While many countries around the world welcome and even strive to attract tourists, an excessive number of visitors can lead to “overtourism”, causing various problems.
What is “overtourism”?
The term would have been created by a website offering information on tourism 2 years ago. Since then, it has become a key concept in both business and academic discussions of tourism.
Having too many visitors at a tourist site can lead to a host of problems such as busy streets, traffic jams and noise, causing inconvenience to local residents. It can even spoil the appeal of the site itself.
Japan aims to increase the number of inbound visitors from over 10 million to 40 million by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. As the number of tourists increases across the country, overtourism is expected to become a problem. Its effects are already being felt in Kyoto, one of Japan’s most popular tourist cities.
Kyoto challenged by overtourism
The former capital of Japan attracts more than 50 million visitors each year. We drove into town for this feature while on a 3 day stay in mid September. On the main street near Kiyomizu Temple, a World Heritage Site, was a long line of people waiting for a bus, which became a daily sight for locals.
A woman living nearby said: “The buses are always crowded. Sometimes I can’t go up and I have to wait for the next one or the one after. Traffic gets particularly heavy in the fall and buses get stuck in congestion.’ One man expressed his mixed views saying, ‘The livelihoods of people in this area depend on tourism, so I’m not saying we don’t we don’t need tourists, but we see the negative effects.
The increase in the number of tourists also leads to noise pollution. A local woman said, “Since minpaku (private accommodation) became popular, it’s noisy even after midnight because the houses are close together.
When we interviewed people around Kyoto Station, tourists pulling suitcases came in droves. Since I worked in Nara until 2008, I also used to visit Kyoto quite often, but I was amazed at how much the city had changed in 10 years, with all its foreign travelers .
Introduction of 3 dispersion measures
Kyoto is not just sitting idly by. At an international tourism expo held in Tokyo in September, Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa showcased the city’s efforts to tackle overtourism.
The mayor has come up with tactics to disperse crowds in terms of time, area and season. In an interview with NHK, Kadokawa said, “The key is to disperse crowds in crowded times, crowded areas or crowded seasons. Now that the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, have become a major topic for countries or cities around the world, the important thing is to combine SDGs and measures to develop Kyoto and promote its tourism.”
Time Dispersion: Promoting Morning Visits
At Nijo Castle, one of Kyoto’s top tourist attractions that has been designated as a World Heritage Site, time dispersal measures are being implemented. During the summer, the opening time was brought forward by one hour to 8 am. Additionally, a special breakfast was offered in its garden tea room, which is not normally open to the public.
The plan was a success. The place was full every morning. A woman from Hyogo Prefecture said, “My image of Kyoto was a bustling city, but it’s very quiet here. I take my breakfast in a refreshing atmosphere. Among the guests was also an American couple who entered just after the door opened. The man said, “That’s good. There are not too many people. I’m happy to come early in the morning.
Territorial Dispersion: Fushimi District Efforts
Efforts to disperse visitors to wider areas are underway in Fushimi district, south of the city. Since Fushimi is usually not crowded except for the area around Fushimi Inari Shrine, the city has tried to steer tourists to Fushimi from the crowded neighboring district.
Following brainstorming, local malls and travel agents arranged sake brewery tours. Fushimi is famous for its centuries-old sake brands. The rare experience attracts sake-loving foreigners.
On the day we covered the tour, 12 people from countries like Norway, Israel, and the United States took part. They visited sake breweries, enjoyed the tasting and learned how to pair food and sake. Attendees seemed to enjoy the tour, which offered a different experience than crowded tourist spots. The man from Israel said, “Visiting the sake breweries was a great experience. It was interesting and different from what we had experienced in the center of town. A British woman appreciated the quiet atmosphere, saying: “Certainly less busy, fewer tourists. I want to come back.”
Seasonal dispersal: Not only sakura and autumn leaves
The city is also trying seasonal dispersal methods. Although popular year-round, Kyoto becomes especially crowded during spring cherry blossom season and fall foliage season. To reduce congestion during these seasons, the city has tried to entice tourists to visit in early summer to enjoy the cool green maple leaves.
Kyoto is also considering launching other measures. For example, tourist facilities in Arashiyama, a popular place to view fall foliage, will start collecting visitor number data on a trial basis. Data will be released to a website in real time to reduce congestion.
Expert says Kyoto measures will be a case study for other cities around the world.
Overtourism around the world
Overtourism appeared earlier in other countries. In Venice, Italy and Barcelona, Spain, the problem has reached the point where citizens are staging protests, demanding the departure of tourists.
Venice is a city known for attracting tourists in droves on large cruise ships. Once the visitors have disembarked, they descend en masse on a small area. When this happens, the town becomes as crowded as a popular theme park. The Italian government has decided that huge cruise liners will be diverted from the city center. The city has initiated measures such as building barriers at peak times to set up separate walking paths for tourists.
The Dutch city of Amsterdam has banned beer bikes in parts of the city center, which are multi-passenger bikes that people ride while drinking beer. The ban was imposed because citizens complained that the city had become too big a tourist attraction. According to local media, some residents have moved out, complaining that the town has lost its traditional charm.
Overtourism also affects the environment. The Philippine government took the unusual step in April to close the popular resort island of Boracay to tourists. The government said the increased number of visitors had led to water pollution. Sewer systems have since been improved and the island will partially reopen to tourists at the end of October.
The UN is sounding the alarm
UN World Tourism Organization Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili told NHK why overtourism has become a problem around the world.
He said one factor is the growing number of tourists. There were over 1.3 billion tourists worldwide last year. Their number is growing at a rate of 3 to 4% per year. More and more middle-class people are traveling abroad as economies grow in developing countries.
He also listed factors such as the emergence of low-cost carriers and improved air links between continents.
In response to the growing problem, the United Nations has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The global body has held conferences in several countries and is working to address the issue.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization and other organizations released a set of 11 policy recommendations in September to address the situation.
This includes promoting the dispersion of visitors in time and place by creating, for example, attractive events for tourists in low season. It is also about ensuring that local communities benefit from tourism by increasing tourism-related employment and other benefits. Another measure is to improve infrastructure by taking measures such as the availability of secondary roads during peak hours.
In June, the Japan Tourism Agency launched a working group to promote sustainable tourism. The team will study examples both at home and abroad.
I’ve come to realize that while municipalities may be happy with more visitors arriving, they have to deal with issues like overcrowding and congestion. As someone who loves to travel, I have also realized that visitors can help in many ways, such as showing more respect for local people and culture, doing what we can to protect the environment and cultural assets, and try harder to find destinations off the beaten path.