Overtourism has become a huge issue for people who live in popular destinations.
Figuring out how to travel without being part of the problem, how to avoid crowds of tourists for a better travel experience, is becoming a bigger issue for travelers as well.
When we asked you, our readers, what you enjoy most when traveling, going “Off the Beaten Path” ranked number 1 in a tie with food and wine. This desire to avoid the crowds as you travel also helps tackle the overtourism problem. It's a win-win.
Fortunately, there are ways to:
- Travel, avoid crowds, and support destinations that actually want your attention and need your travel dollar.
- Go to tourist hot spots and still avoid crowds of other travelers.
Here, we're going to delve into both.
How to Avoid the Crowds as You Travel
Slovenia is a European destination, rich in history, lush with wilderness and short on travelers. Ljubljana, its capital, is a dynamic, walkable city, where the central streets are still populated by locals, not overtaken by tourists.
Iceland, on the other hand, is a destination struggling with too many tourists, except in the low season which happens to include April, when I was there. I went hiking in peace and saw geysers, waterfalls and glaciers with a dozen people at most. The size of the parking lots were an indicator of just how busy these places would be at high season. True, there were no northern lights to be seen, it was the wrong time of year, but all the rest of Iceland's natural splendors were there to enjoy.
You can avoid crowds of tourists by choosing destinations that don't receive many, such as Ljubljana, or by going to popular destinations at time when others are not there, as I did in Iceland.
Where and When to Travel to Avoid Crowds
Here are the top two things that travelers can do to enjoy a crowd-free travel experience and minimize your travel impact on the problem of overtourism.
- Choose your destination carefully. I’ve never met a destination I didn’t like. Everywhere I go is interesting. From big cities to small towns, it’s all great. The difference is that in most small destinations, you don’t trip over tourists at every turn and it can be more easy to connect with locals. Here are a few recommendations.
- Travel the western perimeter of Europe but not Amsterdam.
- Portugal – Porto
- Southern Italy – Puglia
- Greece – Beyond Athens.
- Western France
- Go to eastern Europe but not Prague.
- Go to secondary cities in popular European destinations
- North America – Think in terms of regions and landscape, and then focus in on a destination. Again, secondary cities can be fabulous. Here are a few I've been to:
- The World
- Check out the Destinations section of Solo Traveler for exciting destinations ideas, each solo traveler tested.
- Travel the western perimeter of Europe but not Amsterdam.
- Time your travel to the shoulder or off-season. Travel in the off-season and you’ll enjoy lower prices, fewer tourists, and happier locals. It’s possible that not every attraction you want to see is open in the off-season so do your research before going. However, if you want to go to a top destination that shouldn’t be a problem. Shoulder and low seasons are usually when school is in and the weather is less guaranteed. It should be noted that September and October used to be shoulder season in Europe however, the high season in most of Europe still continues into October. My guess is that this is due to the massive boomer generation retiring and traveling.
- Be smart when visiting major cities. The big destinations like Paris and London can be a challenge at any time. Get up early to avoid the crowds. That can mean getting up very early! But many cities are implementing innovative programs to help tourists use their cities efficiently.
Thoughts from members of the Solo Travel Society on Facebook.
- Sylvie Trepanier My trick is to get up really early. Did this in Venice, Dubrovnik, Havana, and had the sights pretty well all to myself. On a recent trip to Petra, our guide had us at the entrance gates at 6 a.m. another bonus – you can get some great people-free photos.
- Alli Son When I did the Inca Trail a few years ago, we had an orientation from our guide who described each day’s hike, and then described Machu Picchu as the cherry on top. He said that the real attraction was the hike itself. He was right. At the foot of the site is a hotel, souvenir shop, cafe, restaurant, and a gazillion tour buses. And So. Many. People. Machu Picchu is still amazing, but not at all what I’m sure it once was. I wish they’d put more restrictions on the number of people who can visit the site in a day, and strip out all the tourist infrastructure. I’ve since decided: no more tourist hotspots for me. Why should my photos end up looking like everyone else’s, just to prove I was there?
- Kim C I heard horror stories about Isle of Skye in Scotland in the summer time. So I went in early May instead.
Overtourism and Sustainable Tourism
It's important here to say a few words about overtourism. It’s not that traveling is in any way a bad thing, it’s just that it’s getting out of hand in certain locations. In fact, in some places, there have been protests by locals against tourists.
From the local’s perspective, overtourism can turn life upside down. Dodging people in the markets in the simple attempt to do daily shopping and struggling to find an apartment as more units are turned into holiday accommodation are just two ways that local life is negatively affected.
And yet, one in ten jobs can be attributed to tourism.* Tourism makes a fantastic economic contribution to most economies. Some places would welcome a greater contribution. However, others would rather you take your money elsewhere.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization declared 2017 to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. To simplify the goals of this program, they aimed to retain the economic and social advantages of tourism while minimizing the negative effects.
As travelers, we can be part of the solution by contributing positively and minimizing our negative impact.
How You Can Be a Better Tourist
Of course, the UNWTO’s objectives for the International Year of Sustainable Tourism and Development go beyond addressing the issue of overtourism. Its goals include employment and poverty reduction, resource efficiency, environmental protection, sharing of cultural values, diversity and heritage and promoting mutual understanding, peace and security. With these in mind, here is a condensed version of their Tips for Sustainable Travel.
- Honor your hosts and our common heritage. Research and understand local customs before you go. Learn a few phrases of the local language. Ask permission before you take someone’s photo. If you share photos on social media, do not share photos of children.
- Protect our planet. Reduce your environmental impact when possible. Reduce, reuse, recycle applies on the road as well. Especially reduce.
- Support the local economy. Hire local guides. Buy locally-made products. Don’t buy counterfeit products.
- Be an informed traveler. Choose tourism operators with environmental and sustainable practices. Research volunteer travel before signing on as many opportunities help the organizers more than the locals.
- Be a respectful traveler. Observe local laws and customers. Give to local organizations and avoid giving to begging children as doing so only addresses their short-term needs and, more importantly, discourages them and their community from finding systemic solutions to problems.