The Overtourism dilemma: What it is, how to avoid it + travel responsibly

I don’t know how time has gone so quickly in a year that it also stood still, but it’s been a full twelve months since we spent a weekend in Prague. Prague had been way high up on my travel bucket list for years. When I travel, more than anything, I seek authenticity and connection. In Prague I was especially looking forward to finding that connection, because my family has roots in Czech Bohemia. In my parent’s home is the wooden steamer trunk that stood in the Prague train station, and carried all the possessions my great-great-great Grandmother would bring with her to Traverse City, Michigan, via Bremen and Baltimore. I was excited to get in touch with these roots and curious to see where this branch of my family tree came from. And I loved Prague. It’s full of architectural eye candy and Czech beer. It has one of the most beautiful castles, a colorful ancient astrological clock, and definitely the most decorated bridge I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it was the dreary early November gray that hung over it all, or the bohemian vibes, but it felt cool, mysterious and cozy.  I loved Prague. But we didn’t connect.

The bond I had looked forward to forging, was impossible to find. And I will tell you why. It was so freaking crowded!!! I don’t know, maybe its being a mom, big crowds with my kids tend to make me nervous now. It probably wasn’t even that bad. But beyond feeling lost in the crowds, I felt like so much of what we saw, and did either catered to, or sought to take advantage of them. Of course, we’ve been in crowded places before. It’s expected that when you visit a famous spot, other people will be there wanting to see it too. Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue stands out as an example. When we went to see her, there were a gazillion tour buses unloading infinity people to see this famous statue in a somewhat obscure location in Copenhagen Harbor. But we all had to see her! There was no way all infinity of us were leaving Copenhagen without paying our respects to its arguably most famous resident. You wouldn’t go to Rome without throwing your coin in the Trevi Fountain. You couldn’t just leave without seeing the Colosseum. Brugges’ tourists come in to see the lovely, fairy-tale city for a day and leave, outnumbering locals 3 to 1 while they are there. The more easily accessed the corners of the world become, and the more they’re pinpointed and popularized on social media, the more this effect compounds.

It is not Prague’s fault it’s so awesome people flock to see it. It is also not alone in its popularity, and not even close to the most popular European destination. Many other cities have this problem as well. So much so, that there’s a recently coined term called “overtourism”. Overtourism is essentially an extreme influx of travelers to a popular location, exceeding carrying capacity and resulting in a complex multitude of undesirable effects. For example, overcrowding public transportation leading to problems for commuters, damage to the environment due to excessive waste (both litter, and overwhelmed sewage systems, ew), increased costs driving out locals, and the death of cultural practices due to the pressure of visitors. The list goes on. Crowding is not overtourism, the Little Mermaid statue was crowded, but it wouldn’t be “over-touristed” until they have to regulate the area due to excessive litter and damage to the surrounding habitat. With overtourism, a local economy becomes dependent on tourist spending and faces an identity crisis while attempting to accommodate the crowds. Overtourism kills authenticity. Which explains my issue with Prague.

I’ve been reading up on this, because as a person who likes to travel, I wonder how I can be part of the solution and not add to the problem. It’s a true dilemma. Thankfully, ultra-popular locations have been trying to figure out how to best deal with the situation for you and me. Amsterdam has had such an exponential influx, that it has simply stopped advertising itself as a place to go. Machu-Pichu now gives tickets for a specific four-hour time slot. It hasn’t decreased the amount of visitors, but it has evened out the numbers at a given time (flattened the curve, if you will). Venice placed turnstiles in popular locations during busy times like holiday weekends, to limit the flow of people. This makes me unbelievably sad. Venice is not Disneyland.

Clearly this is a very large issue. I’m glad the experts are working on it. But what can you, and I do to combat overtourism at our little personal level? To be responsible travelers, and help preserve the pure originality of a place, so we can still seek-and-find those authentic connections. Here are a handful of solutions . . .

1. Go in the off-season. We have been doing a lot of off-season travel and I have to say, that even though it was chilly and many museums and restaurants were closed in January, I didn’t mind so much, because we’ve had the main events, like the Normandy Beaches and Mont-Saint-Michel, all to ourselves. The weather might not be as nice, but you know that Scandinavian saying, “there’s no such thing as bad weather”, just be sure to pack your hat, mittens and raincoat. November 1st is All Saint’s Day, a national holiday, in much of Europe and so despite the fact that early November is generally “off season”, that could explain the number of people we encountered in Prague. Do your research and choose to go in the off-times (also more cost efficient).

2. Find alternate, less-visited locations. This can be hard work, pricey and risky. You might get the flu (not location specific) and drive three hours through some seriously sketchy traffic. See the post from our Dominican Republic adventure in early 2019. While over-touristed, the trail has been blazed to popular locations, making them comfortable places to travel. But, if you do dig a little, you can find tons of recommended alternates to the ultra-popular tourist spots. Enough to confidently plan your alternate adventure. I’m a true believer in leaps of faith, and even though the unknown of off-the-beaten-path can seem a bit scary, the potential payoffs generally make it worth the risk*! *within reason.

3. You can get up early to avoid a crowd. We are naturally early birds these days, with two little ones who force us up at the same time every morning. And yeah, when we are out of the Airbnb/apartment/hotel by 9am, museums and city squares are pretty much empty. And yeah, it is nice to have the peace and quiet. I read this is how you’re supposed to go see Prague’s Charles Bridge, if you want a selfie without someone photobombing your background. This is how we saw Charles Bridge, but only because our kids get us up early every single day. We were recently in Krakow, and main Old Town square was empty when we walked through at 9am, but definitely filling when we walked back through at 11 and positively bustling from noon onward. I have seen this same pattern almost everywhere else. Peel yourself off your pillow, grab a coffee, and get out there.

4. Get out in the neighborhoods. Old Towns are cool, they’re what everyone goes to see. We’re totally guilty of visiting a place for a couple of days and sticking to the Old Town of the city. It just makes sense when we have limited time and want to see the highlights. But neighborhoods are where you can really get to know a place. If you’re having trouble connecting, neighborhoods are where you’re more likely to find the authenticity you seek. I can almost guarantee this is where you’ll find the really good restaurants, and where you can pick up souvenirs that weren’t made in China…unless of course, you’re in China.

5. Be mindful and respect local cultures. You’re a guest, so be on your best behavior like your mama taught you. I’m hoping that you already know this, I don’t need to say it. But just, you know, generally be quiet in places of worship and don’t litter. Learn to observe, listen, ask questions and follow suit. My new favorite quote is by Walt Whitman, “Be curious. Not judgmental.” Bring your curiosity, but leave your judgment at home.

This year has been different. Tourists are staying home and the popular travel destinations have been clear of the crowds. The only places being over-touristed have been Covid units in hospitals. Take it from me, a sedation vacation is not a fun time. But when this pandemic is over, I hope you’re ready at the gates to get out there and do some much-deserved, far off exploring. If you’re planning a post-pandemic trip to Europe, or other popular destination, I want you to be prepared. It might be really, really crowded. If you aren’t expecting it, it can take you off guard and I don’t want you to be thrown, like I was in Prague. But also realize that as travelers, we can be part of the problem, or contribute to the solution. Let’s be mindful explorers.

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