Is Over-Tourism Destroying Some of Earth’s Treasured Experiences?

The light is brighter after lunch at Machu Picchu. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

Travelers use the term “bucket list” to identify places they hope to visit before “kicking the bucket.” But is swarming for selfies at dream destinations actually killing the attractions jet-setters have such affection for?

The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas gives a St Mark’s Square sensation. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

The dangers of “over-tourism” were addressed by a panel of travel advisors and destination representatives at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas where, ironically, most of the world’s largest hotels are found, including Bellagio with 3,933 rooms, where Virtuoso’s annual conference was staged. While the fanciful Venetian Resort Las Vegas has over 7,000 rooms, Venice, Italy – to which The Venetian with its canals, gondoliers and Rialto Bridge is themed in homage – is in reality much more delicate by nature. So are the other destinations the Virtuoso panel members delivered reports on including Barcelona, Machu Pichu, Mount Everest, Amsterdam and Ljubljana.

Travel Volume to Desired Destinations Over 10 Years

“Virtuoso’s combined annual travel volume to those six destinations jumped from 12-million people to 37-million over the 10 years from 2008-2018. This illustrates the rise in luxury travel,” said Misty Ewing Belles, Virtuoso’s global public relations director. It’s good for the industry but is it good for the environment of those locales. Or has it lessened the nature of the visitor experience?

“Over-tourism is a real thing. Places are too crowded. We have to find more interesting destinations and experiences,” said Phillipe Brown, a travel advisor with the London-based Brown and Hudson.

But Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s CEO, is wary of the term.

Virtuoso CEO Matthew Upchurch introduced a panel on over-tourism. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

“Over-tourism is a dangerous word. This narrative could result, for instance, in travelers thinking the Great Barrier Reef no longer available to see.”

Upchurch’s colleague Belles pointed out a supporting statistic Virtuoso gathered by studying its luxury travel customers.

“Affluent travelers are less likely to contribute to over-tourism because they intentionally travel out of season,” said Belles. “By 2018 Virtuoso travelers strongly favored off-peak trips to avoid the crowds at the six destinations we highlighted.”

Technology and Human Expertise Can Identify Fresh Destinations

Virtuoso’s technology and network of worldwide travel advisors and providers serve as an access network which makes the “bucket list” more of a “Wanderlist” for alternate authentic adventure options.

“Luxury travelers are not just a financial boon to tourism at destinations while they are visiting. They are also opinion leaders back in their communities,” Upchurch explained.

Those luxury travelers are increasingly searching for experiences in less-crowded places or undiscovered locations. They can then share their “discoveries” with their friends and colleagues.

“People want to be seen as more knowledgeable and go to places others haven’t,” said Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands, Inc.

“I believe that over-tourism is actually an amazing opportunity. For instance we can invite people to travel all 12 months of the year to Italy. Italy is just as beautiful in the winter as the summer and has so much to offer,” said Andrea Grisdale, founder and CEO of IC (Italian Connection) Bellagio. Her custom tour company, which is part of the network, has, after 20 years, become known as the most connected and creative provider of unique, genuine “live like a local” experiences for visitors to Italy. “And we are working with many of the lesser known areas and regions to develop new experiences and truly introduce our clients to the entire country and all that it has to offer. Each of the 20 regions is so different.”

Is Venice Vanishing?

Crowded canals and flooded streets in Venice. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

Nevertheless IC Bellagio’s customers do desire the iconic Italian experiences. 15 million of the 24 million people who flood into Venice each year are day-trippers. In the interest of preservation and perhaps limiting overcrowding, Venice is considering charging visitors a 10-euro fee to enter the small island of narrow passageways diced up by canals and bridges. A couple of highly-publicized recent cruise ship-dock collisions are causing consternation, as well.

Crowded canals and flooded streets in Venice. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

“The travel and tourism sector is very important to the city officials in Venice. They are doing amazing things to control day visitors and make Venice safe, sustainable and integrate foreigners while making it more positive for locals. It is important to keep the local residents in Venice,” said Grisdale, who keeps in close touch with Luca Zuin, deputy chief of staff at Venice Town Hall.  “In addition to the historic center of town the international tourists visit there are places outside of the center that are of interest. And Venice is becoming known on the world stage as a university city.”

Arrivederci Roma?

Rome has its share of crowds and Roberto Payer says gentle care should be taken in order to keep the Eternal City intact forever.

“Tourists have no right to touch the past. Leave it for our kids to see, too. These sights have been there for hundreds of years and with this kind of treatment they will be gone in 10 years. When tourists come to Rome to see the Spanish Steps do they respect them? No, they sit on them and eat and drink. I have seen tourists jumping into Bernini’s fountain because it was hot. We may not have a lot of air conditioning in Rome but we do not want to see half naked people in the fountains,” said Payer, who works in the hotel industry. “How do we educate tourists who come to Europe about our culture? In Las Vegas I see people in the swimming pool eating and drinking. In Europe that behavior is unacceptable. People must understand where they are going. There is a code of conduct.”

