If there is one concept that has dominated the public debate on tourism over the last few years, it is ‘overtourism’. Anti-tourism sentiments prominently featured in the last municipal elections in Amsterdam and Barcelona. In response to this outburst, multiple practitioner oriented reports have been written to support destinations on dealing with tourism impacts (Austrian Hotelier Association & Roland Berger, 2018; UNWTO, 2018; WTTC, 2017), while in academia four special editions of academic journals and four books on the topic are in production or have recently been published. So, how did this new term suddenly become so popular, and is it actually useful?
As most tourism scholars will know, the irony of overtourism is that the underlying issue – the excessive negative social and environmental impacts on a destination – has been part of the tourism discourse from as early as the 1970s and there are numerous frameworks to allow governments to measure and manage impacts. From the 1990s onwards, however, a more hands-off approachcame into favour that gave responsibility to industry actors and individual tourists (Hall, 2011; Scheyvens, 2007).
After the global economic crisis, tourism was viewed as a relatively clean industry that should be allowed to grow and flourish. Residents in European cities however, became increasingly frustrated with the unfettered growth of tourism and the increasing negative impacts of tourism that came with it. The provocative and media friendly term overtourism (and its Spanish sister ‘Turismphobia’) was the perfect catalyst to bring these concerns back into the mainstream. The popularity of the term overtourism can be related at least in part to the fact it is sufficiently ambiguous to mean whatever one wants. This also is a problem, though, as its simplicity and ambiguity limits an understanding of the underlying issues. This may work well to gain attention in media and online, but it makes it very difficult to come to • meaningful long-term solutions.
Overtourism implies that destinations are suffering from too much tourism. This can easily be conflated with thinking the problem is too many tourists. While increasing tourist numbers can be a cause of overtourism, it is also caused by tourists’ behaviour, the touristification of the built environment and the impact of these issues on residents’ daily lives. For example, the City of London, where few people live and which has been a tourist hotspot for a long time can cope with millions of visitors, whereas a newly discovered ‘trendy’ area like Neukölnn, which is visited by far fewer tourists but still hosts a very active local community, is said to suffer from overtourism. This highlights the phenomenon that overtourism in cities is in essence a social issue—different groups of city users sharing and competing for the same space, resources, infrastructure, or facilities. Tourists share these spaces with residents and commuters whose numbers in cities also are increasing by up to 10% per year. In addition, while international visitors stand out more, in Amsterdam they make up less than half
of the total number of visitors – as most come for the day. Wider societal trends and events (e.g. real-estate speculation, more flexible work hours leading to more residents actively using the city throughout the day) also contribute to the issues now associated with overtourism, yet often are forgotten (Koens, Postma, & Papp, 2018).
The way in which overtourism manifests itself, as well as the possibilities for managing the issues depend on the local context, in which solutions need to fit. There is little point in looking for one-size-fits-all solutions. Technological or smart solutions, which some hope will solve the problem, are also not enough and actually technology has also led to new issues (e.g. the rise of AirBnB, online shopping and subsequent delivery vans, the surge of low- cost carriers). What is needed instead, is cooperation between stakeholders from within and outside of tourism. To achieve this, it needs to be clear that, in spite of its name, overtourism is not a tourism-only problem.
While there certainly are serious issues with the term overtourism, the uptake of the term has renewed attention to the impacts of tourism and the inadequacies of a ‘laissez-faire’ attitude towards tourism growth. No longer can tourism’s success be judged on its contribution to a destination’s economy. Indeed, success is to be measured by a long-term contribution of tourism to the sustainabledevelopment of the destination as a whole, with particular reference to the quality-of-life of its residents.