1. Travel

Wonderings: what can you do about overtourism?

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel… this month, James Kay considers the challenge of overtourism © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

The acqua alta was so high that the concierge gave each guest a pair of wellington boots after breakfast. With our feet protected from the ankle-deep water, we forded the flooded pavement from the hotel to the nearest bridge, and from there reached dry ground.

Aside from the water, which overspills the canals of Venice when a high tide coincides with a strong sirocco wind blowing in the Mediterranean, there were other downsides to visiting La Serenissima in November: the days are short, cold and often foggy in winter, a combination that explains why so few people visit out of season.

But the city over-compensates those who do: we had enough elbow room to enjoy the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, San Marco’s heavyweights; only light foot traffic flowed back and forth across the Ponte di Rialto; it was easy to find a seat on the vaporetti; and the city’s churches, museums and galleries lived up to the promise of its nickname, providing a serene shelter from the chill.

Loved to death

You’d scarcely know it in the depths of a dark November day, but Venice has long been a focal point of the debate about overtourism. More than 25 million people visit each year, the vast majority of them from May to September when a high tide of humanity overwhelms the city’s infrastructure; this is the real flood threatening its fabric and future.

Venice is not the only victim of its own success, of course; from sites like Machu Picchu to cities like Barcelona and countries like Iceland, destinations around the world are wrestling with the question of how to grow tourism sustainably, reaping the economic benefits without selling their souls for the sake of it.

A person in rubber boots walking in Venice's Piazza San Marco © Nullplus / Getty Images Provided you’ve got the right footwear, the depths of winter might be the ideal time to visit Venice © Nullplus / Getty Images

At the end of last year, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) released a hefty report that outlined five key tactics: even out the number of visitors over time, spread those visitors over a wider area, balance supply and demand through pricing, regulate accommodation, and, in the most extreme cases, limit or even ban some tourism-related activities.

Destinations are devising innovative approaches to this formidable challenge. For instance, London is trying to disperse travellers by engaging with them through a free mobile app that gamifies their visit, encouraging them to explore attractions outside of the city centre and collect rewards in the process.

Problem or solution?

Since no two destinations are alike, the WTTC report stresses that the right approach will vary from place to place. As tourism chiefs work out the best strategy for their unique circumstances, travellers who want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem can make a difference at an individual level right now.

Going out of season is one straightforward way. Going off the beaten track is another. Yes, that might mean forfeiting some aspect of the experience (a guarantee of fine weather, a tick on a bucket list). But in addition to a clearer conscience, your choice will probably be rewarded in other ways, both tangible and intangible.

For one thing, travel at less popular times and to less popular places tends to be cheaper, so that’s one practical advantage of adopting these tactics. Getting far from the madding crowd can also result in a much more personal, one-of-a-kind trip, too. I’ve been back to Venice at other times of the year, but never recaptured the magic of that cold, fogbound, long-ago weekend – and I doubt that I ever will.

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