Traffic in the roundabouts of Rome has always been a frenetic, but the capital city of Slovenia, which Virtuoso has identified as one of the hottest new destinations, has managed to a head off that problem. Ljubljana closed the scenic, riverfront city center to vehicles, according to Petra Stusek, the managing director of Ljubljana Tourism. Foot traffic now teems through the stores, boat rides, restaurants, street-front cafes, castle tours, music festivals and the annual Christmas market that find locals and tourists comingling in the city. The world’s learning curve on Ljubljana, the mountains and storybook castle setting of nearby Lake Bled, and other compelling sites in the former Yugoslavian birthplace of Melania Trump began a decade ago when Majej Knific and Mattej Valencic had the singular courage to act on their vision and pride in Slovenia to create LuxurySLOVEnia. Their tour operation, now part of the prestigious Virtuoso network, is surprising luxury visitors with value – culture, cuisine, and nature in close proximity to Venice and Vienna.

Barcelona’s Reign in Spain

One of Spain’s most popular destinations also had to make some decisions about traffic and flow in its city center, according to Mercedes Garcia, Barcelona’s Tourisme Director.

“Buses can no longer stop and drop crowds in front of La Sagrada Familia,” said Garcia of the massive, ornate, Gaudi-designed, unfinished basilica in Barcelona nobody goes to town without seeing. “There is also an ordinance now that no more hotels can be opened in the city center. The markets are already full of tourists – so much so they are blocking out the locals who are there each day to actually shop in them.”

Garcia said it is important, through Virtuoso premier partner travel advisor companies such as Virginia Irurita’s Made For Spain & Portugal, to promote the outskirts of Barcelona and entice people to spread out some. “Those sites are only 20-minutes away. We need to tell tourists the distances in time instead of kilometers.”

Traffic at the Top of the World

Traffic around Rome’s Piazza Navona, people at the Pantheon and lines at the Coliseum are one thing, but the photo of a 200-climber cue at the 29,000-foot top of Mount Everest went viral and shocked the world in May of 2019.

“Everest is a big mountain and you normally wouldn’t see that kind of a crowded line but there are a few choke points where that happen. This year it happened for a variety of reasons,” said Lou Kasischke, an experienced climber who once came 400 feet from the summit of the world’s tallest mountain before having to turn back and wrote about it in his book “After the Wind: the 1996 Everest Tragedy – one Survivor’s Story.” “The character of the climb and the environment surrounding summiting has changed so much over the years. It’s been very disappointing to me. This year there were 11 deaths. That’s sad but it’s about normal. This year though four of those deaths were attributed to the overcrowding situation.”

Kasischke said the sophisticated weather equipment climbers now have entices many of the climbing groups to attempt to summit Everest on the same day, which puts people in a position to be jammed up and waiting at the high-altitude choke points in what is known as the “Death Zone.”

A startling amount of bodies, rubbish and used oxygen tanks litter the otherwise pristine Everest environment, as well.

Virtuoso panelist Heald said each year 371 permits are granted to foreign travelers to summit the mountain over a 12-day window.

“A permit costs $11,000 with no medical checks. There are lots of people who should not be up there,” she said. “I suggest a higher fee for the permits and a mandate that climbers have to hire more than one Sherpa guide.”

Masses Move on Machu Picchu in Peru

The keepers of the mystical Machu Picchu mountain site in Peru are already limiting access to the numbers of hikers, climbers and tourists now. Getting up to the ancient ruins may not be deadly but it is logistically fairly complicated, according to Alonso Roggero, general manager of Peru’s Metropolitan Touring.

“Trains, busses, and bottlenecks have become a daily experience so there is a proposal to allow only 2,500 people per-day instead of the 6,000 tourists we now get. Right now we have timed-entry tickets so visitors can only stay for four hours. And, to better manage flow they enter in one spot but they then must follow one of three routes.”

Roggero said a new road is being built so there will be fewer trains chugging up and down, but there is still only one restaurant at Machu Picchu to serve all those visitors.

“Travelers should come in the afternoon so that no lunch is needed up there. The light is also better then. The popular concept of experiencing Machu Picchu at sunrise is a myth. It is cloudy in the mornings.”

How to Help

Baseball great Yogi Berra, when asked about a certain New York restaurant, claimed, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded. Want to help protect against over-tourism? Let a Virtuoso Travel advisor propose and plan fresh, authentic off-the-beaten path experiences for you in off-peak times.


Michael Patrick Shiels is a radio host and travel blogger. Follow his adventures at Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]


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