‘Overtourist’ Is Now A Verb


Above shows a serene Tokyo photograph, but it’s the top half only – I’ve divided it into two. For the other half, see the bottom of the article.

There have been some fascinating press pieces this month on a global problem that has been building for many years. Even in the times of the Grand Tour there were complaints about the despoliation of foreign destinations, but it wasn’t until the first cheap flights of the early 1970s that the subject became a standing joke – witness Eric Idle’s rant about the ruination of Spain by British holidaymakers;

It’s not just overtourism that’s damaging world heritage sites; out-of-scale construction plans in Liverpool threaten its status, political instability in Yemen, Iraq and Kosovo all play their part. But saving a national treasure also encourages us to visit it.

The search for the ‘unique experience’ has led to some of the tiniest off-map places being overrun. Recent articles about Chinese tourists mysteriously turning up in the tiny Oxfordshire village of Kidlington had nothing to do with them looking for Harry Potter’s Privet Drive. The day-trippers had been arriving in their coachloads wanting a glimpse of the ‘true’ sense of England. I suppose they got it; people trimming hedges and tending to rose bushes.

The super-rich can ‘enjoy seven gastronomical experiences by private jet’ in Spain for around seven grand, but for many cities the problem is bargain cruise ships which disgorge their passengers for a day in vast numbers. Cruise tourists get a very strange glimpse of whichever city they visit. Often their routes are designed to avoid impacting on local environments, so they’re herded in preset routes to restaurants set aside for their use. At least they can say they’ve been there, sort of.

Some cities aren’t suited for any kind of cruise ship – Venice is quickly being destroyed but endemic government corruption fails to stop them. Venice has its own people to blame. The centres of Paris and Florence have been all but ruined by tourism – on my last trip to a favourite restaurant in Paris I found that it was unwise to sit anywhere near the door, because it was regularly kicked open by Chinese tourists for photo opportunities, some of whom walked into the dining room to continue snapping.

Education is needed not just for tourists but for tour operators. After the British working class invaded Spanish coastal resorts, the authorities realised they had created an undesirable situation for their own residents, and now many tourism resorts are confined to a single area or ‘upgraded’ with more quality establishments that discourage hordes of drunken teenagers. A recent trip to Benidorm for a Spanish friend’s birthday showed a city undergoing a transformation from its old image as a booze-bar sinkhole to a far pleasanter place.

Is this any different to bussing out homeless people during the Cannes Film Festival, which used to happen every year? Yes, because as the posters around Barcelona put it, ‘Your holiday is our everyday.’ When the people who live and work in a smallish city find their lives impacted by higher rents, worsening businesses, the disappearance of shops and crowding of public transport it’s time to bring the problem under control.

London is a classic example; one of the world’s most popular destinations, it is so overcrowded in certain areas that tube stations now have to shut at peak times. Yet avoiding those areas takes you back into almost deserted streets. It’s even true of New York. One street away from the main drag and you can find yourself alone.

Tourists don’t generally stray far from where they’re sent. In Corfu it was found that the average holidaymaker travelled no further than three miles, so containment was planned. In Mallorca this summer I went to a village night festival and found no tourists there at all, because such fiestas offer nothing tangible for tourists. What I wanted was to be invisible and enjoy the atmosphere.

The bucket list mentality favours box-ticking over actual experience. But for places which have come to rely on tourist income, finding a balance will be tough.

8 comments on “‘Overtourist’ Is Now A Verb”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Gah! I’d managed to forget about Watney’s Ale.

  2. Adam says:

    As a recent (and unexpected) convert to cruising, its worth pointing out that you don’t have to do the vastly expensive shore trips that the companies try and foist on you. For example, coach trip from Civitavecchia to Rome is £54/person per the cruise company, only €7 if you book a train ticket yourself!

    Instead of taking the organised trip to Bruges when in port in Belgium, we got on a tram and stopped for a wander at Blankenberg as it looked like an interesting seaside town.

    Cruises can give a good flavour of a town, which you can visit again for a longer stay if your interest is piqued. I’m still trying to reconcile the environmental/ethical points, though…

  3. Richard Burton says:

    This post sparks some memories. I went on a Uni trip to Mallorca and had to sit through a talk by a government official on how they wanted to change their tourism from bulk to cultural. Whilst Palma has seen a lot of sympathetic restoration since then, the coastal hotels are beasts that still need feeding, not a lot has changed there. Going inland in more recent visits was cool though, staying in a falling down hotel in Sineu was fun. The locals explained all of the language differences and history. They even picked up our tiny hire car and moved it out of the square on market day because they didn’t want to wake us up!

    Going off piste in popular holiday destinations is still easy I think, and best done by accident. Although i do remember having to shepherd some Germans out of New Cross. They’d gone to find Barnes Wallis’s house on a Saturday evening, on a whim, during the Deptford Free Festival. Crusties, dogs on string, cider, unhappy locals, enthusiastic policing, they certainly got an authentic London experience circa early ninties 🙂

  4. admin says:

    I must say Deptford has changed since my Auntie Nell lived there in a bona-fide slum. The last time I was there I did a talk at their delightful Library, and couldn’t have found a more enthusiastic or diverse audience.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I agree with Rachel but that was the reason I turned on my sound. Even when a tourist has lots of time and an open agenda there is a feeling of time pressure. I still feel it even after having had a Guinness in one of the tackiest and emptiest pubs in London (we didn’t know about daytime closing) and wandering down a very old laneway near St. Pauls (Carters Lane) and talking about rental prices with young people in a workingmen’s pub in Victoria and watching the guests at a number of weddings (September is a boom month for weddings in England apparently) and enjoying the commentary on the cheap boat trip to Greenwich and the train driver’s reminder to passengers to take all children with them when disembarking (that child was really exhausting and I hope he got a rare talking to when they got home). And the rare range of gingerbread in Aachen bakeries and the public art everywhere and the senior’s free tea and cake on Fridays at the Hamburg art gallery and people everywhere. (The archivist in Neumunster is very kind indeed.)

  6. Richard Burton says:

    You’re right Admin, it was always upbeat when I lived there. I think it’s a byproduct of chaos! I’m unlikely to forget the address of our first house there either. 2 Friendly Street.

  7. Martin Davies says:

    Hi Richard

    My mother used to be a big fan of yours.

    She loved you in “Don’t look back in anger”.

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Watney’s Red Barrel. Metallic Fizzy Piss, more like. Made contemporary fizzy piss, like Carling, the fizziest and pissiest of today’s lagers, seem sophisticated. The only beer of that era I liked, was Ind Coope ‘Long Life’ beer, brewed originally for the Royal Navy, to be kept on board ships. But, like most nice things, the brewery discontinued it. Typical.

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