What is overtourism and how can I navigate visiting busy places?

What is overtourism and how can I navigate visiting busy places? The Travel Psychologist

Positano, Italy - staying at the edge of town can be more relaxed and affordable

By Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist

The sunset in Oia, Santorini is one of the world’s most spectacular sights. I visited in 2015 and those beautiful moments from my trip are saved in my camera roll, as well as preserved in my memory. What I don’t often reminisce about is trying to navigate the narrow streets of Oia when cruise ships and tours had arrived. The crowds, the bustle, the young and old competing for the best spot to take that perfect Santorini snap.

Overtourism is a growing problem. This article from the Guardian highlights the steep rises in visitor numbers to Europe’s historic cities including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Florence and Prague. A recent academic review of this issue (Dodds and Butler, 2019) described a number of factors that have led  to the ‘perfect storm’ of increasing visitor numbers. These are:

· A growing global population

· An increase in cheap air fares in recent years

· Technological advances that mean that booking online is increasingly easy and flexible

· Social media increasing awareness of sites and sights that are appealing to visit

· Specific destinations becoming famous due to being the backdrop in films or TV (e.g. the Thailand cove made famous in The Beach)

· In the UK in particular, domestic travel is relatively expensive which contributes to large numbers of UK tourists travelling to European destinations as an alternative.

To find out more about overtourism, I interviewed Professor Richard Butler, a Emeritus Professor in Hospitality and Tourism management. Professor Butler explained that high visitor numbers can be a concern for both local residents and for tourists themselves:

“Overtourism is essentially driven by negative reactions of local residents towards tourism and tourists, their presence (numbers), their behaviours, and is also related to physical development and change within destinations. In some cases visitors themselves are concerned about overtourism and consider some places as too busy or crowded, spoiling their holiday.

Overtourism is not the same as busy destinations. Many tourist destinations are crowded and busy but many visitors to those places and many of the people living there are happy with that condition, normally with two caveats. One is that the pressure is not year-round but seasonal, giving the residents a break. The second is that facilities, services and the natural resources are not overloaded. The key element is balance, an acceptable level of visitation given the nature and capacity of the destination, which may vary over time, e.g. specific times of the year.

Other problems are long-standing, such as school holidays concentrating people in specific time periods of the year, varying costs depending on seasons, such as Christmas holidays and that peoples’ attitudes and behaviours change when they are on holiday and these changes can create problems and resentment amongst residents of destinations.”

What is the psychology of our desire to see famous sites and sights?

For each of us individually there are many reasons why want to visit popular sights and destinations. Fundamentally we are a social species and are naturally curious and attracted to what other people seem to be enjoying or gaining benefit from. All of those snaps on Instagram that show the people living their best lives are alluring to us. When we are at home in the grey drizzle (which is most of the time in the UK!) we attach meaning to these destinations and sights. Its this meaning that is a huge driver of our travel behaviours when it comes to famous places.

Think about one of the places that you most want to see. Do you remember when you first wanted to see it and what meaning it brings up for you? For many people in the Western world images of popular sights and destinations in Thailand mean freedom, adventure and openness to new experiences and ways of seeing the world. Italy means the dolce vita (good life), beauty and inspiration. Australia means wildlife and marine life that you could never see anywhere else.

The meaning we attach to our travels can be important our well-being. It helps us to experience positive emotions before, during and after our trip; the excitement and anticipation, the interest, enjoyment and contentment whilst we are there, and the satisfaction and fulfilment that comes after.

Many of us who travel regularly will be interested in new and different experiences. This will particularly be the case if we are high on the ‘openness to experience’ dimension of personality, which I’ve written more about here.. If we are high on openness we will be looking for new and different experiences and ways of seeing the world. That means that sights and destinations that are novel and interesting will be appealing to us.

The problem is that there is a limited number of these sights available, and an increasing number of humans with increasing means to travel. Many destinations and hotels that don’t have natural or historical sights on their doorsteps will try to create tours and experiences that are appealing as an alternative. These may have some success but can perhaps lack the meaning that we attach to more authentic and natural experiences.

Is it worth visiting busy sights and destinations?

