Overcrowded cities: The cities that could face an overtourism crisis in the next decade

Hostility towards tourists has reached new heights in recent years. Sightseeing buses in Barcelona have had their tyres slashed, cruise ships arriving in Venice are greeted by angry protestors, and anti-tourist graffiti has become commonplace across Europe. "Tourists go home" appears to be a particularly popular refrain; last year I spotted a slogan on a wall in Lisbon comparing foreign arrivals to a "zombie invasion".

"Overtourism", and conflict between camera-wielding travellers and locals who fear their home is being ruined, is on the rise. And, more often than not, it is big cities providing the battleground.

The rise of city tourism

A few decades ago most made do with a single holiday a year.  Then came the deregulation of air travel, the rise of low-cost flights and the age of city tourism. So it's little wonder that travellers around the world have been taking advantage. According to the World Tourism and Travel Council (WTTC), tourists made 1.4 billion overseas trips in 2018. Of those, 45 per cent (630 million) were city breaks, and more than 36 per cent (500 million) involved one of the world's 300 most popular cities. Add to that figure billions of domestic travellers and it is clear to see why overtourism has become one of the biggest problems of the 21st century.

Furthermore, the rise in city tourism continues to outpace tourism growth as a whole, meaning the crowds, confrontations and strained infrastructure already witnessed in the likes of Rome, Paris and Palma de Mallorca, looks set to continue – or, more likely, worsen.

The next battlegrounds

So which cities will be under the greatest pressure in the coming years? In an effort to answer that question WTTC examined 50 popular destinations, assessing their readiness for the extra visitors expected in the coming decade.

Looking at the tourism map, the past decade has seen a clear shift from north to south and west to east, driven by the rise of the middle class in China and India. That trend is set to continue.

So it should come as no surprise that several of the cities earmarked for potential problems are in Asia and the Middle East. All but two of the 12 cities where tourism is forecast to grow fastest in the coming decade are in one of these two regions. They are Istanbul, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Cairo, Jakarta, Mumbai, Bogota, Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai and Moscow. Of this dozen, WTTC pinpoints six with a low "readiness" score, based on factors such as urban infrastructure and labour availability. They are, in order of susceptibility to problems, Delhi, Cairo, Jakarta, Manila, Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur.

That's not to say other cities won't experience problems. Of the 50 cities examined, Chengdu, Ho Chi Minh City, Mexico City, Riyadh, Bangkok and Lima also performed poorly. The European cities with the lowest readiness score were - in order - Moscow, Istanbul, Prague and Lisbon.

Many more destinations not among the WTTC's big 50 will also experience overtourism in the coming decade. An EU report last year highlighted 105 areas where the phenomenon has already been witnessed. They included the usual suspects, such as Paris - where overcrowding became so bad recently that Louvre employees went on strike - and Barcelona, but also cities such as Bruges, Salzburg, Valletta, Rio, Reykjavik, Budapest, Bucharest, Bagan, Stockholm, Tallinn, Copenhagen and Lucerne. Islands - such as Skye, Juist (Germany) and Santorini - attractions - including the Plitvice Lakes, Machu Picchu and Geirangerfjord - and even villages - like the Dutch tourism magnet of Giethoorn and Italy's Cinque Terre - were also cited.


The world's most touristy city

No major travel destination needs your money more than Cancún. The Mexican city, little more than a fishing village until the '70s, relies on tourism for 49.6 per cent of its GDP, according to WTTC, putting it ahead of Marrakesh (30.2 per cent) and Macau (29.3 per cent). Venice, Dubrovnik, Orlando, Antalya, Las Vegas, Dubai and Bangkok complete the top 10. Furthermore, 37.7 per cent of Cancún's residents are employed in the tourist trade, more than any other destination. Macau is second on 27.6 per cent; for Venice the figure is 12.4 per cent.

How to avoid overtourism

Ditch the city break. Don't go to Lisbon, explore Portugal's Alentejo region. Skip Rome and delve into the Abruzzo. Eschew Barcelona and head to the Pyrenean foothills. Or find an empty Greek island.

For beachgoers, the map below, created by the European Environment Agency (though a few years out of date), is instructive. Think twice about Croatia, Mallorca, Cyprus, Corsica, The Algarve and Cornwall, but do consider Galicia, Puglia and the Baltic states (honestly, the Latvian Riviera isn't as bad as you imagine).

And if you simply must have an urban adventure, think outside the box. Not Venice, but Trieste. Not Amsterdam, but Utrecht. Stop following the crowd.

Where visitor numbers are rising fastest

  • Istanbul
  • Delhi
  • Kuala Lumpur
  • Manila
  • Cairo
  • Jakarta
  • Mumbai
  • Bogota
  • Bangkok
  • Beijing
  • Shanghai 
  • Moscow

The cities least ready for tourism growth

  • Delhi​
  • Mumbai
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Cairo
  • Chengdu
  • Mexico City
  • Jakarta
  • Riyadh
  • Manila
  • Bangkok
  • Lima
  • Moscow

The Telegraph, London

See also: Europe already overrun by tourists before 2019 peak season arrives

See also: Rome cracks down on scantily-clad tourists, new eating and drinking rules

LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast

To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.