hike can also prove an hours-long challenge, with carriages packed more tightly than a tin of anchovies (a local specialty), even in the evenings. Even exiting a station can take up to 30 minutes at certain hours.
Tourism accounts for a staggering 90 per cent of the area’s GDP, so locals are loath to dissuade visitors, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. However, Fabrizia Pecunia, the mayor of the largest village Riomaggiore, last month complained: “It’s no longer possible to postpone the debate about how to handle tourist flows. If we don’t find a solution, our days as a tourist destination are numbered.”
Sunny Beach, Bulgaria
Though Bulgaria remains somewhat under-the-radar for traditional British tourists, its cheap and cheerful Black Sea beach resorts experience an influx of party-hungry visitors in the summer months. The most popular is Sunny Beach, which has emerged as a cut-price Magaluf, with hotel rooms from £9 and dangerously cheap beer. Despite being founded back in the 1960s, the resort exploded in popularity in the 2010s, when arrivals rose by 86 per cent.
The recent Channel 4 television programme Emergency on Sunny Beach highlights the negative impact of inebriated groups of tourists. On the show, local police officer Desislava Goranova said: “The British people cause the most problems because they can’t drink. People come on holiday and lose their senses.”
She added: “Sunny Beach is a resort of two extremes. You have beautiful nature and a stunning beach, but also places with criminals, drunk people and people on drugs.”
Despite this, many holiday companies are launching more and more packages to the area. But those who are making the trip, perhaps hoping to also visit the nearby Unesco town Nessebar, which has ancient ruins and an Archaeological Museum housing thousand-year-old pottery and bronze vessels, should be aware of what might await. Authorities recently launched a number of measures to lessen the negative impact, including limiting the number of tourists in peak season and promoting alternative destinations.
Being the second largest country in the world, you may think that Canada would be somewhat immune to overtourism concerns. However, in certain pockets visitor numbers have spiralled out of control. The small resort town of Banff (population 9,000) sees a staggering four million visitors each year, with almost 700,000 in July 2022 alone. Set within the national park of the same name, visitors flock year-round for Rocky Mountain views, ski slopes and hot springs, so locals rarely get a break. Residents have recently banded together to create a sustainable tourist plan which has involved road closures and limits on private vehicles in the park. Visitors have also been encouraged to consider other lesser-known nearby parks.
The city of Vancouver is also struggling with a rise in popularity. In 2019, the city saw 10 million visitors and hit 95 per cent capacity during the summer season, according to Gwendal Castellan, manager of Sustainable Destination Development at Tourism Vancouver. This is no doubt amplified by the cruise ships that dock there daily.
Concerns have been raised that there aren’t enough hotels to meet the tourist boom, something that’ll need to be remedied before it serves as a World Cup host city in 2026.
San Sebastian, Spain
Barcelona may be the poster child for overtourism, but Basque beauty San Sebastian is hot on its heels. As the star of plenty of food-focused travel television programmes, the small city attracts tourists wanting to bar hop, tuck into pintxos and channel their inner Anthony Bourdain. Its meteoric rise began in earnest a few years ago – visitor numbers jumped more than 10 per cent in 2018 alone and it’s now the fourth most-visited city in Spain, which has proved a problem as the vast majority of the more than two million annual visitors stick to just a couple of narrow streets in the Old Town where the main bars are.
Protests over mass tourism have become more frequent and there have been incidents of bars charging more to holidaymakers. Local residents have expressed particular concern over rising housing costs and a loss of community identity.
Authorities also now plan to charge for emergency rescues at sea – if the swimmer in peril has engaged in reckless or negligent behaviour. The move is in response to a slew of incidents where drunken tourists had to be saved after nights out.
How to avoid the crowds on holiday
Travel outside of peak season. If you are willing to compromise on weather, travelling outside of summer always means fewer crowds in Europe. However, be warned that even traditional shoulder season months of April and October can still be busy, particularly as the continent hots up.
Think counter-intuitively. Go for meals at odd times, visit museums before breakfast and hike in the early evening. Essentially, if you go against the grain you’ll be rewarded.
Get an early start. The earlier you rise, the more likely you are to experience destinations in peace. Even a city like Paris can be seen in relative solitude if you’re out of your hotel by 8am.
Avoid recommendations on social media. Instagram and Tik Tok are awash with so-called ‘hidden gems’, which in reality are very much discovered. Of course, smoke and mirrors is the name of the game with social media. Pictures of the famous swing in Bali don’t show the miles-long queue behind it, for example.
Dig a little deeper. Instead of simply wandering along to restaurants on the main drag, befriend locals who may well steer you somewhere most tourists wouldn’t get to. And before your trip, be sure to consult Telegraph Travel guides for our experts’ insights.