Overtourism is the reality of travel — Instagram and travel media listicles have only exacerbating the problem that has frustrated many people who have spent years planning their dream vacation.
Those crowds may get in the way, particularly as you try to take a picture, but they don’t have to dampen the experience of visiting a desired destination. Part of the travel experience is taking everything in stride, which can be more difficult depending on the type of inconvenience (ahem, no access to money in a foreign country).
Overtourism isn’t a new phenomenon, despite all the articles proclaiming the negative aspects of throngs of tourists descending on a destination. Sure, it’s a problem in many places, but it can be a benefit as well. While welcoming tourists can put significant stress on infrastructure, particularly in places unaccustomed to large groups, the money tourists bring in can be used to improve that same infrastructure to reduce the stress (of course, this implies that local governments are competent, not corrupt, and actually spend tax dollars on necessities).
But what can we as travelers do to minimize our impact on overtourism while still enjoying our adventures?
Start Sightseeing Early
I love going out to watch the sunrise. The early hours are beautiful and peaceful in many destinations — the streets are empty and quiet. It’s a great time to see the sights, from the outside at least as many are not yet open.
It’s a particularly good time to get out in nature — it avoids the heat of the day in summer and it’s when more wildlife is out and active. It’s much more enjoyable to hike at your own pace instead of waiting for the crowds ahead of you to move, like I had to do on numerous occasions at Elephant Mountain in Taipei.
On my second trip to Jiufen, I stayed in town overnight, meaning I could walk around Old Town before the tours arrived. This was also before the shops opened, which made it more difficult to enjoy an early morning meal. But, I could get farther out to the fringes of town to enjoy what it offered while the tourists converged on the center. It was much more enjoyable than my first trip through Jiufen when I attempted to escape the crowd and got lost on top of a mountain.
Getting out first thing in the morning also helped in Italy as I arrived at Uffizi Gallery in Florence 15 minutes before the doors opened (it was a short wait to get in and most people arrived later in the day). Walking through Uffizi early on gave me the opportunity to check out Michelangelo’s David on the way back to my hostel during lunch, when tourists were less likely to be in the museum (it was another short wait to enter a crowded museum).
Choose Your Hotel Location Wisely
Your hotel can make all the difference when looking to avoid the crowds. Coupled with getting an early start, this can make the day better. Being closer to your sightseeing locations means you can sleep in a little. It also means you can easily return to take a midday break when the streets get more crowded.
Depending on where you’re traveling, staying outside the city can also help maintain your sanity. Booking an Airbnb might also be quieter than staying in a fully-booked hotel. These out-of-the-way accommodations will change how you travel through a place — you may need to rent a car if public transportation isn’t available (or you could get a bike).
Avoid the High Tourist Season
This might be the most difficult advice to follow for many travelers as holiday times are easiest to get time off from work (particularly for teachers and students). But heading to a destination during off-peak or shoulder season will reduce the crowd size you encounter.
And if you plan to travel during a national holiday, see about adding a few days before and after to miss out on the holiday traffic. When I worked in Taiwan during the Lunar New Year, I’d add days to the holiday to find flight deals (I had ample vacation time to use anyway).
I went to Iceland just as the country was becoming a major destination. But I went visited in winter to avoid the summer price increases. While the weather was mostly awful during my week there, I would still recommend visiting Iceland in winter as it’s less expensive and still a wonderful experience.
Get Out of the Way
This has nothing to do with so-called “hidden gems” as I don’t believe such things exist anymore. But there’s something to be said for getting off the over-beaten path. Check down the alleys and side streets for small cafes and restaurants. Stalk the locals to see where they go in the crowds.
When you get away from the usual tourist trail, you tend to find local businesses that could benefit from tourist dollars. And many of those smaller establishments have better food and service. It wasn’t really a secret, but when I found Al Merca in Venice, it felt like a secret location with friendly staff and wonderful food that was cheaper than anywhere else. I didn’t seek it out; I just got lucky as I wandered around.
Have Some Patience
Take a breath. Remember why you’re there and what you came to see. Tune out the noise and focus on the beauty of a place.
It’s not easy to relax in a crowded destination, but it can be done. And sometimes those crowds give us a great story to tell later — I like people-watching when it doesn’t interfere with my intended itinerary. And if the crowds get overwhelming or frustrating, find a fellow tourist to commiserate with, then you can have a laugh and go out for a drink together later.
What’s your advice for coping with overtourism and the crowds that go along with it?