To find out about your experiences of overtourism, I ran an Instagram poll in which 16 of you lovely folks participated. We are a skewed sample of travel-lovers, but the responses provided some insight into our feelings and experiences around visiting busy places.

81% of you had queued for a famous sight, and more than 60% had queued for more than one hour. Interestingly, 100% of you indicated that you had enjoyed this experience totally or mostly as much as you’d hoped to.

100% of those who responded had visited a popular destination. Examples included Paris, Rome, Venice, and the Amalfi Coast. 91% of you indicated that you had enjoyed this experience totally or mostly as much as you’d hoped to. Looking back, 45% enjoyed their visit and would go again. A further 55% were glad that they had visited, but that they preferred quieter destinations. No respondents indicated that they didn’t enjoy their visit or regretted it. This may reflect that we are a skewed sample of travel-lovers but it is nice to hear that visiting busy destinations has felt ‘worth it’ for most of you.

I also asked what helps you to cope with visiting busy destinations. I’ve included these tips in the next section.

Advice for travellers on navigating overtourism

These tips include how you can get the most out of your trip and how you can travel responsibly, considering the impact of tourism on the local community. I consider this a win-win:

A tip provided by our community was to “not make it a priority to see all of the sights”. I would totally agree with this; It is important to think about which sights are going to give us the best experience, rather than trying to see everything or treating sights like a checklist to be ticked off. Think about which experiences will provide treasured memories for you rather than trying to see everything.

Other tips from our community included ensuring that you have some quiet time during your trip and space to retreat to. This might include booking a beautiful hotel or staying outside of the city centre so that you are not in the thick of it. Building in quiet time can help your break to be restorative rather than feeling that you need to be constantly busy and sightseeing.

Focus on experiences that are right for you rather than focusing on the most popular tourist sights. We are all unique and enjoy different activities. What do you enjoy that is a bit different and can you find this in the place you’re visiting? For example, booking a wine or food tour, visiting a cat charity, finding a nice craft beer bar, searching for the best coffee or brunch spot.

Consider visiting less popular destinations. Cities that are less famous can often still have great architecture and can be significantly cheaper. This article tells us how visiting lesser-known destinations can enhance your travel experience. Advantages of quieter destinations can include them being less busy, providing more photo opportunities and being cheaper.

With experience many of us begin to realise that some of our most treasured memories are small moments of joy and connection, and not just about the destination or setting. We can create treasured memories wherever we are. If it is not a particularly notable location, you might choose to stay in a really nice hotel, choose a special restaurant, or book tickets to a show as a way to make your experience feel out of the ordinary.

Professor Butler also had some helpful advice on how we can travel responsibly:

“It need not be more expensive to behave responsibly, in many aspects it should be cheaper, if you eat at local restaurants, engage directly with local people, guides, taxi drivers, tour operators, for example. I am always horrified at seeing the prices cruise lines charge, for example, for land excursions, when in many places it would be much cheaper, and probably more fun and a better experience to go with a local option. Using local options generally means any expenditure is going directly into the local economy, not to external suppliers. 

Travelling responsibly is still having fun…. Many of the points are simple, fly direct if you have to fly, use other transport if that is feasible. Check out which airlines/cruise lines and other transport operators are the most environmentally responsible, and choose those. 

Check before you book that the accommodation is really sustainable, not just “greenwashing”, if that is important to you. Do they pay a decent wage to local workers, use renewable energy, re-use water, and many other often simple steps they could take, and perhaps ask them why not when you are there? It is important to indicate approval to those operators who are taking real steps to be more responsible and to criticise those who operate in inappropriate ways, and the WWW now gives people a way to reach large numbers of other travellers with their hopefully fair comments, praise and criticisms, for example on Trip Advisor and other social media outlets.”

What a great way to sum up this topic. Overtourism is a growing problem but understanding how to travel with intention, rather than mindlessly, can help us to get the most of our trips AND travel responsibly with the local community in mind.

Professor Butler’s book (co-written with Dr Rachel Dodds) Are We There Yet?: Traveling More Responsibly with Your Children is available from Amazon and other book retailers.


Dodds, R., & Butler, R. (2019). The phenomena of overtourism: A review. International Journal of Tourism Cities5(4), 519-528.

If you liked this article check out What are the psychological benefits of travel?